How I Learned Chinese (part 2)

13 May 2007

So I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with my pronunciation. So what happened next?

Well, first I should explain my initial attitude. Two years previously I had had a great experience studying Japanese in Osaka. I enjoyed the process of learning a new language in a foreign society so much that doing it all over again had become central to my post-graduation plan. So when I arrived in Hangzhou I was very eager to get out there and try out my Chinese.

I immediately ran into two major problems. Overcoming those two problems were key to my early progress in China.

Problem 1: Pronunciation

OK, so I already knew when I arrived that my pronunciation wasn’t great. I knew I got tones wrong sometimes. I knew I had been fudging Mandarin’s “x” and “q” consonants for two years. But I wasn’t prepared for the end result: people frequently just plain didn’t understand me. At all.

At first I tried to downplay it with “that guy was just not used to talking to foreigners” or “it must be my Beijing-centric pronunciation.” That attitude didn’t really help me. I got through the denial stage pretty quickly and ended up with a firm conviction: the problem is me. I then gathered all my resolve and launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism. Whenever I was not understood, I made a mental note of which words it was I seemed to be having trouble with. When people repeated what I said, I paid especially close attention, because they would often be correcting my pronunciation rather than merely confirming. I was totally focused on every word* that came out of native speakers’ mouths.

[*I have to make a note here: I initially lived in Hangzhou, a city in the southern province of Zhejiang. Southerners are notorious for their substandard pronunciation of the “sh,” “ch,” and “zh” consonants, but I knew this going in. It made listening comprehension very frustrating at first, but once I developed an ear for it, it became a huge strength. Having all that confusing input also made it absolutely imperative for me to look up in a dictionary every new word I picked up to confirm its correct pronunciation.]

With the help of a Chinese friend and a lot of concerted effort, I was able to finally figure out how to pronounce “x,” “q,” and “j” consonants after about a month of living in China. I also hired a qualified tutor (she had a masters in teaching Chinese) to help me, and under her tutelage I finally got the “yu” sound down. The “r” sound eluded me for longer, but with focused observation and a self-critical attitude, I conquered it as well.

Tones continued to be a major problem for a long time, but they got better with time. The important thing was that I was convinced from my early experiences in China that they were very important and couldn’t be ignored. I was constantly looking up words in my dictionary, frequently just to check the tones. Once you’ve looked up a word about twenty times to check the tones, it usually finally sticks. Certain tone pairs gave me problems for a while, but when I began really focusing on tone pairs, I was able to overcome them as well.

Problem 2: Practice

One great thing about modern China is that foreigners are still rare enough in most places that it’s not hard to find someone curious to talk to you. I soon learned, however, that this does not necessarily mean that they want to talk to me in Chinese. I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English. This was very frustrating. On top of that, even if their spoken English was pretty bad, my Mandarin was worse. So if our goal was actual communication, speaking in English was much more effective.

This did not deter me. I saw it as a challenge. What I had observed was that the people that wanted to practice English the most were young people, typically university students. Since they were about my own age and had a lot of free time, they seemed like the ideal conversation partners. However, I eventually had to make a decision to reject them categorically because they were nearly all obsessed with improving their English and I was in a hurry to improve my Chinese. It may sound cold, but I didn’t leave my friends and family on the other side of the world to improve strangers’ English. Teaching English was my job and I was dedicated to it, but in my free time I absolutely had to be practicing Chinese. I decided that language exchanges made no sense; I was surrounded by millions of Chinese. I was sure I could find Chinese people that would be willing to do an old-fashioned “exchange” of ideas and information–entirely in Chinese. And if unwillingness to communicate with me in Chinese was the thorn in my side, then inability to communicate with me in English could be my salvation.

So who did I turn to? Well, I reasoned that with my Chinese as bad as it was, if the conversation was going to be all in Chinese I would have to find someone very patient. That’s not an easy trait to spot. But what I realized is that people can be motivated to be patient if they’re extremely bored. So I set my sights on people who (1) were not in an age range or social status that were likely to know (or want to know) English, and (2) had a job which left them stuck in one place with no one to talk to… bored people.

So my first Chinese friends were the guards at the apartment complex where I worked. Those guys were aged probably 30-45, and sat in a guardhouse next to the gate all day long. Their only daytime duties seemed to be opening the gate for the occasional car and handing out residents’ newspapers. There was always one of them in there, just reading a newspaper or sipping his tea and staring off into space. I noticed that they seemed very interested in me. So I took the plunge.

It was weird and awkward to go into the guardhouse that first time and just start talking in my broken Chinese. I could barely form a coherent sentence. But when I made it clear that I was just being friendly, the guard, in typical Chinese fashion, insisted that I sit down while he poured me some tea. That’s how it began.

I started spending about an hour in the guardhouse every evening. I would bring my notebook and my dictionary with me. It wasn’t because I was so studious that I wanted to write down everything I learned; those were essential tools for our communication! Sometimes I would be looking up three words in the guard’s simple five word sentence. Other times I would need them to write down a word so that I could guess at the meaning and look it up later. To be honest, it was kind of painful. I kept the chats to about an hour, because it was all that my poor brain could take. I left every session absolutely exhausted.

Chatting with the guards was a very humbling experience, but it was the kickstart my Chinese needed. I felt awkward every time I went in to initiate communication, but I was making progress, and those guys really wanted to talk to me. They loved my visits. Their faces would light up at the opportunity to communicate (however excruciating the process) with a real live foreigner.

I later moved from that apartment complex and didn’t get to see my guard friends as often, but I had gained important confirmation: I didn’t have to “buy” Chinese practice time with English. There were people that wanted to talk to me in Chinese–regardless of my level–if I would just seek them out.

From there my practice went in a lot of directions. I started frequently chatting with a young couple that ran a tiny burger joint down the street. They were only busy at mealtimes and had almost nothing to do the rest of the time. The more people I talked to, the more I improved, and the more I improved, the more different groups of people I felt comfortable talking to. I didn’t avoid the college kids forever; I found a way around the insistence on English. I found that by chatting online in Chinese I could focus on grammar and vocabulary without the pronunciation pressure. My goal was simple: see how long I could chat with someone without them catching on that I wasn’t Chinese.

My first year and a half I worked really hard at Chinese. I had no foreign friends, and my dictionary was my constant companion. At the end of that time, my Chinese was functional for the basics. I had made it to the “I’m speaking Chinese!” Stage.

Time travel 5 years to the future for How I Learned Chinese (part 3)!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “ … launched into a relentless campaign of self-criticism.” How much of that phrase comes from the amount of the time you’ve spent in Asian countries? When I read that, I mentally translated it into Chinese and chuckled.

  2. Jeremy Bollman Says: May 13, 2007 at 11:14 am

    I have been reading your blog for about a month now and have really been enjoying it. I am thinking about moving my family to kunming and your insight has been very helpful. This series on learning chinese has been very helpful. My wife and I met in Fukuoka, Japan on a study abroad trip so I identify with your experience. Thanks for all your hard work and providing all these great resources. Keep up the good work.

  3. John,

    I know I commented before on how I learned Chinese. Though I hate to use the past tense of the word learn. It’s a lifelong process, in my opinion. And you’re dead right about having to avoid the Language Rapists.
    When I go to communicate with strangers, in Chinese, my goal is only to communicate. I don’t bug them to much about writing down every word for me. Sometimes, I’ll just write down the pinyin of what they said (as near as I can tell through their accent) and then try to find it own my own. Barring that, I’ll breakdown and ask someone. Zhege, shenma yisi.

    I would advise anyone who wants to develop their Chinese skills to a professional level to avoid speaking English. ESPECIALLY, especially when you don’t know how to say what you want to say. For example if you want to ask someone how to say the word ‘superflous’ in Chinese, don’t. Look it up in a dictionary. If you want to know how to say “same shit, different day”, try saying it to a Chinese person, in the best Chinese you have. Then explain what you mean in Chinese. They will certainly understand your meaning , and mor than likely can give you wither a Chinese idiom, with that meaning. OR, surpisingly enough, you might be teaching them a western idiom that they will have to create their own Chinese interpretation of.

    Good stuff.
    I would again warn any new learners, avoid the Language Rapists, at all costs. It will only retard your own development.

  4. I have to say, as someone just starting to study semi-seriously, it’s slightly mortifying to read that your Chinese was “functional at the basics” after 18 months.

    I may have to try that guardhouse idea. It’ll probably be good for picking up more colorful parts of the language, given the exchanges I’ve already had.

  5. Henning Says: May 13, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Hi John,
    thanks for sharing your best-practices. Addressing the guard is a really good idea. I might to find a way to adopt that technique to this non-Chinese environment (phone?).

    I hope I do not come over as totally annoying, but I would like to repeat my question on the role grammar as this really moves me and might influcence my decisions on further learning emphasis:

    How important do you deem the explicit grammar rules you learned in University and how much did they help you after you arrived in Zhejiang?

  6. Thanks for the interesting story. It’s funny because I learned quite a lot from a guard in my building too, only I have to confess that a lot of English was spoken. My guard/master was an extremely well educated Budhhist who gave up on the material world! He taught me a lot of idioms, very few of which I remember.

  7. My experience was different from John’s. Prior to enrolling in Chinese classes at the language institute affiliated with the university where I worked in Korea, I was introduced to Chinese pronunciation through a Korean tutor who had earned a graduate degree in Taiwan. The first week of class, we did drills every class. I had a headache at the end of the evening, but the drills paid off. I made a conscious effort to replicate the tones. After arriving in China, just listening to Chinese helped me refine my pronunciation; I internalized the pronunciations of common words and reproduced them naturally without conscious effort.

    Also helpful was learning to read and write Chinese characters from the get-go. I knew that I would be at a disadvantage compared to my Korean classmates, who had all learned the 2,000 traditional characters taught in schools, so I bought myself introductory Chinese character books for kids. I reasoned that if a six-year-old could learn to read and write simple characters, I could, too. I was in for a shock the first lesson, which used about 20 unfamiliar characters. I took classes three nights a week and studied vocabulary and characters the alternating nights. Had I learned Chinese in the US, I’m sure my literacy skills would be way behind. I can actually understand written Chinese better than spoken language, for I can recognize the written form of a word more easily than the pronunciation. I still have to look up characters whose pronunciation I can’t remember.

    I agree with John that there are Chinese who are willing to talk to you in their language just to have a chance to converse with and get to know a foreigner. A foreigner has to be open-minded enough to seek out contact with ordinary Chinese outside the expat bubble.

  8. You might consider expanding on this (possibly adding some of the many differences and observations you’ve documented here in earlier posts) and actually printing and publishing this fascinating auto-biography of yours.

  9. Interesting post! One suggestion: with a multi-part post, perhaps include a link back to the previous part. I came straight to part 2 from, and it was difficult to find part 1 (so I could read that first).

  10. Just my two cents here :

    “I was meeting people at every turn that just wanted to talk to me in English”

    => my mother tongue is French but I can speak English very well. I went to China back in 2004, and I had the exact same problem : people wanted to talk to me in English. To avoid that, I simply told them I couldn’t speak English at all, and that if they wanted to communicate with me it would be either in Chinese or French … I had been learning Chinese with two private teachers over here, so I already had the basics I needed to exchange a few words with them, which was very cool at the time.

    Anyway, I found it really easy to sort of “force” people to speak to me in Chinese 😉

    Thanks for your nice articles.



  11. I have to second what John says about finding bored people to talk to and rejecting the English leachers. For me, I learned most of my Chinese in the park talking to old people. I was living in a small town in Fujian (Fuqing) and the old people there a) knew no English whatsover and b) had no interest in learning it either. However, they were very, very eager to communicate with a foreigner. They would ask me all sorts of personal questions such as “Where are you from?” “What’s your salary?” and “How many Chinese women have you had sex with?”…no joke, these people were all over 60. Most of them were very friendly though, and it was great practice. I didn’t mind answering personal questions as long as it benefitted my Chinese level. The difficult part was that their pu tong hua was very, very substandard (as is most people’s in Fujian, especially the elderly). However, in the long run this turned out to be beneficial, as people who only learn Chinese in Beijing often find out that there is a whole nother half of the country (the south) in which they cannot communicate with because of the strong accents. Another great spot for Chinese workouts is hard seat cars on trains. Just start talking to the people next to you, and before you know it, you will be surrounded by a mob of people asking you questions…it’s just like English corner, but instead of everybody squeezing English out of you, they are drilling you in Chinese.

  12. Xuexiansheng Says: May 15, 2007 at 2:55 am

    Thanks for Part 2, is there going to be a part 3?

    After reading the post, I imagined every gate guard in China being approached by a waiguoren with a notebook and dictionary. And them all thinking “Where did all these guys come from? They never gave me a second look before….?” 🙂

  13. I am studying Chinese in Shenzhen and if I feel I haven’t gotten in enough Chinese speaking for the day, I will go out and chat to my guards in the evening. All the 保安 I have ever met in China love to talk to foreigners, and I love practicing my Chinese on them. Actually I think pretty much anyone in the 老百姓 category will do! But, if someone comes up to me and starts speaking English, I just tell them I am from Russia and cannot speak English… that usually always works.

  14. This is just a theory about those English speaking people. Suppose they talked to me in their broken English in Beijing, and I responded in a super-thick, slurred West Texas accent, i.e. “Naw ain’chu jessa’ p’lite lil’ fellar. What yur name?”, do you think they’d give up on it?

  15. Thank you, John, for your write up on this. I had the grand opportunity to visit China in 2004 for only 10 days. While there with a group of friends and all I knew how to do was count to three for pictures. I remember one time I was in a cab and the taxi driver wanted to chat. All I could say in Chinese was, “I am an American.” HOW SAD! I have always wanted to learn Chinese because it sounds so beautiful to me (and a tad gruff at times). I shied away from lessons in fright because of those tones.

    Anyway, I understand your beginning efforts in looking for language conversation partners. It is extremely tough looking for a language partner when all EVERYONE seems to want to do is speak English with you. Though my experience takes place in Japan (did the JET Program) everything you said I had to do just in Japan. Had to fight to speak Japanese in Japan. How strange.

    Thanks again for your posts. As I start up my language engine again for Chinese I will take in everything you said and suggested and apply it to my language acquisition.

  16. 郑小玲 Says: May 16, 2007 at 9:31 am

    看来中国人学外语和外国人学汉语都很不容易呀! 挺佩服你的。

  17. LC, what university you at? ShenDa? how is it?

    I’m applying to Sehnzhen Daxue, Xiamen Daxue and BLCU for chinese lang. study next year (fall 2007-spring 2008).

    trying to get some thoughts on the matter.. anyone else got any input for me? thanks!!

  18. FRIENDS – Recently I met a new person who enjoys chatting with me, and chats a lot. I just need to listen. What’s interesting to me is that this person uses a lot of vocabulary that my current set of friends and associates don’t.

    People can quickly adapt and get used to your current level. So like mom used to say, if you’re bored, and want to learn something new (like more vocab) go out and make some new friends!

  19. TEXT FRIENDS – for a lot of the same reasons that John mentions in chatting online, I do a lot of phone text messaging. I remember one exchange in particular that was funny. Someone sent a text message to me by mistake. When I responded, at first they thought I was their friend. Then all of a sudden they got more formal and polite. Then they asked if I was a little kid. Haha finally at this point I was also actually understanding much of what they were saying.

    I could just see their head spinning ‘why is this person’s Chinese so weird???’

  20. Chirs (in Dalian),

    I have to say, as someone just starting to study semi-seriously, it’s slightly mortifying to read that your Chinese was “functional at the basics” after 18 months.

    I guess this is a matter of personal standards. Maybe I meant quite “fluent” in the basics. When I first arrived in China I was “functional” in the sense that I could get things accomplished, but my Chinese was broken, and speaking was always embarrassing. After those 18 months I had confidence because I had enough practice under my belt and people actually understood what I was saying.

  21. Henning,

    How important do you deem the explicit grammar rules you learned in University and how much did they help you after you arrived in Zhejiang?

    They were important, I think, but I tend to focus on grammar. People that hate grammar might tell you it’s not important at all.

  22. Ben,

    The difficult part was that their pu tong hua was very, very substandard (as is most people’s in Fujian, especially the elderly). However, in the long run this turned out to be beneficial, as people who only learn Chinese in Beijing often find out that there is a whole nother half of the country (the south) in which they cannot communicate with because of the strong accents.

    Yeah, I totally agree with this. I’m pretty good at understanding people now, in spite of thick accents, thanks to my Zhejiang training.

    Multiple times I have seen students from Beijing come to the south, get frustrated by their accents, and exclaim, “why can’t anyone speak Chinese here?” Of course, they’re the only one with the problem, but they don’t want to adapt.

  23. adam,

    If you’re serious about learning Chinese, i.e. want to spend a year and come out fluent, may I recommend the following programs?

    Taiwan: – Ideal if you’ve already studied 3 years of Chinese by enrollment

    Mainland: (easier to get into) (harder to get into, best on mainland, rivals ICLP)

    I don’t know about how you’d fare at BLCU or Shenzhen, but these above 3 programs are reputed to be head and shoulders above the rest. If you’re studying really high level, you should definitely look at ICLP, because Taiwan is a much more open environment to talk about China issues.

  24. John, — fantastic column! I have been following your blog with interest for the last few months.

    I am nearly 65, retired from my old profession of software engineering, and wanting very much at this time to pursue my lifelong passion — not computers, but languages. I have wanted to learn Putonghua in particular from the age of 10, but am only now doing so through a number of avenues — Pimsleur, and a number of other texts and recordings. I find ChinesePod useful for the vocabulary (missing from Pimsleur).

    I seem to have picked up the q and x, but the tones are really a killer. I’m very glad to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel!

    I agree with your approach to learning Chinese. I remember spending a little time in Japan in my youth, and being mainly tutored in spoken Japanese, not by the many college students wanting to practice English, but by kind, eager passers-by I met in Ueno park. They all laughed at the weird accent I had picked up from the tape recording I had originally learned from!

    Thanks for all your helpful insights! I hope to move over there for a time in the near future.

  25. Rachel Liter Says: May 17, 2007 at 9:03 am

    I was just wondering what dictionary you used and where you found it. I’m trying to look for a good dictionary.

  26. bingfeng Says: May 17, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    not relevant to this post, but might be interesting to you :

  27. Another thing to tell those Westerners who have thrown up their hands and said: “I just want to speak, not read or write”. Characters aren’t as bad as they seem and after a certain point learning new vocabulary words or grammatical structures simply becomes much easier when you’re able to read as well as understand.

  28. John,

    These have been really good. I appreciate the insight, and I it has really challenged me to be more diligent about the language when I return. I know I don’t usually leave sincere comments, but thanks for taking the time to write all this down. It’s encouraging and inspiring. And don’t get used to the since/non sarcastic/non snarky comments. I feel weak.

  29. yes, the best way to learn our Chinese is to speak with the everyday people in our lives. I would befriend the laoban of the noodleshop where I often had lunch. Chat up the xiaojie at the doorways of restaurants. Frequent antique shops. Talk with the old guys playing board games in the park.

    My most fond memories are sitting in an antique shop in Taipei, drinking tea with the laoban and his pals. I eventually became a fixture there, part of the crowd. It was not just about learning language, it was about making connection. Connection across language, culture and generations. I not only learned Chinese there. I learned something about kindness, generosity and patience.

  30. Henning Says: May 19, 2007 at 2:17 am

    thanks for your answer. I will go with it. Its the same all over. How often did I hear “I don’t need tones”, “I don’t need hanzi”, “I don’t need grammar”. In the end you need them all. (:

    I just ordered a grammar book.

    That leads me to another, loosely related question: Did you ever take the HSK? Would you regard a HSK-preparation helpful to structure progress?

  31. 呵呵,你真是太有才了!
    看了你的文章和几乎所有的评论,感觉你们学汉语跟我们学英语有着很多的相通之处。特别是都有发音困难,音调不对的问题。最近我也在学外语,我学的是英语:) 正如你所做的那样,要想提高水平,大量的练习是必不可少的。因此我也天天找练习的机会,但是这种机会太少了,因为我不像你一样,在外国,有这么好的大环境,随处都有练习的机会,哈哈……
    don’t be shy, just try!
    the more you pratise, the more progress you can make.
    let’s make it together!

  32. Long Fei Says: July 6, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Great essay, John.

    I’d like to second what someone else wrote above: the use of writing SMS messages in Chinese. I found this to be very helpful because:
    1. Even Chinese that ordinarily would speak back to you in English if spoken to in Chinese (Chinese collegues, subordinates, friends) would answer my SMS messages in Chinese.
    2. You can be a relatively mediocre writer in Chinese to write great messages. Why? Because the input is in Pinyin so you just have to know the pinyin and the software gives you a selection of characters to choose from. That’s much easier than having to know the character by heart when you write it on paper. Even better: most words are two characters and so the software will narrow down the choices for the second character once you have guessed the first one. After repeating some words several times in various messages, I found that it finally stuck in memory.
    3. Once you get the hang of it, SMS’ing in Chinese can be just as fast as sending that information in English!

  33. Very useful reading John- would love to see part 3!

  34. Thanks for the kind words, people. Part 3 is coming soon…

  35. Sweet…can’t wait for it!

  36. […] the words I remember the best are the ones that had a story associated with them. I remember the first time I heard Madonna’s name in Chinese, and I never forgot it, worthless as it may be. I still […]

  37. […] After three semesters of Chinese, I came to China with my Oxford English C-E / E-C dictionary, and I literally took it with me EVERYWHERE. I really did look everything […]

  38. […] without all this strife, I need to find Chinese speakers with English worse than my Chinese. It worked. I definitely recommend this approach to frustrated learners of Chinese in China. You’re much […]

  39. […] the foot massage parlor, at the barbershop, and from my cleaning lady.  Alto tells the story about going every night to the security booth at the gate of his apartment complex to chat with the guards.  Another possibility is to find a […]

  40. […] When I used this dictionary regularly, I used to highlight words, phrases, and sentences that popped out at me as being useful or somehow study-worthy. What’s great is that I can still browse the dictionary now and see what I once highlighted. Sure, nothing is dated; there is no metadata. But it’s enlightening and amusing to flip through this paper record of my progress. […]

  41. […] studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of fluency, sufficient for everyday conversation and routine tasks in […]

  42. Hi, wow, I really feel identified with your Chinese learning experience, I’ll be brief, I’m Mexican and I also studied Chinese in my country before coming to China, and my tones, well, my pronunciation was very bad, but I only realized that until I came here and I found out Chinese didn’t understand me at all, that was a little bit disappointing, but I’m still trying to improve my level in here. Reading this make me feel motivated. Thanks for sharing this, I bet there are a lot of people that also have improved their Chinese level, but only few people share their experience, thanks for that.

  43. […] A’s in my Chinese classes. But I had to pay later when I arrived in China and people actually couldn’t even understand me. That was the real wakeup call: pronunciation matters. Besides the occasional reminder, AllSet […]

  44. […] how profoundly those weaknesses would impact my attempts at communication. But more on that in the next post in this […]

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