Teaching yourself Chinese? Take the right approach

If you want to teach yourself some Chinese, it is important to know what you want to achieve.

Sometimes people say:

  • If I have a free month, I’ll concentrate on learning Chinese.
  • If I take an intensive Chinese course, I’ll speak Chinese.
  • If I go to Beijing for a couple of months and study, I’ll speak fluent Chinese.

All sounds good, but none of these are real plans. They either don’t have a goal or have something really vague.

A goal is definable. It can be articulated clearly. I vote for soft goals. But many people set passing HSK tests as their goals. 

No matter what goals you give to yourself, once you have it, when you have a vivid picture of what you achieve, you’ll be able draw up a plan that will help you achieve your goals.

When you’re working on your plan, please consider the following three important factors, which Chinese language learners often neglect.

#1 Choose the right direction

The first part of your plan is to think about how you are going to approach your study.

Let me share a great metaphor first.

A person wanted to get somewhere quickly and he began to run in the dark night. The problem was that he was running in the wrong direction. But running itself kept him feeling comfortable and hoping that he was getting closer.

The moral of the story is that, when the direction is wrong, you’ll never get to where you want to go. 

Since you’re going to do self-study, it is important for you to think it through.

For example, if your goal is to have conversations with Chinese people, do plenty of listening and speaking exercises. The opposite direction is to work on written exercises.

If you want to achieve reading and writing fluency, read and write more Chinese texts. The opposite direction is to study thousands of individual Chinese characters. 

#2 Use the right measurements

We love to use numbers to measure things. For example:

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

Or something like these:

  • 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. 

Let me share another insight with you. It is from Richard Nisbett. In his The Geography of Thought, there is an interesting comparison of English and Chinese:

“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.”

It points out that, to learn Chinese, it's the best to learn through context. Word by word translation or memorising long list of new words do not give the best result.

Therefore, the measurements should not be characters, words, or grammar points, which are meant to make writings coherent or speech clear. But they can 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. 

#3 Review is important

Make sure you include periodical reviews as part of your plan.

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 knowledge.


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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