Can You Teach Yourself Chinese?
When starting to figure out how to learn Mandarin by yourself, 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. Certified Caveat: 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.
How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself: 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 (We know this may sound surprising, but we’ll explain below)
Let’s take these one-by-one:
1. How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself- Learn Characters
There are innumerable reasons why you should learn characters, but we’ve simplified it down to two for this article. One is practical, the other philosophical.
Any language requires you to recognize patterns. Luckily human brains are great at it! You have to input the language and then allow your brain to extract out of it recognizable commonalities. The two types of input are listening & reading, so it is either a process audio pattern recognition and/or visual pattern recognition.
Which Type of Pattern Recognition Gets You More Bang for Your Buck in Mandarin?
Mandarin Chinese only contains approximately 409 independent Pinyin spellings. This means that you have a preponderance of homophones throughout the language (i.e. “pain” & “pane”). English has something like 16,000 independent syllables. Thus, in English, auditory pattern recognition is actually practical. Conversely, with Mandarin this type of auditory only approach quickly runs into a ceiling. There are so many characters that have the same or very similar pronunciations. From a visual perspective, however, characters with the same pronunciation often are completely distinct. This allows your brain to pattern recognize much more easily.
This picture makes it all quite clear:
All of these characters are pronounced “shi” in various tones. From an auditory perspective this becomes either very hard or impossible to distinguish. Visually? Absolutely distinct. What Mandarin loses in auditory pattern recognition it gains in visual pattern recognition. Either way, once your brain has figured out a pattern, it installs in your brain much like a software program. You can fill it with different data, but the structure of the pattern remains in tact. Are you starting to see how learning characters will give your brain a huge pattern recognition advantage?
Mandarin Chinese is not a bad sounding language at all. We actually quite like it, but it isn’t exactly in the running for most pleasant sounding language (here’s looking at you, French & Italian). Despite this, we 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 better at thinking. But most importantly…
Reading is massively 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). Put another way, if you don’t learn characters, you are handicapping yourself significantly in the acquisition process. Anecdotally, we find the following to be the case: The more we read, the faster the right word comes to our minds when speaking or writing. There is an improved latency period between wanting to say something and calling it back from your unconscious. More on that in a bit.
2. How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself – Take Pronunciation Seriously
Yes, having only 409 simple syllables is a disadvantage when it comes to auditory pattern recognition. Luckily, it’s a huge advantage when learning pronunciation. Why? Simply because learning all the pronunciation principles for the entire language is actually realistic. It can be done in a relatively short amount of time. Fat chance of doing that with English. Furthermore, it’s super simple to understand what makes up a Mandarin syllable.
The advantages of good pronunciation should be obvious, but take a moment to think about it. Consider how frustrating it would be if you believe yourself to be speaking correctly, but all the native speakers around you keep awkwardly smiling & nodding, clearly not understanding you. On the flip side, think about how much it helps your confidence when you are understood.
Avoid Missed Connections
More importantly, however, is that having a correct understanding of the principles of pronunciation allows you to avoid what we call “missed connections”. This is when you think a word or phrase you read on the page is pronounced one way, but it is actually pronounced another way. Consequently misunderstanding leads to the connection between the word written on the page and the auditory reality being severed. You missed the chance to grow a neural connection. 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”. Consequently, when someone says they’re “torn” about what to do next, the teachable moment is lost.
Thinking About Tones the Right Way
There’s a lot more to say about pronunciation, but for now we’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. (Side note: 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. What’s the best way to get good at tone pairs then? Well, we would recommend picking 19 words that you have mastered, 1 of each of the possible tone pair (there is no such thing as a 3rd tone-3rd tone tone pair, so there are only 19). After you have picked them, they can serve as your “tone pair anchors”.
Here are some examples:
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. How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself – 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 considerably higher.
So when does speaking come in? After you have already gotten a significant amount of comprehensible input that accumulates your passive vocabulary. Only then should you go on speaking binges that will facilitate the activation of 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 vocabulary to choose from. This directly relates to what we were saying above; the more we read, the more we find that the words naturally come to our heads when starting to speak.
Be Humble About Mandarin
If you try to speak on your first day of learning Chinese (pronunciation training aside), 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 accumulating passive vocabulary. Listen to podcasts, check out graded readers like they have at lingq.com and thechairmansbao.com.
After you’ve gotten a reasonable amount of input, you can use the wealth of tutoring APPs available to go on speaking binges (shout out to our good friends over at Tutor Mandarin who have just such an APP). We’re not saying don’t speak, but rather recommending (strongly) that you take the time to accumulate passive vocabulary first. For a considerably more educated and eloquent explanation about why you should wait to speak until you are ready, check out this article from antimoon.com.
4. How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself – Use Visualisation and Mnemonics to Learn Characters (aka avoid Chinese native teachers on the subject of learning characters)
Gosh, where to start on this. As 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 laid out above regarding the lack of syllables and importance of reading, but also because an understanding of characters leads to the ability to gain vocabulary at a faster and faster pace. We’ll get back to this in a moment, but for the time being let’s accept the 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).
You Can’t (& Shouldn’t) Learn Characters Like a Chinese Kid
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. We completely get it though, and would be amazed if it were any other way. It is quite easy to understand when you consider the circumstantial differences in which a Chinese person learns characters vs a non-native adult:
- Chinese people start learning characters around 4 or 5 years old. Thus, their starting point for learning characters comes after 4-5 years of unavoidable immersion in Mandarin. We suppose if 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.
- 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, uncreative, and mind-bendingly dull, who has that kind of time as an adult?
Chinese Teacher’s Be Like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Many native Chinese teachers are aware that rote-learning for 10 years ain’t gonna work for foreigners. Nonetheless, they have no solution.¯\_(ツ)_/¯. They assume it is the only way that it can be done. Consequently, many Chinese teachers simply, well, skip it. They go right to words and grammar. All they can do is hope you figure it out. This is what we alluded 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 (we would know…even we pulled it off!).
Leveraging Your Mental Energy
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 it is 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. It is as if you started from scratch in your vocabulary learning.
Conversely, if you learned character-by-character, then the effort required to learn new words gets less & less. You already have a relationship with each character individually. It is so much more of a rich experience than learning the alphabet in English. You see 警 or 察, and you have a feeling for them, like an old friend. When that relationship is established, not only is learning 警告 or 观察 orders of magnitude easier, but you also deepen your relationship with each of the characters. It’s such a trip.
Fine, fine…so learn characters…uh, how?
The premise of everything we argued for above is that you have a good method for learning characters. We also just said that (most) Chinese teachers don’t even have a method at all. So how do you learn characters? For this, we would recommend that you utilize visualization and mnemonics.
You’re Brain is a Super Computer – Learn How to Use It Right
If you want to be convinced of why visualization is incredibly effective as it relates to memory, check out the books You Can Have an Amazing Memory by Dominic O’Brien and Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. For now though, 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?
We’ve been teaching mnemonics for learning characters to people who’ve never considered as an option before for a combined five years. We’ve had some people who learned incredibly quickly, and we’ve had some people not follow the protocol for various reasons, but you know what we’ve never encountered? Someone who can’t do it.
We’ve been speculating about why this might be. The personality differences between our past students are enormous. Super-creative artist types all the way to 9-5 accountants and everything in between. Not a single one of them said “I can’t do this”. This implies to us that mnemonic visualization functions at a level below our personalities. It evolved earlier.
WAY before there was such a thing as a “personality”, common human ancestors already had visual cortexes. This stuff goes deep. Simply put, if you learn how to properly utilize mnemonic visualization and map it correctly onto the elements of a character (meaning, pinyin, tone, writing, etc), you will learn astronomically faster than rote learning.
Resources for Learning Characters Through Mnemonics
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 we hope that you’ll allow us to do at least a teensy-weensy bit of plugging for Mandarin Blueprint here. We’re both incredibly grateful for Heisig’s book. Unfortunately though, his book has a premise that the pronunciation of a character can not be learned simultaneously with the meaning & stroke order. This premise affects all of the decisions 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. We know because we did it, but more importantly our past clients have done it.
It’s a New World for Mandarin Learning
Learning characters in a fraction of the time is a game changer for Mandarin Chinese learners. If you keep focus on pronunciation while approaching characters with smart mnemonics methods, Mandarin Chinese stops being this scary behemoth. So how to start learning Mandarin by yourself? Demystify it. Don’t try to be a hero and jump ahead of where your knowledge is. Don’t speak too early. Give characters their due. You’ll find that by taking this approach, Mandarin is actually downright simple.
We hope this has been helpful and wish you success in this journey. Learning Chinese has improved our lives immeasurably, and we hope you can get to experience the same.