The Chinese language learning curve

From beginning to an advanced level, the Chinese language learning curve is often depicted using a bar chart, like this one:

Levels are evenly spread out, suggesting a linear and an incremental increase of the difficulties of Chinese courses, as well as students’ language abilities. The increase from one level to the next usually refers to an increase of the vocabularies in the texts. 

However, progress in learning Chinese is rarely as neat as shown in this bar chart. When we are learning Chinese, we seldom deal with vocabularies only. Therefore, at MSL Master, we propose a different kind of learning curve, like an upward spiral. 

Chinese Learning Curve

When we look at this spiral from the side as shown in the picture, we see a clear trend of progress. Yet at the same time, the movement has many twists and turns, which mean detours are required, and the same places need to be revisited. Different colours refer to different aspects of students’ learning experience, such as pinyin and Chinese characters, psychological resistance and receptivity, or intellectual excitement and indifference, and so on. Things are never the same, and are always in fluctuation. 

However, as nice as this spiral chart is, it says very little about the learning curves that students actually go through and about their genuine experiences. Let’s take a closer and detailed look here.  

MSL Master Chinese language curriculum comprises of two series of textbooks, Mandarin Express series and Chinese Reading and Writing series. The goal is to transform students from complete beginners to fluent Mandarin speakers with substantial cultural knowledge. This path is divided into four stages, Introduction, Foundation, Development and Acculturation stage. When following this path, students experience a mixture of multiple small curves. 


This stage includes: 

At the beginning of this stage, students feel that Chinese is kind of difficult, but not that difficult. At the end of this stage, students feel that Chinese is quite manageable.

The difficulty is primarily about pronunciation. When students, who have no prior learning experience, first start learning Chinese, they always feel that they could not grasp the sounds of Chinese. They are not sure whether they can say the words right or not, nor can they tell the difference when they hear others speaking Chinese. Many students feel uncertain when it comes to the four tones. 

This hurdle is real, but also can be easily overcome. Pinyin is the first tool for students to “see” the different sounds. The second tool is numerous small and short drills scattered around the Student’s Book and the Work Book, where students can concentrate on a few words at a time. The third tool, also the most important one, is the adequate opportunities for students to practice listening and speaking. 

As students making progress, they feel more and more comfortable with Chinese pronunciation. It is especially so towards the end of this stage, when students are quite good at carrying some social conversations, that they feel Chinese is really quite manageable.


This stage includes:

At the beginning of this stage, students feel that Chinese is hard again. Towards the end of this stage, students feel that Chinese is easy enough for them to have a good grasp.

The difficulty is primarily centred around Chinese characters and Chinese texts. Chinese characters are so fascinatingly different, and reading Chinese texts is nothing like reading an European language. Unlike any European languages, Chinese texts do not give word boundaries, which students have to pick out (Learn more here: Deconstructing Chinese texts is the key to learn how to read Chinese).

To mitigate this challenge, a super tight control is placed on the total number of Chinese characters taught at this stage. This small number of Chinese characters (320 to be exact) allows students to develop their Chinese reading and writing abilities without feeling being overwhelmed.

Towards the end of this stage, students can communicate well in daily life and work, read and write long Chinese texts, and they feel Chinese is rather easy. 


This stage includes: 

At the beginning of this stage, students feel Chinese is really hard. At the end of this stage, they feel that Chinese is easy again.

The difficulty is primarily due to the large volume of new Chinese characters taught at this stage, particularly in Lesson 1, 2 and 5. Although the 320 Chinese characters students have learned previously cover more than 50-60% of the Chinese texts, there are still lots of new ones for them to learn. In order to mitigate the initial impact, the texts are divided into many short stories, with each one containing fewer new characters.

Once students expand their character base, they will feel quite comfortable to read slightly longer texts, and Chinese becomes easier to learn.


This stage includes:

Each book has its own mini learning curve. 

At the beginning of Mandarin Express Intermediate Level A, students feel that Chinese is really hard, harder than they have ever experienced. At the end of it, they feel that Chinese is challenging, but not that hard any more. 

The hard part of this first mini curve is the length of the articles, the vast number of new combinations, including many idioms, and the formal written style which is so different from the daily spoken Chinese (Learn more here: Differences between spoken Chinese and written Chinese). Moreover, students have to deal with many synonyms with subtle differences.

Once students have expanded their vocabulary considerably and are comfortable with long and formal Chinese written texts, they will no longer feel that Chinese is that hard. 

At the beginning of Mandarin Express Intermediate Level B, students feel that Chinese is really really extremely hard, harder than they have ever imagined. But at the second half of the book, Chinese is really really easy to understand. 

This really really extremely hard part of this second mini curve is classical Chinese. In terms of meaning interpretation, what students have learned before seems not to matter much. Classical Chinese is so terse and concise, and each single character can carry so many different meanings. Every lesson is difficult during the first half of the book. However, students gain such invaluable training that they feel the second half of the book, which includes some of the most famous writings in modern Chinese, is incredibly easy to understand!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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