Credit: David Iliff

It’s probably time to learn Chinese

For over a century, learning English has been one of the highest ROI things a non-English speaker could do. English went from being a language spoken by a few million people on an island to the the language of a world-spanning empire to a de-facto global language in a few centuries. I think, despite accusations of provincialism from polyglot Europeans, English is still by far the most useful language in the world and that being a monolingual English speaker isn’t the worst thing in the world. I say that as someone who loves learning languages; realistically, there are many interesting things to learn in the world and our time is pretty limited.

However, the benefits of learning Mandarin have grown a lot over the past two decades. We’re in a critical period where the demand for bilingual English/Mandarin speakers is extremely high from maturing Chinese institutions looking to go abroad, but the supply of those speakers remains relatively low. The world also seems to be moving from a unipolar America-led situation towards a bi-or-multipolar one where China assumes a lot more importance, so speaking Chinese is a good hedge in that sense.

Learning Mandarin has been one of the most rewarding I’ve ever done, up there with learning how to program.

Before I explain how to quickly learn Mandarin, here are a few explicit reasons why you may want to:

Important reasons

  1. China is emerging from it’s copycat phase and is beginning to produce interesting technology and cultural products again.
  2. Almost as many people speak Mandarin as English; about 1.5 billion for each language.
  3. Very few Mandarin speakers also speak English. The oft-cited figure of 300 million english-speakers in China is laughable propaganda, and the true number is probably closer to 10 million, or less than 1% of the population.

Fun reasons

  1. Mandarin is the most over-rated language in the world in terms of difficulty to learn for English speakers. It has consistent grammar, extremely elegant and simple tenses, few phonemes that English speakers have difficulty pronouncing, no complicated honorifics, and many compound words whose meanings are immediately apparent. It also uses mostly subject-verb-object order, the same as English.
  2. Mandarin has benefited more from digitalization than any other language in the world. The most difficult part of Chinese is learning to handwrite 3000+ characters, but modern computers and phones use a phonetic input method called Pinyin which can guess which character you mean using machine learning, completely obviating the need to handwrite.
  3. Chinese speakers are extremely welcoming and encouraging of foreign language learners! I’m always puzzled why this aspect of language learning is so often overlooked by people discussing the relative difficulties of foreign languages. If you can speak even a little bit of Mandarin, native speakers will flip out, and bend over backwards to understand you, speak Chinese with you, and correct your mistakes. This greatly accelerates the speed at which you will improve. Any language I offer as a contrast to this friendly attitude is going to get me crucified, but I’ll meekly suggest that French speakers are substantially less encouraging of beginners, despite French supposedly being an easy language for English speakers to pick up!
  4. The linguistic legacy of ancient Chinese imperial expansion is visible in Korean and Japanese, and to a lesser extent in Vietnamese. With no background in Japanese, you can read some menus, get the gist of newspaper articles, read most signage, and generally get around in Japan if you speak Chinese. Amusingly, you will be more able to understand sophisticated academic texts or ancient novels than modern stuff, since the influence of Chinese on the Japanese language peaked during the Tang dynasty.
  5. The Chinese literary corpus (modern and ancient both) is huge, deep, and sparsely translated into English. It contains a lot of works that have no English equivalent, and a lot of philosophy that resembles the more practical of the Hellenistic philosophers who were interested in how to live a good life. You’ll gain access to a whole bunch of interesting material you otherwise would have no way to read.

How to become fluent in Mandarin

If you can go to China, do so.

You can learn Chinese without moving to China. It will take longer, especially in the beginning — you can go from nothing to conversational a lot faster if you are immersed. Your pronunciation will also suffer if you don’t learn in China, and your vocabulary and diction may be a little bit less natural. It’s still doable and worthwhile though. If you can’t move to China, you can skip over this next section and I’ll discuss some ways to simulate immersion without actually being in China.

Specifically, go to Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu

  1. Beijing is the central capital of the most centralized country on earth. The government is in Beijing, the best educational institutes are in Beijing, the movie industry is in Beijing, the art world is still largely centered in Beijing, Beijing is the startup hub of China, and Beijing is roughly tied with Shanghai as a financial hub. Modern Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, so if you learn Chinese in Beijing your accent will be considered easy to understand and “standard.” The inner city of Beijing (everything inside the 2nd ring road, and to a lesser extent everything inside the 3rd) is charming, liveable, and still has many of the courtyard houses and snaking alleyways that have made up the city since the Ming dynasty. Beijing (and modern Asian cities in general) is one of the most convenient places to live on the planet. Many business models that are marginal in American low-density cities are solid in ultra high-density Beijing: there are multiple profitable food-delivery startups, wash and fold laundry services are plentiful, there will be a grocery store, many restaurants, bars, and convenience stores within feet of wherever you live. The air pollution is bad, but a couple of good HEPA filters in your house eliminates more than 50% of your exposure, and going elsewhere during the winter eliminates another large chunk of it.
  2. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province, and is a good choice if being somewhere cool matters to you. Artists and musicians who have been driven out of Beijing and Shanghai by high prices have flocked to Chengdu, it probably has the best music scene in China, and it’s a really laid back place culturally. There are a lot of interesting design and architecture studios in Chengdu. Despite being geographically in the middle-south of China, Sichuan is culturally and linguistically “northern” so you can easily learn fairly standard Mandarin in Sichuan. If you do pick up a bit of a Sichuanese accent, it’s considered a cool one. The food is incredibly good. You have easy access to the Tibetan plateau and other very beautiful parts of the country. Chongqing is also a decent choice; a little less of an interesting cultural scene but a very dramatic looking city of massive hills and skyscrapers with light rail and even gondolas snaking through the buildings themselves.
  3. Shanghai is only a good choice if you think you’ll be miserable without easy access to Western food, if you are especially sensitive to air pollution, or if you plan to work in the fashion or finance industries, both of which are centered in Shanghai. The sheer number of foreigners living in Shanghai will make learning Chinese more of an uphill battle, and there’s a bit of a double-bind where if you move to a part of the city that has fewer foreigners, it will also have fewer standard Mandarin speakers so your accent will suffer.

How to get to China

The most accessible and easy way to go to China is to take a job teaching English. It’s also the absolute worst way to go there. It’s poorly paid, does nothing to advance your Chinese language skills, and ensures the people you will be in contact with through your job are people who specifically are paying to not speak Chinese with you. Here are some better options:

Go through your school

Most top colleges in the US have China study-abroad options. I’ve heard particularly good things about Middlebury, U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale. Stanford has a very swanky center at Peking University which is cool. Harvard and Yale have the oldest Sinology programs in the country but that may be of limited importance to you if your goal is simply conversational fluency. U.C. Berkeley has the UCEAP program which, if your Chinese is good enough, lets you take normal classes at the “Harvard of China,” Peking University. The biggest disadvantage of going through your college is the temptation to hang out with other Americans. There’s something about immersion that seems to accelerate language learning in a nonlinear way, and it can be derailed by even a small amount of daily exposure to one’s mother language. If you think being disciplined about not speaking English will be an issue for you, a study-abroad program may not be ideal.

Get a job that allows you to work remotely

If you’re a freelancer, or if you work for a company that allows remote work, this is a great option. Although changes to the exchange rate and cost of living have made this less true than it once was, being paid in USD and spending RMB will enable you to live very comfortably even in first-tier cities. Compared to working at a Chinese company or going through a study-abroad program, your daily Mandarin exposure will be reduced, but you can still speak it during every non-working hour. If you’re a freelancer you can also start mixing in Chinese clients once your Mandarin improves.

Get a job with a Chinese company

If you speak no Mandarin, this will be difficult but definitely not impossible. If you have skills that are in demand, many Chinese companies are hiring and have official policies that state English should be spoken in the office. In reality you’ll find that English is rarely spoken, but while that won’t be good for your initial productivity, it will be awesome for generating immersion and helping you learn quickly.

Attend a Chinese university as a fulltime student

This is tricky because most majors at most Chinese universities are objectively not as good as their U.S. equivalents. There are two solid exceptions: Tsinghua University and Peking University, the “MIT” and “Harvard” of China, respectively. Whether that comparison is accurate is hard to say. The student populations of PKU and THU are as strong as those at Harvard or MIT because the admissions process is insanely rigorous; every high school student in China takes one standardized test, and the top 0.01% or so get admitted to THU or PKU. The professors at these two schools, however, are much more of a mixed bag. Some are as good as those found at elite US institutions, and in fact some are returnees from those very schools. However, there are a lot of professors at both Peking and Tsinghua who would never be able to get tenure at a top US institution. If you identify a solid major at one of these schools, you can probably get admitted after one year of intensive language study, and you’ll emerge fluent and with an excellent network. Worth considering!

How to go from zero to conversational as fast as possible

What you need to do is basically the same whether you can go to China or not. If you can, everything will go more quickly, and require less discipline. If you can’t, it may be slower, but you can still achieve great results with these techniques.

  1. Set up your environment. Change your computer and smartphone language to Chinese. Download Sogou Pinyin, which is much better than the default Windows or Mac IME. Block Facebook and Twitter. Find a stream of Chinese TV and leave it on in your house whenever possible. Chinese TV is largely garbage but your brain will be absorbing the sounds in the background which is useful.
  2. Set up The Loop. My friend coined this term for the system we used for acquiring and remembering new words in Chinese. You need a dictionary and a spaced-repetition flashcard app. Pleco is both, and much more: a truly venerable app that got its start as a Palm Pilot app almost twenty years ago. In the meantime it’s developed into one of the most powerful apps I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. The app itself and several good dictionary files for it are free — you pay for additional features as you need them. The handwriting recognition, main dictionary pack, and flashcard functionality are must-haves; the rest you can decide for yourself if you need or not. You’ll start the loop either by walking around China and drawing (not writing; at this stage you won’t know the correct order of strokes for characters, so just roughly draw what they look like) characters you don’t understand into Pleco. You can hit the [+] on any character card to add it to your flashcard deck. Pleco has a bunch of different flashcard modes, all of which are useful for different things. Do a mix of them every single night. Don’t be tempted to import any pre-made flashcard decks. Making your own deck from the words you actually encounter is way more effective. This simple practice will improve your vocabulary shockingly fast.
  3. Find conversational partners. I learned a lot of Mandarin from hanging out in a mandarin-speaking Linux tech support group on IRC. You can find conversational partners on Wechat, on IRC, on Weibo (“Chinese twitter”), Douban (no US equivalent! Interesting hipster-y site focused on books and music), or on dating apps like Momo or Tantan. Have “thick face skin,” the Chinese term for being shameless, and keep speaking even through your embarrassing mistakes. Add any words you have issues with to your flashcard loop. Try not to use any phrases you haven’t seen a native speaker use. You should start conversation practice way before you feel remotely ready for it, because it will ensure that the phrases you learn are those which native speakers actually use, rather than the fifty-year-old ones being taught in textbooks.
  4. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of tones. Many foreign speakers of Chinese have horrible tones or seem to think of them as an optional part of the language. They aren’t; they’re central to conveying meaning and you will sound permanently foreign if you don’t master them. The typical tonal learning curve is to go from barely even being able to hear the difference, to being able to hear it after about 4 months of practice, to being able to repeat it with some effort after another 4, and finally to having mostly correct tones after 6–8 months of total study. This assumes that you are paying tones the attention they deserve, and working hard to correct your mistakes.
  5. Don’t waste time learning how to write characters, at least until you’re already conversational and can read fast. A lot of people seem to love the app Skritter, but I’d avoid it because it will just teach you how to write characters well, a skill which is not especially useful.