These 5 Common Mistakes Make Learning Chinese Much More Difficult

We like to tell our students that learning Chinese is easy and it really is. But if you make one of these 5 common mistakes, learning Chinese will be much more difficult.

Don’t start studying with misconceptions about how to learn Chinese.

People often bring up lists of difficult languages and talk about how difficult Chinese is to learn. Chinese may (or may not) be more difficult to master than other languages.

All languages have:

  • lots of vocabulary to memorize.
  • both easy and difficult grammar.
  • words that are difficult to pronounce.

Focusing on how difficult Chinese may be to learn is a mistake , because it sets you up to fail. Unless you are someone who relishes a challenge, this focus will likely just make studying more difficult.  The truth is that learning any language can be difficult, but hundreds of millions of people do it and so can you. You just have to walk in with the expectation that learning Chinese is:

  • possible.
  • both easy and difficult.
  • a project that involves sustained effort and time.

In the next email, we’ll tell you about other expectations that make it more difficult for people to learn Chinese.

Don’t forget to organize your studies.

If you aren’t organized, studying outside of class is that much more difficult. Successfully learning to speak any language involves a sustained effort. If you can’t find the time to study you will fail.You need to develop a way to study in line at the bank, while you exercise and drive to work.

Take a look at what you want to learn and develop a plan. Do you just want to learn to speak or is reading and writing a goal, too? If you want to become fluent, you will eventually need to learn to read and write. If you don’t start early on, your studies will stall while you catch up on reading and writing. Where are you struggling? If it is in memorizing vocabulary, then you need to find time to practice flashcards. If it is grammar, you need to practice asking questions or making statements.

Don’t just get a book with cds.

In order to succeed, you need tools that help with your plans. If you want to study in line at the bank, flashcards will help. We often get students that were not successful with online language learning programs. You really need more than a book to make quick progress in mastering Chinese. There are a variety of apps and websites that our students find helpful in studying Chinese. Skritter helps with writing and apps like Pleco help with studying. We offer mp3 files that you can listen to on the way to work. You need to find the right tools.

Don’t forget to make learning Chinese a new habit.

If you have organized a plan and the right apps, you are off to a great start. There is something more. You have to make studying a new habit. This can be overwhelming, but it actually very simple.

Start small and focus on gains. Habits can be hard to make and success here depends on starting very small and celebrating every success. Taking your book out is a step. So is reading a few words. If you celebrate these small successes rather consider them failures, it will help you form the habit of studying. Once the smaller step comes more easily, you can begin to add on a little larger steps.

Schedule time to study. This is where the rubber meets the road. Morning and evenings work better. Studying consistently during the middle of the day is more difficult. If you have the right tools, start small and celebrate success, you will be well on your way to mastering a new language.

Don’t pick the wrong instructor.

One common mistake is to pick the cheapest approach. This approach typically involves a book and a tutor, who may or may not be trained to teach Chinese. It is very difficult to learn a language from someone who is not trained and has thought through how to explain difficult grammar. Your classes should not simply be an opportunity to learn specific phrases or vocabulary. They should systematically present new grammar and vocabulary that provides a framework to use in speaking the new language. Each class should also include review of older material. This helps you move this material into your long-term memory and will eventually lead to mastery.

People also make the mistake of just going to class and not studying outside of class enough. These students might do well at first, but they eventually forget older concepts and vocabulary. Eventually, they are unable to keep up with the class or stop making progress and drop out.

The Right Mental Framework for Learning Chinese

How you approach a challenge has an enormous impact on your ability to succeed. Your approach is driven by your understanding of the challenge. We have come across 5 common expectations that are just plain wrong. All of these expectations cause people significant problems in learning any language including Chinese. Consider our arguments below as you step into the world of learning Chinese.

You can learn like a child (except children can’t.)

There are many programs that promise that you can learn a language like a child. There are a few problems with this line of thinking. First, you aren’t a child and your brain stopped learning that way at puberty. This means that you won’t pick up on the grammar and other rules of a language just by hearing it often enough. You need to study the grammar. The other problem with this line of thinking is that children even children study grammar.

Furthermore, companies frequently use this to imply that it will be effortless and fun. Children spend about 10 years becoming proficient and 22 years mastering the language. By learning the language as an adult, you can become proficient in a much shorter time. There are advantages to learning a language like an adult. You can understand complex rules (think grammar) much more easily than a child ever will. You also have the self discipline to study on your own.

Get fluent fast programs work (except they don’t.)

This one is difficult, because it is tempting to believe that we can accomplish something important with little effort and no time investment. Don’t waste your money on get fluent fast programs. They don’t work. We find that students shut down after an hour of class a day(or two at most!) We’ve talked with other students who have gone to immersion programs that have 8 hours of class in a day. The students found that they remembered very little of what they were taught. Immersion does help, but studying outside of class is what works.

We find that studying for 15 minutes a day is enough to make reasonably good progress over time. If you want to get fluent faster, study outside of class more. We find that unless they are studying an hour a day, our students don’t benefit from a second hour of class each week.

Learning Chinese is hard (except it is not.)

Just believing that learning Chinese is hard can make it more difficult to learn the language. It can be a strength if you see yourself as someone who perseveres through difficult challenges. You do need to pay special attention to the tones and difficult grammar points, but even writing is not that difficult once you get into it.

Some people believe that they aren’t good at learning languages. If you focus on how it is difficult or impossible for you to succeed, then just starting is difficult. Furthermore, the research does not support the idea that some people find it more difficult than others. It is more likely that the belief that “learning a language is difficult for you” is holding you back.

The really difficult part of learning Chinese is the same for every other language: discipline. Studying a language requires regular if not daily effort. In fact, we’ll teach you how to do just that in a few more emails. If you can develop the habit of studying every day for just 15 minutes, you will be surprised how quickly you learn the language.

Understanding the grammar is good enough (except it isn’t.)

If you find yourself listening to the instructor and understanding a new concept and then moving on in your head, you are making a huge mistake. Understanding something like grammar is just the first step. You need to practice. For example, as you go about your day, ask yourself, “How would I respond to this situation in Chinese?” or “How would I respond to this question in Chinese?” So on that note, how would you order a large cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Beijing? Post your answer in the comments!

We have designed our program to teach you the knowledge and provide you tools to memorize, but you must go home and practice, too! We recommend 15 minutes a day, but the more you practice, the faster you master Mandarin. When you understand spaced repetition study, you know that 15 minutes a day is far better than 4 hours on Sunday. This is true even when you invest more total time with the 3 hour plan.

You have to live there or go to an immersion program to learn a language. (Nope!)

There is no question that immersion will help you learn a language quickly, but it is not a requirement to learn a language. The secret sauce of learning a language is time spent studying, practicing and speaking. You can live in a country, hear a language every day and learn very little. We know from research that language learning starts when you begin to understand what is being spoken around you. So to really make progress learning a language you need to learn vocabulary and then listen and speak as much as you can. In fact, you will learn much more from an immersion program if you arrive with a basic foundation in Chinese.

In the next email, we’ll send you some tools that will help you organize your studies and start learning some vocabulary.

What Gets Between You and Learning Chinese?

How to Study Chinese

As you begin to study Chinese, research shows that you will go through a series of stages. Your pace in moving through these stages depends on the program you select, how diligently you study and your natural ability to learn words and phrases. You will move through these stages faster if you study with a program that introduces new vocabulary and phrases strategically and then provides an opportunity to practice. In the next email, we will send you a list of resources you can use to practice learning vocabulary and more.

Spaced Repetition Practice

As you start to study Chinese, techniques like spaced repetition study will help you learn more efficiently. This basically means studying regularly while reviewing older lessons regularly with longer intervals between review sessions. So if you are studying vocabulary review daily, then every week and then every month. In time, the word or phrase will become natural.

For example, Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones and changing how you say a word changes the meaning. Simply knowing what words should sound like will not help you say the words properly. Before you start practicing, it is important that you have the right tones memorized or in front of you. Don’t practice doing something incorrectly. You must practice saying the word with the correct tone. Eventually, you will need to practice saying sentences or phrases with the correct tones.

The Pre-Production Stage of Learning Chinese

Typically there is an initial period called pre-production. In traditional education setting, this stage lasts until you have a receptive vocabulary of 500 words. During this stage, you should focus on mastering the tones, pronunciation and learning basic vocabulary. As you may know Chinese is a tonal language. There are four basic tones all of which change the meaning of the word. To help you master the tones more easily, we created a Guide to Chinese Tones. Chinese has a pronunciation system called pinyin. There are different kinds of pinyin. China uses the Han Yu Pinyin system, while Taiwan uses the Bopomofo system. In the next email, we’ll introduce a variety of tools and apps to help you learn vocabulary more easily.

Production Stage of Learning Chinese

The next stage called early production, which starts with briefly answering questions. In traditional education, this stage lasts until you have a receptive and active vocabulary of 1,000 words. You can move through this stage more quickly by listening to Chinese language materials. Be careful to select materials that you can start to understand after listening a few times through. Watching the evening news over the internet will not really help at this stage.

You need to practice the vocabulary and patterns until you are able to say them smoothly. You need to build muscle memory and one way to do this is say the word aloud in the correct tone several times.  As you move into this stage, it is important that you know that the tone of a given word also changes based on the words surrounding it. You will continue to master the tones of individual words, it is also important that you begin to practice saying phrases and sentences with the correct tones. This is all covered in our Guide to Chinese Tones. We’ll send you a link at the end of this course.

Speech Emergence Stage of Learning Chinese

During this stage you will begin to speak in short phrases. The research estimates that you will have a receptive vocabulary of 3,000 words. You can move through this stage more quickly by listening to Chinese being by spoken by a native speaker. You should also practice speaking as much as is possible. As you go about your day, consider what you would say in Chinese  in daily life. Be sure to memorize dialogues to help you move through this stage.

As you master the tones a piano and muscle memory. One example is mastering grammar. If you simply understand it, you have a better chance of understanding what people say. If you do not practice speaking with correct grammar, you will fumble and make mistakes when trying to talk to others. Spaced repetition study will help you learn words, you will need to use spaced repetition practice (I just made this phrase up) to master the skill of speaking with proper grammar. With spaced repetition practice, you use a similar timing dynamic but you practice the skill. It essentially creates muscle memory and integrates the language into your brain. With enough practice you will no longer translate sentences, but speaking Chinese.

Intermediate Fluency at Speaking Chinese

During this stage, you have an active vocabulary of 6,000 words. At this stage, you will have a higher level of comprehension. You will also be able to express more advanced thoughts and opinions. At this stage, you should continue to expose yourself to spoken Chinese. At this point, you should begin to watch the news, TV shows and movies as much as possible. At this point, you will now also benefit from vacation trips or immersion courses in China.

Advanced Fluency at Speaking Chinese

It is estimated that it takes 4 to 10 years to learn Chinese to this level of fluency. At this stage, you should be watching Chinese television, talking to native speakers and even reading books in Chinese. Lessons focused on advanced topics will continue to help you develop your fluency. This is particularly true for topics that require a higher level of fluency such as business, history or law.

What helps you learn Chinese faster?

Do You Have the Right Tools and Resources to Learn Chinese?

You want to make learning Chinese as easy and convenient as possible. Apps and other tools can really help in this area. This approach has the added advantage of increasing your exposure to the language. Today, we’re going to review apps that build your vocabulary, help you learn to read and write, practice listening and practice speaking.

You may find it strange that we’re sending you to websites of our “competitors.” We want you to have every advantage in learning the language and view these sites as partners in helping you succeed.

Build Your Vocabulary

Anki is one option. This tool is for memorizing just about anything. It uses spaced repetition. To learn how to use this tool to learn Chinese, please check out our blog post here. We like Anki enough that we’re beginning to set up lessons with vocabulary review through Anki. If Anki is not for you, check out this post on Omniglot to learn about other options.

YellowBridge Online Chinese Dictionary (and so much more) is another option. There is a long list of flashcards. You can also type words in pinyin to hear them pronounced on your computer or even learn about Chinese words etymology.

Student Favorite

Our students really like the Pleco Chinese dictionary, which is available for your iOS or Android device. This app has the ability to recognize characters that you draw on the phone, offers flashcards, contains a dictionary with 150,000 words and 20,000 example sentences. You can take a picture of a word and it will look the word up. Note: more advanced part of this app are not free.


If you are struggling with grammar, our students have enjoyed the reference book Chinese DeMYSTiFied.

To study Chinese characters we like the book Learning Chinese Characters.

Practice Listening

Depending on how much you want to practice, you can download any number of podcasts or watch videos on Youtube. You can even watch some movies in Chinese or get Dish TV’s Chinese option. ChinesePod has a nice site that offers a number of podcasts on learning Chinese. I find that the grammar is difficult to take in with just the audio, but that the podcasts offer a great chance to practice listening.

One area to avoid is practicing by listening to songs. When people sing in Chinese, the tones follow the tune not the spoken word. This means that you would be practicing listening to words, developing vocabulary, which is great. You definitely don’t want to practice speaking by imitating the songs. (Sadly – I love teaching through music.)

Learn to Write

Arch Chinese will teach you to write Chinese. Start by learning the basic rules for stroke order. Then you can generate character worksheets for writing practice.

Skritter is another great option. They have web and iOS options (no Android though.) You can use a writing tablet with your computer or your finger on your iPad/iPhone. The app will generate a list of words and quiz you on writing. Skritter will automatically add new vocabulary words.

Practice Speaking

While we don’t view Rosetta Stone in terms of learning methods, we do think the program works well as a supplement to a live instructor. They have a nice speaking tool that will patiently test your ability to say words. You can practice until you master the word.

Another simple option is to follow us on Facebook. We regularly offer puzzles about what people should say in a given situation. Another opportunity to practice speaking Chinese is at a meetup in or near Denver.

What tools do you like?

Make Learning Chinese Your New Habit

We tell our clients that learning Chinese is easy and it really can be easy, but you need to do a few things right. It just takes time and practice which means you need the discipline to follow through. That’s an intimidating sentence, but it does not need to be. You can successfully build new habits by starting small.

Don’t take on too much.

In saying this, I don’t mean don’t take on too much Chinese.  Don’t take on too many new things. Research shows that willpower is like a muscle and if you exercise it too much, it will wear out. Trying to change too many habits at once will essentially drain your willpower and leave you struggling. You want to have a solid track record of studying Chinese regularly before taking on other new habits.

Discipline Starts Small

So you really shouldn’t take on too much Chinese either. The hard part of learning Chinese is the same as the hard part of every other new thing you try in life. All worthwhile things take time and discipline. When I was younger, the word discipline brought up visions of the army. Now I know that discipline just means picking and following through on the right habit.

If you want to speak Chinese, you need to make studying a habit. That is the hard part of learning to speak Chinese. In fact, it is probably the very thing that makes you just a little bit afraid. The trick is to get started, take it slow and make it fun.

Start small and with a plan.

In studying Chinese, you might start with:

  • reviewing 5 vocabulary words a day.
  • listening to a podcast on the way to work.
  • reviewing a sentence pattern a day.

It is essential that the new plan be easy and organized.

  • Prepare the materials you want to use ahead of time.
  • Make sure you understand any apps.
  • Schedule your studies.

Celebrate every success.

There will be good days and bad days. On some days, you will sit down to study for five minutes and get in an hour or even two. On other days, all you will do is sit down to study before something pulls you away. Both of those are victories. If you sit down and study often enough and long enough, you will master Chinese.

Consider an accountability partner. This is just someone who will support you. You let them know when and how long you plan to study and then report. The focus on encouraging you to continue to do well while helping you celebrate your success.

What has helped you study Chinese?