10 Easy Steps to Learn Conversational Chinese on Your Path to Fluency
Does it feel like you’ve studied Chinese for countless hours but you can’t figure out how to respond to a simple question?
Have Chinese people approached you with a question but you just couldn’t find the right words to express yourself?
Don’t worry! You aren’t incapable of learning to speak Chinese well, you just might be using the wrong method to practice your speaking.
So what’s the right method? Keep on reading, and I’ll explain in ten easy steps.
- Why It’s Important to Have Conversational Chinese Skills
- Steps to Learn Conversational Chinese
- 6. Practice with Chinese TV Shows or Movies
- 7. Get a Language Partner
- 8. Try to Use the Language Actively
- 9. Travel to a Chinese-speaking Country
- 10. Don’t Be Shy
- Never Forget: Practice Makes Perfect
Why It’s Important to Have Conversational Chinese Skills
China is a leading economic power and becoming more and more important in today’s business world. Almost every leading Western company has set foot in China first to take advantage of the cheap labor and now to get their share of the world’s biggest market with a population that has a continuously increasing spending power.
Leading companies are looking for professionals who can master Mandarin Chinese in order to engage with important business partners. Even today, Chinese is the language with the most native speakers worldwide. Statistically, one in every five people on Earth speaks Chinese. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to communicate with one fifth of the world?
When I tell people that I speak Chinese, the first questions I usually get are, “Isn’t it hard to learn?” and “Isn’t it the most difficult language?” Why no, it’s not!
With the right techniques, material and enough motivation, anyone will be able to speak Chinese. So to get you there the right way, here are ten steps to master conversational Chinese.
Steps to Learn Conversational Chinese
1. Get the Right Material
You decided to learn Chinese or you want to improve your conversational Chinese? That’s great! The first step is to get the right material! This can be tricky since every learner is different. However, it’s always clever to get a good conversational trainer or a phrasebook.
I have been using the Lonely Planet Phrasebook & Dictionary for Mandarin and other languages, and it’s helpful to get the basics of conversational Chinese down. Another great book I can recommend is called “Mastering Conversational Chinese” which includes an audio CD.
2. Read Chinese Conversations Aloud
Once you have your book, it’s time to get started. The biggest mistake you can make is to not speak enough. Reading sentences aloud is the key to getting used to a language and its proper phonetics.
Make sure you start simple. First, take a look at the pinyin, the Chinese alphabet. Once you master the pronunciation of each sound, it’s time to start with words!
What’s the first thing you usually learn when learning a new language? Greetings!
My Chinese teacher once told me: “When you are able to greet and introduce yourself in perfect Chinese, your listeners will think your language skills are great!”
Start with basic conversations and work your way up. Always read the conversations aloud and maybe even record yourself to check if your pronunciation is correct.
3. Listen to Chinese Audio and Repeat
I am a believer in learning languages like a child. Babies pick up a language by listening and repeating. This method has been proven effective even for adults or older learners.
Buy a phrasebook with an audio CD or listen to Chinese podcasts on a daily basis. The more Chinese you hear, the more language you will absorb and learn passively.
Try your best to repeat new words in order to make them stick in your memory.
4. Write Down Conversations
Once you’ve built a sturdy basis in conversational Chinese, it’s time to construct your own conversations. Write down random conversations while speaking them aloud.
Constructing your own conversations is an effective method and stimulates your language memory to be able to quickly make sentences in a new language.
To make sure what you wrote and said is correct, have it corrected for errors. I recommend lang-8.com, a platform from and for native speakers of any language. Simply put in your conversation and native speakers will correct it for you!
5. Practice with Chinese Songs
Music is an important part of Chinese culture, and a lot of emotions or topics are expressed in songs. This is one of my favorite parts of language learning!
Search for Chinese songs you like and break down their lyrics. Not sure where to look? Start here! Songs make much more sense if you know the actual lyrics, and the association between music and lyrics make the new learned vocabulary stick.
The FluentU language learning platform also offers a selection of Chinese music videos—both classics and modern. To improve your understanding of the lyrics, you can hover over any word in the interactive subtitles to see an in-context definition, image and multiple example sentences.
You can also check out the site Chinese Pinyin Lyrics, which offers a broad selection of great songs for practicing Chinese. If you can’t read characters yet, don’t worry, because all lyrics are laid out in pinyin as well.
6. Practice with Chinese TV Shows or Movies
Even if you don’t speak Chinese fluently, don’t think you can’t watch Chinese TV! There are certain TV shows that are especially suitable for beginners, such as “Voice of China” or “非诚勿扰” (You Are the One, a Chinese dating show). Both of these shows feature a lot of “introduction” vocabulary and are easier to understand than others.
You can also learn Chinese through shows like 非诚勿扰 (You Are the One) on FluentU. FluentU will take clips from 非诚勿扰 and turn them into Chinese learning lessons that use scenes from the show as context.
If you want to watch movies or dramas, don’t hesitate! You can find a wide range of Chinese shows, movies or dramas with English subtitles online at Drama Fever. Even when watching with subtitles, you still pick up a lot of words here and there, and are able to make use of the “listen and repeat” technique.
7. Get a Language Partner
If you live in China, you should definitely get a language partner. Search for someone who is interested in improving their English or learning your mother tongue. Even if you don’t live in China, you can still find Chinese exchange students at local universities, for instance. If not, try online language partnerships through Skype on language groups from Facebook, for example.
Try to practice each language equally long with your tandem. Maybe you meet each other once a week for an hour. Practice Chinese for 30 minutes and switch to the other language after, or vice versa. Try to talk about current events, hobbies or everyday situations.
My go-to website for finding good language partners is italki. On this site, you can see a detailed profile of potential language partners with real photos!
8. Try to Use the Language Actively
You won’t improve your conversational Chinese just by reading phrases aloud at home. If you live in China, go out and use the language is much as possible. Try to force yourself into difficult situations without the help of native speakers. I upgraded my electricity card, registered a bank account and set up a cell phone plan all by myself while broadening my vocabulary.
If you don’t live in China, go check out information boards or Chinese related courses or clubs at your local university. You could also try posting an ad on Craigslist for a Chinese conversation partner. There are thousands of Chinese nationals studying overseas who are looking for language partnerships as well!
9. Travel to a Chinese-speaking Country
If you don’t live in China at the moment, don’t give up! Plan your next travels to China or another Chinese-speaking country such as Singapore and use the language. Communicate with locals and embrace what you have learned so far.
Why not spend your summer vacation in China this year? Or visit a language program at Hutong school in Shanghai? If you are in for a longer adventure, how about studying abroad in China? Chinese universities are much cheaper compared to the United States or Britain! Give it a try and find your future Chinese university now!
10. Don’t Be Shy
The most important part in improving your spoken language is to not be shy! Making mistakes is normal and native speakers will always appreciate your effort. Most Chinese people are in complete awe when foreigners start to talk Chinese, even if it’s just “Nǐ hǎo! (Hello!)”
If you live in China, set yourself daily goals, such as greeting at least ten people or starting random conversations with three. That way you will push yourself to get out of your comfort zone!
If you aren’t in China, try to practice a new song every week. Memorize its lyrics and sing it in the shower or while cooking. Just try to speak as much as possible!
Never Forget: Practice Makes Perfect
No master fell just from heaven! Being able to speak a language takes time and effort. Don’t expect too much too soon.
Try to stay focused and motivated by rotating learning methods and make them diverse. Why don’t you create a study plan? It’s a lot easier to reach goals when you have them laid out in front of you!
Are you ready to speak Chinese? Great! Don’t wait until tomorrow or next week—start now, start today!
Just follow these tips, keep your goals in mind, stay motivated and never give up!