Merely being in China does not guarantee that you will have a good language learning experience. The number of programs in China that offer Chinese language instruction is mind boggling. Some programs are excellent and some are pretty awful.
This post is for the many students, professionals, and travelers in China that are learning Chinese on their own and are not part of a formal language program. By following the advice below, you will be able to make good use of your time learning Chinese independently.
Take advantage of your environment
Being in China is a great advantage to your language learning efforts. You have an instant language learning lab just outside your door. You are surrounded by people speaking Chinese; there are Chinese characters everywhere you turn and you are immersed in a living society where people act and react according to Chinese attitudes and standards. This can be intimidating, but you to be a successful language learner you must be bold. You cannot be afraid to speak and use the language that you have learned. Make it a point to use Chinese whenever you can. Take every opportunity to use Chinese, even if you could use English. You will make mistakes, but hopefully you will learn from those mistakes and improve with every language using opportunity, such as riding trains.
For many it is so easy to hang out with other foreigners, frequent the bars and restaurants where foreigners hang out, and otherwise avoid, sometimes subconsciously, using Chinese.
Be positive and confident
You must believe that you can learn Chinese and use it on a regular basis. If you believe that Chinese is just too hard, then it is a lost cause. Chinese is challenging for the western learner, but it is not impossible. It will take longer to learn than European, cognate languages, but you can learn it. Thousands of Americans have done it. The more confident you are of your abilities and your potential the more likely you will be a successful learner and user of Chinese.
Making specific language goals can be a great motivator. Make daily, weekly, and monthly goals about what kinds of things you want to accomplish. It may be as simple as learning and using a few new vocabulary words each day, or as ambitious as you want to be able to order a Chinese meal on your own by the end of the month. You may also have a goal to read a new newspaper article each week, and talk about it with a Chinese friend or colleague.
Enlist your friends and colleagues
Ask your Chinese friends and colleagues to correct your pronunciation. This will be hard for most Chinese, so be insistent. You may need to really convince them that you want them to do this. You may offer to help them out by correcting their English. Often we go around saying something thinking it is correct only to discover later that you have been saying something wrong all along. This is usually because Chinese will be reluctant to correct your pronunciation. This results in what we call fossilized errors, that is, errors that are difficult to change because we have been making the error repeatedly over time. Chinese may complement you even if you only said two words to them. Don’t let this go to your head. Tell yourself that you need to study harder and that your Chinese is actually pretty poor. In general, Chinese people in China are usually surprised that foreigners can speak Chinese. No matter what you say, they will be impressed.
Repetition is key
Learning a foreign language really involves over learning. That is, you need to practice enough until it comes fairly naturally. Repetition is essential to mastery. The first time you do something in Chinese will probably be fairly difficult; it won’t feel very natural. But the twentieth time you do it, it will feel smooth, normal, and natural. This goes for speaking as well as reading. The more you use or see a word or pattern in context the more likely you will remember it and be able to reproduce it in a correct way.
Use what you have studied
Meaningful learning involves contextualization. That is, you must use the material you have studied in real live situations, whether that be reading a newspaper article or having a conversation with someone. When you learn a new word or grammar pattern, try to use it in your everyday interactions. Using it will help you remember it, especially when it is used in a meaningful context. It is amazing how after learning a new word, you suddenly realize that you are hearing it all around you. When you hear a word used by Chinese around you, try to use it yourself. The more you use the language you have studied the faster it will become a part of your everyday working language.
Use a language learning notebook
Get in the habit of carrying around a small notebook. Jot down things that you see and hear. Write down vocabulary items that you have studied and want to use. Write down characters on a sign that you don’t recognize, or items on a Chinese menu. Later you can look these words up in a dictionary, or ask a friend what they mean. When you encounter a situation that you do not understand, jot down a few notes so you can ask someone later what was going on. This simple notebook can be a great language learning tool.
Be a keen observer
Watch carefully how Chinese interact with each other. Pay attention to what they say and how they say it. Observe how Chinese haggle over prices in a market. Watch how the Chinese greet each other, how they take leave or each other, how they pay for items at a department store, and so on. If you are ever unsure about what to do in a given communicative situation, watch and listen to what the Chinese do, then imitate their behavior. You will not be successful if you think you can just do things the way you do at home, but using Chinese to do it. You must do things the way Chinese people expect people to do things.
There isn’t always an exact English equivalent
Get used to the fact that language learning, especially learning Chinese, that there is often no one-to-one equivalent of words and expressions in English. Rather than asking, how do you say “hi” in Chinese, the better question is “how do Chinese greet each other?” The answer then is, it depends on the situation and your relationship with the other person. Understand and accept that the Chinese do things differently; they say things differently than we do in the US. Ordering a meal in China is done very differently than in the US. Learn to play by the Chinese rules of the game. That is, learn how the Chinese get things done and follow suit.
Reading a text once is usually not enough. I recommend that you read a given text at least three times. The first time, read for the gist; get a feel for what the text is about. The second time, read for details. Try to understand the grammar and vocabulary. The third time, put it all together and hopefully understand the text better. Don’t write pinyin or English above characters in a written text. This will immediately become a crutch. The next time you see that passage you will immediately go to the pinyin and not the characters. It is better to write pinyin for a word or definition on a separate sheet of paper, or maybe in the margin where you can cover it up when you are reading. This allows for a nice neat, and authentic text and fosters real reading and not decoding. The more you read the better you will get. To really master Chinese characters you must use them. Be consistent and try to read something in Chinese everyday.
Flashcards are just a tool
Be careful how you use flashcards. Instead of just writing the English equivalent of Chinese words, write down the word in a Chinese sentence so you better understand how it is used. Just knowing how to pronounce a character and know it’s English equivalent does not guarantee that you will actually be able to use it in an appropriate context. Remember that flashcards are simply a tool. It is important to know what words mean, but to be successful you must be able to use them in the right contexts at the right time. This goes far beyond flashcards.
Consider hiring a tutor
Hiring a tutor can be very beneficial. You can tailor your learning to fit your exact needs and aspirations. More on this later.