Here in Shanghai, curious new Chinese friends love to ask: “你怎么学中文 (nǐ zěn me xué zhōng wén) – how do you study Chinese?”
For me this is a really tricky question to answer, as I’ve tried a whole variety of different methods in the seven years I’ve been studying Chinese (some much more successful than others!).
You might think I’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom, but actually, most of my Chinese learning has been 自学 (zì xué) – self-study.
It’s cheap, convenient, and I can set my own pace. But, without a teacher standing over my shoulder, I had to figure out for myself what to study, how to keep up motivation and how to meet my goals.
If you're reading this, you're probably thinking about whether or not you can learn this language on your own. Even if you are taking classes or have a tutor, having good independent study habits will help you make steady progress towards fluency.
Good resources (like Yoyo Chinese!) give you guidance as you learn, but there are habits you can adopt that will help you find your groove with self-study.
In this blog post, I’m sharing the top tips and tricks I learned along the way.
1. Build Chinese into your daily life
We all know the feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day. Whether you’re working full time, a college student, or a home-maker, finding a spare hour (or 10 minutes) to study Chinese is tough. That’s why it’s really important to find smart ways to squeeze extra Chinese study into your daily life.
Video and audio materials are great for this. For example, when I travelled to work by train, I used to watch video classes on my iPhone. Then I started to cycle to my university, and listened to Chinese radio talk shows on the way.
And, now that my Chinese is more advanced, I watch Chinese TV shows or Chinese movies while cooking, and switched my cellphone settings into Chinese (a word of advice: if you’re changing your cellphone settings, make sure you have a Chinese friend or colleague who can help you switch them back if you get stuck!).
2. Practice out loud
I know this seems really obvious, but when you are studying on your own, practicing out loud can feel weird or uncomfortable at first.
But if you aren't actually saying the words and expressions you are learning out loud, you're not training yourself -- your mouth, tongue, and voice -- to make these sounds and tones correctly.
You are learning to speak another language, right? Even without a speaking partner, you've got to get used to speaking out loud. Make it a habit: any time you see Chinese, say it aloud!
For example, in the very first sentence of this very blog post is a Chinese expression with an audio sample so you can hear how it's pronounced. Did you click and listen the pronunciation? More importantly, did you then practice saying it out loud yourself?
Speaking out loud makes it clear which sounds, tones, and tone combinations give you the most trouble. You can then spend time focusing on these sounds and tones with the audio samples on the free Pinyin chart on Yoyo Chinese.
[TIP]: Did you know the Audio Reviews after each Yoyo Chinese lesson are structured like a guided speaking practice, with Yangyang as your guide? Watch this demo to learn more about using the Audio Review to practice speaking:
It might feel crazy talking to yourself in an empty room, or be embarrassing practicing in your car on your commute, or in the shower (in earshot of your roommates or family), but to learn to speak Chinese, you've got to practice actually speaking Chinese!
3. Don't try to reinvent the wheel
Compared to only a few years ago, there are a TON of resources - videos, podcasts, apps, book, games - for learning Chinese. it's easy to believe that the smart self-studying student can use them all in a magical combination and learn Mandarin.
The problem studying this way is that there is no structure to your curriculum. It's like trying to build a house with no blueprint!
There are educators with extensive teaching experience who have carefully crafted structured curriculums. Don't put all your faith in a game, free videos on YouTube (even Yoyo's YouTube videos!), or your own ability to create a better program than teaching professionals.
Don't try and reinvent the wheel!
I’ve found I learn the most when I choose a comprehensive curriculum and then fit all these other fun resources around this.
But it's also important when you get to more advanced content. You don't want to have to switch to a different program halfway through your learning journey. Before committing to a course, you should sample a few different resources and make sure that they are comprehensive programs you can stick with.
Curriculums like Yoyo’s – flexible but designed by professional Mandarin educators – are great because you can go at your own pace and have the benefits of online learning, but have a clear, well-designed structure.
But get creative in adding extra materials and activities around the course!
Playing mobile games to memorize characters, making Chinese friends on social apps, and watching Chinese movies and TV add depth and dimension (and extra fun!) to your self-study
4. Make learning fun
When first started learning Chinese, I bought a book of the 100 most important Chinese characters. I decided to copy out one character 50 times per day, and figured I could learn the key characters within a few months.
Big mistake! While copying out characters over and over again did help me remember them, I also found it so boring that it totally killed my enthusiasm (I gave up after a week).
To keep motivated over the long term, Chinese learning needs to be something you want to do (that’s why Yangyang works so hard to make sure her lessons are always fun).
To keep you interested and motivated, supplement your study with materials that fit your personality and interests, whether that’s pop music, war movies, or – if you’re a geek like me – reading the Chinese newspapers.
5. Get outside the lessons and seek real world experiences
When you are studying by yourself, you can feel totally stuck in your head. Even if you aren't living in China, you can still go out into the real world and get some pleasure out of using your new Mandarin skills.
Using your Chinese in the real world - even in the smallest way - is the payoff for the work you are doing. Try learning how to read a Chinese menu, and then go to your local Chinese restaurant. You'll feel so good being able to decipher the menu, even if you aren't brave enough to order in Mandarin.
Even if you don't have opportunities where you live to speak to Mandarin people, you can get the satisfaction of bringing Chinese into your life. Try cooking authentic Chinese food for yourself. Or try celebrating a Chinese holiday, or learn to sing a Chinese song:
When you get outside the lessons and bring real Chinese experiences into your life, it feels all the more rewarding to be learning this language.
6. Set realistic but ambitious goals and stick to them
For most of us, a new year’s resolution to get up at 5 am and study Chinese for 2 hours every day will be broken pretty quickly (personally, I’ve tried – and failed – several times).
To make sure you make steady, regular progress, it’s really important to make a study plan you can actually stick to. That could be 2 lessons per week or 20 – it depends on your schedule.
Yangyang recommends studying for 30-45 minutes a day. If you have less time to study, that's OK: the key is to study every day. You are trying to form connections in your brain and train your voice and ears, so daily practice - even just 10 minutes a day - is better than taking long breaks and then studying for hours at a time.
Even if you have a TON of time to study, make sure you are using that time effectively. There is only so much new information you can take it each study session. There's also a certain amount of time you'll need to review old lessons and make sure you are retaining what you've learned.
One of the first things you'll have to do as a student is set how much time you can study each day, and then adjust your balance of new lessons and reviewing you need.
Similarly, when I first started learning, my goal was to ‘become fluent in Chinese’. After a few months I realized I wasn’t anywhere near close, became frustrated, and gave up for a while.
After that, I realized that it’s important to take things step by step. That means setting realistic but ambitious goals that are relevant to your everyday life, whether that’s ordering in a Chinese restaurant, going to a Chinese hair salon (and coming out with a decent-looking haircut), or leading a business meeting in Chinese.
Once you hit that goal, the sense of achievement will drive you on to on to the next one.
7. Get your friends and family involved
When my husband and I go out to dinner in Shanghai, we sometimes speak Chinese with each other. The sight of two foreigners talking together in British-accented Chinese usually attracts amused (or puzzled) stares from local people, but for us it’s a great way to practice.
Studying Chinese outside of the classroom doesn’t have to be lonely – chances are friends, family, or colleagues are also interested.
Whether it’s a pact with your colleague to study over coffee or lunch, or a bet with your partner that you can master 10 new expressions each week, having someone else involved will keep you motivated and give added incentive to stick to your study plan.
(Tellingly, the best improvements I’ve seen in friends’ and colleagues’ Chinese level seem to come immediately after they find a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend!).
Do you have any great tips for studying Chinese? Or any mistakes others should avoid? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!