How to Learn Fluent Mandarin Chinese

As one of the most popular posts on this site is my piece on the difficulty of learning Mandarin, I thought I’d post this article as a follow up. Please also note that the original audience for the piece was native English speakers already living in greater China, so there may be some localized usage that you don’t quite understand (e.g. KTV=karaoke club).You can find a .pdf version of the magazine this article was first published in here: Taiwanease Issue No. 11.

If you wish to reprint or copy this article, please contact me for permission.

How to Learn to Speak and Read Fluent Mandarin

By Truett Black

Perhaps you’re new to Taiwan and determined to understand what is going on around you; perhaps you’ve been in Taiwan for some time, and feel like you’ve dug yourself into a pit of linguistic and cultural ignorance by not being able to speak or read Mandarin; perhaps you’ve figured out that being able to communicate in Mandarin will open up a number of career opportunities, elevating you beyond the status of a temporary worker in Taiwan’s English, editing, banking, or engineering industries.

Whatever your motivation, learning to speak and read Mandarin fluently, as opposed to speaking “barely getting by” Mandarin, is a task akin to learning to fly a jet airplane. It is not something you will accomplish without powerful discipline, a tolerance for frustration and mental exhaustion, and the ability to laugh at yourself. In my October 6, 2006 article for Taiwanease, “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Chinese,” I wrote about the difficulties of becoming fluent in Mandarin. I suggested that before you begin learning Mandarin, you decide whether you’re up to the task or not. In this article, I’ll tell you how to become fluent in spoken and written Mandarin.

Make Learning Mandarin Your Mission in Life

First, while you are learning Mandarin, nothing can be more important than accomplishing your fluency goals. Unless you are a rare linguistic genius, there are no half-measures here. You’ve got to get extreme. Stop spending so much free time with people who speak English. If you are a “scholar” and like to research obscure language acquisition theories, drop the pedagogy and start getting your hands dirty. Maintain your exercise program, but only work out after you’ve done what you need to do with Mandarin each day. If you have a busy work schedule, cut back a bit. Aside from devoting a few hours each day to formal learning activities, you’ll have to keep the language learning meter running throughout your day. You’ll need to self-impose a disciplined learning regimen.

Expect to be Patronized by Well-Meaning People

Taiwanese people are uniformly generous in helping the unfortunate foreigners in their midst who wish to learn Mandarin. They are also frequently condescending. Expect to be laughed at when you first start speaking Mandarin, to be corrected even when you nearly got the tone right, and to be lectured to about vague and largely useless factoids concerning the Chinese language. It is essential that you develop the ability to laugh at yourself while you are learning Mandarin, or you will soon find yourself applying for a bed in the local insane asylum. The truth is, a beginning Mandarin student’s pronunciation does sound pretty damned funny. It is amusing to hear a foreigner belt out a chorus of atonal, guttural Mandarin in a public place. You’ll probably join the locals in chuckling at lousy “foreigner Mandarin” in a year or two, so don’t get offended if someone laughs at you.

Stick with the Program

Here’s a self-directed program for non-Chinese majors who want to become fully functional members of Mandarin speaking society. Mileage may vary, and you’ll make some adjustments to the program as you go along, but these are the essentials if you want to be fluent.

1. Take Classes: Sign up for at least three months of intensive Mandarin classes. You’ll need a structured program for building foundational vocabulary and grammar, learning the basics of pronunciation, and getting used to set of texts. In Taiwan, there are several options for Mandarin classes. See the Learning Chinese Forum on www.forumosa.com for information on Chinese class options in Taiwan. Plan on taking language classes for about six months, but no longer than a year—if you live in Taiwan, classes will actually become counterproductive after a year unless you are studying Chinese literature.

2. Learn Vocabulary All Day: Carry a vocabulary “leech book” with you at all times, and leech 10-15 words and phrases a day from people you speak with, on top of the words and phrases you pick up from your textbooks. Review the words and phrases you’ve learned whenever you’ve got a bit of downtime (e.g. on the bus, waiting in line). If you stick with this program, you’ll learn four thousand or more words and phrases in context over the course of a year. To do this, you’ll need to learn some form of romanization as soon as possible. My personal favorite is Yale romanization, but Pinyin works well too. See www.pinyin.info for a number of excellent tools that will help you learn romanization. As for learning zhuyin, or BoPoMoFo, it is necessary to read zhuyin for several reasons, but I don’t think it is necessary to learn to write zhuyin. You’ll learn zhuyin in your classes, or you can learn it online very quickly.

3. Get the Right Dictionary: My favorite Chinese to English dictionary is Lanbridge’s Concise Chinese-English Dictionary. The Far East Chinese-English Dictionary is also excellent. Make your dictionary your friend. Don’t let a day go by without checking on the meanings of the new words and phrases you learned that day.

4. Buy A Set of Texts: As your language classes come to an end, buy whatever books are left in the series you’ve been studying, and use them for self-study. My favorite series of Mandarin texts is the John DeFrancis series. This series comes in a set of three books, Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced, and was all the rage among students of Mandarin for years. Study these texts on your own for one hour each morning, come rain, shine, or hangover.

5. Become a Mandarin Social Butterfly: I don’t advocate making friends with people just so that you can improve your language skills. I do advocate making friends with Taiwanese people you can relate to in some way, and entering their linguistic world rather than requiring them to enter yours. Get to know the owners of the shops in your neighborhood. Go out with local colleagues. Join a local hobbyist group. Accept invitations to KTV parties and formal social events. If you want to learn Mandarin, you’ve got to get involved in local society in a way that requires you to communicate with people in Mandarin.

6. Use Flashcards to Learn Characters: Six months into your program, begin learning characters in earnest. Buy a set of flashcards with about 1,000 characters, and work through them until you know them backward and forward. You’ll have seen many of them in your language classes. Learning to write them is optional—some people find it helpful for retention, others don’t. These first characters you learn will form the foundation of your character recognition skills.

7. Go Back to Elementary School: Once you’ve learned 1,000 or so characters, in addition to your work with advanced Mandarin texts, begin working through the elementary school Mandarin texts. Read a chapter each morning. Start with grade two and go through grade six. The junior high school texts are optional—once you can read at a sixth grade level, you’ll be able to read magazines and newspapers in Mandarin.

8. Take Reading to a Professional Level: Once you’re able to read sixth grade texts and have begun reading newspapers and magazines, take a job as a Chinese-English translator. You can work on a volunteer basis to gain experience, or bravely sign up with an agency as a freelancer. Do work for your school if you are a teacher, anything to gain experience. Nothing will improve your ability to read and analyze written Mandarin better than working as a translator.

9. Interpret: The true test of your speaking abilities is working as an interpreter. Around the same time you begin translating, volunteer your services as an interpreter. Do this for schools, churches, or charitable organizations. Go from Mandarin to English, and then from English to Mandarin. Working as a professional interpreter takes years of study, but you don’t really need to become a professional. More likely, you’ll end up using your interpreting skills in business, engineering, or education.

10. On Writing: I promised a program for developing fluency in speaking and reading. If you want to learn to write as well, the best text available is William McNaughton’s Reading and Writing Chinese. For most foreigners in Taiwan, writing will never be a necessity. In my work, I need to write in Mandarin most every day. But in this era of computers and e-mail, I just type.

Follow this two year regimen, and reading and speaking Mandarin will become a permanent skill, one that you’ll utilize on a daily basis while you live in Taiwan or China, and one that will go on your resume for life.

Copyright 2007 Truett Black

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28 Comments

Filed under Culture, Language

28 responses to “How to Learn Fluent Mandarin Chinese

  1. I am hopeful that the reference to pinyin.com (which is basically just a link farm) was intended to read http://www.pinyin.info. But I must admit to bias in favor of the latter. 😉

  2. truettblack

    Mark,

    Thank you for pointing out my mistake. I’ve made the correction.

    Your site is indeed a wonder. Have you ever met John DeFrancis? I know him only through his textbooks, which were fine companions during my first stay in Taiwan.

  3. truettblack

    Update:

    I finally REALLY fixed the link to http://www.pinyin.info time. I did change the name of the link back in October, but did not fix the actual link. It is fine now.

    Apologies to Mark S. and to those who were sent to the wrong site due to my weak computer manipulation skills.

  4. Dear Truett,

    Thankyou for mentioning my father´s book. He passed away in March of this year and I open it daily to remember him by.

    Abraços,

    John McN.

  5. truettblack

    John,

    My condolences.

    He wrote a great, very useful book. Every Sinologist I know considers it a seminal work for learners.

    True

  6. Hi Truett,

    I’ve been learning Mandarin on my own for a little while and am currently reading Intermediate Chinese Reader by John DeFrancis. I like giving credit where credit is due, so I am personally thanking you for the advice you provided on this blog. The DeFrancis series has so far greatly improved my grammar, vocabulary, and reading. Although I also use other resources, I’ve yet to find any series of books that comes close to providing such an effective (and rewarding) learning experience.

    I am wondering if I may have your opinion on something: I’m planning on spending about a year in Mainland China to further my language studies, and have decided on 1-on-1 lessons for the first five months (I have yet to plan out the remainder of my stay). Is four hours a day, five days a week for five months overkill? Will I potentially plateau before the five months are over, or is this a good initial approach upon my arrival in China?

    Thank you again,
    Dan

    • truettblack

      Thanks for the note Dan. I’m glad you’re enjoying the DeFrancis series, and it’s always nice to get a little recognition.

      It’s tough to say what’s overkill. If you split those lessons up into two, two-hour sessions, you’re likely to gain more from them. If you find that four hours a day is too much, you can always trim back, right? You’ll be encountering words and situations you haven’t seen yet just by living there, and you’ll have a lot of fodder from your daily life that you can clarify and expand on in your tutoring sessions.

      Be sure to spend plenty of time out and about, talking with people in Mandarin. Socialize with normal people–never turn down a dinner or karaoke invite from regular people. If you can find something to do where you need to speak Mandarin (e.g. a volunteer position somewhere, a sales job) that will probably allow you to make more progress than anything else you do.

      Best of luck to you.

      • George

        Hi Truett. This is a great post! Just wondering, do you recommend also purchasing the DeFranis character text books along with the Chinese Readers? And are there only 3 levels (beginning, int, advanced), the first 2 being split in 2 parts, and the advanced book being just one? Hope you can help answer this for me before I make a large purchase on Amazon. Thanks! George

      • truettblack

        Hi George,

        Yes, I think you should purchase the readers, but if you’re on a budget, it isn’t absolutely necessary. I didn’t go through them because at the time I was getting fluent, I was poor. I couldn’t afford so many books, was using second-hand DeFrancis texts in fact. I found it cheaper to buy a set of flashcards and then a set of elementary school textbooks in Taiwan and learn to read that way. The JDF texts helped of course, as they teach you characters too.

        And yes, I think you’ve got it right. Two readers for each of the first two levels.

        Best of luck. It sounds like you’re serious about learning. If you get fluent and live and work among Chinese people as a result, learning Chinese will change your whole life.

  7. Victor

    Excellent comments here. I am a Chinese teacher in Japan and loved your comments on the study of Mandarin. I really love to read and write in Chinese and teaching speech patterns. I do not particularly enjoy speaking it. Your comments of Taiwanese reactions to foreigners is quite true. I would only add here that you will have to be very flexible with them. Taiwanese have horrible tones and poor pronunciation. I have fought with a number of Taiwanese teachers on correct pronunciation. So, learners will need to know zhuyin to help correct Taiwanese as they can’t read standard pinyin or characters well.
    You certainly have excellent ideas here for building fluency. I did not have the two years to devote to the study of Chinese nor the years of college to study it. I would say it was out of my desire to teach that motivated me. I am a Japanese teacher in Japan, but to keep my job in Japan, I was asked to teach Chinese (Mandarin). It took about 4 months to learn something I was not able to do after 1 1/2 years of intense study in Taiwan. I now take my students to Taiwan and China every year for practice and cultural exploration.
    I am also interested in the materials that you mentioned here to teach Chinese with. I have not heard of any of them. When I lived in Taiwan, there were no materials at the book shops like there are today. In China there are huge selections of readers and other books for improving reading and speaking. But I would suggests books from Hong Kong for study as they come with traditional characters (making learning more faster) and standardized pinyin. The learner will find an array of romanization all over Taiwan (a fun game I play with my students when we go there).
    Again thanks for the ideas! I will have to revise my beginning Chinese syllabus with some of these ideas if that is OK.

    • truettblack

      Hi Victor. Thank you for your comments. Feel free to use my ideas in your syllabus if they are helpful to your students. The DeFrancis series is still widely available (try amazon.com) and the John McNaughton writing text I recommend is sold all over Taiwan.

      I’m not sure what you mean when you write “Taiwanese have horrible tones and poor pronunciation” and “Taiwanese…can’t read…characters well.” That has not been my experience. In Taiwan, there is often flexibility given in which tones are used (the second and third tone in particular), but I would certainly not characterize Taiwanese pronunciation as “poor,” and I’ve seldom met Taiwanese who couldn’t read characters well.

  8. Joaquin Guevara

    Fantastic article. Apologies for the bump but I really haven’t found any satisfactory answers to this question. How soon would you recommend on learning Hanzi. As you pointed out, some people find it helpful to write them in order to remember them. I’m one of those, but I find it incredibly time consuming. I do find it very helpful to be able to read characters, but sometimes I wonder if it’s to the detriment of bettering my oral fluency, which is more important, due to the amount of time I spend writing characters in 田字本 – 96 repetitions for each character. Even the ones with only a few strokes take me a while, and the ones with over ten strokes take a toll on my hand. I’ve been living in mainland China for a year, teaching and studying by myself, and will continue to live here for a few years hopefully! I’ve heard others who have postponed the systematic learning of Hanzi until they had an advanced level of oral Mandarin.
    On another note, while I admire your courage to ruthlessly fill up your vocabulary book with new words from conversations with friends, I do find myself nodding when I’m not sure what is being said and am asked if I understand this or that word. Far too scared to suffer the embarrassment of being seen as stupid!

    • truettblack

      I personally find writing to be a complete waste of time. I just type, so I while I am essentially bilingual when I speak or read Chinese, I cannot write. Interesting that many of my Chinese friends cannot write very well, but can type fluently.

      Start reading at around 6 months to a year, if you’ve got a basic vocabulary.

      Best of luck–sorry for the short response. On my way to Shanghai today.

    • Tetsuo Laoshi

      There is a great series called, Remembering the Hanzi. I started with reading and writing right away. I love reading and writing in Chinese, but was never too keen on doing it in English. Do not be afraid to say you do not understand something. You will not be seen as stupid. You will be admired and aquire deeper friendships for seeking to increase your understanding.

  9. pl-follyout

    Great article. I’m trying to learn Chinese and sort of hit the gray region between beginner and intermediate (though I would probably lean toward the former). The idea of reading elementary Mandarin texts is a great one, but I’m wondering if you had any suggestions on which would be appropriate?

    • truettblack

      Try to get a set of Chinese readers like the ones the kids use in Taiwan or China. Elementary school. Start with flashcards and Chinese textbooks for foreign learners, then get yourself Chinese readers appropriate to your level. Good luck.

      • pl-follyout

        Thank you for the reply. I guess the question i tried to ask was where to get these readers? Sorry for the ambiguity.

      • truettblack

        Ah, I see. I’m afraid I’m not sure where to send you. I bought mine long ago in Taiwan. I’ll try to remember to ask my wife, who is Taiwanese, when I speak to her later (I’m on the road).

    • Tetsuo Laoshi

      I have two suggestions depending on your level and both can be bought through amazon.com in the US or Amazon.cn in China. The first is the Chinese breeze serious. These are nice cute stories although there are some were not appropriate for high school aged students.
      The other is Graded Chinese Reader 1, 2, 3 or 4. This series takes well known novels and short stories and simplifies them a bit to be easily read and has pinyin. The book includes a bookmark that covers the pinyin so you have the option of using them or not. http://www.amazon.com/Graded-Chinese-Reader-MP3-CD/dp/7802003741/ref=pd_sim_b_10
      I also like Reading into a New China and Beyond the Basics. They are good for advanced students and have great topics for disucssion.
      I hope this helps.

  10. Greg Olsen

    Dear Truett,
    I appreciate your insights and the DeFrancis readers and texts have proved to be excellent. Your discussion does not comment too much on listening skills. I am curious, how much overt focus on listening was required for you to be able to fully understand say, a tv or radio program? Does living in Taiwan provide enough listening practice or have you had to purposefully augment with active listening work. I am moving to China next month and I still seem to struggle the most in this area and wonder how much it will be improved simply by being immersed.

    Regards,

    Greg

    • truettblack

      It will make all the difference. Listening comes first for most of us, but I think it also depends on how actively you listen in your native tongue. Good luck.

  11. tobi

    finally I find a blog like this. hope to share with you about how to learn chinese mandarin. I am currently teaching Mandarin outside of China. it’s nice to read the article.

  12. mayor

    Dear Truett,
    I really enjoyed this article! Learning how to fly a jet plane truly is a perfect comparison when it comes to learning fluent Mandarin. Having said that, I need some advice. I have been studying Mandarin for about 2 years now in the United States and so far I have gotten the basics down. I have many Chinese friends at my university whom I practice with on a daily basis. Now that I”m fluent on a basic conversational level, I really am looking for true spoken fluency. Therefore I plan on studying in Mainland China next summer for a couple months. What part of China would be the best part to study putonhua? I’ve heard many different things from many people, but what place do you think would have relatively few english speakers? I just want to be in a place where I am forced to speak Chinese, that way, maybe one day I could consider myself “fluent”. Thanks

    • truettblack

      Most people in China speak Mandarin. Very few speak English. Having said that, I’d recommend a second tier city such as Tianjin, Qingdao, or Wuxi.

  13. Vv

    Hello there! I am really happy to have found your blog! I can’t find these John DeFrancais series of books, where can I find online? Also why do you preffer these books so much to say New Practical Chinese reader?

    I am thinking about doing an undergrad in Chinese language at Beijing Normal University, my understanding is the first two years it focuses on comprehension, but the new two on other topics such as literature, business etc. They require hSK 3 to enter the course, which means I would spend one year learning part time hopefully up to hsk 4 ( I am level 2 currently) because that can eliminate one year (thus graduate in 3 years instead of 4). But your advice is that learning language more than one year is counterproductive? Can you please expand on this point?

    Also, my speaking and listening is much better than my writing and reading, which I am only just beginning to learn.

    What is your advice on a) catching up reading and writing? Learning is a hobby I can barely fit in my very packed schedule at the moment, and its so tedious to have to write the characters over and over again and to find they still haven’t sunk in.. 😦

    b) Considering every teacher I have had so far is so complimentary on my pronunciation which I am sure is awful, what is your advice on how I can make sure to get used to and remember words in their right tone, as yo know after a while we kind of talk automatically obviously not like a computer which registers the tone properly each time.

    c) please help me with tips on 3rd tone! It always bites me on the ass!

    Many thanks and looking forward to reading the rest of your blog!

  14. Pingback: What About Hong Kong

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