Five decisions every Mandarin student makes going to Chinese language fluency.
- Choosing to start to learn Mandarin
- Deciding basic Chinese isn’t enough
- Need to do self-learning
- Immersing yourself in Chinese
1: Choosing to start to learn Mandarin
Very brave! You probably live in China, or a close connection to it. Your family may be from China, or you wish to work or study there, or do business with Chinese companies. Anyhow, you’ve decided to learn the Chinese language!
New things feel great but the newness quickly wears off. So in this phase, it’s important you gain enough pace to keep yourself motivated. See it as a plane on the runway. You need enough speed to get lift-off. We see many beginning students starting at a poor school or doing pure-self learning. And when they reach the end of their runway (the limit of their motivation), there’s not enough wind in their wings to keep going.
2. Deciding basic Chinese isn’t enough
When you finished the HSK3 Chinese language course, you are able to speak to people in Chinese on an elementary level. You should be able to easily ask for directions, make small-talk and introduce yourself. And if you don’t know Chinese words, you can (with some creativity) talk around them. For instance, if you don’t know how to say ‘president’ (总统Zǒngtǒng), you can say ‘国家的老板Guójiā de lǎobǎn’ (boss of the country), and Chinese people will understand what you mean.
But right after HSK3 is the moment you need to decide for yourself:
“Do I continue learning Chinese to an intermediate or even advanced level, despite knowing how long that road is?”
Because the road from HSK1 to HSK3 is rather short — deceiving you into thinking you’re halfway there. From there, the road from HSK4 to HSK5, or even HSK6 is much longer. (Read ‘How long does it take to learn Chinese?‘).
3. Need to do self-learning
We are generalizing, but most students after HSK3 really need to do self-study after HSK3. Just showing up for class will not be enough. You need to actively learn Mandarin while learning HSK4 and beyond. And nobody can really tell you this, you will discover it on your own and it’ll be a very conscious new step in your Mandarin learning.
So perhaps you will want to purchase graded Chinese readers, or start improving your listening skills through podcasts, or watch Netflix movies in Chinese, or choose some of many other ways to improve your Chinese.
Maybe you discover that despite going over the theory with your teacher, you still make mistakes with 还是/或者, 戴/穿, 变化/改变. These are things you best fix out of class on your own.
Then there’s also the fact that our brains are lazy, and you will probably need to force yourself to use more complex sentence structure and vocabulary. This is the best way to Chinese fluency and sounding more natural and like a grown-up while speaking or writing Mandarin Chinese.
4: Immersing yourself in Chinese
Maybe this is when you’ve finished HSK3, or a bit later — but when you’ve finished HSK4 you should definitely be comfortable ‘consuming’ and ‘creating’ Mandarin. With this, we mean that at this point, Mandarin shouldn’t just be academic to you anymore, but you should be having conversations with Chinese people, watching Chinese movies, listening to Chinese music, or writing in Chinese. Immerse yourself.
5: Maintaining learning Chinese
Especially from intermediate onwards, the pace of learning slows down. When you are at HSK1, one month of practice makes a huge difference and you can noticeably see it in your homework, but after 3 years, it becomes less noticeable.
Yes, it’s easier to learn 1000 Hanzi characters when you already know 1000 characters. But the difference the first 1000 characters make is huge, and further time investments come in diminishing returns in terms of fluency.
Of course, being able to speak Chinese in China on an intermediate or above level is amazing — and at some point, you may reach the threshold of being able to work in a Chinese company using Chinese — but you’ll need to push yourself more & more to keep improving it.
So the final decision every Chinese learner makes is to maintain learning. Two hours of class per week, four hours of class, or more. It’s all fine. But keep going, one step after another.