Don’t Waste Time Studying What You Can Simply Acquire

One of my clients recently shared this article and asked my thoughts: Learning Chinese: from gruesome, to good, to great.

I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:

  • The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
  • The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
  • The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)

Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.

Learn Implicitly When You Can

The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)

Hamster on Wheel

Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.

“Voice Quality”

I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.

Explicit Tone Learning

An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)

Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).

But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.


If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.

In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.

So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.


John Pasden

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


  1. Well said. Brilliant post.

  2. If I’m reading correctly, why do you assume that learners can pick up the subtler aspects of tones implicitly but not the more fundamental aspects like the tones themselves and tone pairs?

    I think adults can pick up and master all of these things implicitly, but generally have problems because they try to speak and use new languages a lot from the start, without first getting a lot of comprehensible input in them through listening and in this way internalizing how they should sound. Without having internalized the tones enough through listening first, in speaking a lot Mandarin learners end up “falling back” on the sounds and intonation of their first language, or using their own ideas of how Mandarin sounds. In this way they develop habits that explicit instruction is then needed to help correct.

    I think that the main obstacle to adults acquiring Mandarin tones and practically all other aspects of the spoken language implicitly is a lack of comprehensible input that’s both highly understandable and highly interesting, even from the very beginner level. If massive amounts of this content were available, I think it would be a much more attractive option as a beginner to spend a lot of time just hearing and gaining understanding of Mandarin first and “getting an ear” for the language. As it is today, most content for learners forces production or explicit instruction on the learner in some way, and as adults we often find we need to speak a second language ourselves first to get people to speak it to us a lot.

    • Adults CAN learn tones implicitly from the beginning, but it’s probably not going to be the most efficient way, since most adult learners won’t be in an immersion environment getting tons of input.

      It’s not just about there being enough content; it’s also about adult learners spending the time to take in all that input.

      • Well I think if someone does have to produce Mandarin from early on, then they would probably benefit from some form of instruction on the tones to avoid developing problems with them.

        Do you think though that adults learning Chinese typically need to speak it much, before they’ve first heard and understood a lot of it? I’m not certain, but I think how much adult learners need to produce a language they’re learning from the start tends to be greatly overestimated.

        I think if really optimal Mandarin comprehensible input were available for adult beginners, learners would be able to acquire the tones implicitly from scratch along with a lot of other aspects of the language within perhaps just a few hundred hours.

        I’m thinking here of a huge selection of content that’s both highly interesting and highly understandable using a lot of non-verbal communication, so learners would generally have a good idea what is being said from moment to moment (even through they don’t know any of the words at first), as opposed to immersion environments, which often provide many hours of input but with low comprehensibility.

        This content could also provide a lot of other things, from teaching a lot about the culture to just being entertaining.

        Would it be unreasonable for most adults starting to learn Mandarin to first spend that kind of time over several months getting input through listening? I’m genuinely curious about your perspective on this given your experience with many learners.

        Also, do you know if there is much Mandarin comprehensible input content for adult beginners anywhere like the kind I’m describing? I’ve hardly seen any content quite like this, but I find it hard to believe there’s so little even for languages like Mandarin that have hundreds of millions of speakers.

      • I do think it’s unreasonable. Adult learners are not patient enough (and child learners are only patient enough because they have no choice).

        Also, being able to produce the language and have real, meaningful interactions is insanely motivating. Removing that would doom the majority of learners’ studies, I’m afraid.

        I’m not exactly sure what kind of input you’re describing… Video? Audio only? There’s lots of stuff out there, but no single clear choice.

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