How to Speak Chinese Fluently: A Foolproof Method

How to Speak Chinese Fluently: A Foolproof Method

Chinese people can’t tell that I’m not Chinese.

You might think that if I speak Mandarin Chinese fluently, it must be because I have a natural talent for languages. But if you had been in my first year Chinese language class, you would know that I was an average student struggling with pinyin and tones along with everyone else — definitely not someone who would end up speaking Chinese particularly well.

I don’t have a natural talent. What I do have is a disciplined approach that works. And I’m confident that anyone who applies it can also learn how to speak Mandarin Chinese fluently.

I was basically on par with my peers while I was in my college class at Duke University. But I started to excel after two Chinese language learning summer programs: Duke Study in China and Princeton in Beijing (PiB).

If you’re not familiar with these programs, you can sum it up in this phrase (which is basically PiB’s motto): 好好学习,天天受罪. It’s basically a spin on the phrase 好好学习,天天向上,which Chairman Mao used to exhort everyone during the Cultural Revolution. The original version basically means to “study hard and excel each day.” The PiB version means “to study hard and suffer every day.” It wasn’t pleasant, but Duke and PiB instilled habits that formed the foundation which enabled me to speak Chinese fluently.

How to Speak Chinese Fluently: 4 Simple (Not Easy) Steps

1) Immerse Yourself – Totally

At Duke and PiB, they make you sign an oath on the first day of class. You swear that you won’t speak any English during the program, which is 2 months long.

Not everyone respects the oath 100%. But I really wanted to make the best use of my time in Beijing. So I went the other way. I never spoke English to anyone in the program. I never spoke English to anyone on the phone (I could catch up with my friends later!). I even stayed away from reading or hearing any English news. I didn’t even give in when our class went to karaoke and everyone started singing Backstreet Boys songs.

So it was basically totally immersion. All input that my brain received was in Chinese.

2) Always Be Speaking Chinese (Making Mistakes)

The second crucial step is to always be speaking Chinese. When you’re in class, or you’re with students, you have to try to talk a lot. But the point is not just to be annoying. It has a two real functions:

  • Speaking a lot helps you strengthen your grasp of tricky words.
  • Speaking helps you make mistakes that expose your weaknesses.

So there is a corollary that arises out of these two points: Don’t waste time on vocabulary and phrases that you already know. Go out of your way to talk using Chinese words that you don’t know, which you don’t feel comfortable about. Otherwise, you’ll just end up being that guy at the gym who has amazing biceps… which look out of place on the rest of his body.

3) Target Your Mistakes

It’s not enough to be making mistakes. You need someone to provide critical (immediate, if possible) feedback about your mistakes. Ideally, that feedback comes through an eager, tireless, supportive Chinese teacher who is at your side every waking moment, and vigilantly points out every mistake you make.

Need help finding a teacher? Verbling is one of the most highly recommended places for finding the perfect language teacher for your needs. You’ll be able to explore hundreds upon hundreds of language teachers and find exactly the one who’s right for you. 

When you search, you’ll get to search based on prices, availability and even the other languages they speak—so if your native language is Spanish or German, you can find a Chinese teacher to teach you in that language. Plus, the technology here makes accessing tutoring sessions extra smooth! You don’t need Skype or another third-party program. It’s all here!

If such a teacher is unavailable to you all the time, then you can use a Chinese learning site like FluentU to supplement your learning.

One thing to note is that there are different kinds of mistakes, and not all tools are created equal in providing feedback for each of these kinds of mistakes.

  • Simple recall error: Sometimes you just have trouble recalling a word. In this case, I think most flashcard programs are sufficient.
  • Pronunciation: This one is tricky. Many sites have speech recognition technology which claims to provide feedback on pronunciation mistakes. Not only have I not yet seen one which is accurate, I also haven’t seen one which can provide the detailed feedback which is needed for a learner to fully understand what they’re getting wrong. Pronunciation was probably the hardest part for me – basically, you will need to ask people over and over again: “What am I saying wrong?” Each time, you’ll have to ask them five times. Because the first four times, they’ll say there’s nothing wrong with your pronunciation. On the fifth time, they’ll say… “OK, well if you really want to know…”

Each time you identify these kinds of mistakes, of course you’ll have to make sure that you know what the right answer is in each instance, and you’ll also have to make sure that you revisit them at the right time. A spaced repetition learning system like Anki is probably a good way to schedule review at the right time.

4) Change Your Mindset

This last step is the most important one, because it’s the foundation for the first three steps.

The three steps that I’ve mentioned—total immersion, speaking Chinese constantly, and targeting mistakes—are very simple, but actually incredibly hard to maintain.

It requires a ton of discipline because it’s uncomfortable. It’s not what you’re used to doing. I’m asking you to focus on what you’re not good at and delay gratification.

The best way to address these challenges is to change your mindset.

  • First, change the way you measure progress. Instead of seeing perfection as a good thing, flip the equation and see mistakes as progress. If you stop making mistakes, then you’re no longer improving.
  • Second, understand the fact that it’s natural for you to be making mistakes while speaking Chinese. At this point, it’s just an arbitrary collection of sounds and images to you. That’s the same way it is for everyone.
  • Third, know that becoming fluent at speaking Chinese is just a matter of time. How does a rock become smooth? It’s by friction that rounds out all the rough edges, and in the end it’s smooth. It’s the same way with learning how to speak Chinese fluently. Once you identify all the rough edges and smooth them out, the inevitable result will be fluency in speaking Chinese.

If you’re interested, here are some other resources that might help you on your quest to learn how to speak Chinese fluently:

  • Perfectionist paralysis — Great post by Benny about how perfectionism is a terrible attribute for language learners.
  • The art of being corrected: Olle at Hacking Chinese provides some great, specific tactics that can help you be more receptive to feedback.

And One More Thing…

If you like these tips for fluency, then you’ll love FluentU.

FluentU lets you learn real Chinese from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks. It naturally eases you into learning Chinese language. Native Chinese content comes within reach, and you’ll learn Chinese as it’s spoken in real life.

FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos. In fact, below you’ll even see the song “Let It Go” from the hit movie “Frozen”:

FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you’d like to review to a vocab list.

FluentU’s Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your vocabulary. It suggests content and examples based on the words you’re learning. You have a 100% personalized experience. 

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

Experience Chinese immersion online!

12 Responses to How to Speak Chinese Fluently: A Foolproof Method

  1. Jim August 24, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks, this is exceptional advice!

  2. Karen Chang Barr August 25, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    I follow you on Twitter and I find this article fascinating, helpful, & I agree with your perspective on learning. Chinese. However, my current life does not allow for the prescribed formula in its entirety, but does give me some good principles to incorporate. I have taken beginning conversational Mandarin, here in Honolulu, HI,for 8 months from my lao shi from Shanghai, then started a meetup group for beginners, but the attendance is low & I have little time to prep. I was focusing on a topic for each meeting, but I lack fluidity to perpetuate speaking Mandarin for the entire meeting hour. Please email me some suggestions. Xiexie.

    • Alan September 11, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Hi Karen,
      Thanks for your support, and yes I think I was able to indulge in a level of immersion that isn’t available to most adults. I think you can definitely take steps to simulate such an environment even though you aren’t in China.

      I think going to a meetup is not a bad first start. But I think it wouldn’t give you that much bang for your buck. First, you have the commute time to and from the meetup. Second, in such a big class of beginners, your actual speaking time would be very limited. What I would recommend is to find language partners on a site like italki. You can find plenty of native Chinese speakers who would learn with you for free, if you are willing to also teach them English. Of course, if you can afford a tutor that would be even better.

      To maximize your effectiveness, I would also recommend using FluentU simultaneously. We help you learn with videos through real world context, and I think it would be a good way to structure your lessons. :)

  3. Michael August 26, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    Spend tens of thousands of dollars on a top-grade, prestigious Chinese program, enjoying the ability to spend every day completely immersed in Chinese with no concerns for your day job or other facts of (most people’s) reality getting in the way…no shit, that’s foolproof. Of course this will get you fluent in no time.

    But that doesn’t really help the thousands of learners who can’t afford these luxuries. How can they maximize their time and efforts within their possibilities? Who maybe can’t even go to China or another country to study? To be fair this article also shares a bit of advice in that regard. But I mostly felt annoyed at the headline after reading the article. It’s like going, “A foolproof way to am awesome career” with the article then stating, “Go to Harvard”. I mean…

    • Alan September 11, 2013 at 10:36 am #

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for the candid feedback. Yes, I tried to be a bit provocative with the title and I can see how it could come off as quite obnoxious. Perhaps I was a bit too aggressive with the title.

      I think an important point (even if it didn’t come across above) is that the name brand isn’t what makes the difference. There are people who participated in the same program, who didn’t learn very much. And obviously, there are many self-taught individuals who are extremely fluent. I did pick up some lessons about immersion that were important, and that’s why I brought it up.

      Your challenge to help learners who can’t afford the luxuries: that’s a really good point. I purposefully didn’t say that it was easy because I don’t think it’s easy. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn economically. I think that nowadays the limiting factor isn’t money or brand, it’s time.

      What I would recommend is what I told Karen in my previous comment: get a language partner or skype tutor and combine it with FluentU. Combining those 2 resources can let anyone learn Chinese without spending thousands of dollars. To maximize the bang for your buck with your tutor, I would recommend you read this post I previously wrote: FluentU works because it lets you zero in on vocab and content that matches your level, and because it tests you through video context. The video context part is key because it keeps you engaged, and because it lets you move beyond rote memorization to actually engaging with the word in real life.

  4. China Newz September 4, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    Great points on how to improve your Chinese. It takes discipline to not use English because it is so engrained in you if you are a native speaker. When you are in am immersion program, it can be hard being the person with the worst Mandarin in the class. People enter the classroom at different levels in the language learning process and that can be a little tough. But hang in there and do your best to practice your Mandarin and good things will follow.

    • Alan September 11, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Thanks a lot for the comment – yes I agree 100%. I think it’s really not about how you start but about where you finish.

  5. Brian Park October 1, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    Alan, Thank you for the great advice and the great product you have on I’ve been studying Chinese for 3 years over a span of 10 years and this website is amazing. Also, technically it is second to none! Have you ever heard of Scripts of Life? It’s one method to learning everyday language and vocabulary. For example, one sample of a Script of Life can be How to Brush Your Teeth. You would write down step by step instructions on how to do that, then have a native speaker record it for you. You would then listen to that recording over and over to learn the vocabulary and instructions. The steps would break down like this – turn on the faucet, grab your toothbrush, grab the toothpaste, squeeze the toothpaste onto the toothbrush, run your toothbrush under the water to get it wet, etc. Other samples can be How to Ride the Bus, How to Send a Package at the Post Office, etc. Most Chinese learners don’t know how to give simple every day instructions even if they’ve been learning Chinese for 4+ years, but my four year old can give these instructions in English. It would be awesome if you had Scripts of Life stuff with accompanying video. Easy and cheap to film and produce.

    • Alan October 29, 2013 at 11:19 pm #

      Hi Brian,
      Thank you so much for the kind words. That really means a lot. :)

      Thanks also for this tip about Scripts of Life. I hadn’t heard of it before but I can see the value that such content would provide. There is a potential gap that exists if we use only native-language content. We are definitely keeping this in mind as we produce our own scripts. I think if you check out some of our dialogues, you will find that they are very much along the lines of Scripts of Life. Thanks!