20 Foolproof Tips for Learning Chinese Efficiently
Any Chinese student wants to find ways to help them learn the language quicker.
Whether you are a beginner Chinese student, you’ve been learning for a while or maybe you’re even just thinking about learning Chinese, this is where you can find inspiration to make your Chinese language journey easier.
The following tips 20 will help you learn Chinese the smartest and most efficient way!
- 1. Use your reason for learning to set goals
- 2. Identify short-term and long-term goals
- 3. Use SMART goals
- 4. Choose between Mandarin and Cantonese
- 5. Find your learning style
- 6. Make a daily learning schedule
- 7. Find activities that combine skills
- 8. Topic choice matters
- 9. Limit your focus
- 10. Focus on phrases instead of individual vocabulary
- 11. Ease up on the grammar (at first)
- 12. Master pinyin basics
- 13. Use authentic Chinese content as study material
- 14. Find a conversation partner
- 15. Don’t fake understanding
- 16. Ask questions
- 17. Pay attention to body language
- 18. Pay attention to recasts
- 19. Summarize in your own words
- 20. Be patient, don’t give up
1. Use your reason for learning to set goals
The best way to set goals that you will truly commit to is to make them as specific as possible. Find the reason you are learning Chinese.
Is it for fun or because you’re moving there in six months? Do you want to be able to speak business Chinese for a job or communicate with your in-laws?
Answering these kinds of questions will help you create a personalized learning plan that is best for your journey.
2. Identify short-term and long-term goals
First, set long-term goals for where you want to be in a year, two years and five years. Take into consideration how much time you can realistically put into your studying and use that as a base for those goals.
Once you know what your big goals look like, you can start looking at your short-term goals. These are more like daily, weekly and monthly goals up to six months out.
You’ll check in with these short-term goals much more frequently to adjust and see how you are doing. If you are able to complete your short-term goals, that will typically help you build up to meeting your long-term goals as well.
Your long term goals may be to become fluent within five years, but maybe right now your short-term goal is to be able to read an easy Chinese book or be able to understand Chinese radio within the next three months, which are both stepping stones towards fluency.
3. Use SMART goals
When setting goals, make sure they are “SMART” goals. This means that the goal is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. These five components work together to make much more effective targets.
For example, if you say you want to “Improve my written Chinese,” you are being too general as this is really difficult to measure. A more specific and measurable goal would be “Learn to write 20 new characters this month.”
4. Choose between Mandarin and Cantonese
You will need to decide whether you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese. It’s not advised to learn both at once, as the two are different enough to be confusing.
Mandarin is the dominant dialect in not only Mainland China, but also Taiwan, areas of Singapore and increasingly in Hong Kong. Cantonese is the main dialect spoken in Chinese communities within the United States, but Mandarin is quickly becoming prominent as well.
Mandarin is also typically considered easier than Cantonese as there are less tones to master.
5. Find your learning style
Knowing your learning style will help you on your journey immensely. Some people learn better through visualizations, while others may find that writing things down is what helps them.
Knowing how you learn can help you learn more effectively. There’s no point in trying to force yourself to learn by flashcards if you learn better through mind-mapping.
You may already have an idea of how you learn best, but it’s also great to try out different things and find your own learning techniques.
6. Make a daily learning schedule
To really learn Chinese, you will need to be working on it daily. Our brains can only handle so much information, and repetition helps keep it in your brain for the long-term.
Make a schedule that will set out time for your studying each day and the exact tasks you will complete.
I’d recommend planning specific tasks such as “listen and dissect a segment of China Radio International for 10 minutes” so you can dive right in and focus on the task at hand. This way you won’t waste time trying to find something to do or get distracted.
Once you make your learning a habit, it will become easier and easier to stay committed!
7. Find activities that combine skills
In order to achieve fluency, you must develop the four language skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. While it’s important to focus on each of these individually, it is also vital to find a way to practice all of them together.
Find activities that will utilize multiple skills at once. You can read out loud to practice reading and speaking. Write down notes about your podcast or movie to combine listening and writing.
Read a sentence and then write it yourself on a different paper to practice reading and writing. Have a conversation to practice listening and speaking.
There are plenty of other ways to combine these skills so try incorporating more combinations into your study sessions!
8. Topic choice matters
You learn best when you are enjoying yourself. One sure way to do this is to learn and talk about topics that you enjoy.
It’s fun to branch out and learn about things that you like. At first you may be out of your comfort zone with the vocabulary, but that will push you to expand your horizons all while having fun!
9. Limit your focus
You can’t focus on everything at once or you will become overwhelmed and want to give up. Find one thing that you want to really narrow in on and make that your main target until you have become proficient at it.
If you know that you’re having problems with multiple things, you should pick only one of these things and try to improve on it.
Once you make progress in that area, you can move onto another area that you struggle with. This progress will solidify and increase your overall proficiency.
10. Focus on phrases instead of individual vocabulary
It can be easy to make the mistake of only working on vocabulary. Vocabulary is excellent and a crucial part in learning any language, but without any context, you’re still as lost as when you began.
For every character you learn, add a phrase or sentence that uses the character to provide the proper context. When you recognize different phrases and sentences, it will be much easier for you to start using them in relevant conversations as well.
11. Ease up on the grammar (at first)
Don’t be daunted by Chinese grammar; it’s something that will come with time. Some students get too caught up in the technicalities of grammar and become too overwhelmed to continue.
Since Chinese grammar can be quite difficult, first focus on other aspects, then slowly add in grammar to the mix.
You will eventually need to understand the specific nuances in Chinese grammar, but you’ll want to spend the majority of your time in the beginning on mastering the tones, pinyin and basic vocabulary.
12. Master pinyin basics
Chinese characters can be difficult to read, but ease your way in through to the language by beginning with pinyin. Not only will this give you the foundation to be able to type in Chinese, it also helps solidify your tones.
If you master pinyin, you will find yourself catching onto other aspects of Chinese much quicker.
13. Use authentic Chinese content as study material
The best way to learn a language is through immersion. While it may not be possible for everyone to go to a Chinese-speaking community and immerse themselves full-time, you can immerse yourself from anywhere with Chinese movies, TV shows, music, and podcasts!
FluentU is a great resource to find content like this as it provides hundreds of Chinese clips from TV, music, and more as well as learning tools like interactive subtitles, flashcards and quizzes. All of this can help you see how Chinese is really used by the natives!
14. Find a conversation partner
Having a Chinese-speaking partner is key to getting the proper feedback you need as a non-native speaker. You may know every technicality of Chinese, but that means nothing if you can’t speak the language.
It is normal for learners to make mistakes, so having someone that can help you correct them and get you used to utilizing the language real-time will push you to greater confidence and fluency!
15. Don’t fake understanding
Not being able to understand what someone said certainly makes most people feel uncomfortable. To avoid this, it can be tempting to pretend that we understand what someone is saying to us even if we don’t.
If your goal is to learn Chinese, you should refrain from faking understanding. The fact that you don’t understand remains true whether someone else knows about it or not, and the point of learning is to enable you to understand.
The only way you can learn is to express your confusion so that you can seek clarification and learn more from the gap in your understanding.
16. Ask questions
To follow up on the last tip, it is important to ask questions about things you don’t understand. It’s also important to ask questions of natives because you will often learn about new things you wouldn’t have even thought to ask about.
Pay attention to how the native speaker replies and how their reply is different from yours. By asking questions and listening to the answers, you will learn a whole lot more than if you chose to stay silent.
17. Pay attention to body language
People express a lot of their reactions to what you’re saying through body language. It’s usually fairly easy to see if someone understands what you’re saying or not by facial expression and body positioning.
Even if you don’t understand every single thing coming out of someone’s mouth, you can usually pick up on context clues from their body language and grasp what they are trying to say.
18. Pay attention to recasts
Many native speakers will help you correct your Chinese without even thinking about it. Recasting simply means that they say the same thing as you do, but with their own words.
People do this to subtly indicate how misspoken words or phrases should actually be said. This is a very natural process and isn’t always meant to be a conscious correction.
Be sure to pay attention to what someone is saying and if they’re making any of these subtle corrections so you can be sure to account for them.
19. Summarize in your own words
The best way of making sure that you understand what someone is saying is by summarizing what they just said, but using your own words.
This is extremely useful if you find yourself in a situation where you have to understand what the other person is saying, such as when given directions or being told how to complete an important task.
Summarizing helps you to confirm the information you understood and allows the native speaker to correct you. If you missed something important, they’ll help you fill in the blanks.
20. Be patient, don’t give up
Learning a language takes time and will not always come naturally. Be patient with yourself and the process and you will be able to stick to your journey and reach your goals!
Now that you know 20 different ways to make your Chinese learning journey easier, find what works for you! Happy learning!