5 Useful Techniques for Productive Mandarin Self Study

Written byZoe Mei

After taking Chinese classes for almost 4 years I decided in February that I would stop going to class and focus more on work while studying in my spare time. That’s really easier said than done and self-study requires a lot more motivation than taking a class and being forced to study for a set amount of time per day. Here’s five things that I have found useful in keeping up with Chinese studies without taking a class:

1. Join a Chinese language forum

Not a forum for learning Chinese, but a forum that focuses on a topic you are interested in and is populated by native speakers. The first time I did this a few years ago I joined the forum and then after a few posts announced that I was a foreigner, this resulted in the expected “wow, your Chinese is so good for a foreigner” reactions, but then undoubtedly changed the way that other forum members might engage with me. They might choose to use simpler words or not use the same language that they would usually use when talking to me, such as slang or other interesting words, which is obviously a downside if you really want to speak Chinese like a native.

When you join the forum, try to not reveal that you are a foreigner and see how far you can get. Join in on threads that interest you just like you would in a forum in English of your own language. In addition to exposing you to more natural Chinese, it’s also fun and you’ll be talking about subjects that interest you rather than the boring textbooks.

2. Note down new words you come across

Carry a notebook and note down and words that you come across so you can look them up later. You could also use your mobile phone or iPod etc, the important thing is that when you see a Chinese word, or you want to find out the Chinese equivalent of an English word, that you make a note of it. Then at the end of the day or week you can go through the list and find out the pronunciation and definitions of the words and decide whether they are important enough to focus on more.

I’m actually in the process of bringing back the Pocket Mod, a type of Hipster PDA, that I used in university. Something like this is perfect for rounding up words for weekly review and keeping a list of things that you need to do.

3. Practice Tone Pairs

When practicing pronunciation you might find yourself focusing on one character at a time, though in actual fact most words in Chinese are made up of two or more characters. When you consider this, along with the fact that the tone of a character can change depending on with which other characters it is used, it seems only natural that practicing characters in pairs is of more use and will yield better results.

I was lucky enough to have a language exchange partner a few years ago who helped me to drill language pairs, but since then I have neglected specifically practicing tone pairs. I’m currently in the process of making a tone pair practice sheet out of the advanced TOP (Taiwanese Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language) exam and will release that when it is finished. You should chek out Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills from John Pasden (Sinosplice) if you are interested in beginning tone pair practice.

4. Read a Chinese news article daily

Reading news in Chinese is notoriously difficult, but luckily you’ll find that online news is a bit easier to read than print newspapers. Plus you’ll have the benefit of being able to use all of the useful browser addons and tools that make life a lot easier when reading Chinese online.

What I’ve found useful is using a newsreader to make a collection of Chinese language news websites that interest me. I use the Feedly browser plugin that creates a magazine-style webpage of all of the news feeds I choose (it’s an interface to Google Reader). Then you can view all of your Chinese news in one place and not have to worry about being distracted with English news. Make sure you pick news sites that have news that is interesting to you so you’ll be more inclined to actually read it.

5. List and overcome troublesome words

There’s nothing worse than speaking Chinese with a native speaker and stumbling over or mispronouncing a relatively easy word. It can take you from looking like someone who has a fairly competent grasp on Chinese to looking like a relative beginner. To avoid this happening list out of the words that you have trouble remembering the pronunciation of or often confuse and practice making sentences with them or coming up with ideas to distinguish them – this is an area that you might use a Heisig-style story to help yourself remember.

Some words that have been problems for me in the past are 白 and 百, or 窗, 床 and 船, which can be very awkward if you mix them up. Actually putting the words down on paper and spending some time focusing on them and making sentences that use the words in situations that you might actually encounter can go a long way to overcoming confusion.

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Author: Zoe Mei
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