Can you learn Chinese just from talking to people?
Beginning Chinese language students at GoEast Mandarin sometimes ask “Can you learn Chinese from talking to people on the streets?”
We think: No. While you can improve your Mandarin by speaking to Chinese people on the streets, you can’t — as a foreigner — learn this way from scratch.
In other words: You can probably learn on the street once you reach the level of HSK3 or higher. It is even better to talk on the streets and learn in the class at the same time. But whatever your opinion is, you don’t need to be afraid to express it. Learning is never just one single approach. All roads lead to Rome.
Maybe more important is: ‘How do you effectively learn Chinese on the streets?’ and ‘What aspects can you learn or improve on the streets?’
Without any doubt, students with different levels of Chinese have different learning methods. Therefore, in this article, I want to share with you first, as a total beginner, how do you learn Chinese, even how do you learn Chinese from the street.
Step 1: Learn basic Mandarin with a professional Chinese teacher
The main reason why you need a professional Chinese teacher is that nobody on the street will correct your pronunciation, or explain the grammar principles. Of course, you could copy and repeat the sentence you hear from the people, however, you couldn’t express yourself well and couldn’t form the sentences in Chinese as you’d like.
When you learn some common Mandarin Chinese words on the streets, and that number increases, you might have this question: Why do I speak a sentence like this? You may know some established sentences, but you won’t know how to express your own thoughts the way you want. Besides this, it’ll be hard to distinguish between the dozens of ‘shi’ or different ‘de’ words that the Chinese language has.
But if you take classes to learn Chinese systematically, things will be totally different. Your Mandarin language teacher will help you summarize grammar rules, help you explain how to hold your tongue during pronunciation, explain the Pinyin and Hanzi characters from radicals to components. Etcetera. At that time you’ll suddenly realize: “Ah, it turns out that the sentence I have said for so long means this, and it is used like this.” Then you can use this grammatical structure to output more sentences yourself.
Step 2: Pay attention to the sound around you on the streets
As everybody knows, Listening is very important for learning a language. First of all, it helps you eliminate the strangeness of the Chinese language and get your ears trained. If you pay more attention to what others are saying, you would gradually become familiar with the Chinese. At least after, once you hear this voice, you will be able to react immediately: “This is Chinese!”
Secondly, when the input accumulates to a certain amount, you will begin to form a sense of the language. Later, when you really start to learn Chinese systematically, you will find that your pronunciation will be more natural than you think, and your sentences will be more fluent than expected.
Step 3: Use the Chinese you learned to talk to people on the streets
Why do people learn a new language? For using it! When you have been learning Chinese for a couple of months, you’re ready to hit the road to practice your Mandarin Chinese skills. Usually, we will suggest people to design the conversation previous to the actual conversation. For example, what will you say if you are buying a cup of coffee at a café? What might the waiters ask you? Write them down first, and after, keep practicing them again and again. While you think you are prepared, go to the café, and order your own coffee in Chinese! This method will also give you more confidence.
Even if you don’t understand the waiter’s reply, don’t be afraid, you just have to smile and say, “对的，谢谢！”(duìde, xièxie. Yes, thank you!) Generally, they just confirm with you what you ordered. Next time, do the same conversation again. At that time, you can listen carefully to what they are saying.
Talking Chinese to people you meet on the streets
Here’s a last tip about talking Chinese to people on the street: Younger people are the best choice for a sparring partner. They are easier to understand because they lack a thick accent, and their Putonghua is clearer, and they’re usually more approachable (if they’re not wearing their BlueTooth headphones). Even if you are not in China or Shanghai, there are Mandarin communities all across the world in big and small cities.
Never be afraid to take the first step! If you are about to start learning Chinese, or if you are just starting to learn Chinese, you all can try this method!