Learning a language is easier with a teacher to set you tasks and hold you accountable. But what happens when you leave the classroom for the last time?
When I decided to study for the HSK 4 exam, I’d already been learning Chinese for four years through a weekly classroom-based evening course. I had excellent teachers and made sure I always listened hard, did my homework, participated in class etc.
But taking on the challenge of studying for an exam in my own time revealed the uncomfortable truth: all this time, I’d actually only been doing the bare minimum. And it was now time for me to take things to the next level.
Here’s how I did that – and how I’ve continued to learn.
- I downloaded some learning apps
We apparently spend around four hours per day on our phones. This is the perfect opportunity to squeeze some learning time in.
My go-to dictionary app is ‘Pleco’. When I was studying new vocabulary for the HSK exam, I found ‘Chinese In Flow’ really useful for setting myself character-learning targets. And I really like ‘Du Chinese’ for reading short articles.
The importance of learning characters depends on your end goal. But to truly understand the language you’re speaking, knowing the characters can actually make your life easier. For example, knowing the difference between the three ‘de’s (的, 得 and 地), or recognising the word ‘barbecue’ (烧烤) by the fire radicals.
- I started watching Chinese TV dramas
What better way to learn a language than to enjoy a juicy drama? I started off glued to English subtitles. I knew I was getting somewhere when, one day, I got up to get a snack and could still understand the dialogue going on in the background.
Listening to music and learning a few songs is fun, too. And it’ll score you massive bonus points if you ever go to a KTV session with your Chinese friends.
- I started reading books I’d already read in English
One of my all-time favourite books, even as an adult, is Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. I managed to find a Chinese copy of it, and because I already know the story back-to-front, translating it back from Mandarin to English was a fun experience.
I also copied the book by hand onto a separate notebook. It’s easy to feel bored when you’re writing one character out over and over again to learn it. But copying out a well-known, well-loved book gives the characters context.
- I found people to talk to
The only way to progress in any language is to talk, talk, talk. I was lucky enough to have Mandarin-speaking friends to practise with, but I also dabbled with language exchange groups and apps.
- I made Mandarin part of my everyday life
I speak a little, read a little and listen a little every day. I wish I could say I write every day too, but it’s a work-in-progress that I know I need to push myself more on.
It’s terrifying how fast you forget a language if you don’t use it often. So, even if I’m not tackling a new learning point every single day, I’m making sure that I consolidate and use what I already know as often as possible.
The hardest part of learning beyond an intermediate level isn’t the more complex grammar. It isn’t even remembering all the new words. It’s staying motivated.
If I had to choose the most important tip from this list, it would be the fifth one: putting time into the language every day. It doesn’t have to be hours; you’d be surprised at how much difference even just 15 minutes a day makes. And as long as you commit to adding something new every so often – be it a new word, phrase or structure – you’ll soon find your level improving almost without you realising it.