Those of you who became fluent in Mandarin....What do you wish you knew when you began your studies?

Hey all,

I am planning to come to Taiwan for at least a year in the fall. I will most likely be teaching English, like most foreigners…

I want to seriously study Mandarin while I am in Taiwan. I don’t plan on signing up for any classes because I probably can’t afford them. Self study and language partners will be my main resources. I know that self study can be extremely effective if you go about it the right way.

So, my question to all of you is this. What methods of self study do you wish you knew when you first began learning Mandarin? Do you wish you began learn how to write/read when you began studying the language? Any general tips? How did it feel when you finally realized you were fluent?

All input is appreciated!



When I learn a language, I like to learn how to read and write the script at the same time as I’m learning to speak and understand spoken dialogue. I guess I can’t say I wish I knew anything, because the course I took (in college) was an excellent match for my needs.

For this reason, the venerable Teach Yourself series of self-study courses, many of which are excellent, offers a terrible Japanese course for my needs (it barely even broaches the subject of kana and kanji), but a fine Korean course (you get right into Hangul at the start).

But it depends on your needs. Do you wish to learn to read Chinese, or is it strictly speaking and listening for you?

For self study, it’s important that you get hold of self-study materials that feature both book(s) AND audio. If you wish to learn to read and you’re coming to Taiwan, it would be ideal to learn traditional characters, but depending on the self-study course you may have to settle for simplified. Most materials will also include pinyin, which is a valuable tool for learning. Note, however, that most Taiwanese don’t know how to use it.

Stay away from Rosetta Stone unless you want to pay hundreds of dollars only to be tied to your computer practicing useless phrases like “The red ball is under the table.”

And Pimsleur courses are all-audio.

In short: know what your needs are, and find a self-study course that best fits them.

I did a lot of self study myself during my first few years in Taiwan. Here were my insights:

  1. Lot of the books are written by native Chinese speakers, so the areas they emphasize aren’t necessarily the areas we native English speakers need help with.

  2. The hardest parts about learning Chinese (assuming you don’t care about characters in the beginning) is the tones. To get the tones right, you need a lot more listening practice than you would in other languages. So I’d recommend resources that focus around listening. Pimsleur is a great introductory course to get started with, albeit it focuses on Beijing pronunciation.

  3. There are a ton of free podcast courses out there that give you a ton of audio to listen to. One problem with them though is that they are level based - so one level might be for beginners while another might be for intermediate. As a result you may find over time that one level becomes too easy for you, while the next one is too difficult.

After figuring out the above for a few years, I kept thinking “Man, if I were to create my own course, I would do it differently - by taking the best parts of each system and putting it together”. So I did. I created an audio based course called Chinese Learn Online that followed my own progression learning Chinese. The course is progressive, so each lesson continues where the previous one left off. The first couple of levels are all in English, while later levels switch to Chinese but only using Chinese that was taught in earlier levels, so you’re constantly getting review of Chinese that was taught before.

Right now there are 420 lessons spread over 7 levels. The lesson audio can be downloaded for free, while additional review material can be purchased on the site. I think if you combined a course like this, with regular practice on the streets here in Taiwan, you’ll be able to pick up the language fairly quickly.

3. There are a ton of free podcast courses out there that give you a ton of audio to listen to. One problem with them though is that they are level based - so one level might be for beginners while another might be for intermediate. As a result you may find over time that one level becomes too easy for you, while the next one is too difficult.[/quote]

How true. Actually, the problem is that they need to be more level based! That is, they need to have more graduated levels so that it’s not such a quantum leap from one level to the next. I’ve said before that I think these other companies could fill in their offerings without too much trouble, but as it stands right now I’d recommend Adam’s CLO series to a self-learning beginner over the many other useful series I’ve tried.

I do have two very concrete learning tips (to native English speakers) for everyday survival and practically getting around a Chinese speaking environment:

  1. get as familiar as possible as early as possible with attributives. Because Mandarin doesn’t have relative pronouns to identify and specify things relative to other things and times, I was unable to do that for longer than was necessary. It was a sudden big help to me in real life when I started focusing on getting fluent with using “de” in short and long attributive phrases.

  2. Language started to flow much better for me, and people started understanding me much better after I studied the short section on “the overall rhythm of Chinese speech” in Yip’s Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. I’ve never seen such a basic aspect of language talked about anywhere else (in relation to Mandarin), whether from books or from teachers. I did go over rhythm with native speakers no problem, but none had ever self-consciously addressed this obvious feature when working with students. In my experience, if you continue to ensure (consciously or not) that your stress patterns maintain the boundaries of each term as we do in English, then your Mandarin comes out in fits and starts that make it klutzy in your mouth, and sometimes quite ambiguously confusing to your listener.

Wha? You’re a native speaker of English, Adam? I would have guessed otherwise from the CLO recordings.

Get stuff you can truly understand (or that someone can tell you exactly what it says) and get enough repetition of unpredictable similar things, and your brain will do the rest. We memorized and copied far too much for far too little effect, but no one knew any differently back then.

Those of us who became fluent in Mandarin…wish we were already fluent when we began our studies :smiley:

For me, starting out south of Taipei was a mistake. Too much Taiwanese spoken, so even if it was a manageable conversation for me, I couldn’t understand it because of the Taiwanese. Despite all the foreigners in Taipei, Taipei is still a better place to learn Mandarin. My Mandarin took off as soon as I got to Taipei.

(edit) Well, actually, I’m not being totally fair. Taichung was fine. At least there are Mandarin schools there and I did get a decent amount of Mandarin input there. Not 100% like I would have preferred but quite a bit.

But if you start in a small hick town, the Mandarin resources will be nonexistent. My first Mandarin class was a 正音班 class for ohbasan housewives whose average age was 65 and who spoke heavily accented Mandarin. I had the best Mandarin pronunciation in the whole class. :ponder:

I learned to speak and understand first in high school, then started to learn to read and write in college, this method was very helpful because I could easily remember what phonemes go with what character, and it was also easier to remember the homonyms and characters with multiple pronunciations. I understand the tendency to turn down programs like Rosetta Stone, but it did help me with pronunciation of basic words. I got it from a friend. Also wenlin will help greatly with the characters.

Another word of advice: since you’re planning to go to Taiwan, definitely study the traditional character set FIRST, then if you need to study the simplified, but I found it was easy to guess the meaning of the simplified after learning traditional. Simplified is an abomination of the original form of writing.

Yet another: Taiwanese tend to confuse or pronounce certain sounds in a different way than they are spoken in Mandarin, such as ng and n endings, or zh- z beginnings (using pinyin). So you need to make sure you get a good speaker for language partner, how to tell if you don’t have background will be a challenge.

On the other hand you don’t want to study anything that has a lot of Beijing-isms such as the infamous er-hua, where everything gets pronounced with an er at the end. Beijingers will tell you that this is traditional and pure Mandarin but it’s actually a northern dialect.

Otherwise: good luck and try to pick up some Chinese before you arrive in Taiwan.

By no means fluent but am doing self-study so thought I’d chip in. I personally have not bothered with reading/writing as plan to tackle that once I at least have a decent grasp of the spoken language. I am tackling learning in 5 main ways:

  1. Tone recognition practice using the iPad (app called pinyin trainer by trainchinese) and number recognition by the same people. I do this every single day for about 20 minutes and it seems to be sinking in ever so slowly.

  2. An audio course from the FSI (foreign services institute - just google it). this in my opinion is an amazing (free) resource. Alot of it is based in Taiwan and if you ignore the fact that some of the vocab is designed for miltary/government personnel (If I ever run into Major White from the military attaches’s office I will be well prepared for a good chat…) i think it’s a well put together course. If anyone is interested in other langauges the FSI have loads of stuff on the site covering almost any language you can think of.

  3. iTunes U (free online courses)l material a bit scarce but there are some good videos from seton hall university.

  4. Getting out and talking to people (duh…) seriously though it’s easy to get discouraged when people either insist on talking back in English or Taiwanese but I’m persevering!

  5. Vocab acquisition using apps for phone/ipad. I find this the most frustrating as unless I actually use the vocab in real situations I tend to forget most of it.

Edit: actually there’s a 6th thing I do. Listen to the radio in the car. i96.3 is pretty good, lots of spoken mandarin (all the DJs speak mandarin and all the adverts and news are in mandarin) and a mix of english and mandarin songs. People have argued both sides regarding whether listening to the radio actually helps when you don’t understand most of what is said but my personal experience is that it helps reinforce vocab I do know and actually helps measure progress. For example I now understand phone numbers in adverts with no problems whereas when I first arrived it was just too quick.

I’ve gone through all of FSI, and I have to advise to stay away from it entirely. It’s from the 70’s, and native speakers corroborate that the language has changed enough that you’ll have to un-acquire many of the things you acquire from FSI. It was kind of cool that half of the FSI is set in the R.O.C., but still. FSI’s French series was tremendously useful, but alas not the Mandarin.

I’ve also been advised that many erhua’ed words are considered standard (because northern pronunciation is considered standard), and not “Bejingese.” I’ve never sensed causing a confusion in the other person when erhua’ing a word. Same goes for the standard r-sounding pronunciation of “i”. In fact, I’ve had Taiwanese non-language professionals spontaneously re-pronounce things for me (such as standard “zhi” for “zi”) when I looked confused by what they just said.

Interesting point Jimmy. I definitely agree FSI can feel a bit dated and over complex/stilted at times (“how much is this newspaper per copy?” “it’s one dollar, money, per copy”, “here is 1 dollar, money” etc etc) but I’ve found this to be true of alot of self-study materials. No one in the real world ever seems to talk like they do in the study materials but then part of the challenge is modifying what you learn for real world use. When something seems a bit OTT or dated I just ask my wife if anyone in their right minds would really say that. I also wonder how much the language has really changed in 40 years? Yes, vocab comes and goes and grammar falls in and out of use in any language but does it really change that much? Sure someone on here can answer that.

Anyway,thanks for the words of warning, will bear it in mind. I’m always looking for new materials so if I find anything better than FSI then will of course use that.

I wish I’d known that it would take me so many years and in the end be counterproductive.
It doesnt help you get a better job, and it interferes with your sex life.
Plus they stopped writing anything worth reading about 100 years ago.
But other than that it’s a blast!

The extent to which my endeavors would be intentionally and unintentionally misguided, misinformed, and hindered by the Taiwanese.

Maybe I don’t wish that…then I might have given up in the first place.

I learn it in mainland, in a crapy university in Dongbei. For the first two months (two months men !! 8 hours a day) we were only listening and repeating with no idea of the meaning of any sentence. At the beginning just single characters and later sentences. Our teacher was not speaking a word of english but I remember that he has such a perfect mandarin. Looking at this right now, I think it was the best possible exercise for getting the tones right.

I later met people having a good level / vocabulary but unable to be understood by locals AT ALL as their prononciation was not right !

So rather than trying to write down some stuff and try to repeat it to locals (you’ll never pronounce it right at the beginning), I would suggest to listen first and do it a lot. If you have a musical hear, it will come quickly.

Do you guys learn with pinyin in Taiwan ?

Don’t bother too much with handwriting, I have passable mandarin skills overall, but the handwriting has degraded so that I can barely write a sentence on paper. It helped a bit with reading, but it should be pinyin on computer all the way.
And pay attention to tones, there is no shortcut, you will regret it like me if your tones still go awry
Also got input from the real environment, the classroom is not enough, you need to absorb from the real world and practice.
Don’t get upset if it doesn’t happen overnight.

Pay attention, yes. But spending several months just parroting sounds is not the most efficient way to go in developing practical tonal competence.

The main hurdle with tones is “convincing” a Western brain that they do matter. When I teach a beginner, we have a minimal pair (ku1 / ku4) on the first day, and the meaning of those two words is so different that students really get the idea that the tone matters. Outside of a very few minimal pairs in very short utterances, though, there are few if any situations in which context and a truly accurate grasp of structure/word order won’t score higher than accurate tones and poor word order.

I speak mando pretty doggone well. The only thing i kinda regret is not being able to read and write it. But i figured thats way tooo much work.

I learned a lot of it by watching the news on TV.

And now a days you can even watch some taiwanese soaps. They will help you. They are not overly sophisticated dialog and are contemporary.

I’ll add my two cents real fast:

  1. Expect slow progress in the start, which accelerates the better you get.
  2. Expect to take the equivalent of about 2 years of full-time classes (2-3 hrs. / day + homework), to master 90%+ of everyday spoken and written Chinese. I would recommend classes at NTU.
  3. Expect the need for a high level of self-discipline to maintain your handwriting outside the demands of a structured class.
  4. Be intentional about limiting the time spent speaking English with foreign friends in favor of spending time with Taiwanese friends.
  5. Expect to make a fool of yourself on a regular basis, but learn to laugh about it. :smiley:

That’s some of my experience, which of course might differ from that of others.