Four Myths About Learning Chinese Debunked


1. You Need to Go to China to Learn Chinese

When I first started learning Chinese teachers and fellow learners often told me the only way I could possibly reach a fluent level was to go to China and live there for an extended period. I fully intended on following their advice but then the pandemic happened and my plans evaporated. Fortunately they were wrong. As I’ve written elsewhere, in the age of the internet it is perfectly possibly to create your own immersive Chinese learning environment from anywhere in the world.

Five years on and although I’ve never lived in China I can speak Mandarin pretty fluently. In order to help Mandarin learners create their own immersive environment outside China I recently partnered with Mandarin Retreat to organise language learning weekend trips in the UK. The retreats are designed to enable learners of all levels to immerse in a 100% Chinese environment while doing fun activities with native speakers. For more information and to get involved check out:

2. Past a Certain Age Learners Will Always Have Bad Pronunciation

I began learning Chinese at the age of 30. For the first four years I believed the myth that adult learners can’t acquire good pronunciation skills due to biological constraints that prevent us from distinguishing subtle sound differences only children can pick up. If I asked for honest feedback on my pronunciation, friends and tutors would either gloss over the problem or tell me my pronunciation was bad but reassure me it didn’t matter since all adults (except a few lucky geniuses) are doomed to failure.

Then, a year ago, I decided to do something about it. I hired a tutor to correct me on all my pronunciation mistakes and through this process realised my main issue was with the tones. I have documented the process of correcting my tones in this blog. Around eight months of hard work later something interesting began to happen. People no longer told me to stop worrying about tones and pronunciation. Instead they started telling me I must be one of the lucky few who have a natural talent for picking up accents. Of course adults can’t acquire accents in the same way that infants do but with the right techniques we can come pretty close to achieving native pronunciation.

3. Mandarin Is An Impossible Language To Learn

Some native Mandarin speakers are fond of claiming Chinese is the hardest language in the world to learn. There seems to be a sense of pride that comes with thinking that your mother tongue is impossibly difficult for foreigners to acquire. Sometimes it’s intended as reassurance: “sure your Mandarin is lousy, but don’t worry that’s totally normal as almost no foreigners actually manage to get good at Chinese.”

In fact, achieving a high level in Chinese is no longer as rare as many people like to make out. Moreover, in several crucial respects Mandarin is easier to learn for native English speakers than English is for native Mandarin speakers. Mandarin phonetics involves around ten times fewer syllables (around 1000) than English (around 10,000) so despite the tones, overall mastering Chinese pronunciation is probably a lesser challenge. Then there is the fact that there are no verb conjugations. Of course, like all languages Mandarin also comes with significant obstacles. But these can all be overcome with enough patience and the right techniques.

4. You Must Quit Your Job & Study Full Time to Become Fluent

It’s true that Mandarin requires a significant time commitment over an extended period to get to a high level. As I’ve written elsewhere, basic fluency probably takes thousands of hours of exposure to the language. But that doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and dedicate your entire life to learning Chinese straight away. Instead you can ease your way in before increasing the amount of time you commit the more you progress. You can also spread your study time out around other commitments in a way that works for you.

I’ve been learning Chinese around a full time job for the past five years. I began slowly at first, attending evening classes once a week and doing the occasional language exchange meet-up for the first couple of years. In my third year of learning I began to commit more time, getting up an hour early to study each morning before work before putting in a further hour in the evening.

My fourth year coincided with lockdown at which point I began studying for several hours a day. But the more I progressed the more fun it became and the less it felt like I was studying. The last year has largely been spent enjoying myself listening to podcasts and having conversations as the language increasingly becomes a part of my everyday life.

How about you? What Mandarin learning myths do you think need debunking? Let me know in the comments below.

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