Improving my Spoken Mandarin with the Traffic Light System

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Towards the end of last year I wrote a blog setting out my objective for 2022. In it I stated that by 2023 I hope to have developed enough confidence in my spoken Chinese to start recording podcasts in the language, conversing on topics of interest.

My approach to achieving this will be largely unchanged. Input remains the central component of my studies as I seek to further improve my comprehension skills. However, I have begun to shift the balance in favour of listening over reading. I no longer use Mandarin subtitles when watching movies and I am spending more time listening to podcasts. The better my comprehension skills become the more benefits I get from ‘passive listening’ or playing podcasts in the background while completing other tasks.

This year I will not spend much time reading novels as the descriptive language is less useful for conversational Chinese as other kinds of material. I will return to novels later but for now the bulk of my reading will include articles on topics of interest and forum posts on websites like where native speakers write about all manner of topics in a similar style to how they speak.

Meanwhile I am stepping up the amount of daily speaking I do. At my current level I am usually able to express myself and be understood. Although I still make mistakes, tones no longer pose the problem they once did. My main issue now is that I often I express myself in a way that Chinese people wouldn’t. My word usage may be comprehensible but it is often unnatural.

So after thinking about how I could structure my speaking time to resolve these issues I came up with the following ‘Traffic Light System.’

My system is premised on the notion that improving speaking skills requires different kinds of practice. On the one hand it is important to develop confidence to speak freely without constantly worrying about making mistakes. Yet it is equally vital to direct my attention to blind spots; problems which I haven’t noticed by myself but where I need to improve.

With this in mind I have divided my Chinese friends and my tutor into the following three categories according to the kind of speaking practice I will engage in with them.

  • Green Light:

The green light represents absolute freedom. Some of my Chinese friends don’t want to correct my Chinese because it’s annoying and gets in the way of a free flowing conversation. This is completely understandable – I also don’t particularly enjoy correcting their English and almost never do as long as I can understand them. These conversations will take up most of my overall speaking time and will be crucial for developing my confidence.

  • Amber Light

Chinese friends who are willing to correct my mistakes even when they can understand me are placed in the Amber category. These corrections will be restricted to times when my use of language or pronunciation sounds particularly unnatural. That way we can still have interesting conversations even if they are not quite as free flowing as those in the green category.

  • Red Light

This category is reserved for my Mandarin tutor. I have three, hour-long classes with her each week. Her role during these sessions is to correct me every time my speech sounds unnatural or is incorrect and suggest a better way of expressing my point. This approach may sound extreme – and it is definitely tiring – but it has proved effective for improving my tones. When we first started working on my tones 6 months ago I couldn’t get through a sentence without making several glaring mistakes. Being corrected on these was annoying but over time her interventions became fewer and fewer until eventually most sentences didn’t contain mistakes.

I hope to achieve similar results over the coming year focusing on appropriate sentence structure, word and phrase usage.

How about you? What are you doing to improve your spoken Mandarin? Do you think the Traffic Light System could work for you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  

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6 Thoughts

  1. Hi Mischa,

    Really interesting post, thanks! I like your idea about the ‘traffic light system’ approach.

    I’m much earlier on in my studies, and I am still at the stage where I am trying hard to build a basic vocabulary. I’m doing lots of reading (graded readers etc), and slowly getting to the stage where I can express some thoughts in a really basic way. Even just getting my point across is a win, haha. I can foresee that my next (and probably fairly long) stage will be to focus on tones, as I still make tonal errors every other word.

    I think it’s really cool to read about how you have reached a level where your main focus is about expressing yourself in a way that sounds most natural. I was wondering if you think that there is anything beginners can do that will help them down the line when it comes to this aspect? For example sounds really interesting, but I think it’s probably too difficult for me.

    I guess I am just wondering whether when you look back, you would have liked to have changed anything about the stage where you were reading novels, or whether you feel like that was just a natural part of your journey, and that natural expression will always come later?

    1. Hi Esther, thanks for your comment. It’s an interesting question: would I have done anything differently? I’m glad I spent the time reading several novels because a) it was enjoyable and kept me engaged with the language and b) it gave me huge exposure to Chinese vocabulary and sentence structures. Before reading novels I spent a lot of time reading podcasts transcripts of informal conversations between native Chinese speakers where I was exposed to more informal language. At the time I was trying to improve all aspects of my Chinese to a decent level and didn’t have the same focus as I do currently to focus primarily on spoken Chinese. So I don’t have many regrets about that but one thing I think I’d have done differently is work harder on tones and pronuniciation towards the beginning. When we read in our target language we subvocalise the words we’re reading and if we haven’t learned how to pronounce those words properly we reinforce the wrong pronunciation. So the fact that I read those novels without maying proper attention to tones was a mistake. This can be corrected later but it’s not an easy task. So I think a good idea is to put in the leg work with tones at the start, making sure you’re reading simpler materials/ graded readers with the correct tones before moving on to harder material. I may write another blog on this topic soon.

      1. Thanks Mischa!

        That’s really helpful. You put your finger on something that has been worrying me a bit, which is the subvocalisation while reading. I mutter along to myself while reading, and I know I am basically reinforcing pronunciation errors when I do it. Your post has motivated me to see if I can do something about this.

        If you ever write a blog post about it I think it would be another interesting read.

  2. Hey Mischa! As of now, I’m more focused on reading and writing since most of my goals involve those two skills (I’m actually excited for you and your goal of recording podcasts in Mandarin since one of my goals is to eventual get comfortable enough with writing to start a podcast in Mandarin.). As for speaking, I don’t have many opportunities to practice conversation due to how hectic and lacking in structure my current schedule is. I’m currently just working on recording a daily diary as I’m not super serious about my speaking right now. The traffic light system sounds interesting though, I may give it a try in the future.

    1. Thanks Lei Lei. That sounds like a great plan. I’ll look put for your podcast in future!

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