How to bridge the gap to real Chinese

Olle at Hacking Chinese just put up a new post called Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese. In it, he asks quite a few language learners/experts the question:

“How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?”

My answer:

The truth is that no materials–textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever–are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.

At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.

For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the things you care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.

Definitely check out some of the answers if this topic interests you at all; there’s a lot of them, with lots of good points.

A lot of the answers are what you might expect, but I especially liked the response by Roddy of

I think I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?

First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.

It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条 [french fries], not the 土豆丝 [shredded potato] he was requesting.

Again, there’s lots more in Olle’s original post.


John Pasden

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


  1. That was an incredible post by Olle.

    It was cool he even had DaShan’s comment.

    FYI: Roddy’s comment caught my eye as well. His observation is a reality. Expats need to know this before blindy believing in an osmosis like process to learning Chinese.

  2. Roddy’s answer reminds me of a quote I heard recently (from him? on chinese-forums?): “Learning doesn’t come from experience; it comes from reflecting on experience.”

    I’m going to put it up in my office tomorrow next to “Admire vision. Respect execution.” and “Play is critical inquiry.” Getting a good collection this year.

  3. David Lloyd-Jones Says: January 16, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Bravo to Roddy.

    Some of Roddy’s “people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress” are just Dunning-Krugers. I’ve had classmates who complain that PinYin has the pronunciation of the letter Q wrong — and then the other day I ran across a woman writing that on a blog, while claiming that she had a degree in linguistics.

    But lemme tell y’all a funny story.

    A technical term in Chinese relevant to the shi/chi problems we all have is 舌面音。”Tongue surface sound,” more or less. Well it turned up in discussion over at ChinesePod as 舍面音, which is obviously silly, but easy to do given the similarity of the first HanZi.

    Well I went to Chinese Reader 7’s internet reference connection, and searched for it on Baidu, and lo and behold, the ChinesePod error seems to have gone viral in China.

    It’s gone Chicken Man, It’s Everywhere It’s Everywhere!



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