The intermediate phase of learning Chinese can be awkward and filled with growing pains.
You’ve outgrown your beginner resources and start feeling a little boxed in.
You still aren’t comfortable enough to just pick up a book, and watching an all-in-Chinese movie is still frustrating.
This can also be a challenging level because many options for courses, like the Confucius Institute and community colleges, start to dry up once you’re no longer a beginner. Sure, you could move to China… well, actually not everyone is prepared to do that!
The best way to handle this learning phase is to bust right out of the box.
If you can’t find an appropriate Chinese intermediate course, and you can’t just move, you can create your own DIY intermediate course. If you’re enrolled in a course, use these steps for extra credit and extra fast advancement!
I’ll break down the components of your “course” by the language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing.
How to Build a DIY Chinese Intermediate Course
Subscribe to an all-Chinese podcast that’s made for Chinese learners
It’s time to start weening yourself away from the podcasts for learners that are mostly in English, giving you all of the instructions in English, and ones that ask you to repeat phrases like “对不起，银行在哪儿？” (Excuse me, where is the bank?)
However, you might still find jumping into a native podcast overwhelming. Try a podcast like Slow Chinese, where native Chinese speakers tell stories about their lives in slower-than-normal Chinese.
These podcasts are like bridges that will eventually allow you to cross over into comfortably listening to regular native-level Chinese podcasts. You’ll be getting exposed to much more Chinese than in a beginner podcast because there won’t be any English at all.
It’s best to try to listen to each podcast twice, and to try to understand as much of the podcast as possible. That means looking up as many words as you can to make sure you’re learning vocabulary while you’re listening.
Do active listening with audio and text
Active listening is an important way to improve your listening skills. This involves listening to an audio recording that you have a transcript of and following along closely as you listen.
As part of your DIY Chinese intermediate course, you should choose an audio/text that’s written for learners but is ever so slightly more difficult than what you’re comfortable with. This shouldn’t be so easy that you can understand everything without looking up a couple words and phrases. Since you’re doing active listening with these resources, keep your dictionary on hand and note down everything you didn’t already know.
Listen to the audio all the way through at least twice when doing active listening. Make sure you understand every single word in it! A great place to find short audios with texts for learners is iMandarinpod.
Watch television shows and movies subtitled in Chinese
Television and movies are a fun way to increase your exposure to Chinese. Once you’re at an intermediate level, you should start to wean yourself off of media that has English subtitles. But what if you don’t understand everything you hear? That’s why television or movies with Chinese subtitles are great for intermediate learners.
If you don’t understand something, it’s relatively easy to pause the playback, see the written Chinese and look up the word(s) you don’t understand. Having subtitles is a crutch to help improve your listening until you’re able to understand most of a native-level conversation without help.
FluentU is a great place to find subtitled movies and television shows.
Get a tutor or language exchange partner
If you want to improve your spoken Chinese (and you do!), you need an opportunity to speak and be corrected. The best way to accomplish this is by hiring a tutor or getting a language exchange partner. Use your one-on-one time almost exclusively for speaking. The best tutors/language partners will guide you in a conversation that’s very one-sided. Of course, with language partners you might need to do a 50/50 split so they can practice their English (or another language you speak natively).
Ideally, you should be talking around 80% of the time. Expect the other person to correct your mistakes in Chinese. At the intermediate level, all of your interaction should be in Chinese. Tutors and language partners can be either in-person or online. One good place to search for either is italki.
For a site that’s dedicated to online tutoring, check out Verbling. Verbling really simplifies the process of learning online, even providing their own video chat software, so you can take your classes right on the site.
WyzAnt, on the other hand, is a great choice for locating a Chinese teacher near you. You can get matched to someone who’s just right for your level, and you can get a thorough look at a tutor’s experience, what they’re charging and how they’ve been rated by other users.
Find a place to speak Chinese
There’s probably somewhere in your city where you could speak Chinese. The Confucius Institute often holds events that attract both people interested in learning Chinese and native Chinese speakers. If you live somewhere with enough Chinese immigrants, there are likely also stores, tea shops and events that attract an almost exclusively Chinese crowd. Go to these events and make some friends!
Talk to yourself, your pets or your houseplants in Chinese
It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
You need the practice making Chinese sounds come out of your mouth. You need to practice getting the tones right. You need it to feel as natural as possible. Most of us talk to ourselves from time to time. We remind ourselves where we put the keys and chastise ourselves for failing to do the dishes. Next time you need to give yourself a little pep talk, try to do it in Chinese.
You could tell your pets stories or talk to them about your day. They won’t laugh if you mispronounce something or if you sound awkward. It will help you sound less awkward when you do talk to a real person!
Talk along during listening practice
If you’re doing listening practice, try to talk along with the speaker you’re listening to. You’ll need to listen to the audio a couple times before you’re able to do this.
Try to mimic tones, intonation, pronunciation and speed. This will help you sound more native when you’re coming up with your own sentences later!
Get a graded reader
Graded readers are texts that are written for a specific language level. They introduce vocabulary that’s appropriate for your level (intermediate!) at a rate that doesn’t leave you frustrated. Graded readers make it much easier to get a lot of Chinese reading done even before you’re comfortable reading a long native-level text.
Read bite-sized native texts
Reading a novel at this level would be extremely challenging. But what about a short news article? Start reading texts that are native-level, but short. You might have to look up 20 words or more before you feel like you understand the text. But making this a habit will help your reading comprehension explode.
Learn the 3,000 most common characters
Getting a solid command of the 3,000 most common characters will dramatically expand your reading comprehension, as well as the fun you can have reading in Chinese! Use a spaced-repetition program to help you learn these characters. A program like Anki is great if you’re only trying to learn to recognize these characters, but since you also want to learn how to write them (right?) Skritter is the best program.
Write short handwritten notes to yourself in Chinese
Practice writing something like a shopping list or reminder every day. The key here, though, is that you should be writing by hand. Chinese is unique in that writing by hand is very, very different from writing with a keyboard. Learning to write in Chinese means mastering both. So write something by hand in Chinese every day.
Write a journal in Chinese
Like the short notes, the journal should be handwritten. Unlike the short notes, I wouldn’t recommend doing this every day. At an intermediate level, this is still a fairly difficult task. Setting aside something like once a week to write in your Chinese journal is enough practice at this level to dramatically improve your writing over time.
Use your tutor or language partner for writing feedback
Before each tutoring or language exchange, prepare a (preferably handwritten!) text to get feedback on. This text could be the journal you write in Chinese. If you meet for an hour, use the last 10 minutes to get feedback on your written work. After you get corrections, go back and write out your work again, the correct way. Like speaking, writing is something that will only improve if you get regular feedback on your work.
Make sure you know the 214 radicals
Radicals are the building blocks of characters, and knowing all of the radicals builds a solid foundation for learning and remembering how to write characters. Most Chinese courses don’t explicitly ensure that students learn the radicals or that they learn all of the radicals, so it makes sense to study them on your own. Again, Skritter is a great resource for learning radicals.
Bonus: Take a calligraphy course
Chinese schoolchildren have to take calligraphy, and the way characters are written is determined by principles from Chinese calligraphy. Learning some calligraphy will help you remember things like stroke order, as well as help you appreciate why stroke order is important! If you don’t live in China, the only Chinese calligraphy workshops you can find probably won’t be in Chinese. But they’ll still be worth it and they’ll certainly help your Chinese handwriting.
Whether or not you’re able to enroll in a Chinese intermediate course, you can keep learning once you’ve mastered the basics. These DIY study techniques are also a great way to compliment Chinese coursework. You’ll graduate to being an advanced learner that much sooner!
大家加油！Keep it up everyone!
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