Self-study Chinese, and study it well!

Self-study is a great way to learn Chinese, even when Chinese is a difficult language to tackle. 

There are a million things to worry about when learning Chinese, pinyin, tones, pronunciation, intonations, Chinese characters, radicals, components, strokes, stroke orders, Chinese grammar or lack of grammatical rules, and so on. It’s all because Chinese is such a unique and interesting language that has a long history and is still well and alive today! 

To teach yourself Chinese well is to appreciate these complexities and to understand that there isn’t a single method that is going to solve all different problems. 

To teach yourself Chinese well is also to know where you want to go, and set the right approach from the beginning, so that you do not give up shortly after you start. 

Once you know where you’re going and begin to teach yourself Chinese, you’ll face some obstacles. This is the topic of this article. 

I’ve summarised a few common obstacles that hinder students from making progress, and offer some suggestions that will help them achieve the success when teaching themselves Chinese.

After reading this article, you might want to check out the two self-study guides I offered to beginner students:

Underestimate the difficulties of learning Chinese

There are people say, “Learning Mandarin is easy, as long as you speak the four tones”, or “If you learn 2000 characters, you’ll be able to read Chinese newspapers”, or “Chinese is easy because there aren’t any tenses or verb conjugations”.

Don’t believe it. Any one who says something like this has not gone through the Chinese learning curve.

Everything has different layers to it. That is what make learning Chinese challenging and stimulating. 

Thinking learning Chinese is easy will give you a false outlook and prevent you from understanding what the real issue it.

Too old to learn

Sometimes people give up learning Chinese after a few months, saying they are too old. They should have started 30 years ago, as a baby.

Babies have their strength, so do adult learners. 

As adult students, your strength comes from your ability to concentrate, to plan, and to be persistent. 

Some famous people became very good at Chinese as adult learners.

Age does not prevent you from being success, but attitude does.

Not aware of the fifth Chinese skill

Learning Chinese is learning five language skills. They are:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading 
  • Writing
  • Connecting Chinese characters with their pronunciations 

Every skill is important. 

Lots of words have been said about the first four language skills, but little about the fifth one. 

In Chinese, the same pronunciations can mean so many different things, for example there are 20 meanings of “shi li”.

The only effective way to different all the meanings is to know which characters you are speaking of or listening to. 

Don’t overlook the fifth Chinese language skill.

The wrong learning materials

When the humorist Dave Barry went to Japan in the early 1990s, he attempted to learn the language by reading a paperback phrase book, Japanese at a Glance, on the flight over. 

It didn’t work for him. 

Phrase books usually don’t work. They present lists of sentences that are scattered around and out of contexts. 

Good learning materials are important for the long term learning. 

Also, don’t just think you are paying dollars for the materials. Also think time as your currency. You probably have less time than money. 

Learn how to manage your time when doing self-study.

Forget everything in five minutes

It happens often to students that there are some words that don't want to be remembered. Different people have different group of words which fall into this category.

Years ago I read an article Why Your Brain Just Can’t Remember That Word, which gives some explanations on tip-to-tongue experience, especially for people who are bilingual. We can borrow some insights there. 

“One possible explanation is that similar-sounding words compete for our brain's attention. Since bilinguals know twice as many words as monolinguals, there's more chance for tip-of-the-tongue experiences. Since bilinguals, by definition, speak two languages, they are bound to use many individual words less frequently than monolinguals.”

This insight is very useful for learning Chinese. 

My suggestion is to create different situations for yourself to use what you’ve learned. For example, there are different ways for you to memorise Chinese characters.

Don’t have people to speak Chinese with

When teaching yourself Chinese, it is important for you to find people you can speak Chinese with. Different from reading, writing and listening, speaking is the only activity that is not self-contained. 

Find at least one patient and loyal friend to practice your Chinese with. Husbands or wives may not be so tolerant. 

Speaking Chinese offers many benefits. Topic by topic, you’ll be on your way to Chinese fluency.

There are two things to keep in mind.

  • Don’t give up when people don’t understand you.

It’s not uncommon that a Chinese language learner finds that Chinese people don’t understand him. 

Some students blame the situation to their pronunciations or to the tones. It’s possible, but there can be other explanations, such as the structure of sentences. In these 12 common errors, most of them are structural problems and cause serious understanding problems. 

Don’t give up speaking. Try to improve your pronunciation and try to re-word your sentence.

  • When you don’t understand other people.

Achieve 100% understanding is difficult. Local accents and speaking speeds can be hard to deal with for Chinese language learners.

The only way to understand more is to listen more. However, there is a distinction between lower level students and higher level students. 

Lower level students must have a tight control over the content they are listening to.

Higher level students have more room to listen to variety of sources.

Generally speaking, the more you learn and practice, the better you’ll understand.

No immediate benefit

Many years ago in Hainan, I saw a family of three, father, mother and their lovely little daughter, on a fine huge beach. One foreigner was passing by, and the little girl handed him a sea shell, and said, sweetly, “你从哪儿来啊?” This man took the sea shell, but didn't respond. He didn’t understand her. 

There are people who have stayed in China for more than ten years and don't see the need of learning any Chinese, and there are those who speak Chinese well before they even set their foot in China. 

Sometimes it’s a language problem, sometimes it is not.  

What if the only benefit of learning Chinese is to be able to accept a sea shell from a little girl many years after you start learning Chinese? Is this still worth putting in so much effort? What if you don’t see any chance of talking to any Chinese people at all? 

Despite all these questions, if you’d like to start teaching yourself Chinese when there is no immediate benefit at sight, only for the benefit of self-growth, I think that’s probably the best reason to learn Chinese. 


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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