6 Ways To Improve Your Mandarin Studies

Have you ever wanted to find and implement a more effective approach to learning Mandarin Chinese? People who study Chinese know that it is an incredibly arduous process, full of pit falls and roadblocks.

I remember when I began studying Mandarin in 2013. Like most of intellectual pursuits I start, it was so incredibly interesting and fun in the beginning.

In that time I would drive down to Boston every weekend to learn the basics like numbers and greetings. I got a thrill from it. Yes, this is it… look at me! I would think to myself. I am learning something truly exotic and interesting. 

I moved to Beijing that summer. I would sit in my cramped Beijing apartment, copying down characters over and over, hundreds of times even.

What had seemed like an exciting hobby in the beginning had effectively become a pool of anxiety. Yet, despite my doubts I kept going. Maybe it was ignorance. More likely it was pride.

I have used, and continue to use, multiple methods when studying Mandarin: Pimsleur, university courses, training school courses, tutors, self study, e-learning resources, language partners- and so on.

I have reached an HSK level 4 and am currently preparing for the 5 (Chinese proficiency test administered by the PRC).

The following is a list of methods which I have found most useful. I hope that it can provide some insight for those interested in Chinese and/or language learning in general.

1. Use Standardized Tests As Goals (HSK)

Standardized tests are very helpful in goal setting. Goals in the context of language learning allow us to push ourselves and develop a strong base in vocabulary and grammar.

Don’t fall into the trap of learning language “from the streets”. Humble yourself and take advantage of what professional organizations have created as a means accelerate your language learning process.

HSK is an acronym for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), which is a Chinese proficiency test administered by the government’s Confucius Institute. It is the most popular and useful accreditation for learners of simplified Chinese.

(Sidenote- international companies are more and more attuned to this qualification and if you are serious about a career in China/dealing with Chinese then it looks good on your resume.)

2. Pimsleur

Pimsleur is a series of audio recordings that uses repetition to help learners improve their pronunciation and listening comprehension. I have found it particularly useful in learning Mandarin because of the inherent difficulty in learning the phonetics and tones.

I suggest doing the Pimsleur courses on your way to work or class. When I first started out I downloaded it to my smartphone and participated during my commutes.

Sure, people probably thought I was a little strange, but it was a great way to practice listening and speaking before I was able to actually have a conversation.

3. Attending Chinese Only Events

Events where people only speak Chinese are a great way to get practical experience as well as to train your ears. In the beginning you certainly won’t understand everything, but that isn’t necessarily the goal. The goal is to learn the language’s cadence .

I think learning a language is a lot like muscle memory. You need to expose yourself to the language and, the more you do this, the more your brain will start to recognize differences in sounds, pronunciation, and tones.

If you don’t believe me try this. Pay attention to people that study Chinese a lot on their own without much exposure to native speakers. Compare them with those who are exposed. You will notice that the first group has less trouble communicating with native speakers, even though their knowledge of the language may be less nuanced. 

4. College Courses

I have attended both training schools and college programs in Mandarin. I don’t go to training schools anymore because I think they are mostly a scam and the curriculum is nonexistent. Teachers just show up and go through a book (if you are lucky). That’s good for them, bad for your Chinese.

Similar to standardized tests, university courses offer a much more structured approach to learning Chinese. Furthermore, and a perhaps stronger reason, is that you will be surrounded by students who’s Chinese is most likely a lot better than your own (I’m looking at all the Koreans now).

When I took a college course I often felt compelled to study and prepare more because my classmates were at a much higher level. If you are looking to make a big jump in your Mandarin, I highly suggest taking a college course.

5. Translation

I use the translation method to practice reading and writing. I don’t literally translate the text into my native tongue, but I go over it a few times to make sure I understand it well enough that if I were to be asked what it meant, then I could explain it in English. I have found that writing it down in English is largely counterproductive and a waste of time.

I am really in love with this method and perhaps I will write more about it in a future post as there are many different aspects to it.

6. Flashcards

I prefer to use flashcards that I make on my own with cut up pieces of paper and a black pen. The words I write down come directly from my own translations and therefore are very useful.

Flashcards work well in combination with testing environments because they are an extremely efficient way to increase your vocabulary.

I have also used the online service Memrise, which is a very nifty flashcard E-learning site/app. (Although I don’t recommend shelling out for the premium version).

Final Thought- think about what helps you to focus.

When designing your own study routine think about what is most effective for you. When I say “most effective for you”, I am really talking about what kind of activities can hold you focus.

People say that you need to understand how you learn, but I think that is too vague. It is easier to think about which activities allow you to focus and stay engaged.

From my own personal experience it is very easy to just “go through the motions” when studying anything. Just “going through the motions” isn’t what you want. If you want to progress in anything, you need to bring your attention to it and understand how all the little pieces fit together.

There isn’t a magic pill, but there are small incremental changes you can make that will improve your efficiency. People aren’t naturally better at learning languages then others, they simply understand which activities are most effective.

Do you agree with me? What methods have you found effective for studying Chinese or another foreign language?

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