Can You Teach Yourself Chinese?

When starting to learn Mandarin, it is important to not only be aware of what to do, but more importantly what not to do. It is an achievable project for anyone, regardless of your IQ, but only if you avoid the pitfalls that most Chinese learners fall into. Also, many of these suggestions are based on the idea that you are going for actual fluency, not simply basic Mandarin that will allow you to get by day-to-day in China.

What NOT to do:

-Avoid learning characters

-Treat pronunciation lightly

-Speak before you have had enough input (listening & reading)

-Learn characters from Chinese native teachers (I know this may sound surprising, but I’ll explain below)

Let’s take these one-by-one:

1. You need to learn characters for two main reasons, one practical and one philosophical

Practical: Mandarin Chinese only contains approximately 409 independent syllables (not accounting for tones). This means that you have a preponderance of homophones throughout the language. English has something like 12,000 independent syllables, so it becomes possible for you brain to naturally pattern recognize when it comes to auditory content alone, however with Mandarin this type of auditory only approach quickly runs into a ceiling because there are so many words and characters that have the same or very similar pronunciations. From a visual perspective, however, character with the same pronunciation often are visually completely distinct. This allows your brain to pattern recognize much more easily. This picture makes it all quite clear:

From left to right: 市 shì, 是 shì, 式 shì, 示 shì, 十 shí, 时 shí, 事 shì, 使 shǐ, 湿 shī

All of these characters are pronounced “shi” in various tones (5 of them are 4th tone). From an auditory perspective this becomes very hard to distinguish, but as you can see they are visually nothing alike. Starting to see how learning characters will give your brain a huge pattern recognition advantage?

Philosophical: Mandarin Chinese is not a bad sounding language at all, I actually quite like it, but it isn’t exactly in the running for most pleasant sounding language (here’s looking at you, French & Italian). However, I would argue that the Chinese writing system is by far the most interesting, culturally relevant and rewarding system to learn in the world. You will open your mind to ways of interpreting reality that will make your brain, quite simply, better at thinking. But most importantly…

Reading is incredibly effective for acquiring a second language. The only reason people avoid this with Chinese is because they are intimidated by the writing system (more on why they feel this way below). Effectively if you don’t learn characters, you are handicapping yourself massively in the acquisition process. Anecdotally I find this to be the case, the more I read, the faster the right word comes to my mind in situations of speaking or writing. More on that in a bit.

2. Take Pronunciation Seriously

While the fact that Mandarin only has about 409 simple syllables is a disadvantage when it comes to learning through listening, it plays to your advantage when learning pronunciation simply because it is realistic to learn all the pronunciation principles for the entire language in a relatively short amount of time. It is also relatively easy to understand what makes up a Mandarin syllable. The advantages of this should be relatively obvious, however consider how frustrating it would be if you believe yourself to be speaking correctly, but all the native speakers around you keep expressing that they don’t understand what you are saying. On the flip side, consider how much it helps your confidence when you are understood.

More importantly, however, is that having a correct understanding of the principles of pronunciation allows you to avoid what are called “broken words”. This is when you think a word is pronounced one way, but it is actually pronounced another way, which means the connection between the word written on the page and the auditory reality has been severed. For example, suppose you have the wrong understanding of the vowel sound in the word “torn” and you think it is pronounced more like “turn”. This means that when someone says their “torn” about what to do next, you won’t understand them.

There’s a lot more to say about pronunciation, but for now I’ll leave you with some practical advice on dealing with Mandarin tones. People usually learn the four tones + the “5th” tone individually, which is OK, but you shouldn’t stop there (BTW, most Chinese teachers teach 3rd Tone incorrectly). Consider that the majority of Chinese words consist of two characters, so it makes more sense to focus on tones in pairs (Sinosplice has a great exercise about this called Tone Pair Drills). What’s the best way to get good at tone pairs then? Well, I would recommend picking 19 words that you have mastered (1 of each of the possible tone pairs…there is no such thing as a 3rd tone-3rd tone tone pair, so there’s only 19). After you have picked them, they can serve as your “tone pair anchors”. Here’s an example:

You can choose different words to be your tone pair anchors of course, but suppose you decide that “没有” méiyǒu will be your 2nd Tone-3rd Tone tone pair anchor. This means that the next time you learn a word that has the same tone pair like 提醒 tíxǐng, you can use “没有” to serve as the pitch equivalent. To be honest, if you get in the habit of doing this for even a month you’ll probably stop have problems with your enunciation of tones.

3. Do not speak before you are ready

This may come as a surprise to some, because the conventional wisdom seems to be “Want to learn Chinese? Speak more Chinese!”. This is a misunderstanding of how language acquisition works. Speaking IS important, but it is not the first step. This is the process:

This means that you need to first have a significant amount of input to accumulate passive vocabulary. Passive vocabulary consists of words that you understand but don’t actively use. Active vocabulary consists of words you use in your life. In our native languages we have about a 3:1 Passive to Active ratio. Your second language will be even higher.

So when does speaking come in? After you have already gotten a significant amount of comprehensible input that accumulates your passive vocabulary. Then you can go on speaking binges that will cause you to activate your already accumulated passive words. This process is fun and feels great, but it can’t be based on a foundation of not having passive words to choose from. This what I was saying above; the more I read, the more I find that the words naturally come to my head when I start speaking.

If you try to speak on your first day of learning Chinese (apart from training your pronunciation, which isn’t really the same thing), what are you basing it on? What you think Chinese is supposed to be? What Chinese is, sadly, is independent of what you think it is, which means you have to humble yourself before it and go through a period of training pronunciation and accumulate passive vocabulary. Listen to podcasts, check out graded readers like they have at lingq.com and thechairmansbao.com, and after you’ve gotten a reasonable amount of input, you can use the wealth of language exchange and tutoring APPs available on your phone to go on speaking binges. I’m not saying don’t speak, I’m just saying you have to accumulate passive vocabulary first. For a considerably more educated and eloquent explanation about why you should wait to speak until you are ready, I’d recommend this article from antimoon.com.

4. Use visualisation and mnemonics to learn characters (aka avoid Chinese native teachers on the subject of learning characters)

Gosh, where do I even get started on this. As I established above, learning characters is necessary if you want to succeed at acquiring Mandarin (maybe not if your IQ is really high, but more on that later). This isn’t just because of the reasons I laid out above regarding the lack of syllables and importance of reading, it is also because an understanding of characters leads to the ability to gain vocabulary at a faster and faster pace. I’ll get back to this in a moment, but for the time being let’s accept my premise that learning character-by-character is the proper layer of analysis to serve as your guiding study point (as opposed to word-by-word or *groan* grammar point-by-grammar point).

The vast majority of Native Chinese teachers are utterly flummoxed by how to teach character-by-character. It is the most fundamentally important aspect of succeeding long-term with Mandarin, and it is largely skipped in classes run by our lovely middle-kingdom dwelling friends. I completely get it though, and I would be amazed if it were any other way. Easy to understand when you consider the two main differences in the circumstances in which a Chinese person learns characters vs an adult non-Chinese:

  1. Chinese people start learning characters around 4 or 5 years old. This means that their starting point for learning characters comes after 4–5 years of unavoidable immersion in Mandarin. I suppose if you are up for spending 4–5 years surrounded by a Chinese family without any contact with people of your native tongue is something you are up for, you can have the same foundation for learning.
  2. Chinese children have 10 years in elementary and middle school to learn characters by writing them over-and-over with a strict teacher barking orders at them. Rote learning. That’s how they do it. Besides being embarrassingly inefficient and uncreative, who has that kind of time as an adult?

Many native Chinese teachers are aware that rote-learning for 10 years is never going to work for foreigners, but they nonetheless have no solution because they assume it is the only way that it can be done. As a result of this, many Chinese teachers simply skip right to words and grammar. This is what I was alluding to before about requiring a high IQ to be able to learn Chinese without focusing on characters. If you skip the layer of analysis called character learning, you have to be smart enough to break the language back down into its component parts and then build it back up. However, suppose you were able to learn character-by-character faster than even Chinese people learn them? That would imply that you can learn from first principles, which does not require a high IQ at all (I would know…even I pulled it off!).

Here is an example of why learning character-by-character makes Mandarin learning easy. Suppose you learn the word for “police” in Chinese (警察 jǐngchá) by itself without learning the two characters independently. This requires some level of effort to do, but its by no means impossible. However, if you then wish to learn other words that have the characters “警” or “察” (e.g. 警惕,警告,警服,观察,察觉,洞察), then each new word requires nearly equal effort to learn. However, if you learned character-by-character, then learning all of those words gets easier and easier, until the point where it is a downright simple.

So I get that the premise of everything I argued for above is that you have a good method for learning characters, and of course I also just said that (most) Chinese teachers don’t even have a method at all. So how do you learn characters? For this, I would recommend that you utilize visualization and mnemonics.

If you want to be convinced of why visualization is incredibly effective as it relates to memory, I would recommend checking out the books You Can Have an Amazing Memory by Dominic O’Brien and Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, but for now consider that the visual cortex of our brain has been evolving since the first of our non-human ancestors had eyesight, which is about 350 million years. The earliest writing systems, on the other hand, have often been dated back to ancient Sumer several thousand years ago. 350 million years vs. several thousand. So, do you think we’re better at memorizing words on a page or remembering a visual image?

There are several resources for learning characters through mnemonics out there, probably the most classic one being Remembering the Simplified Hanzi by James Heisig, but I hope that you’ll allow me to do at least a small bit of plugging for my project Mandarin Blueprint. I am incredibly grateful for Heisig’s book, however his book has a premise that you cannot learn the pronunciation of a character at the same time you learn the meaning and writing. This premise affects all of the decisions that he and his partner Timothy Richardson made regarding the order in which the characters are taught. The thing is, this premise is incorrect. You can learn the pronunciation, meaning and writing of a character all in one mnemonic visualization. I know because I did it, my business partner did it, and our past clients have done it. Being able to learn characters in a fraction of the time of what it took in the past is a real game changer in the success rate for Mandarin learners.

I hope this has been helpful, and I wish you success in this journey. Learning Chinese has improved my life immeasurably, and I hope you can get to experience the same.