Yes, you can learn Chinese!


Recently I got an email from Alexander who wished for inspirational words and encouragement to help him push forward in learning Chinese. Here is his email:

Good morning, Sara

My name is Alexander. Yesterday I occasionally found your blog, where you talking and discussing passing of HSK.
This year I’m going to China,Harbin city for learning of Chinese language. Honestly say, I was and is impressed by your words, concerning passing of HSK, especially, I was inspired by the following expression: “LEAVING OF COMFORT ZONE IS THE RIGHT WAY FOR DEVELOPMENT”.
So, what I’m waiting for? Sara, could you please write me some supporting, inspiring words, words which will assure me, that learning of Chinese is not difficult, that this process is quite interesting, exciting and absorbing? Words, which will help to quit myself from fear of HSK passing? Your additional supporting words, tips and information are welcomed! =)

Thank you very much!



Unfortunately I can’t assure you that Chinese isn’t difficult, because most things in life worth pursuing are a bit difficult. But something being difficult doesn’t mean you should give up! Mastering Chinese is a challenge waiting for you to achieve.

You have probably seen a version of the picture above online. A simple picture can remind us that if we want to grow, evolve and improve, we need to leave our comfy sofa of comfort zone. Comfort zone is what we know already and we are comfortable in using. But you want to learn new vocabulary, phrases, grammar or characters, right?

To learn something new we also need to do something new, no one can gather information without doing anything. Learning Chinese truly is exciting, it opens the doors for a full new culture, history and a huge country with its people. But along the journey we sometimes forget why we started at the first place, sometimes we need to remind our selves of the reasons we are studying Chinese.

For example over a week ago I was going to an interview at the local TV station to be part of a TV show this Summer. A day before the interview I was terrified as I often am about new things. I even wanted to cancel! But then I remembered that one reason for me to learn Chinese was to experience new things! And what could be a better way than participating in a TV quiz show about Chinese language and culture.

Speaking of HSK, there are two ways you can look at the Chinese Proficiency Exam. One is to improve on your own speed and use the HSK as a level test to see where you currently are. The other way is to actively use HSK as your goals and motivate your self by passing the levels and preparing for the harder exam. For more tips read How to pass the HSK test.

Finally, I’ve always been inspired by learners on a higher level than me. A fellow Finn who has just translated his first book from Chinese to Finnish, Olle who is going to do amazing things on the field of teaching Chinese and John who has his own firm in Shanghai that helps people to learn Chinese.

Alexander, you are on the right path and there is nothing stopping you in achieving your goals! 加油! Add oil! as they say in Chinese.

How would you encourage Alexander to continue learning Chinese? Please add your recommendations in the comments.


How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia

Dragonfruit Front Cover

What it’s like to be a Western woman living in the Asia? Trying to respect and learn the culture while still holding on to your dear values and ideas. No other book can better express the different stories we have than the newly published anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?: True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (affiliate link).

In the book 26 women from all over the world share their true stories in different countries in the East Asia. They are backpackers, expatriates, single women, mothers, wifes, all living in a new culture very different from their own. They feel joy, fear, love, hate, excitement, confusion, all the feelings in the spectrum while finding their selves and their lives in Asia.

I loved the book because it portraits such a rare peek into the lives of these twenty-six women. Even though many of them are living in different countries and situations than me, I could still see common themes and feelings bubbling up on the stories and in my life.

When reading I can totally smell the father-in-law’s dirty socks on Jocelyn Eikenburg‘s story of how she and her husband went to their honeymoon  – with her father-in-law! I could never imagine doing the same thing my self, so I have always admired how filial daughter-in-law Jocelyn is. While following their steps on the Yellow Mountain, the most moving part is where the father soothes Jocelyn who faces her fear of heights in a cable car.

At the moment Jocelyn is working on her own memoir, Red all over, that hopefully will be published soon. I can’t wait to read it!

If even the thought of those socks made me dizzy, I got tears on my eyes while reading several touching stories in the anthology. When Susan’s doctor tells her “Please know that in Chinese culture husbands might cheat, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love their wives” she blocks the devastating news from her mind, refusing to tell others what have happened. I remember the same kind of fear of letting others know, when my ex-boyfriend continuously treated me badly, ending up to cheating pretty much under my nose.

Susan Blumberg-Kason’s memoir, Good Chinese Wife (affiliate link), will be published on 29th of July and is now available for pre-orders. I think I can reveal that I was lucky to get a chance to review it as well and before my review comes out next month, I can just say the book is totally a must-read for all my readers!

The best thing about How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit is the variety of stories and all the feelings it brings up while reading. In the editor’s foreword Shannon Young shares the questions we all have when moving abroad:

How can I be respectful of the rules of this new culture? When do I choose not to adhere to the norms of my adopted home? Should I assimilate? Should I be independent? Or accommodating? Where is the point of equilibrium for a modern woman navigating a new culture?

In one sentence, this anthology tell you how twenty-six brave women from different cultures answers these questions in their own lives when living in Asia.

If you haven’t already, get How Does One Dress To Buy Dragonfruit from Amazon and start reading the touching stories right away!


Getting ready to start a Master’s Degree in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages

sunyatsen universityThis morning I saw the Confucius Institute Scholarship’s results on their website. I was almost sure that they wouldn’t be updating anything during the weekend, but I still had to continue my daily habit of checking the results site. And there it was!

申请进度:“奖学金资格评审中”- 授予奖学金

I was awarded a full scholarship for Master’s Degree in Teaching Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages aka MTCSOL! I knew that my chances were good as I graduated from the same Sun Yat-Sen University last December and had both good grades and good relationships with the teachers. But I couldn’t believe it not until I saw it in writing this morning.

So what does this degree actually hold in it? Lets take a look at the courses that I will be studying for the next two years. Usually all the courses are planned for the first year, the second year is mostly reserved for internship and thesis writing.

Teaching Chinese courses

At my university’s website I found a course plan from 2011, that lays out what kind of courses will be studied and their course credits. Of course the syllabus might have been changed after this, but in general it gives and idea of the structure of my courses.

According to my understanding, almost all courses foreign students will study together with Chinese students.

Core courses 18 credits

  • Degree public courses 6 credits
  1. Survey of Contemporary China
  2. Advanced Chinese
  3. Chinese Linguistics
  • Degree core courses 12 credits
  1. Teaching Chinese as a Second Language
  2. Second Language Acquisition
  3. Case Study of Classroom Teaching and Practices
  4. Survey of Chinese Culture
  5. Cross-cultural Communication

Expand courses 10 credits

  • Chinese teaching courses 4 credits
  1. Linguistic Elements in Chinese Teaching
  2. Skills in Chinese Teaching
  3. Comparative Studies of Chinese and Foreign Languages and Error Analysis
  • Chinese Culture and Intercultural Communication 2 credits
  1. Classics of Chinese Culture
  2. Comparative Studies of Chinese and Foreign Cultures
  • Education and Teaching Management
  1. Foreign Language Education Psychology
  2. Teaching Design and Management
  3. Survey of Chinese Teaching in Different Countries

Training courses 4 credits

  1. Application of Modern Technology for Education
  2. Resources & Application for Chinese Teaching
  3. Teaching Assessment and Evaluation Design
  4. Demonstration of Chinese Culture

Seminar 1 credit

  1. Language, Culture and Education
Cultural Experience 1 credit
  1. Activities of Chinese Culture or Cultural Exchange between China and Other Countries

Internship 6 credits

South Campus of Sun Yat-Sen University

Getting ready for the master’s degree

It’s been half a year since I finished undergraduate degree, a year since I’ve taken classes. Now it’s the time to get ready and take a head start for a very challenging year ahead!

First of all I have already started working on finally getting my tones right and improving my pronunciation.

Secondly I want to find out which books we will be using on the courses the following year so I can start reading them now. I need to get more used to reading in Chinese, that’s includes reading speed and taking notes in Chinese. I want to review what I learned during my undergrad, as that knowledge will surely be helpful during my master’s degree studies.

Thirdly I’m looking for students in Guangzhou (perhaps online as well) to teach Chinese to. I want to get more experience in teaching, especially in teaching beginner and elementary Mandarin Chinese. If you want to learn Chinese, you can contact me through email.


The only way is up!

I’m ready for the challenge!

I’m looking forward these two years to improve my Chinese overall level, learn more about teaching and make plans to teach as a career after my graduation.

Get ready for more blog posts on learning and teaching Chinese in the future! If you don’t want to miss any of my new posts, please subscribe for free on my about page or on the right sidebar.



Improving Chinese Pronunciation


Learning and improving Chinese pronunciation is something that pretty much all learners find challenging. I have been learning Mandarin for over five years now and my pronunciation still isn’t standard enough for me. One big reason for this is that I didn’t spend enough time and energy in the beginning to nail the pronunciation and the tones. So no matter how boring it might be to drill that pinyin, it really is worth it in the long run.

I’ve been avoiding improving my pronunciation for far too long, even thinking it isn’t that important as most Chinese people can understand me. But a standard pronunciation is very crucial for a future teacher and in my opinion also an important part in mastering Chinese.

Because having a clear goal is very beneficial to our studies, I decided to prepare for a pronunciation exam. My university offers PSC 普通话水平测试 Putonghua level exam twice a year and the next exam date is in October. My goal is to get those 60 points (out of 100) and pass the exam with the lowest possible grade (三级乙等). Even that is going to be very hard to achieve I believe, but it gives me a goal to work for.

Putonghua level exam

The PSC is actually meant for the Chinese themselves, especially those who want to be teachers, actors or news reporters on TV. China is full of different dialects which affects their pronunciation in Mandarin, so an official exam is needed to test how standard their putonghua really is. A special point to be made is that Beijing dialect aka beijinghua isn’t standard Mandarin.

The exam has four parts:

  1. Read aloud the following 100 characters (3.5 minutes, 10 points)
  2. Read aloud the following ~50 words (2.5 minutes, 20 points)
  3. Read aloud the following text, randomly chosen from a collection of 60 texts (4 minutes, 30 points)
  4. Speak about the topic, choose from two options (more than 3 minutes, 40 points)



Memorizing pinyin

In my practice book I have a list of 6593 words of frequently used Mandarin words, 4000 of them being the most common. I copy-pasted all of these to my Skritter* and chose to only study the pinyin and the tone of the words. I’m doing the list in alphabetical order for now and at the moment I’m starting to have words starting with D.

There is no pinyin in the exam, so  one of the challenges is to memorize the pronunciation for thousands of characters and words. As I have already passed HSK6 last year, I already know quite a few of these words. But of course there are lots and lots of words and pronunciation to memorize before October.

Improving my pronunciation

The practice book I bought for PSC includes a mp3 and I have already downloaded that to my iPhone. It includes the pinyin, fifth tone word list, erhua word list and audio for all the 60 stories. I will be listening a lot of this audio during the following months as listening is the first step in improving your own pronunciation. You have to know what standard sounds like before you can mimic it yourself.

I also need to make a habit of watching the news on TV as the news anchors has the most standard Mandarin you can find. This will probably be a challenge in it self, as it’s a new habit to be learned. Luckily I can watch the news online when ever I want to, before going to bed for example.

I’m also going to be meeting with a tutor once or twice per week to go over the texts and have him/her to correct my pronunciation. I will also be recording my self and spotting some of the biggest mistake by listening them.

I will probably come up with others ways to improve my pronunciation, including hearing your ideas in the comments, but I try to keep it simple. I have a habit of finding too many books, too many resources and then in the end being confused what to do.

Starting level

This will also be an experiment on how much I can improve my pronunciation in 4+ months and will be sharing the journey with all of you. In order to see my progress I will first share my starting level that you can hear on the mp3 below. This is me reading the first of 60 texts just today morning.

All advice and helpful criticism are welcome in the comments!

Resources to improving Chinese pronunciation

First of all John Pasden has an excellent resource on Chinese pronunciation on his blog Sinoplice, that I recommend for everyone, especially the beginners.

Olle from Hacking Chinese also has multiple great posts on learning to speak Chinese that are highly recommended as well.

The great Chinese-Forums.com has lots of topics and helpful posts on listening and speaking Chinese. All Chinese learners should register to this community. I’ve been a member since 2004, that’s four years before I started Chinese lessons at the university.

The tool I’m using the memorize pinyin is called Skritter* and I have already introduces it in this post. That little star means I’m an affiliate of them and when someone follows my recommendation and buys the subscription from that link, I will get a small share. Thank you for supporting my site if you do that!


Now it’s time to hear you out! What are you doing to learn and improve your Chinese pronunciation? Or if you are a native speaker or a teacher, what advice do you have for us foreigners?