Can You Learn Mandarin From Outside Chinese Speaking Countries? Yes, Here’s Why

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Ask someone who has never learned a foreign language to fluency what they imagine the best way to do so might be and many will reply: “go and live in the country.” There is a widespread idea that by living in a country where your target language is spoken you can’t fail to “pick it up”.

At an elementary level I used to believe this too, feeling myself to be at a disadvantage to learners living in China. But I’ve since changed my mind about the extent to which being in a Chinese speaking country provides any major advantages.

I did the bulk of my learning while living and working in the UK and reached a comfortable level of Chinese before moving to Taiwan. Many of the most successful learners I’ve interviewed on my podcast, such as Will Hart and Professor Karen Chung, also became fluent while living abroad.

Conversely, the majority of learners I’ve met who have lived in Taiwan for more than five years do not speak the language fluently.

In this blog I’ll explain why you don’t need to travel abroad to reach a high proficiency in Chinese reading, writing, listening and speaking.


There’s no denying the fact that if you move to China you’ll be surrounded by characters. Road signs are all written in Chinese, as are restaurant menus. But this represents the tip of the iceberg. If your goal is to read text messages, emails, news articles and novels you’ll need to learn more than 3000 Chinese characters. That requires developing a sustained and extensive reading habit.

Whether or not you’re surrounded by street signs, you’ll need to put in the hours reading hundreds of thousands, preferably millions, of words. Whether it’s graded readers intended for learners or advanced material such as articles and novels, the availability of online material means this can be done from abroad just as easily as it can in Chinese speaking countries.

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Whether your goal is to write characters by hand or learn to text them using a romanised keyboard, being in a country where the language is spoken will provide no major benefits. Much as with other aspects of learning Chinese, learning to write doesn’t happen by osmosis. You will not wake up one day after living in China for a year suddenly realising you can recognise and write thousands of characters.

Again, you must establish a daily habit: drilling flashcards to aid character retention, installing a pinyin keyboard on your phone or computer and texting native speakers regularly or writing characters out by hand if you wish. Your geographical location has no bearing on your ability to do these things, nor will it affect your speed of progress.


Most people who live in Chinese speaking countries – especially those who aren’t fluent in Chinese – spend the vast majority of their time surrounded by other speakers of their native language. They hear fragments of the target language occasionally when entering a shop or a restaurant. These brief encounters constitute a tiny, almost insignificant fraction of the number of listening hours required to reach a high proficiency.

If you’re riding a bus in Beijing surrounded by commuters chatting to each other in Chinese, how much do you imagine this passive chatter will aid your comprehension skills? Without any context it’s going to be extremely hard to discern what these strangers are talking about, regardless of your level. The reality is this kind of “immersion” helps much less than you might think.

The key is to expose yourself to hundreds of hours of comprehensible listening input something which you can do from abroad. After all, as I’ve written elsewhere, you can access most of the same Chinese podcasts, TV dramas and movies wherever you are in the world.


Nobody ever learned to hold long conversations with native speakers without strain by entering a convenience store and asking for a plastic bag a thousand times. Most of the foreigners I’ve met in Taiwan have learned survival Chinese – the limited words and phrases needed to order a coffee or tell the taxi driver where to go. Beyond that they can barely hold a conversation.

To progress beyond survival Mandarin you need to make friends with native Chinese speakers. With Meetup groups, smartphones and language exchange apps this is now possible for everyone, everywhere to do. Learners in Europe can also take advantage of our Mandarin Retreats, immersing in the Chinese language with native speakers for entire weekends and extended five day camps.

Learn from Anywhere

Saying you need to go to China to learn Mandarin is a bit like saying you have to go to the gym to get fit. Just as you won’t magically sprout muscles by being located in a gym for a long time, living in China doesn’t guarantee that you’ll learn Chinese. Although the gym has plenty of equipment that can help you achieve your fitness goals, there are also plenty of ways you can get fit without going to the gym.

In the final analysis, the key predictors of Mandarin learning success are sustained motivation and effective methods. If you put in the hours you will succeed whether you’re in Beijing or Timbuktu.

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