When you learn Chinese, your studies can take on two main forms: work with an instructor (in a classroom or through private tutoring) and self-study. Both methods have their advantages, and in a well-developed study plan, they work together to help you learn Chinese as effectively as possible.
In this article, we’ll talk about how classroom study and self-study are both important for your learning. And for those of you who want to get more progress and find out how to learn Chinese by yourself, we’ll also go into some tips for self-study.
Why You Should Learn Chinese in a Classroom
When you first start learning Chinese, a classroom setting is great for staying motivated. There will be days when you find it difficult to push yourself to study. Having a teacher to keep you accountable will spur you to action.
Your instructor will also play a crucial role in forming your Chinese speech habits. When you’re first learning the pinyin system (the way non-native Chinese speakers learn Chinese pronunciation, e.g. 好 in pinyin is written “hǎo”), it is essential to have someone there to correct your pronunciation.
Later in your studies, you will still be somewhat understood through context (and forgiveness) when you make tone errors, but pronunciation is too important to get wrong. At the start of your Chinese learning career, it’s important to learn the foundations of pronunciation, which classroom instruction can provide.
Advantages of Learning Chinese in a Classroom
- Structure and guidance. The classroom is a great setting for the beginner who isn’t sure where to begin and would benefit from a structured approach with a syllabus and textbook.
- Peer learning. When you’re in a classroom, you’re surrounded by like-minded students who are at your level. This is a great environment for peers to give each other tips, motivate each other, and practice Chinese with other interested people.
- Foundational speaking skills. Your teacher will correct your pronunciation and tones, which is vital in the beginning stages of your learning. You’re saving yourself the time of having to unlearn bad speech habits later on.
The Importance of Self-study
Unfortunately, not all of your Chinese learning can be absorbed in the classroom, and you’re going to have to put in some of your own work through self-study. Self-study will not only strengthen your understanding of your classroom material but also expose you to extra practice.
Particularly at more advanced levels, self-study is key if you aim to advance your language skills. Your gains from the classroom will diminish as you learn more and as your personal needs become more and more specific to you. To address these gaps in your classroom study, use self-study to learn independently.
Tips for Self-study Activities
As long as you’re aware of how to do it, Chinese self-study is a personalized and essential method for learning Chinese.
To make gains while studying a foreign language, you need consistent practice. Schedule self-study time for the same time every day so that your day feels awkward when you miss it. Much like brushing your teeth, studying is something that you must get in the habit of doing every single day. You could even just reread a previous textbook chapter that you already know well.
When you study every day, twenty minutes is enough time for you to make progress. 30–45 minutes can be better, but more than 60 minutes is risky. It’s really easy to find excuses for why you don’t have an entire hour to study on any particular day. And if you miss one day, you’re much more likely to skip the next day as well.
Your self-study toolbox isn’t limited to textbooks when you’re deciding how to learn Mandarin on your own. Here are some other effective tools that will make your studies more well-rounded and effective:
- Podcasts. Podcasts are useful throughout your entire learning experience. You should incorporate these into your studies from the very beginning and continue to use them until you are fluent.
Listening to short, daily lessons is highly efficient. The convenience of podcasts also promotes consistency, since you can study on the way to school or work, and even while doing chores.
- Spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is the best tool for memorizing Chinese characters. You should integrate spaced repetition into your studies the moment you start studying Chinese.
Using Hack Chinese—an app that incorporates spaced repetition techniques into your studies for you—will make your self-study time more efficient. You will retain more of your Chinese vocabulary words and remember them for longer. Hack Chinese is also so convenient that you can use it to practice Chinese 5 minutes a day.
- Chinese media. Once you hit a certain level of proficiency, it just makes sense to watch video content, so find fun movies and videos to watch. Just make sure you’re at an advanced enough level. Watching TV too early will cause frustration and use up valuable time that could be spent memorizing new vocabulary or practicing with a tutor.
Watching Chinese-language content will not only exercise your listening skills but also expose you to Chinese culture. When you get into it, you might even find that it doesn’t feel like studying at all.
Keep It Simple, Keep It Constant
In sum, you should learn Chinese in a classroom setting to establish good pronunciation habits from an experienced instructor. This is particularly true when you first start learning Chinese. You should also support your classroom studies by forming good self-study habits. Your self-study habits will supplement your classroom studies and take you from your very first Chinese words all the way to fluency.
Finally, when you learn Chinese and it comes time to figure out how to make your self-study time as effective as it can be, just remember this easy advice: keep it simple, keep it constant.
Daniel Nalesnik, Founder of Hack Chinese
Daniel Nalesnik is the founder of Hack Chinese, a smart platform for learning Chinese vocabulary. Daniel moved to China in 2009 for a year of full-time Mandarin immersion at Peking University (in Beijing) and Fudan University (in Shanghai). In the years since he has worked with teachers throughout China to discover what learning methods are most impactful for Mandarin Chinese learners. This experience inspired Daniel to found Hack Chinese, a spaced-repetition platform for learning Mandarin Chinese.