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)
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
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).
Step 3. No Partying
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
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)
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
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
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
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.
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).