Immersion: How To Learn Chinese by Immersing Yourself

Immersion is one of the most critical factors for long-term language learning success, and you can achieve it even with a busy schedule. Immersion is a spectrum that ranges from completely removing your native language from your life to something a bit more manageable. There are two keys to consistent immersion: How you manage your environment and how you manage your time. 

Environment Management  

Let’s start with the place you will likely end up being most often while studying Chinese: Your house.

Listen To Mandarin All the Time

Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, put those earphones in/on and consume. Try to avoid turning off the audio if it gets distracting; just turn it down. Make it a challenge to see how many hours a week you can put into this without getting dumped, divorced, or fired.

Keep Books Around You


Make sure you have some reading material within three feet of your body at all times. Kindles can be great, but I particularly enjoy a good old fashioned paperback next to me on my bedside table, desk, coffee table…or toilet.

Label Things

This is rather old-fashioned (and top-down) but it’s a tried and true method of learning common words for objects around you that contain rarer characters you aren’t ready to learn yet. If this sounds a bit inconvenient and you’d rather do this in a virtual world only, check out the game Influent.

Keep the Place Clean

A tidy house is proven to be conducive to learning better. A messy room distracts you and increases anxiety.

Soundproof Your Study Location

This one is especially useful if you live in a busy city, or if you have children and want a few precious minutes to cram.

Maintain Ideal Temperature and Lighting

When you are too warm or too cool, it becomes difficult to concentrate. Natural light is ideal, but if that’s not an option go for lots of cool white (not yellow) light.

Only Chinese Music

If you must listen to music while doing other learning activities, make it either Chinese music or non-Chinese music without lyrics, e.g., classical.

Find Chinese People Wherever You Are

Chinese people can be found in pretty much every major city or town, which means endless opportunities for Mandarin practice. In my experience, there is no group of people in the world more excited to speak Mandarin with you than Chinese people living outside of China. Start speaking Mandarin to some of these people and I guarantee that the positive reaction you receive will be highly motivating for you.

Use Chinese Social Networks

While Weibo and Renren are tried and true classics worth visiting regularly, you should also try the insanely popular video-sharing platforms Kuaishou and Douyin. Overall though, WeChat is the clear winner for online social interaction. Try the “People Nearby,” “Shake,” and “Drift Bottle” functions to meet and chat with random people. 

Look for Mandarin Versions of Content You Like

Replace the media you consume with Mandarin translations. A great way to do this is to make a list of everything you are interested in consuming and search for the Chinese names for them using Wikipedia. Search for what you want in English then switch the language to simplified Chinese in the left menu.

If you then search for “国语配⾳ guóyǔ pèiyīn” along with the Chinese name of a non-Chinese movie, you may find a version dubbed in Mandarin. If you don’t get lucky enough to find it, you can always settle for Chinese subtitles.

The first things I tried to read once I reached the intermediate level were western comics and novels. I started with my childhood favorite 加菲猫 jiāfēimāo Garfield and moved onto more difficult comics as my reading ability increased.

Change Your Device Languages Into Mandarin

Switch your smartphone, laptop, tablet, and smart TV to Chinese. Don’t think you’re ready for it yet? Maybe you aren’t, but making the switch will force you to learn the characters and words you need to function. 

Use “Focus” Apps

Apps like Self-control and Freedom block all notifications and even internet connections for fixed periods. You could combine these with your timeboxing app so you don’t even have a chance to be distracted during your work period. Anki flashcard reviews do not require the internet.

Leverage the Power of Your Smartphone

Your environment changes as you move around throughout the day, and it is essential to take steps to create an immersive environment you can take with you wherever you go. Luckily, no matter where you are, you have a little rectangle in your pocket that can make this possible.

The most impactful thing I did for my immersion was creating and maintaining a varied collection of listening and reading content on my smartphone. I categorize all kinds of apps on my home screen that help me improve with the various aspects of Mandarin.

Feel free to categorize how you like, but I would highly recommend at least a listening and reading category. I also have “watching” and “speaking.” Check it out:

Apps for Reading, Listening, Watching and Speaking Chinese

Time Management

If you want to reach competency in Mandarin Chinese, I recommend you invest at least thirty minutes per day just in listening and reading.

Doing this may seem intimidating at first, but it’s easy enough with a dose of mindfulness and some small, worthwhile sacrifices. Here are some recommended ways of creating and managing your time better. 

Fill the Gaps In Your Day

Fill any gaps in your day with Mandarin, while traveling, at work, at the gym, when the baby is asleep, etc. This is not just more efficient use of your time, but it also naturally breaks up your immersion throughout the day. This is way better than doing everything in one big chunk.

Listening Takes Priority

Remember that listening is the easy win when it comes to immersion because you can do pretty much anything else at the same time. Listening and reading at the same time is ideal, but of course, involves more focus.

Save the Tougher Stuff for Mornings

Aside from the rather rare ‘night owls,’ all of us are more active in the morning. It is a good idea to take advantage of this and get the more intensive acquisition activities taken care of in the wee hours.

Save the more chilled-out immersion activities like reading a comic, watching a Chinese tv show, or listening to a podcast for the rest of the day.

Get Up Earlier

Want some inspiration for this one? Check out Jocko Willink, the US navy seal, who gets up at 4:45 am every morning to lift heavy things. After listening to how he lives his life, you’ll find setting your alarm thirty minutes earlier every day pretty tame.

Cut Down On Other Leisure Activities

Try to consume less trash TV, Youtube & video games. Not none, just less. Remember what is possible in thirty minutes a day?

That’s half an episode of something… Please don’t feel ashamed of watching your favorite show or zoning out on youtube or your favorite video game once in a while. We all have to chill sometimes. Just know that it is essential to set reasonable limits if you have the goal of mastering Mandarin.

Use Timeboxing For Learning Chinese

Timeboxing (also known as the “Pomodoro technique”) is a proven technique to create more efficient study sessions. Each timebox consists of a fixed period of work, followed by a shorter rest period. The standard timebox is twenty-five minutes of work, followed by five minutes of rest. Doing this means every sixty minutes creates fifty minutes of productive focus. This ratio is excellent. 

Although the standard time box is just fine, there are many different kinds of timeboxes you can do. It is really fun to experiment with work and rest periods of different lengths. I would suggest making an extra long rest period of, say, fifteen minutes every third rest period. You can also set yourself a goal of a certain number of timeboxes you want to complete for each day, and tally them up as you go. There are some great timeboxing apps you can use to automate the whole process. I like Be Focused

When the timer is on, you are either 100% working or 100% relaxing. You should never work with distractions or think about working while resting. After timeboxing for a while, you will notice that you naturally enter a flow state. If you timebox daily, you will figure out the right amount of time to maintain ‘flow’ for each learning activity. For more on the different types of timeboxing, check out this blog post.