Self-study Chinese, and study it well!

Self-study is a great way to learn Chinese. The problem is that many students give up not long after they get their feet wet for foreseeable reasons.

Here I want to list some of the common pitfalls faced by many students and recommend some strategies which may help them achieve what they want when teaching themselves Chinese.

I hope this article will save many students lots of unnecessary pain.

Know the real cost of your learning

Taking Chinese lessons with a teacher is expensive. That is a good reason to choose self-study Chinese. Yet many students underestimate the cost of their most valuable asset, time. 

When using time to evaluate the cost, some cheap alternatives become extremely expensive.

For example, you spend $100 on 1000 Chinese audio lessons. The hope is that, once you complete all of the lessons, you will become good at having conversations with Chinese people about most of the topics related to life and work. 

On the money side, that’s very cheap. Each lesson cost ten cents.

On the time side, that’s very expensive. 

Suppose on average each audio lesson is 12 minutes. 1000 lessons will be 12,000 minutes, which is 200 hours. 

If you spend two hours per day to listen to these audio lessons non-stop, you’ll need 100 days just to finish listening all the lessons. That’s just the listening part. 

If you want to achieve the desired result, you must spend time doing some revisions, working on some exercises, speaking some Chinese with a real human being, and probably taking some coffee breaks in the middle of your study. In doing so, these 1000 lessons are going to be dragged out for a long long time. The longer you drag, the less a chance you’ll be able to complete these lessons.

And if, unfortunately, these 1000 lessons are not well structured, the chance for you to retain what you’ve learned from the earlier lessons is very low. That means more time is needed. 

One common scenario is that, after the initial enthusiasm, one day you suddenly find out that you have not done any Chinese study for quite sometime, have not listened to any of the audio lessons or worked on the vocabularies, and, without you knowing it, you have ended your Chinese study. You might comfort yourself, saying, “it’s only $100”, then you’re grossly underestimating how much you have invested. 

$100 for 1000 lessons, or 5000 lessons, is very tempting. We love deals like that. Such a big number for a small price. The hope is always high at the beginning. The only problem is that you don’t have endless time to complete them properly. 

It is like the tens of millions of search results Google always displays. It looks like a great deal, but few of us will ever go beyond page five. 

Another example of heavy time consumption is to use spaced repetition APP for memorising words. 

This type of APP always gives a good start. A few minutes here and there will get you some visible results. But sooner or later you’ll find that the APP’s demand for your time grows exponentially. 

You have to use the APP EVERYDAY, and everyday you must spend a tiny bit of more time to complete the task, until one day you stop.

In the end, you are a human. You have many other things to do besides learning Chinese. But the APP does not know that. The APP thinks you are a machine, and your sole purpose in this world is to memorise those words.

Time is the most valuable thing you have. Thinking about how much time you’ll spend on learning Chinese is crucial for your success. 

There is no quick fix

For many of us, life is “I want it, and I want it now!”

This quick fix mentality is re-enforced everywhere. We are constantly surrounded by headlines like these:

  • Loose 10 pounds in two weeks!
  • Improve your memory in 2 hours!
  • With these pills, you can get stronger bones and joints in just 1 week!

And of course:

  • Speak fluent Chinese in a month!

When think rationally, we all know that these quick fixes are seriously flawed. Yet we WANT to believe the claims are true. 

There is no quick fix in learning Chinese. The real and satisfactory result comes to you from slowness and persistence.

Don’t underestimate the difficulties of learning Chinese

I’ve heard people say, “Learning Mandarin is really easy, as long as you can tell the differences of the four tones.” 

Don’t believe it.

Even tones are more fluid and dynamic than we think. 

Other “learning Chinese is easy” crap includes:

  • Chinese has no tenses
  • Chinese has no verb conjugations
  • Chinese has no plural forms

These claims are all true, but learning Chinese is still very hard! 

Don't be tricked into learning Chinese by a false outlook. 

Be well prepared. 

Set your approach right

The Geography of Thought, written by Richard Nisbett, is an interesting read. It says that Asians and Westerners are so different in so many ways, and they live in literally a very different world. I particularly find the discussion of the language effects intriguing:

“Western languages force a preoccupation with focal objects as opposed to context. English is a ‘subject-prominent’ language. There must be a subject even in the sentence ‘It is raining’. Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, in contrast, are ‘topic-prominent’ languages.”

Students need good insightful discussions like that to direct their learning effort. 

It points out that, to learn Chinese, it's better to learn through context than other alternatives, such as memorising long list of vocabularies or word by word translations.

Know your strength

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. “That is not the method recommended by experts,” he wrote. “The method recommended by experts is to be born a Japanese baby and raised by a Japanese family, in Japan.”

It’s funny and also true. That’s the strength of a baby, by being a baby.

As adult students, your strength comes from somewhere else, from your ability to concentrate, to have a plan, and to follow the plan. 

Millions of people have become very good in Chinese, and they are not raised by Chinese families, in China.

Learning methods matter

It is said that sometimes people want to get somewhere quickly and they run in the dark nights. The problem is that they are running in the wrong direction. But running itself keep them feeling comfortable and hoping that they are getting closer.

This is a great metaphor for learning Chinese.

If you want to have conversations with Chinese people, make sure you do plenty of listening exercises on your own. The opposite direction is to keep working on written exercises.

If you want to achieve reading and writing fluency, make sure you do lots of reading and writing exercises on Chinese texts. The opposite direction is to study thousands of individual Chinese characters. 

Know where to put your effort, and get your learning methods right. 

Have a plan which is implementable

Sometimes people say, 

  • If I have a free month, I’ll concentrate on learning Chinese.
  • If I can take two weeks off, I can learn Chinese.
  • If I go to Beijing for a couple of months and study, I’ll speak fluent Chinese.

All sounds good and ambitious, but none of these are real plans.

Even if all the above claims are turned into reality, which is highly unlikely, you still need to face the next important question.

Then what? 

Are you going to continue your Chinese study after this burst of energy?

How long can you retain your Chinese language skills if you stop?

If these questions are not thought through, and you don’t know what you’re going to do after some intensive Chinese learning, these few weeks or months of learning will be wasted. 

What you really need is a long term plan that can be implemented.

Set your goal

There are many shades of “fluent Chinese”.

Many students learn quickly how to use Chinese to say their names and where they are from. They get quite “fluent” in a few sentences.  

A better “fluent Chinese” can be the ability to engage in day to day conversations, setting up an appointment, buying vegetables in a market, and so on. 

An even better “fluent Chinese” allows students to discuss your life changes, your achievements, and so on. 

The best “fluent Chinese” makes students a master in Chinese language and culture, giving lectures and helping others with their China related issues. 

Before you start learning Chinese, it's important to know where you want to end up.

Can you create a picture in your mind? 

Can you describe your future success in details?

Only you know where you want to go, can you start formulate a road map.

Move forward with small steps

When you are designing your road map to success, make sure you break down major tasks into many many smaller tasks, and each task is achievable within a reasonable time.

It is important for you for focus only on the next small task. Each small task is written down using specific language. For example:

  • Wednesday evening, use 30 minutes to finish a listening exercise in the Work Book.
  • Friday morning, use 10 minutes to read aloud the text while drinking coffee.

Step by step, task by task, you know you’re moving forward. 

Use the right measurements

We love to use numbers to measure things.

  • That house is a ten million dollar house. It is beautiful.
  • That company has ten thousand employees. It is a great company.


  • I have learned 1000 Chinese characters.
  • I memorised 65 new words this week.
  • I studied 20 grammar points last night.

Numbers are useful, but they make no sense without language skills. 

Characters, words, grammar points, all these are meant to make writings beautiful and speech clear. They can not, and should not, replace writings and speeches.

Focusing on accumulating individual Chinese characters, words, or working on grammar drills does not produce quality writings or clear conversations. Only practicing writing and speaking will.

Therefore, the real measurement should be the number of writings you have done, and the number of speeches/conversations you have had. 

These are the big pictures. 

When you’re paying attention to the big picture, small details, like characters, words and grammars will fall into the right places.

Focus on the pounds, and the pennies will take care of themselves.

Pay attention to the five Chinese skills instead of four

Learning Chinese is learning five language skills. They are:

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

Every skill is important. More words are said about the first four language skills than the fifth one, which connects the listening/speaking with Chinese reading/writing. 

This is one of the reasons that Chinese is unique. 

The exact same pronunciations can mean so many things. The only effective way to different all the meanings is to know which characters you are speaking of or listening to. 

It’s like the name John. There are probably hundreds of people named John. Name is just a sound. To know who this sound represents is to know the actual person. 

Don’t overlook the fifth Chinese language skill.

Choose your learning materials

Having sufficient and effective learning materials is important for teaching yourself Chinese, so that you can use your time efficiently to learn Chinese effectively, and step by step, you’ll achieve solid learning results.

At MSL Master, we provide the following learning materials for you to work on:

  • Mandarin audio lessons
  • Mandarin Express Student’s Books & Work Books
  • Chinese Video lessons
  • Chinese Reading and Writing books
  • Chinese Learning Pen
  • Chinese Reading and Writing worksheets
  • A learning journal - Learning Chinese Well Organised

You can do lots of self-study and make good progress. The only missing part, which you can’t work on by yourself, is to improve your speaking skills. The reason is that speaking is not an entirely self contained activity. 

Before you speak, it’s good to know that someone is listening. While you’re speaking, it’s good to know that someone understands you. After you speak, it’s good for you to listen to someone else to speak, so that you’ll know what to speak next. 

To find someone to speak to, you can look into meet-up groups, friends, language exchanges, taxi drivers, restaurant waitresses, or hotel staff. These occasions are all open-ended. It is possible that you’ll be overwhelmed.

If you’re looking for a more confined environment to practice speaking Chinese, join our online tutoring groups. 

In these groups, you’ll be practice speaking Chinese with other students who are at a similar level. You know what you’re expected to say. The only unknown is whether or not you can say it clearly and whether or not you can respond quickly. That’s where the improvements come. 

Why people don’t understand you

Someone said:

“I learned Chinese for about two to three months. One day I went to a restaurant and want to get some water. But the waitress did not understand my Chinese. I was so discouraged. So I quit learning Chinese. Now I only remember a couple of words.”

Story like this seems quite common. At least I’ve heard it many times. It's very discouraging, indeed.

Most people would say that it's the pronunciation that failed students, who didn’t get their tones right. I think it is partly true. The other more important factor is language structures.

When you want some water, instead of saying one single syllable for water, if you say a bottle of water, you’ll probably get what you want, even if you’re a little off on your pronunciation. Structure comes before pronunciation. 

China is a huge country. Chinese people are used to hearing many different kinds of accents/pronunciations. 

As a Chinese learner, you just add some additional flavour to hundreds of existing accents. Chinese people can handle it. 

Why you don’t understand other people

Generally speaking, the more you learn and practice, the better you understand other people. Before you achieve 100% lucid communications, there are three obstacles you’ll face constantly.

  • Vocabulary: people use words you have not learned.
  • Talking speed: people speak quite fast. 
  • Local dialect: people speak a version of Chinese which sounds nothing like putonghua.

There is no easy fix to any of these issues.

I met this problem myself. When I was in Hubei province, I had trouble understanding the locals because they were speaking Hubeihua to me. If this is happening to you, my recommendation is, just give up. 

The only way to overcome the other two difficulties is to keep practicing. 

Dealing with forgetfulness

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.”

I think this is it. 

If you want to memorise more words, or some words in particular, the key is to create different situations for yourself to use these words more often. 

Similar things happen to grammar points as well. If you don’t use them, you won’t remember them.

Review is important

温故而知新”, this is what Confucius taught us. It is saying, “learning news things from reviewing the old.”

This is good advice. Pause a little from time to time and review what you have done. 

In doing so, not only will you find many things are a lot easier, you’ll also find new ways to use old characters/words.

A road of no return

Learning Chinese is just like everything else in life. There will be times that you don’t feel like doing it. 

Take a break, but don’t give up. 

Nurture the habit of learning. 

If you stick to your well designed road map, things can be quite simple, just put one foot in front of the other, and feel good about yourself on every small step you make. 

When you’re truly learning Chinese, there is no going back.

Learning brings you so much joy when you are totally absorbed in it, when you are forgetting many other things that are not related to it, when you are laughing happily at your progress.

At the same time, when you are totally absorbed in it, when you are forgetting many other things that are not related to it, when you are laughing happily at your progress, you know you have enlist yourself to be a slave of its mercy.

What if learning Chinese offers no benefit

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 fairly well after a few years. 

Perhaps the ones who choose not to learn Chinese are more impressive as they have resisted the temptation to speak to the locals in their own language.

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. 

I was in Beijing a few times. Whenever I visited the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, I saw many foreigners there also visiting. However, when I was in other ordinary places, which were also charming in many ways but were not marked as tourist attractions in any guidebook, I saw no foreign visitors. 

Sometimes it’s a language problem, sometimes it is not. Learning Chinese certainly won’t give answers to all these interesting and complex phenomena. 

What if the only benefit of learning Chinese is to be able to accept a sea shell from a little girl and chat for a couple of minutes with her and her family? Is this still worth putting in so much effort to learn Chinese?

What if you don’t see any chance of talking to any Chinese people at all? This is such a good question!

In the end, it is up to you to decide whether or not to learn some Chinese.

If you do, have fun and have a great learning experience! 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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(852) 9739 8065


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