Mandarin - How to Study the World’s Most Frustrating Language...

…and Not Go Mad Doing It

Like any good therapist, I get out a notebook and start  asking the patient some questions. How do you feel when you think about learning Chinese? Who do you blame for your lack of progress? What do you think is stopping you reach your goal? The patient is squirming, doodling on a pad, tracing the characters 中国 repeatedly to avoid having to produce an answer. Ummm… Well…

At this appointment, I’m the therapist and the patient I’m finally having a face-down with is myself!

Analyze your barriers

Feelings when Learning Chinese

I’ve been working in China a long time. So long, in fact, that I can’t reveal to you exactly how long. I’ve heard your response so many times before, “Wow! You must speak really fluent Chinese after living here so long.” Not the case. With such a poor level of Mandarin, I’m too ashamed to leave – I’m basically stuck in China.

One day I was listening to a podcaster interviewing Tim Ferriss of The 4-Hour Work Week fame. He had just launched The 4-Hour Chef and was explaining how he analyses the barriers to learning. For instance, for first-time chefs, the challenges are things like having the right ingredients at home and doing the washing up! I remember stopping dead in my tracks and realizing I needed to analyze the barriers to my learning Chinese.

That’s when I became both the probing therapist and the  squirming patient. I discovered a lot in that first therapy session. I discovered my biggest barrier  to learning Chinese was that I found it boring and  like a chore . So my therapist suggested I list as many different ways of ‘studying’ Chinese as possible. 


Personalize your learning approach

My therapist also set me a goal of ten hours of Chinese learning a week. As I have a 1.5 hour weekly lesson, that leaves 8.5 hours to fill myself. I decided that I would match my study method to my mood. Sometimes my mood dictates some passive learning and other times more active study – either way is fine – as long as I fill ten hours a week.

Learning Chinese can drive you mad: so set goals for yourself & adapt those goals to your changing moods [Tweet this]

I can report a complete U-turn in my attitude to learning Chinese. Here’s how I fill my week (some of it appears more fun than study):

Passive learning:

  • Watching a favourite film in Chinese instead of English. [Or follow a soap opera on Youku– that’s what my teenage daughter does.]
  • Watching a film in English with Chinese subtitles – while looking up unknown characters. [Can take several days to watch a film. Can alienate other members of your household!]
  • Listening to a podcast such as Chinese Pod’s Qing Wen series. [Perfect for filling a short walk, a ride on the tube or a wait in a queue.]

A good tip for practicing your Chinese: watch your favourite film in Chinese instead of English! [Tweet this]


Semi-passive learning:

  • Reverting to my Pleco dictionary app on my smartphone when I see a character I don’t know. [Huge improvement on the days when we had to carry those small paper dictionaries around.]
  • Flipping through a flashcard app on my smartphone [Brain/memory experts recommend doing this just before turning out the light at night.]
  • Tracing characters with an app on my smartphone screen [This app has had huge impact on my character writing]
  • Deciphering Chinese messages on WeChat and Weibo. [Feel ridiculously pleased with myself when I can read a whole message without relying on Pleco]

Active learning

  • Writing or typing characters. [There’s no getting away from it, just accept it and suck it up!]
  • Reading characters. Have found reading bilingual books really suit me. [Prepare to return to childhood, I’m currently reading Wind in the Willows.]
  • Speaking whenever possible. [I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone more and more, especially in the business sphere.]

The biggest change has been in my attitude. I’ve stopped berating myself for not studying harder all these years.  History is history. I’m having fun, particularly with the apps. After all, when I arrived in China there were no smartphones, no Pleco, and no apps!

So if you’re struggling with your Chinese study, maybe it’s time to sit yourself down and have a session with your inner-therapist. Identify your barriers. Set up some reasonable goals. Build in a reward mechanism. And then reap the benefits.

When studying Chinese identify your barriers, set clear goals, use reward mechanisms & reap the benefits [Tweet this]



To read more on how to improve your Chinese, check out our article about 5 Reasons Why Learning Chinese Isn’t As Hard As You Think, or The Differences Between Zhuyin and Pinyin.

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Bridget Rooth is the founder and CEO of English Trackers, an online English editing company.

Language has played a huge role in her life. She’s an experienced French – English conference interpreter; she’s translated so many words it’s scary; she speaks Spanish reasonably well and Chinese shamefully badly. She has three children with two mother tongues who are currently studying in three different countries! She blogs about the English language at

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