So you want to know how to become fluent in Chinese? Follow the simple tips below and you’ll be chatting away in your chosen dialect in no time. Or should I say, a time of your choosing. What do I mean by that? All will be revealed below.
1. What Does Being Fluent in Chinese Mean to You?
Language fluency cannot be quantified. It is virtually impossible to define precisely as being fluent in a language can have a variety of meanings depending on a person’s individual concept of what constitutes fluency. The first step to towards fluency in Mandarin, Cantonese or any other Chinese dialect, is to be very clear in your mind as to exactly what you mean by fluent.
For example, you might be impressed to see me chatting away in Cantonese to a Hong Kong taxi driver about the best route to my office, the slow moving traffic and the weather.
Similarly, you might be bowled over when you hear me discussing the quality of the beef in the beef brisket noodles (Ngau Lam Mein/牛腩面) with a local dai pai dong licence holder.
Indeed, you might perceive me to be fully fluent in Chinese based on casually observing these two simple interactions with native Chinese speakers.
However, I consider myself far from fluent. Generally speaking, the only two types of conversations I ever have in Cantonese are with Taxi drivers and restaurant staff. I just happen to have learned a bit of basic Chinese grammar and vocabulary that relates to traffic, directions, weather and food.
If you put me in a different situation like trying to hold a conversation in Cantonese about finance with a group of Hong Kong bankers, I am completely lost. Similarly, any attempt to discuss teaching methodology in Chinese with a group of Mandarin language teachers and I am completely out of my depth.
So, if you ask me whether I consider myself fluent in Chinese, I’ll say that I am definitely not. I’m more likely to tell you that I get by in certain situations, but I certainly do not see myself as a fluent Chinese speaker.
Aim For Fluency in Chinese One Domain at a Time
Put simply, there’s no such thing as total fluency in Chinese – or any other language for that matter. You can learn to speak Chinese in a very short space of time but you’ll not be perfect or fluent in absolutely every domain.
Even those who have studied Chinese intensely for years can only display fluency in subjects with which they are familiar. Fluency in Chinese is not knowledge of every single word or expression in every single situation. Rather we become fluent in topics.
So being clear in your own mind just how fluent you want to be and in which scenarios will help you to determine your language learning goals.
If you really want to become fluent in Chinese, initially aim to acquire fluency in those domains which are relevant to your everyday life (like, for me, chatting with local taxi drivers or restaurant staff) then gradually progress to the next, one domain at a time.
2. Why Do You Want to Be Fluent in Chinese?
Once you have established what being fluent in Chinese means to you, ask yourself the next big question: Why? Why do you want to become fluent in Chinese?
Everyone has their own reasons for learning a foreign language. Some need it for their job, while others believe it will help them to enjoy a better experience when travelling to foreign countries.
Some people desire a better understanding of their ancestral past or just want to be able to speak with friends and family.
Whatever your reason, you must get specific about your ‘why’ – the reason you want to study the language. You should also be mindful of your ‘why’ for as long as it takes to master the language you have chosen to study.
Perhaps even more importantly, there should be an emotional attachment to your answer. Humans are are instinctively driven by our emotions. Attaching emotional benefits to achieving your goal of learning the language will help to keep you motivated.
Focusing too much on the intellectual process of language learning without establishing then staying in touch with the emotional reason (the ‘why’) you decided to learn Chinese in the first place can lead to feeling deflated and demotivated. When the going gets tough, losing sight of your ‘emotional why’ can even make you quit completely.
Get specific about the reasons, the purpose and, most importantly, the emotional benefits of learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Then at regular intervals throughout your language studies remind yourself of your ‘why’. Do this and you are more likely to succeed!
3. Becoming Fluent in Chinese By Setting S.M.A.R.T Goals
Once you have established your ‘why’, you need to set yourself realistic goals that are achievable. This is because it is easy to become overwhelmed when you first set out to learn Chinese. Or if not at first, soon after.
By setting goals which are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (SMART goals), you will break the process down into manageable chunks. Doing this will feel much less overwhelming. It will also help you to stay motivated throughout your language learning journey.
It could be a relatively simple goal. Something like: To learn enough Mandarin to hold a simple conversation with a native-Chinese speaker in a taxi or a restaurant.
Alternatively, your aim could be to attain such a high level of fluency that you are able to effortlessly take part in any conversation or discussion in virtually any domain.
It’s important to remember to drill that ‘broad goal’ down into the clearly defined parameters of SMART goals. Whilst SMART goals were originally created for business management, they can be applied to any aim or desired result. This includes becoming a fluent speaker of Chinese.
Specific Chinese Language Learning Goals
You should avoid being vague when setting your language learning goals. They must be clearly defined and specific. Saying, “I want to be fluent in Chinese” is a very non-specific goal. It has little meaning when we consider how difficult it is to define ‘fluency’ as described earlier.
Stating that you want to hold general conversations in Cantonese with taxi drivers, local food vendors or shopkeepers, for example, is getting slightly more specific.
Saying that you want to reach level 6 of the HSK test (standardised exam, which tests and rates Chinese language proficiency) is being even more specific.
Once your broad but specific goal has been set, you can break it down further to smaller ‘specific’ and tangible goals.
• To learn 500 Chinese characters
• To read and understand Chinese language newspapers
• To ask for or give simple directions in Mandarin
If you are able reach smaller milestones along the way you will eventually achieve your ultimate goal.
Measurable Chinese Language Learning Goals
To keep you motivated, your goals must be measurable in some way. It could be a time-based target or, if you prefer, a results-based target.
You could, for example, decide to study Mandarin characters every day for 30 minutes. Alternatively, your measurable goal could be to learn 30 Mandarin characters per week.
An example of an immeasurable goal would simply be: to learn Chinese characters (no time limit and no specific amount). This is far from ideal. Your goal must be measurable in some way. You need to ask yourself how you will know whether you’ve reached your goal; what is your indicator of progress?
Attainable (or Achievable) Chinese Language Learning Goals
One sure way to kill your motivation and perhaps not succeed in achieving your language learning goals is to set the bar too high. If you make your goals too difficult or unrealistic you are setting yourself up to fail. Your goals should be ambitious enough to challenge you but not so difficult that they make you feel overwhelmed.
An example of an overambitious or even unattainable goal would be to aim to read an entire Chinese newspaper every day. A better, more attainable, goal would be to read one Chinese news article every day.
Realistic (and relevant) Chinese Language Learning Goals
The language learning goals you set yourself must also be realistic (and relevant to you.) Let’s start by looking at an example of an unrealistic goal:
A seriously unfit and overweight man aims to lose 50kg within one month. He decides to reduce his calorific intake to 1000 kcal per day and to also run a daily, full marathon. This goal would clearly be considered unrealistic and not relevant to the man’s capacity. The goal is doomed to failure.
Similarly, a person who works a 60 hour week and aspires to become as fluent in Mandarin as a highly educated native speaker within one year having failed at every previous attempt to learn any language, is being unrealistic. This imaginary goal is, once again, not realistic given the person’s time constraints nor relevant to their capability.
Ensure that your goal is realistic given your time, resources and ability. Likewise, make sure it is relevant. Would it really be wise and relevant to you to aim for full fluency in Cantonese in every domain if your intention is to only speak Chinese on your 10 day bi-annual trip to Hong Kong?
Time Bound Chinese Language Learning Goals
Every goal you set needs a time limit. Whether or not you enjoy working to deadlines, they tend to focus your attention into getting things done.
Your language learning goal should have a start and finish date or time. Without time constraints there is no sense of urgency and less motivation to achieve your goal. Giving yourself a (realistic) time limit keeps you focused on what you’re working towards. Reaching HKS 3 within one year is a time-bound goal. Reaching HSK 3 is not.
4. Immerse Yourself in Chinese Language & Culture
If you plan to learn Chinese quickly, then ultimately you have to ask yourself how fully you can immerse yourself in the language and the culture. Doing so will significantly hasten your learning outcomes.
Perhaps the best way to become fluent in Chinese is to take time out and spend all your time with the language. The more you immerse yourself in Chinese, the faster you will learn the language and its nuances.
If you get the chance to come to Hong Kong or Mainland China, then take it. Basing yourself here, even for a short time, will not only improve your Chinese fluency, it will teach you some valuable lessons about culture and Chinese people!
If this is not possible, then make sure you practice and listen to Chinese every day. Try to spend as much time as possible when Chinese is the only language you use.
Find out more about the Intensive Chinese Courses we offer here at Q Language:
5. Listen to Chinese
Learning any foreign language takes time and effort. To excel in Mandarin, Cantonese or any other Chinese dialect, you should listen to a lot of Chinese language. If you are taking Chinese language classes, don’t just rely on the conversations that you have or listen to in class. Set yourself the task of seeking out additional opportunities to listen to Chinese.
If you are not attending classes, then listening opportunities are even more important to gain good language skills.
In many ways, Chinese grammar is similar to English grammar; which may explain why English as first language students tend to learn Chinese pronunciation with fewer problems than those who usually speak French or Italian, for example.
Regardless of your mother tongue, listening to Chinese conversations every day helps you to learn the various measure words. Measure words in Chinese tend to be connected to the identifier. In English, we might say ‘a piece of cake’ and ‘a piece of bread’. In Chinese, these two examples would have a different word for piece depending on what it is a piece of. Listening to the language carefully and often will help you to pick up the nuances.
Try also to be aware of and listen to different regional accents especially if you aim to travel around China or communicate regularly with Chinese people from different regions. There are many Chinese accents that may differ to the one that you have studied or heard. Try and listen to Chinese podcasts, Chinese radio and regional TV shows to become accustomed to the different accents.
6. Listen Carefully To & Learn Chinese Tones
When you start to learn Chinese, you’ll quickly be introduced to tones. For most practical purposes, you can regard Mandarin as having 4 tones and Cantonese as having 6 tones.
Some say that in English and other languages, we do not have tones and this is frequently what makes learning Chinese so intimidating. This is not strictly true, however. We do actually use tones virtually every time we speak in English, for example. This is in spite of the fact that English is not considered a tonal language.
Take a simple word like ‘yes’. Depending on the emotion behind it or the context in which it is being used, think how many different ways you can say it.
Think about the rising tone of the ‘yes’ you give when someone calls your name. Conversely, think about the falling tone of the ‘yes’ you reply when someone asks you a simple yes or no question. And how about the rise and fall of the yes you give when your answer is a little less clear cut.
Bear this in mind if the thoughts of grappling with those Chinese tones makes you want to Rēng máojīn (扔毛巾) even before you get started!
Here is a great video by Yangyang Cheng of Yoyo Chinese that illustrates this point perfectly.
And for further reading, take a look at this article my Jeremy Ginsburg on why tonal languages aren’t as hard as you think.
When you are listening to or conversing in Chinese, listen out for these tones and practice using them to assist with speaking Chinese Fluently. Whilst you may struggle at first, understand that after a certain amount of time you’ll likely experience a breakthrough moment. You’ll be able to recognise tones, differentiate and use them easily.
7. Speaking Chinese Only Will Really Boost Fluency
Learning how to think in the language improves your conversational skills. The great way to achieve this is by listening to Chinese conversations or audiobooks and speaking in the language frequently.
Have some time each day when you only speak Chinese. There are various ways that you can do so. But if you are not able to take time out and immerse fully in the Chinese language, the next best thing is to dedicate time to the language each day.
If you are not enrolled in a language learning school, you could go online and find Chinese videos or audio that you can use to practice speaking in Chinese either by copying the speech or responding to what you hear. You could also try the very effective technique of shadowing a foreign language.
8. Learn From Your Mistakes
Seek out Chinese speakers to converse with as often as you can. Be conscious of their reactions to you as you speak. Often, there is a sign from a facial expression or glance when you get a word or context wrong. Always thank them for allowing you to practice and ask them for their feedback. If you feel they are being polite and not telling you what you’ve said or pronounced incorrectly, ask them again. Explain you are very keen to learn to speak Chinese correctly. You need to know your mistakes to learn from them.
Gaining feedback on your spoken Chinese is vital to address any continuing errors that occur. Listening proactively will help you to learn a lot about the language and how to use it. Practice with those who will give you honest feedback. In doing so, you’ll discover gaps in your learning and nuances that you were not aware you were getting wrong.
Spending a lot of time in the language and gaining feedback is so effective that it will increase your understanding of how Chinese works.
Making Mistakes When Learning Chinese is Good
Avoid viewing your mistakes as problems; instead, try to see them as advantages. Making mistakes is a natural part of becoming fluent in Chinese. Your mistakes are only bad if you allow them to be – and if you don’t learn by them.
If your vocabulary is limited, it really doesn’t matter. Likewise, it’s not important if your pronunciation isn’t flawless. And it certainly doesn’t matter if your grammar isn’t perfect. What does matter is that you adopt a bold attitude, get your tongue wagging and speak Chinese.
Embrace your mistakes, and if you are in a group class physically or perhaps on Zoom, embrace the mistakes that others make as an additional way for you to learn. You will learn from each other’s mistakes.
9. Be Sure To Have Fun
One of the misconceptions that people often have about learning Chinese is that it is a really difficult language to master. This, however, is far from the truth.
I’m not saying learning Chinese is a piece of cake – it obviously presents a number of challenges. However, it’s not as difficult as some imagine and it can, indeed, should also be a lot of fun. In fact, having fun when you learn Chinese is essential to mastering the language successfully.
Choose the right Chinese language teachers and be mindful of all the advice in this article and you will eventually become as fluent in Chinese as you choose to be.
• get clear in your mind as to what you mean by fluent
• aim to acquire fluency in domains that are relevant to your everyday life, then gradually progress to the next, one domain at a time.
• Establish your ‘why’ and be sure to set SMART language learning goals