Self-study Chinese, and study it well!

Self-study is a great way to learn Chinese. It’s cheap and you have the control. But, it’s not guaranteed, because you’re trying to figure out everything all by yourself. 

In fact, self-study students need the best guidance more than anyone else. 

In this article, we point out some pitfalls that will cost you.

Pitfall #1: Reduce the complexity of Chinese

If you’ve ever heard people saying:

  • Learning Chinese is to learn four tones;
  • Learning Chinese characters is to learn stroke orders;
  • After learning 2000 Chinese characters you can read newspapers;
  • Learning thousands of Chinese words enables you to read Chinese novels.

And etc., you know these people are reducing the complexity of Chinese to one or two single categories. That is not a good way to start learning Chinese.

Chinese is the oldest language that is still well and alive today. That means, for over thousands of years, Chinese has gradually accumulated some really unique and interesting features, which make Chinese language more complex than any other languages today, such as pinyin, tones, pronunciation, intonations, Chinese characters, radicals, components, strokes, stroke orders, Chinese grammar or lack of grammatical rules, and so on.

A direct result of reducing the complexity is to make you underestimate the difficulties of learning Chinese and give you a false outlook and unrealistic expectations.

Therefore, when teaching yourself Chinese, it is important to appreciate its complexity and to understand that there isn’t a single method that is going to help you become a fluent Chinese speaker.

Pitfall #2: Not aware of the fifth Chinese language skill

Different from learning phonetic languages, which requires you to master four language skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing, learning Chinese requires you to have the fifth one:

  • Connecting Chinese characters with their pronunciations 

All five skills are important. But many students are not aware the fifth one. 

In Chinese, the same pronunciations can mean so many different things, for example there are 20 meanings of “shi li”. Read them all here: Does “shi li” mean “strength” in Chinese?

Also, the same character can have multiple readings. 

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

If you do not train your fifth language skill, you’ll fall into a labyrinth of webs.

Pitfall #3: Underestimate your strength

Age is a good excuse for some people not to do anything. “I’m too old for this stuff…”

But it is a motivation for others. “At my age, I want to try something I’ve always wanted to do…”

If you belong to the latter, congratulations! However, whether you like it or not, age is going to be a factor that will impact how you learn Chinese. 

When we’re getting older, our brain becomes more efficient but we often feel that our memory is failing us. The most cited problem is “I’ll forget everything in five minutes”.

The good news is that there are tools for adult learners to overcome this difficulty. 

The intangible ones are the ability to to concentrate, to plan, to be persistent, and most important of all, to know what they want.

The tangible ones are effective and applicable learning methods. For example, there are different ways for you to memorise Chinese characters (Read them all here:How to memorise Chinese characters?).

All these tools are your strength and will propel you forward to success.

Many famous people became very good at Chinese as adult learners. There is a recommended reading list (Books about famous foreigners in China) about some of them.

Pitfall #4: Use 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. 

It didn’t work for him. We’re not surprised.

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

Besides phrase books, there are other materials that fall into the same category. 

Don’t just think you are paying a few dollars for these useless materials. You are also paying with your time, i.e., your life. 

Pitfall #5: Overestimate the environment

Your friends or family may say this, “ you don’t have people to speak Chinese with”. 

What they are really saying is that you’re not living in China or are surrounded by Chinese people, so that you don’t have opportunities to speak Chinese, and therefore you won’t make any progress. 

Because they love you, they want to discourage you from wasting your time and money on something useless.

Their mistakes is that they underestimate your resolution and overestimate the physical environment. 

We are a connected world and there are plenty opportunities for you to speak with people, either Chinese people or likeminded students, online. 

Only, keep these two things 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 of Chinese, most of them are structural problems and cause serious understanding problems. 

Don’t give up. Try to re-word your sentence first.

  • When you don’t understand other people.

Achieve 100% understanding is difficult. Local accents and speaking speeds can be hard.

The only way to understand more is to listen more.

For lower level students, listen to more materials that have a tight control over the content. Read more here: Controlled exercises - How lower level students develop listening ability.

For higher level students, listen to a variety of sources. Read more here: Train for exceptional Mandarin listening ability.

If you want to practice reading or writing Chinese, try the latest AI technology, such as ChatGPT, which has proved itself to be a capable interlocutor.

Conclusion: Self-study Chinese cheaply and effectively

Technology has made it easier than ever to teach yourself Chinese cheaply and effectively. With good guidance and effective materials, you’ll see unbelievable results.

At MSL Master, we’ve designed four Mandarin audio courses and six Chinese video courses to help beginners to get started.

Guide on using audio courses:

Guide on using video courses:

If you need some challenges after finishing these courses, come and participate our annual event, Chinese Writing Contest. You’ll have a chance to become a published author, in Chinese language!


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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(852) 9739 8065


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