Hollie and Nora here! We’ve been in China for a long time and have spent many years learning Chinese. Today we wanted to create a list of DON’Ts when learning this language that we wish we would have had at the beginning. This is a spin-off post from our recent podcast episode TWCC145, so if you don’t feel like reading, go ahead and have a listen instead. You can also listen on your favorite podcast player by searching for “Two White Chicks in China”. Enjoy!
Mistake #1: Not Speaking
Feeling too shy or embarrassed to speak has been one of our major obstacles in learning Chinese. Many people struggle with this issue and think that they need to say a complete, perfect sentence in order to be understood. But this is not how language is naturally learned AT ALL. Can you imagine a toddler coming up to you and saying, “Pardon me, but would you kindly pass me my bottle?” Unless it’s Stewie from the Family Guy, this would be extremely odd.
Let’s take a lesson from babies and start speaking as soon as we know 1-2 words. You’d be surprised how far 可以 (ke3yi3) meaning “can I (do something)” or 没有 (mei2you3) meaning “there is no/cannot” can take you in Chinese.
People will rarely react negatively to you for trying to speak their native language. Usually, the exact opposite happens and they go out of their way to help you out. Knowing how to say just a few words in Chinese can make people exclaim, 汉语说得很棒！(han4yu2 shuo1de hen3 bang4), meaning: You’re Chinese is awesome!
Just remember that if you really want to impress people, you need to get those Mandarin tones right. To do this, you can take a Chinese class before coming to China or you can try an online tone class.
Even if you do run into a grumpy grandpa selling dumplings who doesn’t have the patience to try to understand your Chinese, don’t take it personally! In places like Guangdong, where we are, some people can be rough around the edges, but with a little persistence, you’ll win them over and get your juicy dumplings in the end!
Mistake #2: Thinking You Need to Study More First
This goes along similar lines as not feeling confident to speak, but one of our mistakes was definitely feeling like we had to spend more time with our apps and our books before we could approach Chinese people. Books and apps can be a great resource for language learning, but they should be secondary to actually communicating with people. It’s amazing how you can see a vocabulary word on a page 10 times before you remember it, but pointing to an apple at a supermarket and getting the word 苹果 (ping2guo3) barked back at you once will make the word get stuck in your head.
The best way to learn is through context and this means that communicating should always be the priority before book-learning. Here are a few tiny must-have phrases that will be enough for your first conversation:
这是什么? What’s this?
听不懂。I don’t understand.
没有。There isn’t any…
If you want to expand your vocab, even more, check out our 85 essential phrases.
Mistake #3: Sticking to Comfort Zones
Avoid the trap of always getting together with other foreigners when you’re in China. This can feel like a comforting way to enjoy the country, but you’ll never really understand the culture this way. Though it may feel awkward at times, seize the bull by the horns and try engaging in local pastimes with local people.
Do you like to dance? Take a hip-hop class. Into sports? Find the nearest badminton or basketball club. Whatever things you like to do, find your equivalent in China. Doing an activity helps to take the burden off of constant one and one conversations and is something you’ll actually look forward to doing.
Language is a huge barrier, but you’re not going to climb that barrier by drinking beer with an Irishman (however delightful that may be). You’re in China, make the most of it!
Mistake #4: Keeping a Perfect Record
We’ve sometimes set lofty study goals for ourselves when learning Chinese. So lofty in fact, that we haven’t been able to keep up with them on a consistent basis. Don’t be like us! Set reasonable goals and when you miss a day, don’t feel like you can’t get right back at it. The difference between people who are successful and those that are not is not in keeping a perfect record. Rather, it’s about how fast they recover when they fall off the horse.
Being self-aware and analyzing WHY you couldn’t keep up with your goals can make all the difference. Did you set your goals too high? Were you spending too much time doing one thing that you started to get bored? Be realistic and keep going. It’s better for you to set a goal to study for 5 minutes a day and keep it than to set a goal to study an hour a day and consistently fail to reach it. Set the habit first, then gradually ramp up the study time. You can even start with 2 minutes a day.
And if you do have a break in your learning for a while and then go back to it, don’t feel like you need to get out a fresh notebook and start from the beginning again. Just review what you’ve already done first and continue forward. It happens to all of us, just start studying again.
Mistake #5: Learning Characters By Writing Them Over and Over Again
Our Chinese teachers have told us to write a Chinese character a thousand times as a way to remember it. Sorry, but we have found that this does not work for the long term. Personally, I was able to learn a couple of hundred Chinese characters that way, but a year down the line and I already started to forget some of them. I was memorizing the shapes but had no logic behind why they were written in the way that they were.
Instead, when learning the characters, invest the time into understanding the radicals and making up a story about how they create the meaning of the character. For example, when learning to write the character 途 (tú) meaning “way” or “route”, it has different radicals in the character with these meanings: man, one, tree, and walk. So you can create a story for the character like in the image below:
Click the Learn More button next to any character that you find in our online dictionary and you can see other people’s ideas for how to remember the character in the comments section. Please add your ideas to the community, even if you think they are silly. In fact, the sillier the better! Just check out how people are remembering the character 口 (kǒu) in the comments.
If you’re totally new to radicals, you might also benefit from our textbook, (shameless plug!) the ABCs of Written Chinese.
Mistake #6: Not Learning Chinese Characters from the Beginning
We didn’t start learning Chinese characters when we started our Chinese learning journey, and we found out later it was a big mistake. Though it is possible to learn Chinese without learning how to read or write, you will miss out on so much and you will eventually hit a wall (trust us, we’ve struck that wall many a time!).
You don’t need to learn the characters at the same pace as you learn the pinyin and pronunciation for words in Chinese, but you should be persistent and spend at least 25% of your study time on the characters. This will pay off in the long run, BIG TIME, and here’s why…
First, Chinese has so many homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Take this tongue twister, for example:
Shí shì shī shì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shí shí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shí shì.
Shí shì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shí shì.
Shí shì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
In a stone den, a poet named Shi Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.
If all you know is the pinyin, this will be extremely difficult to decipher. By the way, here is the text in Chinese characters, if you’re curious!:
Even native Chinese people often need to refer to the written language when speaking to each other. And due to many dialects, written Chinese is really what binds communication together in China. Not to mention, Chinese calligraphy is so relaxing to try and you’ll learn so much about the culture by practicing how to write.
Learning to read makes everything make a lot more sense and you will start realizing that some of the words that you learned were not what you thought. You’ll make new connections in your mind for existing words.
The Chinese language works very differently from English in that it’s the combination of characters that make a meaning, not individual words. And actually, things become much simpler this way. For example, the word for a volcano is “fire mountain” or 火山 (huǒshān). If you know the word “fire” and you know the word “mountain”, then you know the word for volcano.
Learning Chinese is like having a bag full of Chinese characters and drawing out combinations of them as you create meanings. But when you don’t know the Chinese characters, making these combinations is extremely difficult.
Many people learn to speak Chinese first, and you can definitely learn the basics without learning how to read or write, but it won’t be long before you hit a roadblock. It will be extremely difficult for you to find any logic in the language for long-term growth. It’s a worthwhile investment.
Plus, when you come to China, you’ll be able to find the restaurants, shops, businesses you want to visit by reading the signs! You will realize there’s so much more interesting and useful stuff around you, once you can read.
Mistake #7: 1 Chinese Character Does NOT Equal 1 Word
If you’ve taken a Chinese class before, then you probably already know this, but for self-learners starting out with only a dictionary, you absolutely need to know that one Chinese character does not equal one word. Most English words will be a combination of 2 Chinese characters. We can call these 2-character words “bigrams”, and Hollie has written a great introduction to bigrams if you’re a newbie and want to learn some tricks.
Mistake #8: Saying Things Slowly
We all know that the tones in Chinese are important, but don’t get so caught up in nailing every tone that you say a sentence too slowly, one word at a time.
There is some special magic in saying all the words in a sentence quickly that instantly helps Chinese speakers understand what you’re saying. Most likely it boils down to hearing the whole tone of the sentence, versus the individual words.
We can’t count how many times this has worked, especially with taxi drivers! Even when we’re pronouncing some of the characters wrong, somehow smashing everything together and spitting it all out at once sprinkles it with fairy dust and it becomes comprehensible.
We’ve made many more mistakes but these are the main ones. If you can avoid these, you’ll be well on your way to fluency in Chinese. We hope you liked this post! We’re always on the hunt to give you the best tools to make learning Chinese easy, so tell us your struggles! Chances are, we’ve had the same problems too.
If this post got you pumped to start learning Chinese characters, we made a series of printable worksheets, starting from the most commonly used characters, that you can print off to learn and practice your Chinese writing.