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.
- 1. Immerse Yourself – Totally
- 2. Always Be Speaking Chinese (Making Mistakes)
- 3. Target Your Mistakes
- 4. Change Your Mindset
- 5. Speak to Yourself Every Day
- 6. Be Prepared for Any Conversation Topic
- 7. Fake It ‘Til You Make It
- 8. Understand Tones the Easy Way
- 9. Gather the Right Speaking and Listening Materials
- 10. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
- Related Posts
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.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
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…” You can also review our full Chinese pronunciation guide, try practicing with some tongue twisters or hone in on Chinese vowels (which tend to be a big sticking point).
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.
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.
5. Speak to Yourself Every Day
One may be the loneliest number, but we all find ourselves lacking conversation partners now and again. If you don’t have enough people around to speak with, speak with yourself.
As you go about your daily activities, narrate what you’re doing and thinking out loud in Chinese. Talk to your pets in Chinese. While listening to the news or the radio, respond to the commentators out loud in Chinese. You’ll certainly get some practice by doing this on your own, regardless of whether or not someone else hears you.
Try this simple exercise for the day: Start speaking Chinese in your head the moment you wake up. Actively force your brain to translate everything you’re thinking into Chinese. Even the simplest things, like “我起床了(wǒ qǐ chuáng le) — I got up” will help you process the language.
After teaching yourself to think in Chinese, start narrating your day aloud. Yes, do it! You may not usually say “I got out of bed” to yourself in English every day, but remember, you’re learning the spoken language as a child would. After you’re comfortable speaking in Chinese to yourself, why not find a language partner, either online or in person?
6. Be Prepared for Any Conversation Topic
A major requirement for fluency is to be able to navigate around obstacles you find in your path. If you get stuck on every single word you want to say, you won’t sound very fluent. If you can talk around these words, the listener might not even notice that you didn’t know it.
Practice this by describing words in Chinese without actually saying them! This will prepare you for an emergency vocabulary situation. I’ve written much more about this here.
Sometimes, you can control the flow of the conversation and stick to things you have the words for. And, of course, you can always use the trick of speaking around the word you’re trying to find. But to really be able to speak comfortably in any situation, you’ll need a breadth of vocabulary.
Real fluency is about being able to talk about all kinds of topics with relative ease. To achieve this, you need to actually practice speaking about different topics.
Over the course of the day, jot down different topics in a notebook or on flashcards. Work on digging up topics that you know little to nothing about.
Pick a new topic to cover daily or weekly, and gear your language study towards that topic. Native speakers have had a lifetime to practice, so you’ll need to start now and practice daily if you want to catch up!
7. Fake It ‘Til You Make It
It’s possible to fake fluency if you really want to, especially if you have some control over the choice of topic. Simply learn a few phrases that turn the topic into an area where you have something interesting to say, then follow that up with a related anecdote.
For example, if you’re learning Chinese for professional purposes, focus on key Chinese phrases related to business. If you’re fascinated by Chinese culture, learn how to talk about the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival or Qingming Tomb Sweeping Festival.
This method means you’ll need to take control of the conversation and steer it to a topic you’re familiar with.
This isn’t always easy, of course. Sometimes, we don’t think as quickly as we speak, which tends to trip us up.
Fortunately, there are many phrases that carry almost no meaning but simply exist to buy you time to think. When you listen to native speakers, take note and learn these phrases.
I’m talking about things such as “What you said is very interesting, but…” or “I think that depends on…” These could also be very short phrases such as “I think” or “in my opinion.”
The point is that when you know several dozen phrases like this and can use them fluently, you’ll get a chance to remove some pauses from your speech and get you a moment to think about how to respond. Instead of falling silent for five seconds or letting out a long “ummmm,” you’ll fill that emptiness with solid Chinese.
8. Understand Tones the Easy Way
You’ve probably heard that tones are a huge part of Mandarin Chinese speech. That’s quite an understatement. I mean, check out all these variations of ma:
- 妈 (mā) — mother
- 骂 (mà) — scold
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
- 吗 (ma) — equivalent of a question mark (?) for formal questions
- 麻 (má) — hemp
All of these words are said with slight tonal differences and all mean vastly different things. You definitely don’t want to accidentally call your mother a horse, so you’ll need to understand how tones work and how important they are.
English speakers are used to having words that sound phonetically very different. Mandarin has no such luxury, so we’ll have to dive into what these new tones actually sound like. Luckily, they sound just how they look.
When reading from left to right, the direction the tonal symbol moves should be mimicked in your speech:
- 妈 (mā) — mother: This variation of ma should be said flat.
- 骂 (mà) — scold: The tone begins high and ends low, meaning there should be a sharp drop in your voice.
- 马 (mǎ) — horse: This tone starts high, drops, then goes back up again.
- 吗 (ma) — equivalent of a question mark (?): There’s no tone for this word.
- 麻 (má) — hemp: This tone starts low and rises.
This is tricky to get the hang of at first if you speak English or any other non-tonal language, but practice makes perfect.
More tips to learn Chinese tones
9. Gather the Right Speaking and Listening Materials
Learning how to speak a language is different from learning how to read and write in a language, particularly when it comes to a language like Mandarin. The materials you need to learn 汉字 (hàn zì — Chinese characters) will differ somewhat from the materials you need to learn how to speak and listen in Mandarin.
To improve your Mandarin speech, you really only need a plain ol’ notebook and access to YouTube or FluentU.
When I first started learning Mandarin, I used two separate notebooks for practice. One was for practicing pīnyīn with the respective hànzì, and the other was for just pīnyīn sentence-building, so I could practice my speech. You can do the same. Fill this second notebook with phrases that you personally use often, along with other phrases that are commonly used in everyday life.
You can pick up a lot of new phrases from watching videos on YouTube and FluentU, but another favorite listening resource of mine is Chinese-language TV shows!
If you don’t have a Chinese-speaking friend (yet!), then watching Mandarin-language television shows and movies will be extremely helpful. The idea is to mimic the speed and accents of a native speaker.
For example, I was able to get the hang of tones and the speed of Mandarin speech by watching the Taiwanese TV drama 惡魔在身邊 (È mó zài shēn biān — “Devil Beside You”). And by “watch,” I mean I binge-watched the whole thing in a week!
Though entertaining and the result of having no self-control, that week was actually incredibly educational. Speaking Mandarin stops being theory and becomes real when you listen to others speak it.
10. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If you’re going to walk away with only one thing, let it be this: Your Mandarin might never be perfect but that doesn’t mean that you should give up.
If you’re an adult learning a second language, even if you immerse yourself in that language for years, you might still have at least a slight accent for a while, or you might say particular things in a way that makes it clear you’re not a native speaker.
For example, native Mandarin speakers (as well as Japanese) cannot easily distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds in English because they’re phonemes that are incredibly difficult to change in the mature brain. Similarly, native English speakers can’t always easily learn foreign phonemes.
Learning Chinese speech is going to constantly surprise you. Even if you master sentence structures, order and tones, you’ll still encounter phrases in Mandarin that don’t make a lick of sense. And that’s ok!
Mandarin Chinese is statistically one of the hardest languages to speak, if not the most difficult of them all. It’s important to forgive yourself if you run into roadblocks—learning any language has its difficult moments!
And that’s it for my best speaking tips!
There’s no time like the present—put these to practice today and let us know how it goes for you.