Learn Chinese by listening and reading

Speak Chinese by Listening & Reading

If you want to learn to speak Chinese successfully:

OUTPUT is secondary to INPUT of Chinese

So before you speak Chinese, here’s a sentence that’s going to make your time learning Chinese a lot more efficient and stress-free, forever. Ready? Here it is:

Language is best acquired by listening and reading to engaging content that you can understand, otherwise known as ‘comprehensible input.’

It may seem counter-intuitive to those of you still gung-ho on traditional learning methods that have enriched your lives so much.

However, speaking and writing (otherwise known as “output”) do not contribute much towards your overall language ability. They are more of an effect than a cause.

What? Are you saying OUTPUT of speaking Chinese is useless?

The output is far from useless. After years of research and experience, we have found it serves a few essential functions:

1) Noticing errors & areas needing improvement.

2) Improving speaking & writing speed, mainly through developing hand and facial muscles.

3) Communicating meaningfully with native speakers. This is the final goal for most of us, and possibly the number one source of motivation in language learning. 

Yes, the output is undoubtedly useful, but it is not what makes or breaks your success with Chinese. Writing and speaking Chinese doesn’t help you learn new words or even how to use words you already know accurately. Only INPUT does that.

How the language acquisition process works

Back when we were teaching The Mandarin Blueprint Method via live classes, we would explain this concept by quoting some of our favorite articles on this subject.

This article from antimoon was so good that we made some images to go with it. We found this to be a useful visual representation of how language is acquired:

learn Chinese by listening and reading language module

Your brain absorbs the message of every sentence it understands. Eventually, after enough exposure, you begin to understand new words and how they function (also known as ‘grammar‘) through pattern recognition. After enough input, you will naturally be able to produce the language patterns accurately. 

When the moment calls for it, you’ll insert new vocabulary into your speech, thus creating 100% unique sentences you’ve never heard before. This process is almost entirely subconscious, and our brains all possess this ability innately.

Isn’t that just the coolest thing ever?

For more great articles about this, check out Dr. Stephen Krashen, and the somewhat less academic but uber-cool Khatzumoto.

Passive and Active Vocabulary

Here’s another useful way of looking at the language acquisition process:

We first acquire words and phrases as passive vocabulary. After enough exposure, they become active vocabulary, and you can use them in day-to-day life from this point.

Your passive vocabulary always outnumbers your active vocabulary by a lot, and even more so in a foreign language. Therefore, the more vocabulary you understand, the more you can potentially ‘activate.’

Passive and Active Vocabulary

Building Passive Mandarin Vocabulary

You hear a word in (hopefully engaging) context, and the next time somebody says it, you think, “Hey, that’s the word I heard that guy say.” At this point, you probably can’t use the word correctly unless it’s a simple noun like ‘bread.’

Chinese Words – Activate!

After seeing and hearing it in context enough times, something ‘clicks’ subconsciously. The next time you have the desire to use that word in the right context, it comes to your mind rather effortlessly, and you produce it accurately. It is also possible to speed up the process through targeted speaking and writing practice, but it’s not necessary.

Really, Though? Don’t Speak Chinese Right Away?

Still skeptical about this idea? Well, think about it this way. You didn’t come into the world speaking your native tongue, did you?

You spent years listening, babbling, listening some more, uttering the odd word, and eventually saying whole sentences. Children get thousands of hours of input before producing anything in their target language at all.

We’re certainly not saying it’ll take you years to babble a few Chinese words. It’s just that your focus should always be on reading and listening, not speaking and writing. Output can wait until later. Got it? Good.

If you speak Chinese too early it can be damaging

Many Chinese learners look at lists of words using some flashy app or website and start “trying them out” in conversation without first seeing or hearing that word in the context of sentences, leading to incorrect and sometimes downright funny Chinese words coming out of their mouths.

We made this mistake ourselves, and you’ll find a cringe-worthy account of this in unit one of our free e-course all about Chinese acquisition.

Free Rapid Acquisition Crash-Course

Learn what to do and what not to do to reach fluency and literacy in Mandarin Chinese in one hour


If you are paying an experienced and competent Chinese tutor to pick out mistakes and correct you properly, this method may not be too disastrous. However, we can assure you that you cannot rely on native speakers, whether teachers or not, to correct you all the time.

You will likely be left to flounder and sputter nonsense for extended periods, blissfully unaware that you are creating and solidifying an incorrect version of the language.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect – Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

What is the result of this repeated lousy output? Usually, it means bad habits, which are tough to break. Do you know anyone who speaks English poorly even after living in an English-speaking country for decades? That’s because they don’t consume enough of their target language, and they focus too much on producing it.

Our advice would be to make sure you invest 80-90% of your study time in input, and the remaining 10-20% on output, and even then only when you feel you’re ready to bother with it. When you are ready, we suggest booking time with a tutor for an hour once or twice a week. That’s enough for guaranteed regular breakthroughs in your ability. 

Seek out engaging Content

Consuming content you enjoy creates emotional connections that make it much easier to acquire vocabulary. It also makes it easier to consume more challenging material as you care so much more about the messages you are trying to decipher.

If you are a beginner, then this is more challenging. After all, you don’t have enough of a skill level to be too picky. However, as you improve, you can expand to more varied content that suits your interests.

We read “A Game of Thrones” book and the Harry Potter series in Chinese before we were ‘ready’ for it because we loved the material enough to take our time with it and relive the incredible imagery all over again. 

You should be very happy about all this

This is all excellent news for you, and here’s why:

1)  No need to memorize grammar rules.

2)  No need to memorize whole sentences through endless repetition.

3)  No need for annoying textbook questions.

4)  No need for exams.

5)  No need to worry about how much speaking or writing practice you get in Chinese (or any other language you may be learning) ever again. 

From now on, your primary concern should be, “Why don’t I have a Chinese podcast or TV show in my ear right now?” or “Why don’t I have Chinese characters in my face right now?”.

A different kind of stress, but a far more manageable one, especially considering we all have magic rectangular objects less than 3 feet away from our bodies at all times that give us access to these things for free 24/7. 

Ready to start getting Input?

This concept of input before the output is the over-arching influence on the creation of our patent-pending video curriculum, The Mandarin Blueprint Method. We designed it to get you to literacy as fast as possible so you can start consuming content you can understand and enjoy only by clicking ‘play.’