How I Learned to Speak Mandarin in 6 Months

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This isn’t a post about how great I am at languages. I’m not like some jerk on the internet claiming to achieve fluency in three months.

This is a post about the blood, sweat and tears I spent to learn Chinese.

I never thought I would learn how to speak Chinese: The tones, the characters, and the proverbs were frustrating.  The task of learning Mandarin was daunting and overwhelming–and honestly, there were many moments I thought I was just not meant to learn this language.

Yet somehow, I did it.  I learned Chinese in less than a year.

I believe with dedication, hard work and these seven steps, anyone can learn any language in six months.

Step 1. Move to China (for six months at least)

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Yup. Pack your bags and go.

Undoubtedly, this is the most vital step.

For some, the first step may seem both emotionally and financially impossible–but trust me, if poor Mary from Utah can do it, anyone can.

I’m sure you could learn Chinese in your home country, but it would take you twice as long. Being in China not only gives you complete immersion, but it also puts your textbook smarts to use in real life situations.

And with China practically handing you money to study Chinese, there is no reason not to give it your best and move to China.

Step 2. Enroll in a Chinese Learning Program

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I’m not rich. I don’t have rich parents and I definitely didn’t have a sugar daddy to pay for my tuition. I learned Chinese in six months because I had to—I didn’t have enough money to stay longer (honestly, a year would have been nice!).

But in my opinion, six consecutive hours of Chinese class everyday, from a trained professional, is worth the money.

On the bright side, China is (comparatively) cheap. Although I never had the joy of studying abroad in Japan due to exorbitant costs, China helped me realize my dreams of overseas learning through its affordable tuition and room and board.

As of today, tuition for 5 months of Chinese language study at China’s #1 rated university, Tsinghua University, is 12,000 RMB (2,000 USD) with a single dorm (a/c, internet/cable included) costing you 13 USD a day. For 5 months at Tsinghua, tuition and housing included, you can learn Chinese at the best University in China for less than 5,000 USD a semester (way, way cheaper than Japan).

Plus, I’m more than confident you can get a scholarship.

Step 3. No Partying

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Or you can speak Chinese with a good friend while drinking, like here with Z!

Instead of hit the club with your foreign friends after class, hit your textbooks or see a Chinese movie in theaters with the locals. It’s going to be difficult exhausting restraint and making the books over booze decision, but unfortunately getting drunk all night and being hungover during class doesn’t equal to fluency.

No doesn’t mean never—just keep partying to a minimum. Instead, use that well saved party money to…

Step 4. Get a tutor

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This is not Danny, but this friend was also another huge help in my language learning!

My tutor’s name was Danny and he was a hardass. He schooled me. He smacked me senseless with a notebook on day one and said he could barely understand the words coming out of my mouth, Chris Tucker style. I sobbed. He called me a wimp. I stuttered when I spoke and my tones were all wrong, but Danny would have none of it. Fix that sorry excuse you call Chinese, he demanded, and made me write five page essays on current events for homework (everyday).

It wasn’t until our last day of lessons, after I talked for a full 30 minutes in Chinese about my future plans concluding Tsinghua University and Beijing, that Danny smiled at me and said:

“Compare the Chinese you’re speaking now to day one. You should be proud of yourself.”

Step 5. Get a Language Partner (or 3)

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If I wasn’t meeting my tutor or in class, I was with one of my three language partners.

I posted want ads around the school. I looked online and met countless weirdos. I don’t want to be your friend, I told them up front, I want to practice Chinese for 30 minutes and teach you English the other 30. Don’t go off topic. Don’t try to get buddy buddy with me.

In the end, I weeded out three wonderful people (that, despite my initial wishes, became my very good friends).

I’ll never forget their words of encouragement. I think in me they saw a passion to learn their language, and in that they took great pride. Without their continual support and guidance, I wouldn’t have made it to the 6 month mark.

Step 6. Watch Chinese Movies and TV

Photo courtesy of Dragon Eyes Review

One of my favorite Chinese movies!  Photo courtesy of Dragon Eyes Review

I know. Chinese movies and TV aren’t the greatest–but just grin and bear it. Try your best to watch modern TV and movies (no ancient dynasty concubine drama), and do it WITHOUT ENGLISH SUBTITLES. This is key. (Chinese subtitles are OK).

I like to watch Fei Cheng Wu Rao (you are the only one), a dating show, since it’s fairly easy to understand and somewhat entertaining.  You can watch the latest episodes, online, here at Tudou.

Yueni, an amazing Chinese translator and interpreter, also posted some great reads, movies and TV shows for Chinese practice. Check it out!

Step 7. Study in Beijing

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Like I explained earlier, not everyone in China speaks Chinese.

So, studying Chinese in a place where Mandarin isn’t widely spoken (ahem, Shanghai) might actually be a hindrance to your study.  I am eternally grateful that I chose Beijing to study Chinese. It’s the perfect place to learn ‘proper’ Chinese and will give you a beautiful Beijing accent.

And Finally, Don’t Give Up

Learning Chinese Takes a looooot of work

Learning Chinese Takes a looooot of work

There are so many times I thought about quitting Chinese.  I remember one day I forgot how to write the Chinese character for chair after hours of practice–and I went mental.  I broke down in tears, sobbed, and wondered why on Earth I spent so much time writing squiggly lines.

But believe me, the perseverance paid off.

Even if step one of my advice is not possible at the moment (dropping everything and moving to China is probably not very convenient for everyone), practicing the remaining six steps will set you well on your way to proper language learning.

Learning a foreign language is by no means easy, but the process of learning Mandarin (or any language!) and achieving fluency will, without a doubt, change your life.

Because that’s what living abroad does: Change you. My experiences in Beijing are what ultimately led me back to China and to Shanghai, and have made me who I am today.

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Do you have any other language learning tips that helped you learn Chinese or another language?

*disclaimer: I did learn Japanese before Chinese, so I didn’t have to learn the horrifically difficult Chinese characters from scratch (but trust me, the similarities between the languages end there).

29 thoughts on “How I Learned to Speak Mandarin in 6 Months

  1. R Zhao says:

    Six months? Really? You are 真牛! I’m going on nine years and I live with two Chinese speakers (and we use Chinese, about half of the time). I’m nowhere close to what I would call fluent. How do you define fluency??? Of course, I haven’t done all your suggestions, which are good ones, for nine years. But I have done them all for various amounts of time.

    Not to be a jerk, but how is claiming six months to gain fluency really less gimmicky than claiming three? They are both incredibly short periods of time to learn a language well. Think of how long it takes us to learn our native tongue!

    Its my understanding that the accent in Beijing is not standard. I agree that it is one of the better places to learn Chinese, but the 儿话 is something one should work hard to avoid–an accent that will have you sounding like a pirate!

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      You are very correct with your comments there, and I have changed my post accordingly. I was hesitant to post this because I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging, but I wanted to let people know it was possible to learn a language in less than a year. Fluency is hard to define (I think of it as being able to read/write/have a conversation without stuttering), so when I say I was ‘fluent’ after six months, I meant I was able to talk about semi difficult topics in Chinese without falter and I could probably understand 60-70% of the language around me. I was able to speak half decently after six months (like, maybe middle school level for a typical Chinese student), but I still have a long way to go.

      I think to learn a language in a short amount of time, you have to dedicate EVERYTHING to it. So, during that six months, I did nothing but study Chinese. I woke up, went to Chinese class, met my tutor after class, met my language partners after my tutor and then I watched TV before bed–and I repeated that for six months. I literally did nothing else.

      My Chinese actually slipped in Shanghai, because I had a job and other responsibilities and I couldn’t focus 100% of my time on Chinese. So (like most things) I think learning a difficult skill (esp Chinese) takes sheer determination.

      Also, it took me six years to speak Japanese at a level I would consider ‘fluent.’ I heard the second language is ‘easier’ to pick up, so this may have had an impression as well.

      Beijing er-hua is pretty nasty, haha, but I think it’s better to be surrounded by that than a dialect like Shanghai-hua that is nothing like Mandarin.

      Thanks for your comment and I’m sorry if I was offensive! My Chinese is actually slipping here in the states, so I might have to do some of these steps myself. Still, I remember picking up Chinese quickly with my intense regiment up there, and I hope I will have a chance to do this again.

      • R Zhao says:

        Not offensive! I guess I think there is a fine line between being encouraging and overly optimistic. Studying a new language can take a long time. Sometimes when people talk about how quickly they picked up Mandarin (or anything, for the matter) I start to wonder what’s wrong with me. Why can’t I learn things faster? But everyone is different in their study habits, goals, and amount of free time. I do believe some people have an inborn talent for certain things too.

        So you learned Japanese first? Do you think knowing kanji gave you a leg up on learning Chinese? I think wrapping my head around characters took quite some time. I know some people who don’t even both learning them, but I find it to be one of the most interesting aspects of studying Chinese.

        • rubymary says:
          Profile photo of rubymary

          To be honest I think knowing Japanese first helped cut my learning time in half. Although the readings are completely different, the meanings for the Chinese characters are completely the same so I didn’t have to start from scratch (and I know writing those characters over and over again can get old, FAST). When I studied Japanese I spent HOURS writing character after character, because there is no easy way to learn characters. It’s just a pain in the ass.

          So yes, Japanese helped a lot and I will admit–it was a form of cheating!! I actually think speaking Chinese isn’t too bad (although understanding it can be quite difficult!). The grammar isn’t too complicated, just getting the tones down is the hard part.

          I met tons of Japanese coworkers that spent years trying to learn Chinese, but since they had to work and had other responsibilities it was difficult to actually sit down and study Chinese. Even if you’re thrown into the environment, if you don’t’ have time to just focus solely on language learning, you’ll forget it all. Plus, when you’re tired after a full day of work the last thing you want to do is pick up a Chinese book, right? (at least, that’s how I feel now with my full time job haha)

          My time in Beijing was also the only time in my life I was able to focus solely on studying–and sometimes, I like to call this the “happiest” time of my life. I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills, or climbing the career ladder, or landing a good job.. all I had to do was study Chinese! (and I love Chinese, so I was in heaven). In university I worked part time jobs to pay for my rent and tuition and it was a pretty rough life, so my hardcore 6 month Chinese training was more like a vacation and a way to learn about China. Although it was a lot of work, I really enjoyed it. Even today, I’m truly grateful I had just six months to do whatever I wanted (which happened to be learning Chinese).

          Anyway, you’re fine! Even though I “learned” chinese in six months, I still feel like I have a long way to go. Language learning is never ending, and we’re always learning 🙂

  2. Marta says:

    Mary, you are amazing! I also got to be fluent in Chinese but it took me like 2 years in Beijing to feel that I was indeed fluent. I wasn’t so hardcore as you; I did study for over 5 hours every day the first month (plus daily lessons), but then I took it easy. And well, I had studied previously for 4 years in Spain… but when I arrived to Beijing I could hardly utter a word.

    I still think my tones are sometimes awful, BTW.

    I also liked A world without thieves! Have you watched 李米的猜想? (Totally unrelated but it is another movie I liked, haha).

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Haha I’m not amazing, I think learning Japanese was a big cheater shortcut (and that took me six years!). I was pretty hardcore in Beijing and I honestly don’t know how–maybe it was all the adrenaline of living in a new, foreign country. I’m trying to learn Italian now and believe me, it’s going to take 6 years not 6 months, haha. Living in the country helps SO much.

      My tones are bad, too. My Chinese friends are always correcting me.

      I haven’t watched 李米的猜想!!! Yes!!! New good Chinese movie to watch!!! Any other recommends?

      • Marta says:

        Did you watch the last Zhang Yimou? (Coming home). It reminds me of his first movies (Ju Dou and Raise the red lantern are not to be missed if you haven’t watched them!).

        Any movie you can recommend me? 😀 I haven’t watched anything too exciting lately.

        • rubymary says:
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          No I haven’t seen that one because Zhang Yimou’s film quality started to go down… but I trust you, let me check that one out!

          I really liked Let the Bullets Fly (I’m sure you’ve seen this one, haha) and all of Feng Xiaogang’s movies are really good (even though I heard he’s kind of a jerk in person). I like his movies Fei Cheng Wu Rao and there’s one about a funeral… really nice.

          And I loooove Takeshi Kaneshiro (in my book, he’s the sexiest man alive haha). He was in a movie with Donnie Yen called “Wu Xia,” people gave this movie a lot of bad reviews but I thought it was pretty good (only the ending sucks).

          And finally, although it’s not Mandarin, I LOOOOOOVE Stephen Chow movies, such as Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, etc.. all of his movies are simply hilarious. He’s actually one of the reasons I started studying Chinese. I think you can watch a dub of these movies in Mandarin (that’s what most mainland people do), but I like watching the original Cantonese… sounds funny, ahaha

          • Marta says:

            Oh, Takeshi Kaneshiro is definitely hot, haha. But I haven’t watched many of his movies! My platonic love is Tony Leung, even though he’s old he has this gentleman something and I love it *^_^* (In the mood for love!!!!).

            I haven’t watched Let the bullets fly! His new movie (Gone with the bullets, is it the second part or what??) is EVERYWHERE right now and I haven’t seen it either haha. But I will! I really liked Devils at the doorstep.

            Haha, yes, Stephen Chow. His last movies have been quite bad though. I just saw he’s filming Kung Fu Hustle 2!!! That should be fun.

            And regarding Zhang Yimou, even though some of this last movies have been too grandiloquent and totally out of the place I still watch them… they are usually visually stunning. Even the one about the noodle shop in the desert in Gansu, the story was kind of stupid but the images were so beautiful!

            Oh have you watched Comrades, almost a love story? It is so beautiful! And with the songs of Teresa Teng, haha.

  3. Kimberly says:

    It is inspiring to know that a language can be learned within such a short time. I’ve never formally studied Chinese in China though I’ve lived here for a while. At this point I can speak and read enough to give people crap when they try to overcharge me in the morning market. I should learn more but I don’t think I have it in me, with the kid and the Tibetan husband, I think I need to focus more on Tibetan. Hopefully what you said about learning a second second language is true 🙂

    • rubymary says:
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      Yeah, it is possible! But I think a lot of people want a short, easy way to learn Chinese–and unfortunately, it just doesn’t exist. It takes a lot of hard work.

      Luckily when I went to Beijing I was (sort of) single and I didn’t have to worry about anything other than language. It was super refreshing and it was one of the happiest moments of my life (like most Americans, I had tons of part time jobs in college to pay the bills!).

      Wow Tibetan is SO amazing!!!! I read your blog post and I still remember toe! (floor!) I look forward to more of your Tibetan posts! 🙂

  4. Lani says:

    You are amazing, Mary! Seriously, from this post it is clear that you had one mission and one only and that was to learn Chinese. And it obviously paid off 🙂 I’ve been horrible about learning Thai lately. Hopefully after I get my big book project off my plate, I can pile it up with other goodness 🙂 Yes, I owe you an email. I haven’t forgotten, xxoo

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Thai looks super hard–probably harder than Mandarin! I think I semi-cheated with Mandarin since I could already recognize most of the Chinese characters thanks to Japanese. Speaking is (surprisingly) not that hard–and Chinese grammar is easy. I know you could pick it up in no time.

      Ooo what book project is this? I must read!!!

      Thanks for the comment Lani!! 😀

  5. yueni says:

    Oh oh, really late to the party, but something I don’t think I mentioned in that comment, but my favourite Chinese documentary (thus far) is 舌尖上的中国. There’s English and Chinese versions on Youtube now. If you’re a foodie at all, I highly, highly recommend it.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I love that documentary, it’s a great way to learn about the real China! Plus the food is so amazing, oh man. I think some of the Chinese can be a little difficult for those that are first learning (since it has a lot of food terms), but still, very good!

  6. Cat (talkingofchinese) says:

    This is really inspiring. I have been studying Chinese for probably almost a year now (but I work full time and it is SO hard to get the hours up). My fiance is Chinese but his English is perfect and he has little to no interest in teaching me Chinese. He and his parents can speak Mandarin but they speak Shanghai-hua to each other. I am planning to go to China next year but probably for a maximum of 3 months.

  7. hau says:

    really nice sharing, highly appreciate your thread, Im now reading another post of yours, especially studying Japanese language, as currently im studying Chinese and plan to study Japanese language as well

  8. HAU says:

    i didn’t find out the article about how u have studied japanese, or there isn’t ? if not I hope u can write down the experiences with that language. Your knowledge is very helpful to me

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Wow thank you! That’s a great idea. I used a lot of the same principles in this article to learn Japanese, but since Japanese is a tad bit trickier maybe I could write up some tips. Thanks for the idea! I’ll get working on it.

  9. Todd says:

    lots of smog in that shang hai? pic…) Thats impressive you learned it that fast. Took me about the same to learn Japanese speaking/reading at the intermediate level. Was so naive and eager to learn it, went to 2 different schools.

    Just being curious, but do you feel its worth it to learn Chinese just to live or work in China? Of course, if your a translator, there is a payout for your success. Im not a translator, and I put allot of effort into learning Japanese. Like allot of other foreigners, I rarely use it. The racism/xenophobia in Japan is sometimes thick and cringeworthy, so I dont want to be reminded of it or invite it. It seems once they know you speak Japanese, then the hook comes out and they try to own you or remind you of your position in their society. English alwasy trumps all of that so I play dumb. Is China the same? Hiearchical society? Foriegners at the bottom? Ive never got that vibe from Chinese people; just seems they are mostly about their own kind and making money. Do they also have the same “expel the barbarians” history that Japan does?

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      To be fair, learning Japanese took me 6 years or something ridiculous, so I’m thinking 1. Chinese is easier and 2. maybe the 2nd language comes a little quicker.

      Everyone always asks me why I moved from Japan (a clean, well-mannered, organized and thoughtful country) to China (a corrupt, dirty, back-stabbing and cutthroat society) and my answer is this: Chinese people are real with you. Yeah there’s some racism and xenophobia but it doesn’t even come close to the levels of Japan. Chinese values mirror American values in the sense that: money wins. If you can make more money for your company, or you’re really good at what you do, Chinese companies are willing to invest in you even if you’re not Chinese.

      I liked China because the people are friendly, open, and don’t focus so much on the foreigner aspect. Most Chinese people (although they do ogle at foreigners) tend to treat you as an equal. Chinese people actually respect foreigners that learn Chinese and, unlike the Japanese, aren’t patronizing about it. Not once in China did someone comment to me: “you use chopsticks so well.” Yeah, they would give me the “your Chinese is good comment,” but it wouldn’t be the first thing out of their mouths. In fact, some Chinese would even say: “yeah your Chinese is good but your tones are off and you can still get better.” Rude? Perhaps, but I much preferred this honesty to the crap I got in Japan.

      So when I met my best Chinese friend (she worked at my company), I approached her in Chinese and asked her out to lunch. At the time my Mandarin wasn’t the greatest but it was ok enough, and we talked in Chinese all throughout the meal and we just talked about… normal stuff. Like work, and living in Shanghai, weekend plans.. she didn’t give me the foreigner treatment at all. It wasn’t until later I found out she was perfectly fluent in English (like, no accent), but still chose to speak to me in Chinese because she said a. she wanted to help my Chinese improve and b. for her, she preferred to speak Chinese. This would NEVER EVER HAPPEN IN JAPAN EVER.

      Anyway, the reason I spent 5 years in China and only 2 years in Japan is because Chinese people are alive. They are talkative. They don’t make you feel like you ‘don’t belong.’ Although China is extremely frustrating (the no-manners thing and lack of education can be hard, especially after living in pristine Japan), the close friendships I got out of China were amazing. I felt more alive and happy in China than Japan, sad to say.

      China is not for everyone, though. I would go there visit and see what you think. If the pollution/rude Chinese people/lack of infrastructure is simply unbearable, then it’s probably not a good fit.

  10. Amex says:

    I’m Chinese major student in china I were student of Addis Ababa University for 2 years, now I’m studying Chinese at TUTE Tianjin, China. I study Chinese 6 hours a day. I think studying just in class room is not enought to be a fluent speaker, so I get out and try to comunicate with chinese people, but the tianjin hua is really hard to understand, I don’t know what to do. I want to be good Chinese speaker.
    Now I need some advice from you. Can you help me to make my chinese better??

  11. Todd says:

    “To be fair, learning Japanese took me 6 years or something ridiculous”

    I could see it taking that long at the translator level; I think at the everyday gaijin life 500 – 1200 characters, 18 mos is very doeable. Im not a translator so Im not going to invest in it anymore. I got to the 800 mark I guess and saw how useless it was for a gaijin and lost interest. Hiragana Katakana is included of course, but you can almost learn that on the plane ride over ) Japanese grammar is not difficult once you get past the verb and all the itte imasu iru irareru itta etc stuff and when to use ni o wa ga de etc. Keigo is a bit difficult because its used mostly in writing emails and with customers, but I dont do that, so dont bother with it. I actually think Keigo is one of the more lovely things about Japanese language. Its rarely spoken to me, but to hear Japanese soften situations and go into that mode is always interesting

    “I liked China because the people are friendly, open, and don’t focus so much on the foreigner aspect”

    I agree and Ive never had any problem with Chinese. You often hear that Japanese avoid confrontation, but for me its the Chinese who try to avoid trouble. True, they litter and have rude mannerisms sometimes, but on a personal level, Ive never had any of them do to me what Japanese have done. I dont think Chinese have a superiority complex, but I could be wrong on that.

  12. Min says:

    Hi Ruby,

    It is Min here again. Thank you so much for your recommendations.
    I looked into the Confucius Institute Scholarship and have gone through
    the applications. However, since im nearing the deadline for Tsinghua
    University upcoming fall semester, i don’t think i can take the HSK test
    in time since the next one is taking place at May 8th (takes 2 weeks for results to arrive) so ill be rushing everything to submit. The CSC scholarship all i need is my academic transcript, graduation certificate, passport and study plan without any HSK/HSKK. Since im up to the final stages of the online application for CSC, i should go with that. I just have couple more questions. Do i complete the fall semester application first in order to receive the pre-admission letter? Its asking for payment before obtaining the admission letter to complete the application, how do i apply the scholarship if i have to pay for the application? Does the money get reimbursed? Thank you again for all the help you are providing.

    Kind regards,

    min

  13. min says:

    Hi Ruby,

    Thank you for your previous replies.
    Please disregard my previous message
    as they don’t need a reply and i sorted them out myself.
    This may be the final thing i ask so hope you are not bothered
    by it. I can see that you managed to get extra tutor and language partners
    on top of the regular classes. I’m now admitted to tsinghua university
    chinese language program this fall semester starting from september
    and just wanted to ask how you got yourself a very good tutor like Danny?
    I can see that you posted want ads across the campus to find solid language partners
    which i can see myself doing as well but what about the tutor? Did you do the same thing
    as just post want ads or did the classroom recommend a tutor linked to the university?
    That is all i need help with, once i receive the admission package this coming july, i should be able to sort out the rest such as dormitory, registration etc. I hope that there is no need for me to visit the university before september. Thank you for your continuous support
    and wish you the best for everything.

    Kind regards,

    min

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