Chinese Learning Tips – 6 Reasons to Learn Chinese with Authentic Content

Throughout our blog, we focus on observing words as they are used “in the wild,” ie. as they are used by Chinese people in real life. This is deliberate. We think that authentic material is “good for you” in the same way that many people feel about organic food. Here are 6 reasons why.

1) You know it’s real

Language learners know that not all words are created equal. Some words are “need to know” because of how frequently they’re used and their expressive power, while others are useless because they’re so obscure. The problem is that you don’t know what kind of word you’re dealing with until you give it a test drive in the real world with some trial-and-error. Nothing is more discouraging than to spend time learning a word only to find out that no one in China uses it.

By contrast, the moment a Chinese person or a newspaper uses a word, you know right away that it’s a “real” word. You don’t have to worry that it’s a word that was last used in the last century, or that using it will make you stick out like a sore thumb.

2) You get a richer understanding

Words “in the wild” reveal many clues on the nuances of their usage. For example, you know:

3) You pick up on cultural context

Words “in the wild” provide rich cultural context that you can absorb while learning the word.  For example, you will be exposed to the issues in Chinese soccer and how societal values for marriage are changing.

4) You get a more memorable experience

Encountering words “in the wild” feels like it engages more of your senses. More is at stake. You will not forget what they called Ma Yingjiu. This makes it more memorable. Memorable experiences lead to better retention and higher fluency.

5) Closer to your ultimate goal

The ultimate goal for most learners is to be able to communicate in Chinese as it is really used – not pass exams. “Real world” learning is closer to this goal, and hence is better preparation for it.

6) Improves your motivation

Authentic content makes us want to learn more. Real world examples bring home the fact that over a billion people speak Chinese and that there is a world of Chinese content that we will be able to access once we are fluent.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for scripted materials. In particular, a beginner would probably benefit from the extra structure they provide. But on balance, we think authentic content is the way to go.

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11 Responses to Chinese Learning Tips – 6 Reasons to Learn Chinese with Authentic Content

  1. Sara October 19, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Great post Alan! I’m actually in that point of my studies where I should use a lot more authentic material to boost my studies. The biggest effort so far have been when I started to read my first Chinese book about a week ago.

    I started to read because of my teacher’s demands, but I’m already seeing how much it helps me with my vocabulary, character recognation, grammar and so on.

    I also have plans to watch more TV and Chinese movies. Just have to first find a way to forget all the American TV series I’ve been watching!

    • Alan October 19, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad that it resonated with you. Yes I think what’s kind of surprising about authentic content is that it’s way harder, but it’s actually much more fun, which ultimately ends up making it easier than learning from other materials. If you’re looking for a show that can quickly get you addicted in a good way – I highly recommend a dating show called 非诚勿扰, which you can find here:

      Enjoy! And by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed your essay on your blog! :)

  2. Wai Man Chan July 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm #

    Hi Alan,

    This is a very interesting post. I absolutely agree with you when you say that learning from real life examples helps us feel more motivated. I think learning the “in the wild” version of Chinese is an excellent way to learn because it gives the learner a stronger feeling of interest and involvement in the learning process. However, the real life approach might not be so appropriate for beginners, who at their stage need a strong foundation in the basics. But for intermediate and advanced learners, it’s very effective.

    • Alan July 28, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

      Hi, that’s a great point! Yes I think scripted content is often more appropriate for beginners. Most authentic content is not suitable for someone who’s just started studying Chinese. But I think when we are able to find authentic content that is easy enough for beginners, that’s really the best of both worlds.


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