I want to speak to you about the best way to learn how to speak Chinese.
Here’s the big secret, the thing that holds people back from learning a foreign language: To learn to speak Chinese you need to speak Chinese.
Huh? That sounds obvious right? It is. Very obvious. But despite this so many people fail to do so!
Instead we spend time going to group classes, listening to teachers, watching youtube videos, listening to podcasts, learning vocabulary, writing characters out by hand over and over again or playing around with Chinese language learning games on our phones.
All of this stuff feels really productive. We are doing language learning activities – so we assume that eventually we’ll be able to speak Chinese.
What you have to realize is that learning to speak a language is a skill, not a subject.
We tend to think of language learning as a subject – something that we learn at school. We have classes with the name Chinese, we have a Chinese learning section at the nearby bookstore, we have textbooks, we have examinations. All of this is school related – all of this is Chinese as a school subject.
This is not the same as using the language as a skill. You can study about Chinese all you like – you can memorize vocabulary, learn grammatical patterns, master the character’s forms but unless you actually start using and practicing the skill of communication then all of this is just useless information. All your vocabulary just becomes a set of facts, all your grammar just a set of rules.
It’s only through practicing the skill of speaking Chinese that you can actually get better at the skill of speaking Chinese. Again, it sounds super simple but despite this we waste so much time studying the language rather than practicing. So how can you start practicing the language as a skill?
Easy – start speaking as soon as possible, as much as possible.
Don’t wait until you are ready. there’s no point when you are ready. Your teacher or textbook or phone app isn’t going to say “OK now you have studied enough Chinese to start speaking to a Chinese person in Chinese”. There’s no set point or benchmark.
Your first conversation or usage of Chinese is always going to be bad. Of course it is – you’ve never tried speaking Chinese before! You will make mistakes, you will be misunderstood. And that’s fine! In fact it’s great – you need to make mistakes so that you can learn. If you never make a mistake you can never learn – learning is by definition the process of making a mistake, receiving feedback and making that mistake less in the future.
Without mistakes there is no progress.
In fact the longer you wait to be “ready” the more of a shock your first conversation will be.
Imagine two people learning to speak Chinese. The first student, on her very first day, using the tools I’ll show you in a second, has a conversation in Chinese. It’s rubbish. Her tones are bad, her pronunciation awful and she has no idea what is said back to her. It doesn’t matter! shes’s taken a super important first step and had her first interaction in Chinese. Job done.
The second student has been studying Chinese for a year. Maybe more. He’s sat in every class, done every piece of homework, learned his vocabulary lists, done lots of flashcards and maybe even an exam or two. Now he feels ready to start speaking! Guess what, his first conversation is also rubbish!
All that school learning goes out the window and his first stuttering sentences are almost as bad as our other student who just started speaking today. His confidence is shot. He decides that Chinese is just too hard – even after a year he can’t have a conversation. He gives up.
This happens so much. People wait until they are “ready”, have a bad first conversation, get dispirited, lose confidence and give up. They think they aren’t good at languages. If you ever studied French in high school you’ll know the feeling – you study for years and years and years, get good grades and then can’t order a croissant and a coffee when you eventually speak to a French person in real.
This is so infuriating and the reason why so many people throw their hands up and declare that they just aren’t good at languages!
When is the best time to start speaking then? As soon as possible. If you haven’t started some form of regular Chinese speaking practice then the best answer is: today. Start today.
OK- how to actually do this? Thankfully nowadays getting Chinese speaking practice is super easy. Previously you could hide behind excuses like “I don’t live in China” or “there aren’t any Chinese speakers in my area” or “I only have class once a week and we don’t do much speaking”.
These excuses won’t cut it any more. With the internet you have, literally at your fingertips, access to millions of Chinese speakers. Chinese speakers who, luckily for you, want to learn to speak English (or French, German, Spanish or whatever your mother tongue is).
The trick now is finding the method of communicating with the least friction, the least barriers. The more difficult the method the more excuses you’ll have to not practice.
At the moment the best tool I can recommend is HelloTalk. It’s a free app for iPhone and android. Free to download, free to sign up, free to use. You can quickly find thousands of Chinese speakers who want to talk to you using the app. Most importantly though you can speak to them directly using your phone. You simply hold down a button, record a message, let go of the button to stop recording and then tap send. It’s like text messaging but with audio recordings and it’s an amazing way to get started just saying “Hello” and starting to use your Chinese.
After that you can check out something like iTalki which is better for setting up more formal, longer talks via Skype but HelloTalk is the perfect tool to just get started today.
By the way I have no financial or any relationship with HelloTalk, just think it ‘s a great tool and that more people should know about it.
Whatever you do, don’t go away from this video thinking “sounds like a good idea, I’ll start speaking Chinese tomorrow”.
Go and do it now, even if it’s a tiny tiny interaction. Far better to make a tiny step forward than plan, and never achieve, a giant leap.
Here are some additional useful resources to get you started:
First Week in Chinese Video Course to guide you through the early period of speaking Chinese