Tips on Studying Chinese (Mandarin)
TIPS ON BECOMING FLUENT (and where to study):
This used to be titled "tips on becoming fluent quickly,"
before a Chinese professor wrote me and said, "Isn't that a
bit of a oxymoron?" Indeed, it is; one only becomes fluent
after lots of hard work. Still, we strongly believe you can
become fluent on your own, and more quickly if you employ certain
techniques. Doing so is tough and you need dedication. Actually,
there's nothing really that insightful here: the key is,
simply, immersing yourself in the language and culture.
Heres tips on how we did it, especially if you dont
want to spend the money to go to school/class:
- Mandarin is still king. You might
consider Cantonese, but everyone understands pu tong hua
and more and more people can speak it. Master Mandarin
first before moving to other dialects.
- Formal programs to consider that get the
highest ranks in our books are: Princeton in Beijing
(or e-mail them), CET
(or e-mail them),
(at Qinghua), Hopkins in
Nanjing, and in the U.S., Middlebury College.
Most of these programs enforce the no English speaking
rule, and pair you with Chinese roommates. For all we say
here, there also is no substitute for extremely
stringent, US-style teaching when you first start out and
it's highly advisable if you want to achieve fluency with
accuracy. Once you get the basics (pin yin, basic
grammar), you can launch into it on your own. Some people
require such a regimine to begin. Note that many of the
programs at Chinese universities are fairly poor.
- Dont hang out with foreigners. If
Chinese speak English with you, speak Chinese back, no
matter how hard it is at first. Make it a habit, make it
your guiding principle. You will wear them out.
- Quickly learn the Chinese expressions
for "How do you say in Chinese
Chinese. Use it all the time to learn new words and
- Choose a job where you will get to use
Chinese often. (Make sure to check out our Finding a China Job page)
- Carry a notebook along wherever you go
and jot jot jot: new words, expressions you dont
know how to ask in Chinese, etc. Review the list each
night and make it the focus of the first 15 minutes of
each session with your teacher. And describe situations,
puzzling words in Chinese when asking your teacher -
dont use English.
- Hang out at restaurants and talk with
the waitresses, or invite your Chinese friends out (you
- Dont be afraid to talk. You have
to talk. Force yourself.
- Have a good fu dao lao shi (teacher).
2-4 times per week, 1 ½ to 2 hours per shot. The rate is
around 20-50 RMB an hour now, depending what level the
teacher is and whether he/she comes to your house. If you
are not happy with your teacher, feel they are more eager
to speak English, or dont have high enough
standards for your Chinese, axe them. It is a
- Make sure your lao shi does not speak English
with you. Dont know a word or phrase? Dont
have him/her translate it have them describe it.
- Read the newspaper. I suggest qing nian
bao and beijing wan bao.
Read everything you can get your hands on. Translate
restaurant menus. Use your notebook to remember
- Flashcards are good. My first few months I also taped
flash cards to every piece of furniture in my
apartment. My early vocabulary had me knowing household
items and cooking ingredients. It works.
- Cha ci dian: all the time. Carry the
little red book (Concise Chinese-English, English Chinese
dictionary from the Commercial Press/Oxford Press)
Chinese software we recommend.
Tell us your
learning techniques/top programs
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Last updated: April 16, 1998.