Who should learn Chinese by self-study?

Now that it’s been established that you can learn Chinese by self-study, the questions is: should you? There are three factors that are relevant to whether you should learn Chinese through self-study:

1. Your proficiency level

I would strongly advise complete beginners against trying to learn Chinese without a teacher.  Because Chinese is a tonal language, the pronunciation is extremely difficult for native English speakers to get right.  If you start learning Chinese by yourself just by listening to podcasts or a program like Rocket Chinese, you may pick up bad pronunciation habits that become near-impossible to discard later on.  If you are at all serious about learning Chinese to communicate with Chinese people (as opposed to just for fun), I would highly recommend investing a little in getting a private Chinese tutor for at least a few lessons at the start, just to get the pronunciation part down (as best as possible).  It will pay off in the future.

On the other hand, once you’ve gotten the pronunciation down, there is much you can learn by self-study.  Chinese grammar is not that difficult and much of it can be learned by self-study – although it is always helpful to get someone to check your work.  Building vocabulary is an enormous task in Chinese, and much of that can be done by self-study.  It is much easier to use something like Pleco to build your vocab, than to sit in a class wasting time with a teacher holding up physical flashcards.  The higher your proficiency level, the stronger the case for doing self-study.

2.  Your personality and learning style

People who are self-motivated but impatient are great candidates for learning by self-study.  I’m a reasonably self-motivated person (though my attention span can be a bit short!) and pretty impatient, and I found myself quickly getting bored and annoyed at slow-moving classes.

Others might have trouble motivating themselves, or might enjoy the social nature of classes.  They also might only be able to remember things when they’ve hear someone explain it or they’ve practised it with another person, but can’t retain much of what they merely read.  These people are less suited to self-study – they still can, of course, but may have to participate more in language meetup groups or language partner exchanges to make good progress.

3. Time and financial constraints

This is undoubtedly a key reason why many people want to learn Chinese by self-study.  Of course one-on-one teaching would be ideal, but who can afford that?  Plus, everyone’s got such a busy schedule these days – who can find the time to go to regular classes?  Self-study is so much more flexible, and cheaper!

The good news is, there are resources out there that provide a “middle ground” between a full-blown class and going it completely alone.  A number of sites now offer one-on-one Skype/video lessons at times suitable for you and at much more affordable prices than a tutor in your own country is likely to cost (if you live in a developed Western country), so you can get Chinese lessons from the comfort of your own home.  Lang8 is another very good resource where you can get your writing checked and corrected by a native Chinese speaker (for free), in exchange for correcting some English learners’ writing samples.  And of course, there may be language exchange opportunities or meetup groups in your home city as well.

So there are three things you should consider when deciding whether to learn Chinese by self-study.  It can be a daunting prospect to try and learn such a notoriously difficult language all by yourself, but in some cases, it may well be the best and most efficient option.  And besides, even if you’re going the self-study route, you’re not all alone – we’re here!


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