Wish you could pop a Babel fish into your ear and experience instant Chinese fluency?
Too bad that useful alien fish still hasn’t been discovered.
In the real world, learning a language like Mandarin Chinese takes a ton of time and hard work.
It can seem like a huge task—so huge that you tell yourself, “ah, I’ll start when I have more time tomorrow… or next week… or next month.”
If you already know the many benefits of learning Chinese, you know that you can’t put this off until tomorrow. Get started right now and you can make this a long-lasting, everyday routine.
The trick is the whole “hard work” thing. Much of that work usually takes place in the classroom, with an online course or with a textbook. And you might feel reluctant to start on that path. What you might not know is that there’s also a whole bunch of out-of-the-box ways for you to get in the necessary language practice without feeling like it’s a chore that you want to procrastinate.
After all, learning a language should be fun! (Arguably even more fun than shoving a fictitious fish in your ear.)
Whether you’re a total beginner discovering the nuances of 你好 (nǐ hǎo) or an experienced 饺子 (jiǎo zi) eating, 白酒 (bái jiǔ) swilling master, here are seven unconventional things you can do to start learning—or improving—your Chinese today.
7 Unconventional Ways to Learn Chinese Today
1. Have Dinner at a Chinese Restaurant Tonight
Eating out at a Chinese restaurant is a whole new experience after you’ve made the decision to learn the language. The sounds around you and the symbols on the menu are no longer meaningless, but a fascinating code to be deciphered.
No matter where you live, you’re likely to have a Chinese restaurant within a few blocks of your home or office. Tonight, choose a decent one for dinner. Not the takeaway kind aimed at the local fast food aficionado, but the authentic kind that’s tailored to the needs and desires of the Chinese diaspora. Whilst you’re there, you’ll hear the buzz of Chinese spoken around you, and may begin to recognize a few of the characters on the menu.
A quick word of caution: Most of us here are learning Mandarin Chinese, the official language of mainland China and the most widely spoken language on the planet. History and politics, however, have contrived that many Chinese restaurants overseas, including those in “China Towns” in major Western cities, are often owned by Cantonese speakers.
Cantonese is a distinctly different language. The food is of course equally good no matter where you go, but it’s best to do your research in advance to make sure you’re getting the right kind of language experience!
2. Read a Translation of Your Favorite Children’s Book
Chances are, your favorite kids’ book has been translated into Chinese. Since you’re already familiar with the material and the level is usually quite low (they’re kids’ books, after all!) this is a gentle, fun way to improve your reading or 阅读 (yuè dú) skills.
There are a whole bunch of amazing websites that you can use to find e-books in Chinese—often for free. Try chinesereadingpractice.com and childrensbooksonline.org to find some great options.
If you have a specific book or story in mind that you’d like to read, then it’s very helpful to find the Chinese title of the book you’re searching for to get you off on the right foot. Here’s a trick for doing that: Google your chosen book (in English) and find the Wikipedia page. Then scroll down on the left looking at the alternative languages column and click 中文 (zhōng wén).
Using this method, I found the Chinese title for Maurice Sendak’s glorious “Where the Wild Things Are.” In Chinese, it’s “野兽家园” (yě shòu jiā yuán), which could translate as “The Homeland of the Beasts”—scary! With that information, I was able to run a quick Google search and find the whole text in Chinese here.
3. Listen to Music
When that little voice in your head goes “stop wasting time listening to music and get studying,” you can calmly reply, “hey, why not do both?”
Listening to favorite Chinese music is a great way to get phrases and vocabulary stuck in your head—if you’re hearing and singing a new word over and over again, it’s hard to forget it!
Some modern Chinese music I’d recommend for you to jam out to includes 谢天笑 (Xiè Tiān Xiào) for hard rock and grunge, Carsick Cars for indie rock and 何勇 (Hé Yǒng) for country and trash rock (yes, both!). If you recall hearing these suggestions in another post of mine, you’re right—they’re my go-to favorites for learning. Get more details on these artists and how to find their music here.
A neat trick here—related to the children’s book idea above—is to find an English-language song that you know back to front and inside out, then look for a Chinese-language cover.
There’s a whole movement online of artists taking hit Western songs and translating them into Chinese, which is a ridiculously fun way to drill new Chinese tunes into your brain. Here’s a Mandarin language cover of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” or “我要你那样” (Wǒ Yào Nǐ Nà Yàng):
Bonus: Every self-respecting Chinese language student also knows the words to “对不起我的中文不好” (Duì bù qǐ Wǒ de Zhōng wén Bù hǎo) by Transition.
They’re an English-language band based in Taiwan that sings about the trials and rewards of learning Mandarin… in Mandarin! A wonderful listen.
4. Check Out FluentU
Given that you’re already here, you’re probably aware of the some of the amazing Chinese resources available on this site.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Start with the free trial of FluentU today, or just watch everything FluentU has up on YouTube. Here’s one sample FluentU video about going to the supermarket and navigating life in Chinese.
Useful to make sure you don’t mix up your 米饭 (mǐfàn) and your 麻烦 (máfan) and leave the store without what you went there to get! But this is just one type of video you’ll find on FluentU—while some are designed for learners, others videos were originally made by and for native Chinese speakers, allowing you to get a dose of authentic Chinese culture.
5. YouTube It
Yes, YouTube, the paragon of procrastination itself, is actually a surprisingly valuable tool when it comes to learning Chinese.
We’ve already looked at Chinese music, much of which you can find on there, as well as FluentU, which has its own YouTube channel full of useful resources. But what about other options?
I’m willing to bet you’ve already considered or tried using the more conventional options: tutorial videos, Chinese TV show clips with English subtitles, music, etc. Now let’s look at a more “unconventional” option that I guarantee you’ll want to start playing with today: Disney.
Yes, don’t worry about watching educational YouTube videos that are trying to teach you words and phrases. Disney nostalgia is here to whisk you away.
If you’re anything like me, you grew up on Disney classics like “The Lion King,” “Mulan,” “The Jungle Book” and “Robin Hood.” Disney is still going stronger than ever, and it’s huge in China (they even opened their own Disneyland in Shanghai in 2016). This means that every Disney movie you’ve ever watched and every Disney song you ever drove your parents crazy with has been translated into Chinese!
Just like the translated children’s book option above, watching dialogue and song clips from your favorite Disney movies in Chinese is a great way to memorize some of the language in a fun way, whilst drawing on what you already know. To get you started, here’s a handy playlist with 135 Disney songs in Chinese.
6. Find a Practice Group
Practice groups for language learners are nothing “unconventional”; a like-minded group of fellow language learners coming together to practice Chinese is a classic learning strategy. If you aren’t already doing this, you should be. Jump on Meetup to find conversation groups near you.
This can get unconventional, however, depending on how creative you’re willing to get. Invite people to play Chinese board games or card games. Arrange a meeting at your favorite authentic Chinese restaurant in the area. Host a screening of a Chinese movie at your house. Start a Chinese book club, or get together to cook up delicious Chinese recipes in someone’s home kitchen.
This will depend a bit on where you live, but chances are good that you’ll be able to find some kind of Meetup group for Mandarin or Taiwanese expats (or language learners) within an hour of your current location. Use it today to get in touch and see if this group would happy for you to come along and practice Chinese.
See? You don’t have to make the big leap and meet the group in person today, but you can take one massive step forward by getting connected.
And you don’t have to live in a major world capital like New York or London to make this happen. For example, I spent some of 2015 living in a small-ish city in Poland called Poznan. It’s a cool town, but it’s not particularly international, so I didn’t expect to find anything much that would help me with my Chinese. Surprisingly, after spending a bit of time on Facebook, I stumbled across a weekly meeting of the small Taiwanese expat community in the city, which was already being frequented by a handful of fellow Chinese learners. I started attending regularly, which was not only a great way to keep up my Chinese, but also a cool way to make new friends and see another side of a foreign city. (A New Zealander practicing Chinese with Taiwanese expats in Poland—yep, welcome to the 21st century!).
Point being: No matter where you are in the world, there are going to be people with whom you can practice your Chinese. You just have to get creative and be a little outgoing!
But if you’re truly the only Mandarin speaker in your whole neighborhood, then there’s one place that’s guaranteed to have a few Chinese language enthusiasts…
7. Go to China
“What… today?! Are you crazy?”
That’s a matter of debate, but with the new “transit visa waiver” programs China has rolled out in major cities like Shanghai and Chengdu, a spontaneous trip to the Middle Kingdom is actually more possible than ever.
In the old days, a journey to China, even as a tourist, involved a pretty complex visa rigmarole and maybe even a visit to your local Chinese embassy. That’s still the case if you’re going for a long trip, but depending on where you’re from you may be able to skip the visa for shorter trips (usually between 24 and 72 hours) using China’s new transit visa waiver program.
To use this program, China needs to be in the middle of your trip, i.e you need to be going from A to C via B, and B is China. You can probably use this if, say, you’re flying from New Zealand to England via Shanghai, but not if you’re flying from London to Beijing and then back to London again. Check the details and requirements carefully and be certain that you qualify before you go.
Still, the freedom to go to China without a Chinese visa makes a spontaneous Chinese adventure slightly more possible than it has been in the past!
If you already have a bit of Chinese under your belt, your first trip to China may be both terrifying and exhilarating. I remember the nervousness when I first tried to speak outside of the classroom, with the owner of a small noodle restaurant near my university in Chengdu. Pointing randomly at items on the menu, unable to read anything except 面 (miàn – noodle), I’d frantically Pleco the dish I’d ordered as they prepared it. This made for some very interesting meals, and only one unfortunate offal experience!
You can also opt to get the Chinese experience closer to home by visiting the China Town nearest you.
Use tips one through six above to make sure you’re somewhat more prepared than I was on that fateful first trip.
Now that you can learn Chinese by eating, watching YouTube, listening to music and reading books, well, there should be nothing stopping you!
Nathan J. Thomas moved from New Zealand to Chengdu, China in 2014 without speaking a word of Mandarin. He is traveling as a freelance writer and editor of the online travel magazine Intrepid Times.