Learning to Speak and Read Chinese

Here’s an updated summary of the stuff which has to be done actively, but which I think I got the best results from. It overlaps with the page ‘Speaking Chinese‘, but this post focuses more on reading.  Maybe you’ll find some of it useful. 🙂

Core Method (Each Day)

1.  Make a list of items that you want to learn today.

These items can come from:

  • TV shows (great – you can see the subtitles and there’s lots of context to learn from)
  • Radio shows (good for advanced learners)
  • Native speakers (best – you can get them to help you, too)
  • Songs (okay, if you like singing; you can get the lyrics too, which is a bonus)
  • Word books (okay, but you have to keep looking up pronunciations for words you don’t know, and it’s hard to imagine what’s going on unless you’re an advanced learner)
  • Picture books (e.g. Manga or books for kids; great because there’s lots of context, although you still have to look up readings for new characters)

Each item might be:

  • A Chinese character
  • A word (this should form most of your items)
  • A part of a sentence (chunking)
  • A sentence

2. Memorise them. 

You need to repeat each item many times (until you can say it fluently 5 times in a row).

You can offset repetitions with extra context for each item.  This extra context may take the form of:

  • A picture – good for nouns and some adjectives. (Look at the picture and say the word)
  • An action – good for verbs and some adjectives. (Do the action and say the word)
  • A mnemonic (Good for things which just aren’t sticking)

You should also record a native talking about the items that you want to learn.  This gives you an enormous volume of i+1 material.  You can listen to the mp3s that you make for the rest of your language learning career, and beyond.

3. Add the things which you want to be able to say to Anki. 

If you only want to be able to understand a particular word, then the repetition you just did will probably be enough.  Anki is for phrases which are funny, very common or meaningful in some way to you, the learner.

4. Review your Anki cards. 

When you’re reviewing Anki cards, make sure you use the same benchmark of five fluent repetitions before moving on.

Further notes:

1. An immersion environment is still a good idea, I think, because it gives you lots of free revision for stuff you’ve spent lots of time memorising.  HOWEVER, you shouldn’t rely on it completely – it won’t magically make you fluent.  The above ‘core method’, subject to your own tweaks, should give you pretty good results.

2. I haven’t thought of/developed a clever way of quickly and efficiently teaching Chinese characters, so in the meantime, I’m just going to keep pushing Heisig, even though I don’t think it’s the best way to learn.

3. I wouldn’t bother with dedicated grammar study – however you do it, it’s boring.  Just keep memorizing complete sentences while you have the context in mind and the grammar study will do itself.

4. Random conversations with native speakers, while useful, are unlikely to help you learn at a decent speed.  Conversations are best for practicing what you already know: practice and performance aren’t the same, don’t forget. Making i+1 mp3s with a native will give you an unimaginably large boost, however.


2 thoughts on “Learning to Speak and Read Chinese

  1. Your “futher notes” are really valuable as well! Especially number 4. It’s like (a) playing guitar with your friends– fun if you are pretty good, but not likely to make you any better– vs (b) learning a song with your teacher.

    • Hey Kieran,

      Thanks very much for the comments! 😀

      Indeed, that’s the very logic that led me to that conclusion 🙂

      By the way, how do you handle learning so many languages at the same time?


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