A few years back I decided to try studying Chinese, and now several years out I wanted to do a long form write up of some random thoughts on my language learning process. This has been the first time I’ve made a serious attempt at picking up a foreign language outside of childhood.
I hope that my musings on the process might be helpful to someone, and give a data point on several of the language learning methods I tried. I’m not trying to say in any way that what I did are best practices, some were objectively bad methods, but I felt the results were worth sharing.
For a little background, my native language is English and I took 3 years worth of French courses a long time ago. At one point I had some fluency in French but completely lost it from lack of use. I have only ephemeral phrasebook level experience with several other languages, but nothing notable.
Picking a Language
The process of picking which language I would commit to was engaging in and of itself. I put quite a bit of thought toward my choice of Chinese as the language I wanted to learn.
My comparison of various languages centered on a few core criteria. These included things like, how useful a given language would be, how much time it takes to learn the language, and how difficult the language is overall.
The biggest issue on my mind when first thinking through this was the time commitment involved in learning a language. Most people when they say they want to learn a language, what they actually mean is that they are going to do a few hours of Duolingo and drop it. Most people spend very little effort on deciding which language to learn and rush into languages that are not a good fit for them.
I did this myself several times before I felt like I was in a place to commit to a serious attempt. This time around, I was done playing around and wanted to really put in the effort. This meant I actually had to weigh if the time spent on this was going to be worth it.
Number of Speakers
Value is an interesting thing to consider in picking a language. I look purely for utility and don’t care much for the aesthetics involved, but this is probably different for many people. The first measure of a language I considered was how widely it is spoken.
As a general tradeoff, the time commitment for learning the language has to be less than or equal to the value that you gain from having learned the language. This analysis negates most of the value from smaller languages that not many people speak.
Learning a smaller language only really makes sense if you are going to commit yourself to a very specific geographical area or community for an extended period of time. If you don’t have a concrete plan in place that will force you to use the smaller language for over 5 years consistently it is very hard to justify the time it takes to learn.
In my process of trying to pick a language, it was pretty easy to eliminate down to about the top 20 most spoken languages. Each one provides the learner with a certain range of usefulness, mostly pertaining to gaining better access to a large chunk of the world.
From the most popular languages, a huge factor for me in further eliminating choices was looking at how many people in a given language group speak English as a second language. It can be surprisingly hard to muster up the energy to practice a language when everyone around you speaks great English. Growing as a speaker in areas where you have the fallback option to use English constantly can be difficult.
Beyond that, it seems helpful to think about something that will be immediately useful in the next 5-10 years, and not pick something that you won’t use. Not using a language causes it to atrophy and the more it declines in your memory, the more the time you used to learn it was wasted. With that in mind, picking something you won’t use is simply wasting your time. The language that I was most interested in, and felt had the most relevance in terms of my work was Chinese.
Initial Research and Preconceptions
Everything you will find online says that as an English speaker, Chinese is the most difficult language that you can learn. The first thing I would say is that these kinds of posts are absolutely correct in a certain sense. Even more, I’ll say that the hourly estimates that people list online for Chinese are underestimates for how many hours it takes to learn.
It is kind of a paradoxical language, if it used an alphabet instead of characters, and had no tones I would say it is an easy language. The grammar and the actual structure of the language are really easy to pick up quickly. The main difficulty with the language is memorizing characters, pure and simple. You will have to rote memorize thousands of symbols.
I thought at the outset it was going to be 10x harder than it ended up being. Which is not to say that it isn’t an incredibly hard language to learn, I just mean that it is probably hard in a different and less intense way than you might expect.
The first resource I ran into when I started learning Chinese was this famous blogpost. This post is very old, but the points made in it almost scared me off Chinese initially. If you are interested in learning Chinese it is a must read before going in, much of it still holds up to this day.
This post and other older posts can be very misleading though and I would recommend against putting too much stock in them. I didn’t experience most of the difficulties he had to deal with simply because of all the great resources available now. I have never once opened up a paper dictionary and had to look up a word in Chinese for instance. Most of the time I can draw the character and search based on my drawing of it.
With some phone apps, I can take photographs of characters on the sides of buildings and have them automatically looked up. Using online translators is a breeze. I feel really sorry for someone who had to try to learn this language without those resources. With these kinds of tools, it is nowhere near as hard to pick up new characters as it was previously.
All this is really to say, I found a lot of info online unhelpful in the constantly changing ecosystem of language learning tools. Don’t let yourself be scared off by all of the difficulties you see listed in articles online, most of it is easy to overcome with enough patience.
Enrolled In A Class
The first thing I did was enroll in an intensive class on the subject. I don’t care what all the anti-education autodidact people say about this kind of thing. You can apply self-learner techniques to a lot of subjects but with something like language learning or fitness training the act of having someone there to walk you through it makes a huge difference.
If you are paying someone to train you in something, you are much more likely to force yourself to practice regularly. You will force yourself to actually go and won’t be able to slack as easily.
Classes were interesting to say the least, I found them to be extremely helpful and I probably never would have gotten as far as I have without them. I took two courses total and both seemed well worth the money. They were mostly a lot of conversational drills and a lot of pronunciation practice.
Every week in the course there was a character bank where we were instructed to write each of the new characters a very large number of times. At first, I wasn’t able to see the point and thought it was just repetitive nonsense.
I could never seem to budget enough time to get the proper number of repetitions on the new characters, and always felt like I was constantly attempting to sneak in writing a few characters during any second of downtime.
This was maybe the point as I ended up writing characters at random times of the day most days. Over the duration of the first course, I probably picked up 500 characters in total. There was testing of some sort each week on listening and writing down what a speaker said, answering Chinese writing prompts in Chinese, vocabulary testing, translating Chinese paragraphs into English.
If I hadn’t done a class that I was committing so many hours to each week, I would be writing a blogpost on my failure. Having a Chinese linguistics professor teaching you the intricacies of the grammar is priceless. I think it is possible to learn Chinese on your own through self-study but taking a course definitely fast tracks your progress significantly.
The grammar is extremely easy to pick up it is just like English in a lot of ways, simple subject-verb-object. Nothing is particularly tricky, the few things that are a bit tricky are not hard to pick up. I would say that compared to English or European languages the grammar is a breeze.
The verb structure is extremely easy, there is no verb conjugation at all, all time is stated directly in a sentence to indicate when a thing happened. This is done instead of changing the verb.
The verb in almost all cases remains static regardless of time or who is doing the action. You usually just stick the time indicators for when a specific action is going to take place or took place near the beginning of the sentence.
Possessives are extremely simple also, most of the time the main possessive is just adding “de”. Chinese words never change form under any circumstances as far as I’m aware. Every Chinese word you learn as far as I have encountered only has a single form.
There are very few gendered words to keep track of as well, these change their character strokes based on gender. This is simpler than a lot of other languages though in that the pronunciation of the gendered characters remains the same. An example of this is “她” and “他” which are both pronounced “tā”, and mean she/he respectively.
My intent here is not trying to get into a detailed description of the grammar here I’m just trying to illustrate a few interesting characteristics. For a detailed description of Chinese grammar, there are a million other sites.
Similarly to how English builds up words from Latin components, in Chinese all the characters are built up from a small set of “radical” components that are recombined to form new characters.
These characters then build or combine with other characters to create new meanings. The majority of words in Chinese that you will encounter are one to four characters long.
After a few years of learning, you will get to a point where you stop learning new characters as often. Most new words are just different combinations of characters you are already familiar with. At that point, I began struggling to maintain my current character level.
People often claim that you only need to know ~1500 characters to be considered fluent. This framing hides the real issue which is that from those characters you need to know tons of proper word combinations.
This ends up being a neat effect actually because every lower layer of meaning builds upon the next in a very poignant way. Obviously, this is the case with a lot of languages but with Chinese understanding this kind of structure feels like an implicit part of learning the language. In Western society, we rarely experience this kind of clarity. This is because nobody takes the time to learn Latin or Greek roots anymore.
A child can learn the meaning of the word magnitude in English knowing absolutely nothing of the Latin words “magnus” or “tudo”. The same kind of compartmentalized understanding feels impossible to accomplish in Chinese. To learn a new character you almost always have to understand each component piece.
This kind of structure also means it feels easier to guess at the meaning of new Chinese words you encounter when you know each component character. This is great except when it isn’t, your guess about the meaning of a word is completely incorrect. When a word is made up of two characters that I have seen before individually but has a completely obtuse meaning in their combination, I get disappointed.
As a learner, you want to guess and use your intuition about characters you have seen before, but I have yet to feel comfortable in my guesses. Often the meaning of a word is related to some cultural context that you won’t understand, and thus the combination of characters will seem random.
I wish I could say that most of the time guessing from components worked, but it doesn’t. Guesses are incorrect often enough that I just had to commit to looking up each new word in the dictionary to make absolutely certain I had it right.
I’ve only seriously used Integrated Chinese as a textbook, which is the same one everyone recommends. I looked into several other books, but everything was either worse or approximately the same quality as Integrated Chinese.
There might be some books that are better for different types of learners, but Integrated Chinese is just an all around fine book. I couldn’t find anything that was better than it to say the least.
To learn business vocabulary I used a couple of books, one was Business Chinese by Qing Zhang, and another called Startup Business Chinese. Business Chinese is an older book and I’m not sure it is available currently. Startup Business Chinese is available in a new edition online though. If you are only interested in Chinese for business reasons, Startup Business Chinese is a great resource.
Watching Chinese Youtube videos has been one of the most useful things in helping me gain greater fluency over time. It is also the one thing that helped me not drop off in practice significantly. Without Youtube, I would have lost a significant amount of fluency.
The great thing about Chinese youtube is that everyone and I mean everyone uses subtitles in Chinese. It is rare to find videos without hardcoded subtitles in Mandarin. This is just the main way they produce content, always providing subtitles.
The use of subtitles makes everything fantastic for a learner. It is easy to pause any given video and instantly look up the word you didn’t understand.
I will say though that the subtitles are kind of a crutch at least for me. When I don’t have access to them I still struggle quite a bit. There is a significant difference in my comprehension when there are subtitles vs only having audio.
The constant use of subtitles made me think I was much further along in my comprehension than I actually was. Youtube videos or online chats can’t substitute going to China and having conversations with people regularly.
I could write an entire article about the excellent youtube channels I’ve found alone. I plan to maybe do this in a follow-up post.
Coming into this learning process I was already a fan of Chinese cinema and had quite a collection of movies I was excited to rewatch and try to parse through. There are tons of issues I ran into in the process of trying to find proper films to practice with though.
First, a ton of the Chinese films most westerners have seen or heard of are often actually Hong Kong films. These are filmed in Cantonese and then dubbed into Mandarin or English afterward for the market.
When you go to download or purchase these films online, they often come in English and Cantonese with no Mandarin dub included. My advice would be to learn what Cantonese sounds like as soon as possible so you don’t spend time on something completely unrelated to what you are trying to learn.
If you are lucky films will have a Mandarin subtitle set, and in some cases, they will have an audio track for the Mandarin dub alongside the Cantonese track. If the film is only subtitled, often you will just get nothing but the Cantonese audio and some English subtitles. The problem here is that getting the films that are actually in Mandarin can be surprisingly tricky.
Second, a lot of films end up being Taiwanese films in Taiwanese dialect, they aren’t too hard to understand but it is different enough that it can be difficult to watch. There are a lot of Taiwanese films available, but usually you want something that has a mainlander pronunciation for learning.
I was not expecting to have so many issues with finding films in Mandarin so this was a bit of a shock to meinitially. Then after I realized what to look for and started searching around they weren’t hard to find.
As a tip, many brand new Chinese mainlander films are just posted directly onto Youtube all the time. These are usually meh, most are about the same quality you would encounter in an American theater on a random weekend.
The third problem with films is a more common issue, the talking speed of the dialog. Most modern Chinese films like action movies or chick flicks have dialog spoken at a breakneck pace. I have to turn most modern movies down to almost 50% speed sometimes to understand by ear what is happening or pause to have time to read the subtitles.
One great resource that I didn’t have this problem with is the older films put out by the Shaw Brothers Studio. These are the best films to watch if you are a beginner, almost all the actors have crisp mainlander accents, and a moderately reasonable speaking pace. They are are also just well produced high quality examples of 70s/80s action films in their own right.
One thing that I’ve seen people recommend against is trying to take a book and translate it as an exercise. It won’t help you learn very much useful vocabulary that you will use, won’t help you practice, and will fill your head with characters that you might never see again.
I ignored all these warnings and bought a couple of interesting looking Chinese political books that are untranslated, and went through the process of translating these texts as an exercise. I can say without any doubt this was a tremendous waste of time that did not help me.
I gave up after the first 25 pages and picked up almost no useful vocabulary. It was a complete waste of my time. If you are very interested in the content of a text I definitely don’t want to discourage anyone from translating it, but it is not a good learning exercise. Meticulously looking up every word you don’t understand for page after page is dumb. You are better off using your time doing literally anything else.
Making an account and chatting on interpals was a ton of fun. I’m not sure how valuable it was for my language learning but it was enjoyable. A lot of people claim to be on there to do language exchange, but mostly it is just a social media chatting site.
There are certain timezones or countries that you need to block if you don’t want tons of people spamming you. Other than that the site is really pleasant and full of people who love language learning. My only other advice is don’t be one of those people that just mindlessly asks people to translate things for you, it is rude.
Audio lessons to me feel like an underrated resource that most people call poor quality, but they are not that bad. Pimsleur in particular is an ok-ish resource for practicing pronunciation. In-Flight Chinese and other things like it are much less useful, they are essentially just a phrasebook being read to you.
I would reiterate what everyone else says, don’t use any audio in isolation, you won’t learn much of anything. They are great tools for refreshing your memory and practicing if you already beyond an introductory level of competency but they are not great for a beginner.
For other languages, particularly European languages with Latin alphabets, these are much more helpful for a beginner. You can probably guess how most of the words the speaker is saying are spelled.
Using these lessons for Chinese is less useful if you don’t already know quite a bit because not being able to see the characters being spoken is a huge hindrance. I can definitely recommend these for other languages though, they are great tools to practice pronunciation in isolation.
Duolingo and Rosetta Stone
Duolingo is really helpful as a review tool and is the best tool like it that I have found. I do find it incredibly annoying though and only occasionally have ever used it. I just get so angry when my answer is grammatically correct but I wrote the sentence a slightly different way than they were looking for, so thus I have to do the entire module over again.
When Duolingo was good it was really good, but there were just so many times when I made one mistake and it forced me to do a zillion drills over again. The app is just too strict in a lot of the answer formats.
I could sit and write characters 10x over all day long and not get bored or write page after page of practice sentences from my textbooks, I could not do the same with Duolingo. I just get frustrated and put it down because of the rigidity of the answers and the scoring system.
I want a thing like Duolingo but that I can sit and do for 5 hours straight without it annoying me to death. If anyone has any recommendations for something like that or possibly a flashcard app that works well for Chinese please let me know.
Once I tried out a copy of Rosetta Stone someone gave me, it is bad. I don’t recommend it and warn against spending money on it under any circumstances. I don’t even want to go into it, it has been critiqued to death already. Everything you might have heard people say about it is true and then some. Nothing else needs to be said.
A lot of people swear by Anki cards and other similar things like Mnemosyne. I am not a fan of this kind of software but they seem to work fine for some people. For awhile I was putting together stacks of paper notecards to memorize from. This kind of thing is helpful if you don’t take your phone with you everywhere you go and want something to do on the train.
Flashcards took a significant time to make and were something I ended up rarely ever using. This was true for both software and paper ones. It was just not a tool that I turned to very often when I wanted to practice. I’d be more likely to open up one of my textbooks than remember I had the flashcards.
Attempts to Read Books
Reading text is exactly as hard as everyone says, no shocker there. You won’t be able to read a newspaper for an incredibly long time, I still can’t really read a newspaper for the most part. I don’t know that the time commitment for that level of fluency is a goal that I will ever strive toward.
Reading a normal Chinese book is not going to be something a learner can do until they have studied for much longer than I have. I can read simple reader books but beyond that not much else.
People always act as though this is a major problem in the learning process but it isn’t at all. The reality is that a lot of texts are written in what I would describe as a literary style that is not actually necessary to learn. If you want to live in China for the rest of your life this would probably be worth it but otherwise I’m not sure it makes that much difference.
If there is a particular topic area that you are going to be working within and talking about frequently, focusing on learning the vocabulary for that is my recommendation.
For instance, I focused on manufacturing, business, and tech vocabulary, which I can claim I know reasonably well. These things are what comes up most often for me alongside basic conversational topics.
Don’t let people pressure you into attempting to memorize mountains of vocabulary that you aren’t going to use. It is perfectly ok to not know 8000 characters or whatever extravagant number people might come up with unless you are trying to be a professor of ancient Chinese literature.
Not Getting Discouraged by Lack of Progress
Everyone around you if you decide to learn Chinese will bombard you with requests that you reasonably won’t be able to perform. For me this got really frustrating really quickly.
I feel like I’m constantly asked to translate or explain unfamiliar characters or odd (to me) phrases and I simply cannot. People with no background on the topic will turn around take this as a sign you don’t genuinely speak Chinese. It belittles the immense amount of time and effort I have put into learning the language.
People will ask me to explain obscure 成语 off the top of my head and I cannot. People ask me to read ornamental Chinese characters which are scribbled in unintelligible strokes from the walls of restaurants and I cannot.
Chinese people with regional dialects or accents on their pǔtōnghuà create complete unintelligibility for me. This comes up more than I would have expected based on what people told me initially. I am getting pretty good at identifying the different geographic dialects they come up so often, but alas I can barely understand anything people with regional accents are saying.
When I talk to Chinese people online they use lots of slang that make absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. These are the people that I end up talking with and practicing my Chinese with most regularly and their internet slang is sometimes hard to pick up.
I could keep going on infinitely about things that feel discouraging. All of this makes a lot of people ragequit the language but it simply takes a lot of time to learn. Learning the Chinese language inside and out in essence entails learning the entire cultural structure along with it. I’ll probably write more on this topic later.
I’d love to hear other people’s experiences and thoughts on learning Chinese. Feel free to contact me with any feedback you might have about this article.