Leaving the Classroom: Self Studying my Way to Chinese Fluency

A little over two years ago I wrote a blog documenting my experience of learning Chinese at the Confucius Institute. Since then I have continued to learn, largely through self study, using the knowledge I had gained in my evening classes as a base from which to progress to a more advanced level. When I wrote my previous blog I had just returned from 2 highly enjoyable weeks in China on the BCI’s China Camp, was able to have basic conversations with Chinese people and felt inspired to continue studying towards fluency. My goal at that time was to move out of the classroom and towards a level where I could understand native content such as articles, novels, and podcasts. This blog is about how I went about achieving that goal and which learning tools I found most effective along the way. 

Phase 1: Learning characters

At the time of writing my last blog I had not yet begun to learn Chinese characters. My evening classes were conducted using the Pinyin romanisation system alongside characters, so despite having had some previous exposure I had relied on Pinyin to build a vocabulary base of a few hundred words. The idea of learning thousands of characters seemed a little scary and I kept putting it off. After all, I told myself, I passed HSK 2 without knowing any. Perhaps I could become conversationally fluent without them. However, it soon became clear that further progress would require an ability to read Chinese. 

I set myself a goal of passing the HSK3 exam, which requires the comprehension of around 600 characters, as well as a listening component. With a full time job, my time was limited so I decided to prioritise recognising characters visually over writing them out by hand. To do this I used the flashcard app Quizlet and regularly flicked through my deck several times a day. I also installed a Chinese keyboard on my phone so that I could text Chinese friends, spelling out the words in Pinyin before selecting the correct character to form sentences.  At the same time I read and listened to short dialogues from the textbook Discover China, as well as practice exam papers provided by the Confucius Institute. I had one to one lessons with a private tutor once a week, which were focussed on preparing for my exam.  Learning characters became quite addictive and, partly because I had already had exposure to them before in my evening classes – as well using beginner apps like DuoLingo – it did not take long before they began to stick and I was able to read short, simple texts. Learning the first 600 characters required a significant amount of effort but with patience and regular reading practice I was able to pass HSK 3 in May 2019. 

Phase 2: Bridging the gap to native content

After passing HSK 3 I was simultaneously delighted and frustrated. Delighted because I had proven to myself that with enough patience learning characters was possible and made new vocabulary easier to remember than relying on pinyin alone. Frustrated because I soon found that I didn’t know anywhere near enough characters to deal comfortably with native content such as news articles or books. Trying to read an article when you know less than 60% of the characters is beyond painstaking. The same was true of my listening comprehension. Having conversations with native speakers beyond very simple topics was very difficult because most of the time my vocabulary comprehension wasn’t sufficient to understand what they were saying. I needed to find an engaging way to increase my vocabulary beyond the typical words and phrases that come up in classroom textbooks in order to bridge the gap to native content. That’s when I discovered graded readers. 

In the summer of 2019 I became obsessed with graded readers. At that time, a holiday I had planned fell through and I used the time I had off work to study Chinese full time for 3 weeks. I worked with two series of readers: Mandarin Companion and Beijing University Press, both of which I recommend. The books are set at various levels of difficulty according to the number of different words they use, starting at around 300 characters and progressing to beyond 1000. Each book is around 100 pages long and contains a short story, written largely using the most common characters, with the definitions of any less common words included in English at the bottom of the page. This makes them easy to read without having to spend time looking up characters and words in a dictionary, a particularly laborious process for Mandarin. The readers also include audio versions so I could listen to the stories too. By the end of the three weeks I had read several books and felt my reading fluency as well as my character recognition was steadily improving. I continued to use graded readers as my primary study tool for some time afterwards and was able to get beyond the 1000 character mark in this way. 

Phase 3: Working with simpler native content

By the autumn of 2019 I had read and listened to almost all of the graded readers I could get my hands on. However, I still felt that reading Chinese websites and articles was very difficult and started searching for a way that I could engage with simpler native content. At this time I discovered the website and app, LingQ, which has become my main language learning tool ever since. I came across LingQ after watching videos by its founder, the popular internet polyglot Steve Kaufmann, whose basic message when it comes to language learning has always resonated with me. To Kaufmann there are almost no problems in language learning that more reading and listening cannot solve. The internet has a tendency to be very negative when it comes to the difficulties of Mandarin. Whether it’s tones, homonyms, grammar or word order there are countless blogs and videos in which learners complain or warn others about just how difficult learning Mandarin is and how much rote memorisation it requires. Kaufmann doesn’t see any value in this and nor do I. Rather than worry about it, the task for the intermediate learner is to find comprehensible material and immerse themselves in it whilst enjoying themselves.  

LingQ facilitates this process by allowing users to read and listen to language content, clicking on unknown words to instantly discover their meaning. As you read through content, the website keeps track of the words you do and don’t know while providing you with statistics to measure your progress, including the total number of words you know and the total number of words you’ve read. The idea is that by reading and listening to large amounts of comprehensible content you will be exposed to thousands of words and phrases repeatedly within a natural context. In this way your brain will naturally acquire the vocabulary and a familiarity with sentence structures. LingQ is a small family run business and the user interface is not ideal – it took me a week or so to get used to how the website works. Nevertheless, I have found it to be an extremely useful tool which has enabled me to massively expand my vocabulary and character recognition in a largely painless, enjoyable way. 

The website is ideal for intermediate level learners as it has a huge library of native content, from simpler dialogues through to novels.  You can also import content yourself from other websites into LingQ. Most of the content provided by the site has both text and audio versions. Once you complete a reading, the audio version is automatically saved into your playlist which you can then listen to on the go. It didn’t take me long to find content on the site that was interesting and appropriate to my level. I started with a series of 15 minute podcasts called Wolfe and Hua Hua in which two friends chat informally about different topics related to their lives in China. I would read the transcript first and then listen to the audio version while walking to work. This input helped me improve my comprehension of conversational Mandarin and expand my vocabulary which in turn enhanced my interactions with Chinese people. By the time the first lockdown came around in March, I was ready to use my extra free time to read and listen intensively for several hours a day, including news articles and my first books; translations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

Phase 4: Burnout and Learning through pleasure

Although the large amounts of reading I did on LingQ during the first lockdown had a big impact on my spoken Chinese as well as my listening and reading comprehension, by the end of lockdown I felt burned out. I was spending too many hours a day reading too many articles that didn’t particularly interest me.  In hindsight I made a lot of progress during that period – probably more than at any other phase – but progress happens slowly and at the time I felt frustrated with myself for not progressing quickly enough – a common frustration of the first time language learner. In June I granted myself a week off Chinese. That week turned into two weeks, then a month and before I knew it an entire summer had gone by. The longer I went without doing any Chinese the harder it became to face it again. Mainly I was terrified that I might have forgotten it all. In September I finally decided to arrange a one to one class with my tutor and face the music. It was horrible, my speaking level had dipped very noticeably. I assured my tutor that I would work hard to get back to my previous level. As it turned out it took just one week of daily reading and listening before I felt confident that my Chinese was back where I had left off 3 months earlier. 

From there I was ready to go again, only this time there was one difference. I promised myself to work exclusively with material and activities that I was genuinely interested in rather than tedious articles about finance or translations of children books. By the time of the second lockdown in November my motivation had returned to previous levels. I downloaded a brilliant language pen pal app called Tandem which I used to exchange texts and practice my written Chinese every day. I continued reading widely recently finishing my first authentic Chinese novel which I imported into LingQ, 许三观卖血记(Chronicles of a Blood Merchant) and am now in the middle of a second, 坏小孩(bad kids). Once I’ve read the books I then listen to the audio versions before bed. Reading these books is not strenuous as I am familiar with the grammar patterns and can typically recognise over 90% of the vocabulary. On the contrary, they are highly pleasurable to the extent that it no longer feels like I am studying and there is no longer any prospect of burnout because I am doing what I enjoy. This is how I intend to progress into the future. 

What next?

I occasionally still get frustrated at the things I can’t do in Chinese. Although I regularly have hour long phone conversations with Chinese friends in which we discuss everything from our daily lives to political events, my tones are imperfect and I cannot yet fluently understand TV dramas, news broadcasts and podcasts on more complex topics like science. However, none of this bothers me in the way that it once did. I am in no rush and know that by spending time with the language every day I am steadily progressing towards these goals. I firmly believe that all aspects of learning Chinese are a matter of patience and time rather than difficulty and pain. The goal of any learner should be to build themselves up to a level where they can spend that time purely on pleasurable activities. Once this is achieved everything else will fall into place. 

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