Studying Chinese,  Teaching Chinese

No matter how hard it might feel, you can learn to speak Chinese

情 Character

How is it like to learn a second language as an adult is a question I encounter with on a daily basis when teaching my students Chinese. I started learning Chinese when I was 20, but before that I already had experience in learning a foreign language. I started English at 9 years old, German at 11 and Swedish when I was 13. But how is it like for adults who start their very first foreign language and it happens to be Chinese?

First an article on Hacking Chinese came to my mind: You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old. Olle reminds as that even though it’s easier for children to master the pronunciation of a new language , we adults are much smarter and thus are much better at learning. What we should learn from kids though is that they don’t give up and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes.

We adults often expect results way too quickly and get frustrated when we don’t learn a new skill right away. Remember that learning anything new takes time and effort, so does Chinese, and don’t be afraid to make lots of mistakes along the way.

Speaking of confidence, a blog post from Sinoplice, Confidence and Tones, reminds us how important it is to be confident in your studies. The perfect balance is with having the correct information (knowing the correct pronunciation) and being confident enough to open your mouth and say those words out loud. Children aren’t afraid to speak up so we should definitely learn from them!

I didn’t learn the Chinese pronunciation well when I started. Our teacher just made us listen and repeat after a CD recoding for hours and hours, without explaining why we were learning this way. She didn’t explain where and how all these new sounds should be pronounced in our mouths. She didn’t correct our tones enough and let us get away with bad pronunciation.

When I came to China I noticed that it could take me 5 minutes to try to order yì bēi shŭi one glass of water just because my pronunciation was so terrible. During the years I’ve noticed plenty of foreigners complaining how the Chinese don’t understand their Chinese, I felt the same way at first. But then I realized that it’s my fault, my pronunciation just wasn’t good enough to allow the listener to easily understand me.

Learning Chinese pronunciation is tricky, it takes lots of time and effort, but the good news are, that after you master it (or become good enough), learning Chinese becomes much easier. At first it may seem like that you never learn those difficult initials like j, q, x or zh, ch, sh, but that’s not true. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, study hard and you will notice how native speakers start to understand you.

It may take a while to get that first feeling of accomplishment, but trust me, it feels great! One day you realize the taxi drive understood where you were going, the waitress got your order right and you just said your very first spontaneous Chinese sentence without translating it first in your head.

John from Sinoplice describes learning Chinese in 5 stages, starting from “Ching-chong-ching”. At this first stage Chinese seems something completely alien to you. How could these sounds be learned? And how is it even possible to recognize the different tones, do they even matter? After learning Chinese for a while, with a good teacher, a learner will gradually realize that Chinese is a language just like any other language (Stage 2). You start to understand that for the Chinese the difference between mā with a first tone and mà with a fourth tone is as big as the difference between A and B letters is for us.

I wish that my students don’t make the same mistakes as I did and think the tones or correct pronunciation doesn’t matter. Yes, Chinese will understand you Xièxie (thank you) and fāpiào (incoive) no matter how poorly you utter them, just  because these are the two words they are used to hearing from a foreigner’s mouth. But try something else and you find yourself having communication trouble.

We also have difficulties with non-native speakers of our own languages if their pronunciation is way off, it’s the same with Chinese. English and Chinese just happen to be quite different languages so it takes a bit more effort to nail the pronunciation. So let’s make it easier for us and for the listener and learn those new sounds. Just like a kid, don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

Now after learning Chinese for 6+ years I finally understand how valuable it is to listen to the advice or advanced learners like Olle from Hacking Chinese and John from Sinoplice. They have gone through the journey, made the mistakes and are sharing their wisdom on how to avoid those mistakes our selves.

As a final word for this not so coherent blog post, I would like to say that don’t give up. No matter how hard it might seem in the beginning, you can learn to speak Chinese. No matter if it’s your first or fifth foreign language, you are never too old to learn new things. Advance on your own speed, but take an advantage of the tips of other learners.

Good luck! Study hard!


  • Gabriel Schroll

    Hi Sara. I love how you ended the blog post with the crossed out “good luck” and then wrote “study hard” because it’s so true. It’s also true that the amount of hours you study is a lot better way to track your time than simply by the years. For instance, I started casually getting into Mandarin Chinese about 6 years ago, when I was already 31. I still don’t speak Chinese, and it often seems like I never will. I’ve completed about 70 of the Pimsleur lessons, the entire Michel Thomas Method set, one disc of Rosetta Stone, subscribed to PopupChinese, have Modern Mandarin Grammar ebook, a couple of dictionaries on my phone, BrainScape Chinese app, and a few self-created flashcard sets that is now over 750 words. On top of that, I married a Chinese woman who I met on Interpals a couple of years ago, and am currently in Beijing, after having spent 3 months in Hong Kong (who as you know, speak Cantonese primarily), 1 month in Shenzhen, and 2 months in Guangzhou.

    I haven’t always been very diligent. There were weeks and possibly months where I didn’t study at all. Since I’ve been here (everywhere I just mentioned as a whole), I’d say there’s not a day that’s passed that I haven’t at least studied my flashcards for 30-60 minutes.

    Although I’m now in my late 30s and still don’t speak Chinese, the one thing I know 100% is that if I stop studying, I will never become fluent/proficient. Sometimes I think I’ll never learn, but I just keep doing it because I feel like I’ve put in too much time and energy to give up.

    The new method I’ve just begun using is recording videos from YouKu, and putting them on my phone. I’m using a show called “I Am Speaker” currently, but the great thing about Chinese videos/tv is that they’re almost always subtitled. I watch a clip many times and listen carefully, seeing if I can understand a word or a few words. Then I translate the sentence, break it down, add new words to my flashcard list, and then watch it again, seeing if now I can follow it.

    There are a ton of ways to learn a language. My wife doesn’t speak Chinese with me because she doesn’t like to feel like my teacher. But she’s always happy to help me when I initiate it. I try to talk to her in Chinese at least a few minutes every day. She’ll basically either say “perfect!” or “huh?” If she can’t understand me, I know there’s a problem, and she’ll help me.

    I am not at the point where I can do much talking in public to strangers. I know it will speed up the process of learning, but what can I say except that’s just not something I’m comfortable with. I know as I continue to learn, I’ll start talking more, but I’m very grateful that I have someone (my wife) who helps me while making me feel safe while out of my comfort zone.

    I could never estimate the amount of hours I’ve spent on this language, but as I said earlier, I will not give up. Perhaps it will take me 5 more years to confidently wander out into China on my own. Perhaps longer. In the end, it doesn’t really matter because even if it takes ten more years, when that day comes that I realize “hey, I can speak/understand Chinese!!!”, it’ll be worth however long it took.

    It’s no different than learning a musical instrument. My mom has been taking guitar lessons for more than 5 years, and she practices almost every day, and still she is slow and makes a lot of mistakes, but that’s the only way to improve. It just takes thousands of hours.

    I’ll end by saying I dabbled in many languages earlier in my life, and settled on Chinese because it was….the easiest. I heard it explained as Lincoln Logs or Legos. More than any other language, it makes sense, and any native English speaker can pronounce everything – unlike European languages that have so many foreign sounds. Of course, I’m talking about PuTongHua. Cantonese is a different animal together.

    I love Mandarin Chinese, and I won’t give up. It’s frustrating to know it’s coming along so slowly, but I can’t imagine stopping.

    Thanks so much for the blog. It’s a really great read!

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I’m so happy to read your comment Gabriel! Learning Chinese can be a great hobby, you don’t have to rush with it, there’s no deadline, just enjoy the process and keep on going. Week by week, month by month, year by year you start having these “eureka!” moments where you realize “wow, I just understood that!”

    Like you said, there are many methods and routes to the top, it’s not often about which one you choose, but which one will you keep on using. And of course you can change your method and continue from there. More interesting to try out different things, the progress comes when you just go forward.

    Continue the great work and come back once in a while to share you progress!

  • Esko Heino

    One month ago I tried to buy beer in the ferry to Yuhuan. They didn´t understand my repeated “pijiu”, finally they understood my “beer”. One reason probably was that they had stopped to sell beer in the ferry.

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Perhaps the fact that they didn’t sell beer made it a bit harder for them to guess what you were trying to say? But the good news is that as you Chinese gets better, these situations become less and less.

  • Veronica

    Thanks so much for this post! I actually don’t study Chinese at all. But have been living in South Korea for 2.5 years. . .and have really struggled with Korean. I am currently on a break (giving up??) just can’t seem to make any traction. Your post is timely. Will hit the books today. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Ellen Reply:

    Oh, no-no-no, Veronica! Don’t give up! Taking a break – good. Giving up completely – bad! Many language learners can tell you that this time (2-3 years of learning) is precisely the time when people want to give up, because they “don’t see improvement”. Watch TV series. It’s like 2in1: having a break and improving your foreign language skills :)
    Study hard! :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    It’s the intermediate plateau that makes us feel like we haven’t improved much. We still remember the early days when we learned so much in one day, because we started from zero. So it’s not that we aren’t improving, we just fail to notice it. That’s why it’s good to look back once in a while and see all the things you’ve done :)

    Veronica Reply:

    Ellen! Thank you so very much for your kind response! Will def your advice and watch more Korean TV. Happy to report that, I am taking baby steps. Yesterday, I spoke to my boyfriend in Korean (just 3 simple phrases) He understood me perfectly! But answered in English. LOL. He promises to respond in Korean more often. :-)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    There are many times when you feel like giving up, for me as well! Even though I study and teach Chinese pretty much full-time, it doesn’t mean that it’s all fun and rose petals all the time, sometimes just have to make myself to study. That happens for everyone, so don’t worry and keep up the good work you’ve done so far!

    Veronica Reply:

    You’re right. Of course, you’re right! Thanks Sara. Bit by bit, I’ll get there. It’s hard for me to work on something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I will study hard!!!!

  • Ellen

    I totally agree with the part where you talk about kids and their process of language learning. Indeed, adults tend to expect great results in a very short time.
    If we look at kids, then they learn about 50 words in their second year (first year of talking), about 100 new words in the third life year etc, and they reach a satisfactory proficiency by the age of 5 or so. I remember, my progress was pretty much the same – 50 new words, then 100, and by the end of my 4th year – about 2000. And most importantly, children are not afraid of making mistakes. And has anyone mentioned that children are in the language environment pretty much 24/7? So yes, we, adults, have a lot to learn from kids :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    If we adults use as much time learning the language as kids, we would improve in a very fast speed, much faster than kids. But often we don’t have that much excess time for our foreign/second language :) There are lots of things to learn from kids, but then again we can also learn better than them if we do the work.

  • DJSuomessa

    Moi! It may seem a bit strange why a Chinese reads and comments on your post about learning Chinese. I found your blog few years back accidentally when I tried to find some online Chinese learning material for my Finnish husband. Although honestly he is not very motivated enough to learn it despite my effort during all these years, I since then followed your blog and enjoyed your posts where I can see the fun stories, feeling, thoughts, issues and advices you and other families/couples of different mixed cultures share and find some resonance with my life. Reading your posts and guests’ comments on learning Chinese I also found inspiration on learning Finnish myself once in a while when I get angry with this language or lost hope on it. Gabriel Schroll’s experience of learning Chinese resembles mine, but mine is with frustrating Finnish. After reading this, I feel like going back to continuously read some Finnish books tonight. :)

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I have huge admiration for foreigners learning Finnish because I think it’s such a difficult language with the grammar. It’s great that you’ve continued with it and keep on going! My husband wants to learn Finnish someday too.

  • Cat (TalkingofChinese)

    Great post! When I was in Taiwan for a short time trying to improve my very basic Chinese I stayed with a family with a toddler and it made me realise just HOW MANY time he had heard words before he even tried to say them. I also realised how much positive re-enforcement he got and the importance of having a “language parent” to encourage you.