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.
- Grammar, Diction, and Word Choice: Ss you start aiming for deeper fluency (probably around the time where the novelty of impressing people with random nouns and phrases wears off), I’d recommend FluentU, designed to help you learn Chinese through videos.
- 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.
- Intermediate Angst: Dealing With Feelings of Suckage — Great AJATT post about mastering the mindset game.
- 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 want to continue learning Chinese with interactive and authentic Chinese content, then you'll love FluentU.
FluentU 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.
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 customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. 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 or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.