How to speak Chinese? Talk from Day 1

This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.

How to speak Chinese is a question that baffles learners early in their Chinese journey. Often we wait until we think we are good enough and then start to speak Chinese. In this article I want to ask you to start communicating today – worry about the details after you make mistakes.

Update: We’ve put together a script with sound recordings for your first ever Chinese conversation. It’s available on this blog page.

Update 2: The ideas in this blog were expanded in a short (and free!) eBook available here.

Source: The excellent


Chat with me!

Mindset is so important when learning a language and indeed in any prolonged and challenging endevour. Language learning in particular requires the mental toughness to make mistakes, get corrections and learn.

This requires making a fool of yourself initially. Chinese has lots of particularly wonderful ways to do this. Unfortunately if you don’t make mistakes you won’t learn – it’s as simple as that. . The trick therefore is to start making as many mistakes as possible, as soon as possible and take on corrections so that you can improve.

If you don’t find you are learning as fast as you want to it is likely because you aren’t making enough mistakes.  The quickest way to learn is to increase the frequency of your mistakes and subsequent corrections.

There’s a saying in entrepreneurship that is highly relevant here: “Fail Faster”. You are eventually going to make mistakes. So make sure that you make them fast and make them early so that you can learn and not make catastrophically large mistakes later. You can soften the blow by making your mistakes in a controlled environment with a teacher or a friend. Once you feel more comfortable making a fool of yourself in public I say go for it.

If you aren’t sure who speaks Chinese and don’t want to offend non-Chinese speakers by walking up and saying 你好 I’d recommend making the fact you speak Chinese visually known. One (very bold!) way to do this is with a T-shirt such as those on this site. Alternatively have a laptop sticker made or maybe put something on your laptop desktop background. Where there’s a will there’s a way!

T-Shirt reads “Chat with me”

Traditional language learning might have you studying from a book, DVD or in a classroom until you feel comfortable having “real conversations”. Instead you need to start having “real conversations” as quickly as possible and get away from the textbooks.

You are (I assume) learning so that you can operate in “real” situations. This means that you need to make your mistakes in the context of these situations so you can learn. Making mistakes in a classroom of self-study context will not translate to being able to communicate.

In the UK this leads to “GCSE French” syndrome. A lot of kids study French when they are 15-16 years old but if you stick a French person in front of these kids they’ll struggle to actually talk to them. This might be after several years of study. The problem? Simply the fact that they were “studying French”, not communication in French as a language. These are two very different things.

These kids (including me) learn all about the grammar, memorize vocabulary lists for tests, perhaps rehearse and deliver a presentation in French but very rarely actually talk to a French person. The wrong skills are being taught and tested. The kids have studied French – they know a lot about the language – but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate in the language.

The very sad result of this (and most traditional language learning) is that the students then believe that they “just aren’t good at languages”. How would they know if they’ve never been taught properly and indeed perhaps never even tried to talk to a foreign language speaker in their own language!


The best day to start is today

Let’s flip this. On the first day of study I want you to go and find a Chinese speaker and say 你好. If you are not sure about the pronunciation listen here and repeat until you think you are close.

It doesn’t matter how awful your tones are. Stop worrying about it.

Chances are that the person you talk to will be delighted. They’ll likely launch into rapid-fire Chinese at this point. Relax – just say (in English or Chinese if you look up the phrase, overachiever you!)  that you are only starting to learn but you’d love them to help you a little. Start with “你好” – have them correct your tones. Move from there.

You are already leagues ahead of all those poor kids sitting in language classes never talking to a native speaker.

What if the person you talk to doesn’t respond well? Or laughs at you? So what? You probably wouldn’t want to talk to them anyway, regardless of language! Find someone else – you’re in luck with Chinese as you’ve got somewhere between 20-25% of the world’s population to choose from.

Heading Online to Talk

Still can’t find anyone in the local area? You’re in luck – we live in an online world. Head to iTalki, LiveMochaConversationExchange or any one of the countless language exchange websites out there.

Heads up – if you sign up at iTalki via this link you can get some free goodies. Basically, if you choose to get a professional teacher one day you pay $10 and get given another $10 free (=$20 of lessons – nice!). You can still use iTalki totally for free by using free conversation exchange partners but if you want a professional teacher one day it’s worth using this link.

There’s no need to be in China to learn Chinese. It can help in certain situations but it is not necessary now that there are millions of native speakers just a few clicks away.

There are literally hundreds of millions of Chinese people looking to practice a foreign language. If you are reading this chances are you speak English and are therefore in possession of an incredibly valuable asset. Set up a language exchange in person or via Skype. You are online right now reading this so no ducking out, don’t tell me you’ll do it later. Go and say 你好.

Still haven’t done it? If there’s one piece of advice to take away from this series of articles it is this : stop worrying and go and say hi. It’s so simple yet so important.

If you want to learn a language you’ll have to get over it and talk to someone. Do it now or you’ll be doing it later and will have wasted all the time in between.

Want more information about just jumping in and speaking from day 1? Check out Benny Lewis’ blog and book for a lot more “just get on with it” advice. But try not to get bogged down reading about the idea of talking from day 1 – instead go and talk!


This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.


If you really want to explore these ideas then I recommend Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Month’s package. His ideas are all focused around building up the confidence to just start talking as soon as possible, learning to embrace your mistakes and learning as fast as possible. Following this basic strategy he’s managed to get to conversational level in an impressive number of languages all whilst travelling around the world and running a blog that reaches over 100,000 people. Not bad!

He has a totally free email course which is available here.

If you want to go all in there’s also a premium package available here.