Teaching myself Mandardin Chinese

My best advice for anyone interested in learning Chinese is simple, have someone teach you when are 4 years old…

Okay fine, now I know what your thinking. Shit I missed the window, now it’s going to be way harder. And your correct. Especially if you suck at learning languages, which people say isn’t a thing, but is definitely a thing (or at least I would consider myself as one of those people).

So how did I teach myself reasonable- err- passable, mandarin over the last 3-4 years, while also doing a PhD? The answer is pretty simple, I just spent a bunch of time practicing. The truth was I had plenty of free time during my PhD and one of the things I decided to fill it with was trying to teach myself mandarin (as well as a basketball superstar, but I’ll leave that for a separate post).

Okay great, so practice a lot, sounds easy enough right? Unfortunately, and this is very obvious to me in hindsight, it is pretty easy to get wrong. Especially when you factor in two realities of learning a language (and learning just about anything).

  1. It’s easier to practice things you are already kind-of good at, and harder to practice the things your the worst at.

  2. You’ll only actually get better in the things and areas that you practice at.

So for me, as I was learning mostly on my phone with different flashcard apps and whatnot, that area was reading. Going from written Chinese to English. So here I was blasting away, in my head like- damn my Chinese is so good, I’ve been hitting the flashcards an hour a day for weeks. Then I show up at a gathering of Chinese friends and I can’t understand a damn word. Not only that, but when I try to talk half the time they’ll ask me to repeat whatever I said.

The reason why was pretty obvious. I had been neglecting practicing listening. As in, really active, difficult listening, the kind of practice which at the time for me was really mentally exhausting (because I still sucked at it).

So I changed things up and found what helped me the most there was a series of podcast style- audio only lessons (called ChinesePod, they are great, but not free). This let me practice directly the area I was weakest in, as listening was the only option to understand what was going on. Also, it was nice (is nice, I still use it, I don’t know why I’m using the past tense) because the lessons incorporated in other grammar and vocab pieces. And- it also helped my speaking more too, as listening and speaking are more directly related, i.e., you can hear yourself speak.

The other obvious takeaway which is hard to ignore is that I probably would have benefited a lot from formal classes. I mean, I was lucky enough to share a house with a native Mandarin speaker for a few years, as well as share an office with a native Cantonese (but still better than mine Mandarin) speaker, who were both immensely helpful, in giving me someone to talk to, but also occasional feedback. But- I can’t help but think that I would have avoided a lot of the pitfalls I made learning myself in a more formal course, or series there of.

If for some reason anyone reading this has been inspired to try and learn themselves, I want to share more specifically about the different ways I’ve learned over these past few years.

  • General background and getting started, I used Duolingo. It was alright, I found it just a helpful way of getting started back when I was really first starting. I think I completed the full course at the time in 70 hours, and learned a bit of random bits and pieces of useful things. The gamification was definitely nice when I was first getting started as well as the grammar lessons.

  • Learning to read, and understand written Chinese through an app called DuChinese (which means read Chinese). This was an awesome way to get started as it has short stories and lessons, along with audio, and a bunch of very beginner friendly content. It then has an interface to save words, which you can then practice as flashcards.

  • Vocab, with dictionary app Pleco. First of all it’s just an awesome dictionary app, so essential to learning, having a resource to just look up any word you don’t know. The other piece is that with my DuChinese flashcards, I could only save words that appeared in one of their stories, so by the time I outgrew their hardest content, I made the switch to having my flashcards through Pleco, so that I could save and practice words from any source- and it is still my go to place to save and practice new vocabulary. Right now I have 4442 flashcards saved in Pleco, and in DuChinese used to have about 6000.

  • Practicing listening, I already talked about this, but man was it important, I used a service called ChinesePod. They have some other resources besides audio postcast style lessons, but I only really used the podcasts. I love them, they have been so helpful for actually understanding when people speak, and I still use their lessons.

  • Watching Chinese TV shows (and movies, but for me mostly tv shows). You name a cdrama, regardless of quality, and I’ve probably seen it. Now, my approach to watching Chinese TV shows wasnt exactly most optimal, what I mean is that I regularly use English subtitles while watching them. For me, watching those shows was always done as a low effort activity, just to gain most exposure to the sounds of spoken mandarin and chinese culture in general. I also occasionally watch shows in a more active way, turning off subtitles and treating it similarly to the listening practice, or leave just Chinese subtitles on, and practice a mix of reading and listening, which can be great. But I still wouldn’t underestimate just popping on shows with English subtitles during all the times when you are too tired to actually practice.

  • Hang out with Chinese people. This ones pretty obvious, but has been essential. Just make Chinese friends and talk to them, talk to their friends. You might even have a good time.

  • Read a Chinese book. This was always a goal for me early on, I just thought it would be so cool to be able to read a novel in Chinese. So I did. And man was it slow going, but also an awesome experience. I’d catch myself sometimes just reading naturally, caught up in the story, forgetting for a second that I was reading in another language… And other times I’d have to copy paste half the words in a sentence into my dictionary app to try and figure out even kind of what happened.

  • Change your phone to Chinese. Yeah, why not, right? I don’t know if it’s helpful, but its sure forced me practice at times I really, really didn’t want to.

I’m probally missing a lot, but that’s fine. I’ll surely make more posts in the future on learning Chinese as it’s something I like to do, and don’t really get the chance to talk about much.