How I Learned Chinese (part 3)

31 Jul 2012

I started a series of posts all the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I 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 daily life. But then what? What did I do to get past that level?

I didn’t continue the series past part 2 because it was obvious to me back in 2007 that I was still learning a lot of Chinese, and it’s never really clear what’s happening when you’re right in the middle of it (that whole forest and trees thing). Now, a good 5 years later, I’ve got a lot more perspective on the big picture of what was going on with my Chinese development back then. So it’s high time I continued the account…


After finally getting my Chinese to a point where I felt like I could honestly say “I speak Chinese” (sometime around 2003), I had to re-evaluate a bit. Wasn’t that my initial goal, after all? To get in, get fluent, and get out? And then move onto another cool and exciting country? Yes, that was my original plan: to be a bit of an “immersion whore.” It’s a dangerous game to play, though… because if you’re not careful, you might become emotionally attached. And that kind of affects the plan.

And I did get attached to my life in China. (I still find my existence here to be rife with an exhilarating kind of chaos.) And I still wanted to keep improving my Chinese. And I had met someone who might possibly be the coolest woman ever. Long story short, I had decided to stay.

Just as I had concluded that I needed real all-Chinese practice to improve my speaking in the beginning, I also realized next that I needed to increase the amount of Chinese in my life. Specifically, I needed a job where I could use Chinese, or possibly higher level studies in Chinese. I always enjoyed teaching English, but my duties as an English teacher conflicted with my personal goals of mastering Chinese. I had reached the dreaded intermediate plateau, that period where getting from point A to point B takes a long time and a hell of a lot of work, but it doesn’t feel like you’re making significant progress at the time. I needed a plan to propel myself beyond it, and my sights starting moving toward Shanghai.


It was at this point that I also came to the reluctant conclusion that I should probably take the HSK. I’ve never been a fan of standardized testing, and the HSK struck me then as particularly estranged from reality (and hasn’t gotten a lot better since). But the more formal Mandarin evaluated by the HSK could be useful in a work setting, and I had also begun toying with this new idea of going to graduate school for applied linguistics in China. You need an HSK score to get into Chinese universities.


The one-semester HSK prep course I took at Zhejiang University of Technology in the second half of 2003 was the first formal course in Chinese I had taken since arriving in China almost three years earlier. It reminded me that I hated studying to the test, but also that I really did have quite a few grammar points I still needed to nail down.

I recall clearly, before studying for the HSK at all, that I had some delusions of fluency, thinking that maybe I could go straight for the advanced HSK. My Chinese wasn’t nearly that good, though, and even after completing the course, I didn’t quite ace the HSK as I had hoped, although I got the score I needed for grad school in China.

Result: serious wake-up call! I still had plenty to learn. I had gotten good at the casual conversations I immersed myself in daily, but more of those conversations weren’t really helping me get to the next level (at least not fast enough). And although I had the HSK score I needed, I would still need to pass an essay exam to get into the applied linguistics program I was interested in.

Goals do help

So having studied for the HSK for about half a year and then passing it, I was ready for the next challenge: applying for graduate school in China. I learned that I needed to pass a hand-written essay exam on 现代汉语 (modern Mandarin), to prove that I had both the theoretical linguistic knowledge about the language as well as the Chinese writing skills to express myself. I was assigned a textbook to “learn” in order to pass the exam. The school directed me to the tutoring services of the student center, and I was able to hire a tutor to help me get through it.

What followed was a year of reading the textbook, discussing it with my teacher, and doing regular essay assignments. I directed my own studies and set my own pace, and my tutor (a college student) helped me along the way. Honestly, I barely even remember that year of study. I just remember writing a whole bunch of essays and seeing an awful lot of red ink. I also remember being quite surprised by how quickly my handwriting speed ramped up when I was regularly putting pen to paper with purpose.

When I finally took the essay test, I was super nervous, but all that writing practice paid off. I could bust out a decent length essay in the hour allotted. It wasn’t perfect (I think I got an 80%?), but I was in.

Remember that plateau?

The frustrating thing about the plateau is that you don’t feel like you’re making progress when you really are. It didn’t feel like my Chinese was getting significantly better as I acquired the vocabulary and grammar to pass the HSK, or even as I got steadily better at writing essays in Chinese. It’s not until well after the fact that you can look back on that period of time and realize that your skills really have progressed a fair amount since then. For me, it wasn’t until I was in grad school in 2005, pretty well adjusted after the first few weeks of classes, and thinking, “this actually isn’t so hard” that it finally hit me: wow, my Chinese has actually come a long way since those good old Hangzhou days.

For me, the key to getting through that intermediate plateau period was having a sequence of reasonable, attainable goals. I’m not sure I would have ever made it if my goal was just to pass the advanced HSK. I certainly wouldn’t have done it in order to read a Chinese newspaper. My long-term goal was earning a masters in applied linguistics in Chinese, but my first goal was simply getting a passing score on the HSK, which largely involved learning all the basic grammar patterns I had neglected (because I didn’t need them) and picking up the rather boring (but important) vocabulary I had formerly ignored. The half-year of working toward the short-term goal helped train me mentally for the next goal of passing the writing exam, and being able to switch gears from standardized testing to writing really kept things interesting. After those two smaller goals were attained, all that was left was a 3-year “make it through grad school” goal, which was a special challenge all its own, and a story for another time…


John Pasden

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


  1. Thanks for the insights John. As a learner who might be hitting that plateau in the near future it’s nice to be aware, that I might not be aware of it. 🙂

  2. Baillies Says: July 31, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    part 1 line is broken, has 2007/05/13/how should be 2007/05/06/how

    you can delete this if you fix it.
    btw love the blog, good to see that you can get time to keep it up.

  3. Looking forward to part 4. Great blog. Really inspiring.

  4. Reading your story provides some nice encouragement. Thanks for sharing. I, too, hope to improve my Chinese to a higher level someday. I’ll need to find a way of doing it without spending time with a pen and paper, though. Handwriting characters is a skill that I think doesn’t have much use. I am glad to hear that you were able to direct your own studies, though, as I would plan to do the same thing. Enrolling in a few semesters at BeiDa would not mesh well with me.

  5. Thank you for this! I believe I’m at the plateau at the moment and it really feels like there haven’t been much improvement and of course at the same time my classmates seem to be progressing fast. My goals at the moment are graduating and passing HSK6 before that.

    • Keep at it!

      You’re talking about the new HSK 6, right? Are you taking (or have you taken) any other levels before 6? In keeping with the advice I gave in this entry, I’d say it’s better to shoot for an intermediary goal first. So if you can be ready for 5 within a few months, do that first, and then push on to 6.

      Anyway, 加油!

  6. Tom Harrison Says: August 2, 2012 at 9:36 am

    John, I find that at my level (passed Advanced New HSK, wanting to work in China or using mandarin) there is a greater need to find learning material that caters to my interests, but isn’t too hard. A Chinese newspaper seems like too great a leap. What materials can you suggest? Websites, Weibo feeds, Chinesepod!, etc. Thanks for keeping up the blog.

    • That’s a good question. I’d say there’s a dearth of good (INTERESTING) materials out there for intermediate learners. So I don’t have any easy answers, unfortunately… This is also the kind of thing I spend a lot of time on for my AllSet Learning clients (because there are no easy answers).

    • is pretty good and much easier to understand than mainland newspapers. of course its mostly tranlated.

  7. Really inspirational story! I will keep it in mind when I go to Nanjing to study this fall.

  8. Zhang San Says: August 3, 2012 at 12:00 am

    What would you do differently if you learned Chinese again, knowing what you know now?

    I imagine if your university classes in the U.S. focused on learning to understand a lot of spoken Mandarin first, then gradually brought in speaking later, you might have had to do far less work correcting your pronunciation and tones in China, as all that listening would perhaps have given you a good ‘feel’ for the language to work from. Also understanding the spoken language better seems to make it easier to pick up more and more of the language just from context. I am trying this kind of comprehension approach myself to find out how effective it is, but am only partway through, so I shall see.

  9. Excellent post! You really know how to make plain the difficult work of learning a language fully. Especially that all-too-enticing trap of the Plateau, where you can converse on light topics and read with only minor help… but if you think you’re fluent, you’re quite wrong.

  10. Great article. I liked your point about larger and intermediate goals, and how working towards a longer-term, more meaningful project made doing things which would have been impossible for their own sake achievable.

    Eight years deep, I am still unsure where the line between ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ lies; after a certain point when the student becomes capable of self-directed learning, given an appropriate environment, there seems to always be more to learn and no clear end in sight.

    Do you think the HSK or new HSK is useful for the current generation of laowais seeking employment (not further education) in a Mandarin-language environment?



  11. Hi, I think I’m at the plateau in this moment, I just passed the HSK 4, but I’m not feeling very ok with that, because I feel like I’m not going anywhere, I’m feeling little bit lost actually, but also encouraged after reading your experience learning Chinese. Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  12. […] etc.” Learners tend to see these limited, unchallenging conversations as contributing to the intermediate plateau they are […]

  13. […] practice needed to become fluent in a language. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining that intermediate plateau, as you slog from an average of 60% comprehension or so to closer to 90%. That’s why […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *