How to find time to study Chinese

I’ve been a full-time student of Chinese for five years now, but it’s rarely a situation most learners of Chinese are. For example my students are either busy working or staying at home with their active kids that demand most of their time. Often it’s hard to find enough time for studying Chinese.

Do you really want to learn Chinese?

The first problem to solve is if you really want to make time for Chinese or not. For many the idea of learning Chinese is intriguing and they know knowing Chinese would help their daily lives in China, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily enough for motivating your self to actually make time for studying. So do you actually want to learn Chinese and do you find it interesting enough to slot time for it in your daily life?

Chinese is a fascinating language, it has captivated my life for six and half years now, or even more depending how you count. It’s such a different language from European languages and is part of a culture I find very interesting. But not everyone comes to China to fulfill a childhood dream. Many of us come here to work or accompany a working spouse.

Of course it’s possible to learn Chinese without being interested in it, but according to my experience it’s hard to keep up the motivation if you find the language boring or unnecessary.

Lets look at the reasons why learning Chinese is beneficial when you live in China.

Why to learn Chinese?

It is totally possible to live in China without knowing any Chinese besides nihao and xiexie, I know foreigners that have been doing that for years. So why should you learn Chinese then?

From the practical point of view, for many expats they soon find out that the taxi drivers don’t speak any English at all. During my five years in Guangzhou I’ve met one taxi driver that knew three sentences in English. As taking the taxi is a common way of transport for many foreigners, it comes handy to learn some related phrases and words. Makes your commuting a much more pleasant experience.

Talking with a driver or ayi. Nowadays there are English-speaking drivers and ayis (cleaners and nannies) available for expats, but often their language skills might be lacking. If you learn even a bit of Chinese, it helps you to communicate with them and also to get to know those daily helpers better. You can learn a lot about the city and the culture from them!

Shopping and haggling the prices is also a valid reason to learn Chinese. No matter if you are grocery shopping or hunting for gifts to take back home, knowing the numbers and relevant phrases in Chinese is a must. You might get along with a calculator at first, but miscommunications often happen without a common language. Chinese skills can also help you to negotiate a better price!

One important reason to learn Chinese is also to step out the expat bubble and experience the new culture around you. Living in China is an exciting experience for the whole family, sometimes accompanied with a culture shock. Understating the people and the culture helps you to tackle Bad China Days, and learning the language is the first step.

I recently met a fellow Finn living in Guangzhou and I was amazed by her adventurous mind. Her son goes to school where there isn’t a metro station nearby, so she was wondering what is the best way to take him to school and back. She noticed there is a bus stop next to hear home and the school, with one bus with the same number. She hopped in and found a quick and easy bus route to her son’s school! Now she is looking forward to learn Chinese and get to know the city even better.

How to find time to learn Chinese?

Now that you might have a rising interest towards Mandarin Chinese and during your first weeks or months in China you noticed it’s both useful and important to learn for living in China, how do you actually make time for studying?

Take group lessons at a language school or schedule a private tutor every week. If you are busy, even one 1.5 hours tutor meeting a week gets you to the journey of learning the daily expat Chinese. With an experienced tutor you make sure not to waste any time and get the tips and tools to study on your own as well.

Be realistic when your tutor asks you how much time you have for self-study, even 15 or 30 minutes per day allows you to start getting the basics of Chinese.

Make use of those extra minutes when waiting in line or when commuting. Besides more traditional textbook study, I give my students a small list of smart phones apps to download.

  • I recommend Skritter (affiliate link) for reviewing vocabulary as it has tons of vocal lists ready, also for the textbook I use.
  • Pinyin Trainer by trainchinese is great for mastering pinyin and learning to differentiate to similar sounding sounds.
  • Tone Test by Laokang is my choice for learning the four tones of Mandarin. Train your ear regularly and see your score get higher and higher.
  • For dictionary I of course recommend Pleco which is the choice of most Chinese learners all over the world.


Here’s my thoughts about why to study Chinese as an expat and how to motivate yourself to keep at it. If you are living in Guangzhou and want to know more about learning Chinese or hire me as your tutor, send me an email (sara (at) sarajaaksola . com) and we’ll meet for a cup of coffee.

  • I haven’t been spending hardly any time on studying since my son was born, but I do try to Skritter for 20 minutes a day and it helps. There’s always a way to sneak in a little time to do something!


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    20 minutes per day is really good, just putting time for studying on small slots through out the day. Keep up the good work!


  • anotherfinn

    I´ve been learning Chinese for a year and a half full-time and feel like I’m only scratching the surface when it comes to actually knowing Chinese language. It is truly a hard language to learn, no matter what some people might say. One-on-one tutoring for a few months will surely get you to a survival expat level but anything beyond that demands hard work of several years for most of us.

    Those who learnt semi-fluent spoken Chinese in a year or two and are telling everyone else that it´s possible should realize that they themselves are actually special cases. Anyone claiming to be able to learn fluent Chinese in three months(these people are out there on the Internet) should just, uhm, shut up and not take part in this conversasion. These peoples Chinese is not good at all when you watch their Youtube videos.

    How to find time? Set your _own_ goals and then do whatever you can do to reach those goals. If it´s no fun, then don´t do it. Somehow, even with tight schedules and too many things to do, we people mysteriously find time to do things that we personally enjoy. If you have to force it, maybe it´s not worth it at all. And don´t worry, you can stay in China for several years even if you only know all that essential survival level stuff. However, once you learn even a bit more a new world, friendships and culture opens up for you. For me that has been worth all the work I´ve done and I look forward to learn more and see what kinds of new adventures that opens up for me.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Excellent points! We do find the time when it’s something we enjoy, no matter how busy our lives are. Everyone studies in a different way and these days there are so many options to choose from, why not choose a way to study that you actually enjoy.

    You are also right that to get to that fluent level, it really needs hard work for years. The more you learn the more you realize that learning Chinese is a life long commitment. But it’s fun so why not! :)


  • FMSaigon

    Hi, I have been studying Chinese on and off for a number of years now, mostly outside China and just got around to discarding paper dictionaries. I notice iPhone Google translate doesn’t have pinyin, any recommendation for higher level online dictionary? Thanks