This article is written by a guest writer.
You’ve been interested in learning Chinese and wish to know if it’s possible to learn it by yourself. Fortunately, the answer is yes. Without signing up for sit-down classes or hiring an expensive 1 on 1 tutor, you can make use of the many resources online and get started on learning Chinese on your own!
With over 80 thousand characters, Chinese is thought to be the most difficult language for English speakers to learn in the world. In fact, according to Foreign Service Institute, it typically takes 88 weeks (2200 hours) for an English native speaker to reach bilingual/native level in Chinese. This might be a bit frustrating when compared to learning languages that are a lot more similar to English like French and Spanish, which takes about only one-third of the time you need to learn Chinese.
Indeed, learning Chinese is no easy task and it requires a large amount of time to reach fluency. But it’s definitely a cost-effective investment. As an emerging global power, China is playing an increasingly important role in the global economy and governance, making it one of the most popular languages to learn among CEOs like Mark Zuckerburg. Outside China, Chinese is also spoken in south-east Asian countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.
So here is a step-by-step guide for you to learn the Chinese language by yourself. Read on to get the motivation to start on your Chinese learning!
Why do you choose to learn Chinese, instead of other languages? Everyone who makes up their mind to learn this unanimously hardest language must have a reason. Write down why you started learning and have a clear goal in mind right in the beginning, so it can keep you moving on when things get hard.
Maybe it’s for your career. Is your company expanding and considering doing business with China? If so, it would be extremely beneficial for you to be able to converse in Chinese.
Maybe it’s for your study. If you wish to go to a university in China, then reaching conversational level Chinese (about HSK 3) is a must.
Maybe it’s for the culture. China’s 5000-year-long history has made it one of the most unique and prosperous civilizations in the world. Learning Chinese will help you open doors to the incredible Chinese culture, including literature, art, calligraphy, traditions, etc.
The first thing to do is to think about what you wish to gain from learning Chinese. Then, you can write them down as inspirations to encourage yourself. There will always be a time when you wish to quit. When it comes, read these inspirations and they will help you get back on track.
While the traditional way of learning a new language is following a textbook, thanks to the advancement of technology, now there are countless learning materials out there online. For a popular language like Chinese, the problem is no longer lack of materials, but how to choose wisely among the many available resources and fit them into your learning style to maximize learning outcomes.
If you are a beginner learning Chinese on your own, choose a structured course that you can stick to. Create a routine and plan everything ahead so you won’t feel overwhelmed by the tons of other materials out there online.
LingoDeer is an all-in-one language app to learn 12 languages including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and more. It’s a great resource for beginner Chinese learners to get a grip of the basic vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, etc., and ease into the right track. It’s also perfect if you have a busy life, as you can do it while commuting, exercising, cooking, etc.
Another thing that can get you started into doing a difficult task like Chinese learning on your own is making fun out of it. This is why LingoDeer adapts gamified and bite-sized lessons like Duolingo to keep learning fun and rewarding. Its gamified short lessons can trick your brain into thinking you are playing fun games while you are actually learning.
Looking for more options? Here’s a great list of resources and tools for learning Chinese online.
If you’ve been learning Chinese for a while and can understand some basic conversations, why not expand your search to include as many resources as possible? Podcasts, leveled reading materials, movies, TV shows, anything produced by native speakers that interests you can be great choices. Especially if you don’t have any Chinese friends around, these resources can help you expose to the language as much as possible, and familiarize yourself with how the language is used in real-life situations.
In Chinese, there is a saying called “不积跬步，无以至千里”, meaning “A journey of a thousand miles consists of accumulated small steps”. It is especially true with language learning because we often overestimate what we can finish in a day, and underestimate what we can achieve in a year.
In order to make progress in learning Chinese on your own, it’s crucial to force yourself to practice a bit every day. Set a manageable amount of workload because drowning yourself in too much material will only make you bored.
No matter how busy life goes, if you can set aside 5 minutes to practice Chinese and to learn 3 new words every day, you’ll be able to know 1000 Chinese words after a year, which is a huge difference from knowing absolutely nothing. If you feel a bit unmotivated, you can also follow social media accounts that present you with Chinese learning materials regularly in an easy and fun way.
To form the habit of practicing Chinese is just like forming any other habit. You need to set a study schedule and stick to it. You can also trick your brain into learning mode by incorporating it into your daily routine (like doing one lesson every day before going to sleep). If you don’t wish to go through all the troubles, let apps do the job for you. For example, ChineseSkill prepares your daily learning materials and makes sure you practice listening, speaking, writing, and reading in every lesson.
Another learning activity that requires regularity is vocabulary practice.
That's why we at Hack Chinese built our spaced repetition software with a focus on short study sessions. We recommend our learners start with short daily study sessions (from 2 to 6 minutes a day) and then slowly move to a bit longer sessions (up to 20 minutes a day).
You can set your daily study time and have personalized notifications.
Without having a teacher’s guidance, you might end up dabbling in Chinese for several years without being able to form a complicated sentence or read intermediate-level texts. So this is why you need to set a deadline.
Make sure to use clear, objective goals that you can mark as done once they are completed. It gives you a sense of accomplishment. For example, by the end of this month, I wish to be able to communicate with a native Chinese speaker.
If you wish to push yourself a little bit more, try combining your deadline with something actionable. If you wish to pass the HSK test, sign up for the test now instead of when you feel prepared. This way, you can feel a sense of urgency and a strong motivation to learn. Similarly, if you wish to travel to China, why not book a flight ticket a year from now and see how far you can get?
The function of a deadline is best shown in how missionaries learn a new foreign language within just 9 weeks. A strong sense of purpose and a tight deadline can always drive people to accomplish something incredible. There is no need for all language learners to do the same, but you can also make use of a targeted, designed deadline to structure your learning and mark your progress.
Last but not least, pay attention to tones.
Since Chinese is a tonal language, it’s extremely important to master the tones correctly right from the beginning. Tones can convey completely different ideas. For example, the three phrases “十一”, “适宜”, and “失忆” all use the same syllables “shi yi” but have totally different meanings. If you mess up the tones, Chinese people may get confused, because is just like putting stress on a wrong syllable when speaking English!
Speaking tones properly require a lot of practicing and listening. So if you are in China, make good use of the opportunity to talk to the locals. From taxi drivers to restaurant waiters, most people are quite interested in knowing your story.
If you are outside China, make sure you use learning materials created and recorded by native speakers. And just like learning all languages, watch talk shows, videos, interviews to expose your ears to dialogues of actual Chinese people as much as possible.
As the Chinese saying goes, “Nothing is impossible to a willing mind”. If you are determined to learn Chinese on your own, nothing can come in your way. With the just-enough help from technology and a wise choice of materials, you can become fluent in Chinese listening, speaking, reading, and writing just on your own!
So why not check out the resources mentioned in this article and get started on your Chinese learning journey right now?
Linghe is a native Chinese speaker with a degree in English from Beijing Foreign Studies University. She is a former ESL teacher and writes about language learning in general. She is also an enthusiastic language learner herself and is currently working on Russian and Japanese.