Struggling to Speak Authentic Chinese? This Method Will Help Master Mandarin Grammar

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In a previous blog I wrote about my ‘traffic light system’ for improving spoken Chinese. This involves categorising my Chinese tutor and friends into three groups – red, amber and green – according to strictness. Most of my friends are in the green light category meaning they only correct my most glaring errors. On the other extreme my tutor corrects every instance where my sentence structure isn’t quite native.

The method generally works well for organising my speaking practice. However, I recently noticed a recurring problem. Although my tutor was doing a great job of correcting my errors and suggesting more natural ways of conveying my ideas I was having difficulty remembering these alternative sentence structures. I thus devised the following method.

Content Creation Method

Each class I chat with my Chinese tutor about a topic of interest. This often involves relaying stories about interactions I’ve recently had with Chinese friends and experiences I’ve had while learning Mandarin. Once the conversation reaches a certain level of complexity I will often be unsure exactly how a Chinese person would express a particular idea.

For example, in a recent lesson I told my tutor about an experience during my weekly group conversation exchange call. During the session one of my Chinese friends kept pronouncing the word “money” as “mong-ay”. My attempts to teach her the correct pronunciation were all in vain. I wanted to convey the idea that try as she might my friend couldn’t get it quite right.

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After fumbling around for the right way to express this in authentic Chinese my tutor came up with the following solution: 她怎么发音都不对 (I have included the full transcript of the story with the audio below). Her suggestion seemed simple and obvious but I wouldn’t have come up with it on my own.

Each time my tutor intervenes, I jot down her correction and after class use my notes to write the story up in authentic Chinese. The following lesson we iron out any remaining issues together until each sentence could have been spoken by a native speaker.

Immersing In My Own Content

My tutor then records herself reading out the transcript at a natural pace and sends me the file. I have a growing collection of these transcripts and audio clips which I immerse in on a regular basis, while driving and completing other tasks.

Of course, I still spend most of my learning time listening to content created by other people, including podcasts, Netflix and YouTube videos. This remains crucial for expanding my vocabulary size. However when it comes to mastering authentic sentence structures there are two main advantages to using my own content.

The first is that the content I create includes all the ideas and concepts I regularly want to convey in conversations with native speakers but can’t find the right structures for. When listening to other people speaking Chinese, however interesting the content might be, it often doesn’t include the specific ideas I want to get across in my conversations. Creating my own content allows me to prioritise internalising correct ways of saying the things I want to say.

The second advantage to using this method is that it enables me to immerse in listening input which is 100% comprehensible. This may not be great for vocabulary acquisition, but for focusing on grammar patterns it’s ideal. All of my energy is focused on paying attention to the sentence structures rather than trying to understand the meaning.

At my current level it remains difficult to find native level content which is completely comprehensible. The odd word or phrase I don’t understand makes it hard to pay undivided attention to grammar when immersing. The content creation method has thus been particularly effective for fully internalising tricky aspects of Chinese grammar which require close attention, such as accurate usage of the 了 particle.

Once I’ve created a bank of around 20 Chinese stories and mini-essays I intend to make them available to my subscribers to use alongside the audio. For now I will leave you with the full transcript and audio for the story I alluded to above.




有一个中国女生在朗读一篇文章的时候说”money“但是他的发音有点不对,比较像”meng-ay“. 我们就想找个办法让她知道怎么说才对。不过她怎么发音都不对。



How about you? Do you find Chinese sentence structures hard to get right and do you think this method could help? Let me know in the comments below.

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4 Thoughts

  1. Hi Mischa,

    Great post! Pretty cool method – I’m definitely going to try this out.

    I’ve recently starting taking some lessons, and I’ve noticed that grammar explanations / sentence structures aren’t ‘sticking’ in my memory, so something like this would really help with that.

    Your idea of focussing on your own content makes total sense to me. I think each person has their own characteristic way of expressing themselves, which is influenced by their personality and topics of interest. I’ve been trying to think in Mandarin and even just attempting it made me realise that there are a lot of recurring thoughts / themes / ways that I tend to express myself (even if it is just internally). So yeah …. I like the idea of building op a library of expressions which are ‘natural’ not only in the sense of ‘native sounding’, but also in the sense that you would be likely to use them in the first place.

    1. Thanks Esther 🙂 Yes that’s exactly it. We all have common patterns/ ways of expressing ourselves so prioratising these makes sense. Let me know how you get on with using the method.

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