Self-study Chinese – what’s worked and what hasn’t

In this post, I’m going to give a broad overview of what resources and learning techniques have worked for me while trying to learn Chinese by self-study (and will provide links where applicable).

I understand now why people say that learning more languages is easier after you’ve become fluent in two.  Part of it is because you have two possible languages to which you can make connections (e.g. for mnemonic devices, etc – this strength is far more applicable when your second language is something like French and your third target language is something like Spanish, because there are so many similarities between those languages), and part of it is because you’ll understand your native language better (not only things like nouns, adverbs, auxiliary words, sentence structures, etc. but also how one word like “efficiency” might actually be so flexibly applied in your native language that it does not have an equivalent in another language).

But also, part of it is because you spend an awful lot of time learning how to learn in the process – you learn which techniques and resources work for you, and which ones don’t.  This is especially the case when you’re learning a language through self-study (and unless you’re taking intensive and comprehensive language courses, you probably will be – or should be – doing some degree of self-study).

Here’s a summary of what I’ve found has worked well and what hasn’t:

  • Immersion doesn’t work well – I just tune it out.  It only works after your Chinese has reached a certain level of fluency.  And even then, it can be very stressful and tiring.
  • Children’s books don’t work well – they’re boring, and teach me vocab that I don’t use that often (a lot of simple nouns and adjectives), and fail to teach me a lot of vocabulary that is useful in the real world.
  • Plunging straight into reading “real” Chinese material (e.g. books, newspapers) doesn’t work too well – it’s demotivating having to look up every second word, and even after you string them all together, you don’t necessarily understand the meaning or structure of the sentence well.  I bought a (children’s) encyclopaedia that looked interesting enough for me to read, but ultimately it’s above my level and it’s too demotivating to read.
  • TV shows (with subtitles) work quite well – I’m currently watching 小丸子 (a Japanese children’s show, dubbed in Chinese), and it’s simple enough that I don’t have to look up more than about 20 words per episode (I could look up fewer, if I were willing to guess some meanings).  I’m also watching 快乐汉语 but their Beijing accents and speed of speech are harder to understand.  FluentU is also a great resource but it just loads a bit too slow for my liking and requires an internet connection.  I prefer downloading stuff that I can pause and play easily without any buffering.
  • Flashcards work really well.  I use Pleco’s paid add-on (see my review of Pleco here).  Pleco, incidentally, is a lifesaver for surviving in China) as well as Anki.  Anki’s a better/easier to use flashcard program, but I like how I can just look up a word on Pleco and add it to my flashcards immediately.  Pleco is also very customisable if you can be bothered learning how to customise it properly.  I’m phasing out Anki now, slowly.
  • Language partners – this has the potential to be a really great resource, but it seriously depends on the quality of your language partner and how “structured” you make your relationship.  When I was just doing it informally with a friend in Yangshuo, it worked alright in that I definitely learnt some things and got used to speaking Chinese more, but it was also limiting in that she just talks a lot more than me and after a while, we just spoke in broken English/Chinese to each other without actually improving or correcting each other much.  I’m planning to try this again with another friend, but with more of a written component (we can mark each other’s writing).  Unfortunately, her English is again much better than my Chinese so it’s very tempting to just converse in English.  I also find it hard to have real conversations with Chinese people – partly a culture gap, partly a language gap, and partly because I struggle to have real conversations in English as it is.  Ideally, I’d like to get a Western friend who is also learning Chinese but is a bit better than me.  I know it’d be tempting to just speak English though.

Of course, different people will find different things useful but this may be of help to someone.  What has worked for you?  Let me know in the comments below.


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