How NOT to Learn Chinese

How not to learn Chinese

If you search the web I’m sure you’ll find hundreds of articles written by people that was able to master Chinese language and are willing to explain how they did it. Even this website features several articles on the topic.

This article goes in the opposite direction: here you’ll find the best strategies to NOT learn Chinese. In other words, you’ll find out all the mistakes I’ve done during my six years as a Chinese learner.

If you’re looking for tips on how to learn Chinese or a successful case study, this post isn’t for you. But wait! Don’t leave us so soon! Maybe you can still learn something from my unsuccessful experience. Or at least have a laugh before going back to your pressing matters.

Distance learner

Everything started when I get a European Postdoctoral Fellowship to go to China. The Fellowship looked wonderful, at least on the paper: six months of tailor-made Chinese course at one of the best universities in Beijing plus one year and a half to carry on my research in a Chinese university. It was the perfect chance to learn Mandarin, a language that I always wanted to learn, without losing the track of my carrier.

Having still some months ahead before the start of the program, I decided I could start learning Chinese by myself.

My simple and infallible plan

I’m going to use some apps to study while I’m going to work and, once I arrive at home, I’m going to study a lesson per day of the Pimsleur method.

The result

After a month I gave up without having learned almost nothing. I was able to say “Ni hao,” “pijiu,” “mifan” and “xie xie” (“hi,” “beer,” “rice” and “thanks”). In fact, this was the essential vocabulary I learned on my first trip to China.

The reason

Chinese apps: Have you ever tried to search for “learn Chinese” on Google Play or i-Tunes? There’re hundreds of apps. But are they any good? During my first month of learning I’ve tried about twenty of them, I even paid for some. But they were all useless. Most of the apps available are badly designed and oriented to teach some stupid sentences to travelers. They want to be a marketable quick fix, not really teach to you.

As I said, after a month I was completely frustrated and on my way to the office I started to read the Spanish newspaper again.

If you are interested in finding good apps there’s no need to spend time and money trying thousands of silly apps as I did, just read this article about the best apps I’ve been able to spot during the last four years.

Pimsleur method: The Pimsleur method is based on audio lessons without any written material. The theory beyond this method is that when we learn a second language and we read we tend to read it as it’s our mother language and this is a barrier to acquire fluency.

I was only able to go through the first lesson, I tried the second lesson like twenty times but I fell asleep every time after the first five minutes. Why? The Pimsleur method is terribly boring to me. I’m not saying it can’t work for you; what I’m saying is that you shall find the course that best suits your personal way to learn.

Having said that, I do think that Pimsleur method is especially not adequate for Chinese learning as it’s almost impossible to understand the logic behind the Chinese language without taking characters into consideration.

Some people would tell you that kids learn to speak Chinese only by listening. Even if this is not completely true as they learn also by interaction with the environment, I’m not a kid and my brain is not an “empty dashboard”. Also, a kid usually spends 5-10 years of full-time engagement to be fluent. I’m sorry but I don’t have the patience and the time to spend 5 years listening to the Pimsleur audios… do you?

So I moved to Beijing only knowing four words in Chinese.

Full-time student

“Six months studying Mandarin full-time in China… I’d never spent that much time to learn a language… Bah! I’ll be fluent before I end the course,” I thought.

I couldn’t be more wrong.

The tailor-made course

What? Are you talking about the untested-and-complete-failure learning method? Yes, because the method was based on a bunch of “innovative” principles that were maybe fancy but, at the same time, terribly wrong.

Personalized course in small groups

It looks fantastic on the paper! But what happens if you put a German, two Italians and a Spanish person in the same classroom? Will they speak Chinese among them? Maybe in your dreams: the reality is that you’ll be lucky if they speak English instead of Spanish.

It won’t be better to share the class with three Koreans, two Japanese and one Russian than don’t speak any English? Yes, it would, because in this case, their only common language would be the Chinese that they are all learning together. And they would all end up speaking Chinese within them.

I? I was speaking Italian or English all the time. Luckily I don’t speak German!

Tailor-made course for researchers

It’s so useful to learn specific vocabulary such as “Ph.D. thesis” or “Laboratory” when I’m not even able to say “I’m hungry”. You can learn the technical vocabulary quite fast once you have strong basics. But in the beginning it makes absolutely no sense.

Moreover, what “specific vocabulary” have in common an architect, a lawyer, a chemist, and a biologist? Yes, we are all European and researchers. So let’s learn in Chinese how to say:

“In order to avoid the degradation of the marine ecosystem due to chemical waste, the law states that is not allowed to build any industrial facility at less than 50 kilometers from the coastal line.”

OK… what if instead, we start by learning “where is the restroom?”

One year in six months

If you ask “How long it takes to learn Mandarin?,” most of the experienced Chinese teachers will tell you that it takes normally a year of full-time commitment to acquire a good competence of the Chinese language.

But this was a revolutionary Chinese course so why shall we waste a year when we can do it in six months? How to do so? It’s simple: You won’t lose time learning pinyin for weeks, one day it’s more than enough. Write characters? There’s no need if you can more or less read them it’s enough. Tones? Learn the tones by words is unnatural for Western people, it is better to learn them in a sentence altogether.

If you’ve never learned Chinese before, you may think what I just stated is reasonable. However, if you’re learning Chinese you know it’s complete bullshit. There’re no shortcuts.

Let’s take as an example the pinyin. Learning pinyin for weeks has a double purpose: first, learning the mandarin’s phonetic transcription, and second, train our ears and mouth to the few sounds of Mandarin. Without proper training, nobody of us could get the difference within the different Chinese sounds.

Somebody may argue that pinyin is unnatural phonetic transcription and the Wade–Giles transcription it’s better because is straightforward. This may be true at the beginning and if you’re an English native speaker, but I’m Spanish and the Wade-Gales seems to me as unnatural as pinyin. Much more important, the pinyin is the official transcription and you’ll need to learn it sooner or later because it’s used on the best textbooks, it’s necessary to write Chinese characters on your computer or cellphone, and so on.

Learn the tones in a sentence is nothing else than made up theory. In fact, it means not to learn tones at all. In a language where there aren’t many different sounds (Mandarin only has a few hundreds sounds), tones are critical. If your mother language doesn’t have any tones you’ll need a lot of training before to be able to feel the difference and pronounce them. Learn them in a sentence it is impossible at the beginning, as you’ll get confused with strange sounds going up and down. Studying them separately word by word is the only way I see.

I’ve heard countless times that “Learn to write characters is a complete waste of time, it’s much more efficient to just be able to recognize them.”

Our fantastic Chinese course had the same philosophy so our training on writing characters only lasted one hour in six months (we got an introduction to strokes and the concept of radical). Again, this is a quick fix that in the long term becomes a problem for two reasons. First of all, you’ll remember better and for a longer time a character if you know how to write it. Also, as your Chinese level improves you’ll find more and more similar characters with similar pronunciation but different meanings. If you don’t know the structure of a character and how to write it, it becomes really easy to mix them up. An example? The characters “请,” “清,” “青,” “,情” look very similar and they are all pronounced “qing” (although with a different tone).

Change teacher every two weeks to get used to different accents

This was probably the most annoying part: a good teacher has a long-term plan and modifies it accordingly to the weakness and strong points of his students. In our case the teacher couldn’t have a plan at all, he/she had to stick to the shitty learning material (sorry, tailor-made) and when started to be familiar with the students had to change to another class.

The result

After spending six months studying Mandarin full-time, I was barely able to order my food in a restaurant.

At that time, the only though it came to my mind was “What the fuck?”

Ok, I could blame the fantastic and innovative course for my failure, but I also contributed myself. After more than five years working as a slave to get my Ph.D., coming to China was my opportunity to have the exchange student experience I never had before (yes, I missed the Erasmus, shame on me).

I think you can imagine that parties, hang out mainly with foreigners and tons of alcohol is not the best combination to get good results in your studies, especially when it comes to a language like Chinese, which requires an extra effort after the lessons.

However, I’m stubborn and after this great failure I didn’t give up. I was ready to keep on (not) learning Chinese.

how not to learn chinese

Working in a Chinese university

After my “highly successful” experience in a Chinese university, unfortunately, I had to leave behind my dream of being an exchange student forever and I had to start doing something a bit more useful. Working, for example!

So I started to work as a researcher in one of the top Chinese universities.

My first day at work was as I expected: most of the people in the lab were too shy to speak with me while some of them tried to welcome me with their broken English.

“Their spoken English isn’t that good, this is going to be a great excuse for improving my Chinese,” I thought.

I couldn’t be more wrong. It was always the same. Someone would come and ask a weird question to me, such as:

“What do you eat in Spain? Hamburgers and pizza?” The question would take forever because my interlocutor had to think every word for about five minutes.

I’d try to answer in Chinese… Blank face.

I’d then try to answer in English, using the most common words I could come up with… Even more blank face.

He/she’d try to ask again the same question to me while, to make things worse, somebody would start to laugh behind us.

He/she’d turn red, give up and fly away.

After a few days like this, all my colleagues have given up and didn’t try to speak with me anymore. Not only that, they started to avoid me. This was the beginning of my autistic period in China.

“Cool!” I thought, “My Chinese will improve so much if I won’t speak with anybody!”

“I really need Chinese lessons!”

And this is when I started to attend Chinese lessons every night after my work.

Chinese private school

Studying Chinese in a private school in China is easy and cheap. I teamed up with four of my fellows from the European program (see part one of this articles’ series for more info about the program), we walked to one of the hundreds of private schools in Beijing and within five minutes they opened a new Chinese course for us. No kidding: there was no level test nor other questions at all. We just picked up a random book, something about “spoken Chinese intermediate level.”

If I think backward, we probably ruined the promising career of our first Chinese teacher. She was an extremely motivated master student with no previous experience teaching. The problem is that we were a bunch of – supposedly intermediate level – students completely out of any standards. She probably thought:

“They can’t write a single character, they struggle to read a simple text and their pronunciation is terrible. However they can make complicated sentences using technical vocabulary (again, see part one). If this is not enough, they never do their homework and often miss the lessons. What I’m supposed to do?”

This was too much for her and after a couple of months, she lost all her motivation. I also think she started to feel some pressure from the school because none of the new students that joined our class stayed for more than two days.

How could they? We probably were the worst class in Beijing. I mean, we were funny, but learning Chinese with us was basically impossible.

After finishing the first book… OK, let’s say after going through the first book and learning less than 10% of its content, we decided we’d better start the book again. Yes, the perfect excuse for our teacher to leave us.

And then the miracle happened…

The teacher that came afterward was excellent. I have to acknowledge that if I learned some Chinese is thanks to her. She managed to increase our motivation and I even started to do my homework and review the new vocabulary using flashcards.

But good things never last long. When we finished the book again, the school decided that our teacher should teach pinyin to a bunch of Korean students recently landed in Beijing.

The school assigned us a much more experienced teacher or, in other words, a “burned” teacher. Yes, this is what happens if you work ten years in a private school that pays you around thirty Yuan per hour and you need to teach at least eight hours per day to earn a decent salary.

I don’t blame her; I’m sure that in the past she was a good teacher. But she didn’t give a fuck about the lessons, it was more like talking in a bar with some friends than an actual lesson. With my life getting busier and busier because of my job, I started to lose motivation, and went to the class less and less, until I finally gave up.

Full immersion

At the same time I gave up the private school, most of my international friends started to go back to their home countries. So I went into the next phase of my master plan to NOT learn Chinese. Swim or sink!

Suddenly, I was hanging out with only Chinese people. So I started to practice the language much more. Also, I switched from Anki to Skritter in order to correct an old problem that was keeping me behind: I wasn’t able to write any Chinese characters.

The result?

My English became awful. In fact, I believe that now I speak a language that may be classified between Chinglish and Spanglish.

Do I speak Chinese?

I would be completely retarded if after four years studying Chinese I wouldn’t be able to speak Chinese. Also, the period I spent in full immersion helped me a lot. So yes, I do speak Chinese.

I do have horrible grammar and my vocabulary is quite basic, but I’m almost always able to say what I want and be understood by a trained listener (yes, I need to train them before they start to understand my Chinese). I’m also able to talk about work almost without using any English words. I’m even started to learn how to chemically formulate in Chinese.

But, what I’m really proud of is my listening ability, as I can follow most of the conversations between Chinese people. Well, it’s not so difficult if you consider that they always end up talking about the same topics: work pressure, buying a house, getting married and make money.

The lessons I learned

Even if it took me more that three thousand words, what I wanted to communicate to you is quite simple:

  • Never go for a tailor-made or innovative Chinese language program unless you really really really trust your teacher. Classical courses are usually much better.
  • Immersion is essential.

That’s all!

p.s. I have to apologize for my small lie on the title: I did manage to learn a bit of Chinese, but in my defense, I have to say that the cost was that I lost my ability on communicating in English, Italian and, to some extent, even on my mother language, Spanish. It was worthy? We’ll see, we’ll see…

Photo Credits: Photos by Sapore di Cina

10 thoughts on “How NOT to Learn Chinese”

  1. NI HAO!

    I enjoyed reading this so much!!
    When I first moved to Shanghai in 2012 for a job I got so lost in the “Chinese learning” app jungle! And so frustrated about myself – that I couldnt event manage to learn and use simple phrases in my daily life in Shanghai.

    After quitting my job I committed to studying full-time mandarin in 2014. I was so confused about whether to choose university or private school. I now study at Jiao Tong University and I really enjoy it. In less than two months I have learned sooooo much, yet I know sooooo little – very interesting feeling. I enjoy it, I feel like I am learning every day and at the moment I just work on myself and my confidence in order TO SPEAK MORE DURING THE EVERYDAY LIFE. Im surrounded by Chinese people here so not sure why it is sooo difficult for me. I definitely recognize what you write in regards to the class room language…..English, french – I even speak my native language Danish with the Swedish guy in my class.

    Anyways I cant wait to see how it is going with you Chinese, is there an update coming up soon?
    Great blog! I blog to – about habits and staying healthy & happy while living, studying and working in Shanghai:


    1. Thanks for the large comment, the second part is coming soon but maybe a bit more late than expected : ) just as a preview, next one I’ll talk about private schools and language full immersion.

  2. Reading your experience I just cannot refrain from leaving a comment. The post makes a day for me tonight. I used to be a loser learning Italian in Italy (yes IN Italy!) and I still I cannot accept that! After almost four years working for a PhD like a slave learning to how to be both an outsider and an insider(sort of) within noisy Italians, I still believe some day I must go back there once again to learn that attrative language full-time!

      1. :D Anche per me il blog di Sborto! So anche alcune informazioni utili sul vostro sito seppure sono una cinese a Shanghai. mi piacciono!

    1. Hi, I completely understand. Don’t give up with Italian as I didn’t give up with Chinese. The funny thing is that my frustration with Chinese comes mainly because I’ve learnt Italian (not so good) without any effort…

      1. haha, thanks! I won’t. maybe I just need to turn to Japanese (maybe, not that easy for you) for some confidence.

  3. Excellent ! The picture you described to us , it’s So true , so funny ! Exactly what I’m feeling just after 4 weeks class ..we did not even learn any survival kit , real situation ! Some vocabulary that I will never use for sure , it’s exactly like we gona learn chinese for ages . What a f…. Lol ! I decided to learn what I need , daily bases , basic verb…I will not do a master degree but at least I can order my food :)
    xie xie

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