Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learn to speak Mandarin fluently in 6 months

I've got good news and bad news for you.
  • The good news is you are about to discover something really interesting about yourself and your attitude to learning Mandarin.
  • The bad news is that people simply cannot learn Mandarin in 6 months.
I'm guessing that when you clicked on the article, probably based on the title of this posting, you had one of three things in mind.

Three Types of Reader

1. Already fluent in Chinese (or at least on the way there)

You probably surfed over here to give me a piece of your mind! You were going to tell me that it's impossible, that I was misleading people, and that you were going to be unsubscribing from my blog.

Don't worry, I agree with you. I already commented on someone else's blog to this effect, and they were only promising native-level speaking in a year. On 10 minutes a day!

2. Still learning, probably still struggling

You're making progress, but not as fast as you'd like. You probably came here to learn something - just in case you were missing a trick. You know it's hard to learn Chinese, but if maybe there was something you could do to speed things ...

3. Not yet started (or only just begun)

Perhaps you're still a bit naive about how much effort it will take to learn Chinese. That's not a bad thing - I think we all have misconceptions about the challenges your journey will offer. You came here because you're keen to learn Chinese, and a 6 month time investment is about what you're prepared to put in.

The Truth about learning Chinese

The reality is you can't learn to be fluent in Chinese as quickly as six months. You can make good progress though, and have basic conversations, but you won't be fluent. And of course there's reading & writing, which is another challenge altogether!

(I'm ignoring the statistical anomalies of a person who moves to China, and spends 6 months, morning until night, learning Chinese. If you are that person, then this post isn't for you :-)

There were two things that got me thinking about this:
  • I was listening to music using the Spotify app, and randomly typed 'mandarin' into the search bar. One of the items which came up was a track which claimed to feed you subliminal messages which would allow you learn Chinese. Honestly.
  • Also, there has been lots said about the Heisig method of learning to read & write Chinese. This is an impressive method, and I've learned (with 90%+ recall) about 850 characters in the last 40 days. Heisig's book certainly offers a short-cut, but lots of work is still involved ... it's no miracle
I think people should know what they're facing when they set out to learn Chinese. It's not easy - but it's one of the most rewarding things I've done.  

Ultimately, it's about learning a skill that you will use forever. So does it really make a difference if it takes 6 months, or 6 years? You will be progressing all the time - it's not even clear to me what I mean by "take x years" ... after all, how will I know when I get there?  And will I really be much worse 3 months before I get to there.

Efficiency in your efforts

Of course, you can waste time while you're on the way to fluency. I've done a bit of a brain dump of things that are "smart" - but would love to get your comments below on what you have found.
  • Don't waste time. Listen to podcasts while travelling to & from work or school. And while getting dressed in the morning. 
  • Don't waste space. Maybe you could label your furniture around your house in Chinese. Even if you don't try, it's going to go into your brain.
  • Wordpacks. I've made some suggestions how I learn vocab which gives you more bang for your buck. You can see all related posts here.
  • If you're learning to read or write Chinese, the Heisig approach listed above is a great time-saver. Here was my latest post on the topic when I wrote this.
  • Change direction. If you're tired of listening to podcasts, then learn to read some more characters. If your head is full from that, read a blog or two about learning Chinese.
  • Listen to Mandarin music - traditional or pop. I am currently listening to Wong Faye.
OK, so it's going to take more than 6 months.  But it would be a pity to wake up in 6 months time, re-read this post, and realise that you're no closer to fluency than you are right now.

So do something. How far can you get in the next 6 months?

I'd love to hear from you - leave a comment below. Please.


  1. good post: I think there is perhaps one element missing.

    Eventually the study dissapears, if I walk to work instead of taking a car or bus am I excercising and training to improve my fitness? Or am I just enjoying a walk and saving money?

    Recently I read a book, watched a film and had some interesting coversations, my Chinese improved but that wasn't work or study in the conventional sense.

    I would say six months is enough to move you into this more enjoyable stage if you really push, you will be far from fluent though.

    This rambling post from 2007 is my first attempt to explain after I have finished researching my Hesig post I will attempt a less rambling explanation....

  2. Greg, here are my 2 cents ;-)

    1. Nationalities play a key factor here. For Japanese and Korean students, due to the similarities in the written form, as well as some of the sounds, students from these two countries seem to be able to pick up the language much faster! (I have a Korean student who started as a complete beginner, but by the end of our first 50min lesson, he can already have a basic conversation with me, and progressed amazingly fast from then on, too. He hasn’t reached his 6 months milestone yet, but I have very little doubt that he will appear to be ‘fluent’ in most situations by then)

    2. The key to keep the motivation going is to make the learning ‘relevant’ to the individual. Find the content, the topics, the style, the method that fits who you are, which are relevant to your life, learn about what you are naturally interested in, these can all help to keep you motivated. The experience is much more enjoyable & rewarding if you can learn structure of Chinese grammar, practice the different tones, build your vocabularies knowing that you can immediately apply your newly acquired skill in your daily life!

    3. Mix different ways to be immersed in a ‘Chinese’ ambience. The idea is to get use to the sound, train the mouth muscle to be comfortable pronouncing the words, be brave and practice speaking Chinese whenever you can, even to yourself! Reward yourself with your progress by trying some yummy treats – Chinese egg tarts, bubble drinks, etc!

    Learning any language is a lifelong pursuit, the definition of ‘fluency’ depends on individual’s goal. Chinese may not be the easiest language to learn, but like you said, it’s a rewarding journey, and there are plenty of ways to make the journey fun and enjoyable!

    Chris made an excellent point, even if it doesn't feel like hard work, you are definitely still learning. I would even add, especially when it doesn’t feel like hard work, you are actually learning, and more often than not, you will absorb and make more lasting improvement!

  3. @shou1zhong1wen2 I am not surprised about Japanese and Koreans learning faster but would guess it is more about being used to hearing Chinese than the writing (even if they can't speak it yet). Also Korean 'borrows' many words from Chinese.

    I am guessing that many Asians will be far more used to the sound of other Asian languages than Westerners will be in the same way that Europeans are used to the sounds of other European languages and know a few words even if they haven't studied them.

    As a reverse example I have a Chinese friend who likes watching Korean TV drama series, she swaps the DVD's with her friends. Many are dubbed in Mandarin but many just have Chinese subtitles. She has listened to a lot of Korean even though she does not study it.

    Until recently English poeple would never have watched a Chinese film with English subtitles and even if they did it would almost certainly have been Cantonese (most English people think the sound of Chinese is Cantonese).

    Japanese is different a number of English people would have watched Japanese anime anime subtitled in English and classic Japanese movies such as "Seven Samurai". I have just started learning Japanese seriously and even right at the beginning I feel I have a clear three month advantage at least over when I started Chinese. I know what Japanese sounds like and I know a few words I can pick out from when I studied Judo and Karate, words for start, stop, teacher etc. When I studied Kung Fu they did not use Mandarin Chinese words, as far as most English are concerned Kung Fu came out of Hong Kong from the likes of Ip Man and Brue Lee ;).

    It is an old post, but I tried to explain this a couple of years ago in (very bad) Chinese

    I stopped blogging in Chinese because it didn't help me much at the time, I think I am almost ready to start again soon though.

  4. Hey Chris. Those are some interesting thoughts, and I really enjoyed the post you referred to.

    My first year or two of learning Chinese, looking back now, feels very little. I made almost no effort - although I did listen to podcast every day for 20-30 minutes. Sometimes I paid attention, sometimes I didn't. But I was plugged in habitually. By avoiding the memorising, and the grammer studies, Mandarin was never an effort. Never something I felt I "had" to do or else I was letting myself down.

    And without effort, the words started to stick. Sentences became natural. I looked forward to the next Chinespod episode like others look forward to their daily soap opera.

    So right from the beginning I enjoyed my learning. Which is partly why, 3 years later, I'm still doing it, and still enjoying it. If I had studied harder I could be further - but I might have "shocked" the system so that I might have quit.

    And as I type this, Mandopop plays in the background. At one stage it was just music - but each time I listen, I understand more. Fantastic!

  5. Sheila, thanks for your carefully-though-out post, you raise some great points.

    You are right in that I was referring to Westeners learning to speak Chinese. As with Chris, I have a Chinese friend who learned Japanese by watching Japanese soap opera, with Chinese subtitles.

    In terms of the relevance point, again I agree completely. In fact, I think this is such an important point that I wrote a post about it called Why a meal is worth more to me than my grandmother.

    But I think the *most* important point you make is ... you should DEFINITELY reward yourself with bubble tea on a regular basis! :-)

  6. I think for me the most important part of learning, is being motivated and WANTING to learn. By wanting to learn you open yourself upto many different methods, and welcome others input.

    I think you are right though, it is important to be doing something rather than nothing to achieve the goal.

    Fluency is probably quite subjective, I have a friend who lived in China speaking no English where possible for 2 years. However they still cannot write Chinese at all.

  7. My wife and I have been language teachers for over 20 years, I teach English she teaches Chinese. We've seen techniques and claims come and go and sometimes comeback again, but these are our observations of how effective language learners learn.

    The best way of learning any language is frequent practice using whole phrases and sentences, and reflecting on what you are learning.

    Frequent is more important that total time spent. i.e 4 one-hour sessions per week is more beneficial than 1 five-hour session.

    Whole phrases and sentences are important because you need to get a feel for the syntax of the language. This should be a priority over pure grammar (still important though especially at pre-intermediate and above) and vocabulary lists.

    Reflecting on what you are learning embeds the patterns and words into your memory. This is sometimes called "deliberate practice", presumably to distinguish it from rote practice (good for short-term, bad for long-term).

  8. Charlie, regarding your friends in China. I understand they might not be able to write Chinese, but hopefully they can at least read the obvious stuff. Even when I'm only in China for a week, I automatically pick stuff up - just because I'm constantly surrounded by it!

  9. Medlock xian sheng, thanks for your comments.

    Your observation about full sentences is really striking a chord with me, because as I learn to read Chinese, I'm constantly aware of the huge gab between knowing 1000 hanzi, and being able to understand sentences when most of them appear as part of compound words.

    One of the things I'm doing at the moment is using a publicly available Anki set called "20,000 mandarin sentences". The first 50-100 felt like a struggle -especially since I was new to learning to read. But the more I do, the more natural sentences are growing on me. And as I listen to podcasts again, I'm noticing how things just *feel* more natural.

    I think one of the reasons for Chinese being so difficult to learn is because of the sentence structure - it's just not natural to a Western ear. But the more I expose myself :-) the more comfortable I feel.

    Thanks for your insight based on decades of teaching experience!

  10. Thanks for your sharing.
    I have Chinese learning website - Learn a Chinese charater a day. Currently I have 100 characters at my site.
    If you are keen to learn how to write Chinese, check it out at

  11. Upon reading Teoh's post, I realised something really important about how my attitude to learning Chinese has changed in the last couple of months.

    (The site linked to is really good, take a look when you get a moment.)

    Anyway, I used to "challenge" myself with a character a day. I tried websites which offered a new character a day, emails which sent new mails each day, a page-a-day hanzi desk calendar, etc.

    I can honestly say that there were many days when I didn't bother reading the new character, and of those I read, I probably could only remember a quarter of them. Maybe less.

    But since going on Heisig, I'm goal-orientated. I want to learn one or two dozen characters a day. My recall is high, and I revise regularly. Just would character a day would frustrate me right now!

    BUT I know that you (yes 'you', the person reading this sentence now) may not be there. For me it was OK at one stage to learn one or two new hanzi a week, and that's a lot better than NO new ones.

    But you might suddenly change gear. You might want to learn lots more. You'll know it when it happens. It's awesome.

  12. Good post! Well organized and highly logical:-p
    I now know that one day your mandarin will be as good as mine!
    (“更上一层楼”is from a Chinese poem.
    The full line is:欲穷千里目,更上一层楼.It means: To enjoy a grander sight, climb to a greater height.
    The translation is quoted from:

    It is now used a lot as a wish that people would make progress/achieve more/get to a higher level in something. For example by quoting this poem line I wish you would get to a even higher level in learning Chinese. )


  13. Xie xie XY. Wo ken ding yao ti gao wo de zhong wen.

  14. Ah, a fellow Faye Wong fan! As I read this post from my Google Reader, I'm listening to her Fable album. I'm a huge fan of hers. Like Greg said, once it was just music, but now I'm starting to understand bits of what used to be a confusing, alien language (even the pinyin used to scare me) to me. It's very motivating! Unfortunately, my husband doesn't feel the same way, and he's "wussing out" on Japanese. Haha...

    In any case, this was a very good post. I've just started learning Mandarin (I'm about 3 weeks in) and I feel I'm making relatively good progress. I do have a background in Japanese (4 semesters worth, but self taught), so I'm not sure how much of an impact that is making. My idea of how long it will take me to be fluent is "as long as it takes." Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've been telling myself "about two years," but I know that entirely depends on me.

    You blog motivated me to order the Heizig books, so hopefully in the coming weeks, I'll be able to share how I'm coming along with those.

  15. Kitty, thanks for your post. I love your "as long as it takes" comment!

    Good luck with Heisig - I reached 1000 characters today, and it feels awesome. Will take a week or two to go back and do lots of revision - because it's less about reaching the end, than what I actually bring with me to the end.

    Let me know when the book arrives and you get going. I hope you're listening to lots of podcasts too.

  16. To Kitty/Greg,
    I like Faye Wong too. :-p
    Some of the lyrics of her songs are easy to understand, such as 《红豆》,《人间》。
    The lyrics of some of Faye Wong's songs are a little bit "stream-of-consciousness",for example《寒武纪》,《脸》。
    Note that there is one song 《但愿人长久》which uses an Song-Dynasty Chinese poem as the lyric.
    Her special lyric writer is called “林夕”,which can be viewed as "梦(dream)" when you put 林 on the top and 夕 at the bottom. 林夕's writing style is very beautiful, poetical and freewheeling. In conclusion, please don't feel depressed when you don't understand what the lyric means after looking into the dictionary for hours.

  17. Thanks for the pointers on which of Wong Faye's songs I should focus on. Will definitely go back to those tracks. Do you know Rene Liu (刘若英)? I find her lyrics relatively easy to follow - certainly compared with some of the other stuff I've heard.

  18. You are welcome. Rene Liu is not one of my favorite, but I know her songs, such as 《后来》。
    We can do a test to see your understanding level on two separate songs of Rene Liu and Faye Wong:
    PartA-《后来》-刘若英(Rene Liu)
    词:施人诚 曲:玉城干春 编曲:王继康
    后来 我总算学会了 如何去爱
    可惜你 早已远去 消失在人海
    有些人 一旦错过就不再

    桅子花 白花瓣 落在我蓝色百褶裙上
    “爱你” 你轻声说
    我低下头 闻见一阵芬芳
    那个永恒的夜晚 十七岁仲夏 你吻我的那个夜晚
    让我往后的时光 每当有感叹

    总想起 当天的星光
    那时候的爱情 为什么就能那样简单
    而又是为什么 人年少时
    在这相似的深夜里 你是否一样 也在静静追悔感伤
    如果当时我们能 不那么倔强

    现在也 不那么遗憾
    你都如何回忆我 带着笑或是很沉默
    这些年来 有没有人能让你不寂寞
    后来 我总算学会了 如何去爱
    可惜你 早已远去 消失在人海
    有些人 一旦错过就不再

    你都如何回忆我 带着笑或是很沉默
    这些年来 有没有人能让你不寂寞
    后来 我总算学会了 如何去爱
    可惜你 早已远去 消失在人海
    有些人 一旦错过就不再
    后来 我总算学会了 如何去爱
    可惜你 早已远去 消失在人海
    有些人 一旦错过就不再
    有一个男孩 爱着那个女孩

    PartB-《人间》-王菲(Faye Wong)




    Pre-conclusion of the test:
    I guess after reading these two lyrics you would say that Rene's lyric is easier to follow. This is probably because her songs tend to depict a story, and the story language might be plain and easy to follow.
    If you find it helpful, then of course you could try listening to Rene's songs as much as you can.

    I would say that lyrics of Chinese songs would impact your Chinese more on the "emphasizing certain word/expression" than "telling you a perfect Chinese story". Here are two examples.
    Example A: 张宇《都是月亮惹的祸》
    In this song, 张宇 keeps repeating “我承认都是月亮惹的祸,...".Maybe you could not figure out whether he is going to the moon as an astronomer or he and his girlfriend fell in love with each other under the moon, but still you could learn “承认(admit)”and “都是月亮惹的祸(it is totally the moon’s fault)”. Now you can populate your own word into the expression“都是XY惹的祸”to create your own sentence. For instance, you could say: “我今天迟到了,都是地铁惹的祸(I was late today, and it was totally the fault of the underground”。Or you could say: “我的表兄被高盛解雇了,都是次贷危机惹的祸(My cousin got sacked by Goldman Sachs, and it was totally the fault of the Sub-Prime Crisis”.
    Example B: 林俊杰《醉赤壁》
    There is one line in this song: “确认过眼神,我遇上对的人(I have affirmed the look in her eyes, and I have met the right person)”. You could learn “确认(Affirm/confirm)”,“眼神(the look in the eyes)” and“遇上对的人(have met the right person)”from this song. There are various contexts in which you could make use of these expressions. You could say“我和助理确认过了,下午三点钟开会(I have confirmed with the assistant that we have a meeting at 3:00 p.m.)”. You could say: “他的眼神很奇怪(The look in his eyes is quite strange)”. You could say “见到我女朋友的第一刻起,我就知道我遇上了对的人(I knew from the first moment I met my girlfriend that I had met the right person”.

    Hope this could give you some inspiration.

  19. This is fantastic stuff, XY. Really great idea of taking some lyrics, and turning it into common phrases. I'll feed some of this into my flaschards - and look forward to internalising this soon!

    I really appreciate your taking the time to type all of this out ... thanks!

  20. Hi,

    Mandarin Chinese is spoken by an estimated 836 million people in the world, making it the most used language on Earth. That way you can look up phrases whenever you're in an unexpected situation. Thanks a lot...

    Chinese Language Schools