Let’s just get straight to the point: yes, you can, for sure, you can learn the Mandarin Chinese language on your own. But things can be very much different when learning with or without a teacher.
The two ‘If’s’ for learning Chinese on your own
When learning Chinese on your own, it could still be possible for you to accomplish your learning goals and fluency if：
1: You have Chinese friends
You can probably hang out on the weekends, go on road trips, go shopping, etc. spending time together with less time on boring books. You can more naturally have conversations about the things you’re doing at the moment, and ask “How do you say that?”
2: You’ve found the right learning materials
Thanks to Google and everything, it’s no problem to find loads of materials out there for Chinese learning. The main question is, however, can you really distinguish low-quality or even erroneous contents from what you need? There are many “Chinese teachers” giving lessons onnline, but just because you’re Chinese doesn’t mean a qualified Chinese language teacher. Not just do native speakers also make mistakes in their mother-tongue, it’s possible they don’t speak English so they won’t realize the mistakes you make are because your mother-tongues grammar is that way; and they may lack the didactic education for teaching.
Challenges for learning Chinese on your own
Boredom: This can arise from ‘dead language’. By that we mean there’s more input than interaction in the target language, and the result is your motivation dries up. Add some variety to your language journey! One of the best ways is to learn by communication, or by using it in real-life situations (such as in Shanghai).
Burnout: Mental fatigue happens when too many new things come into your mind in a single way, such as reading & listening. Given this, a good language learning experience involves diverse aspects, motivating students along the way.
Procrastination: The thought “I’ll study if I have time later,” can be one of the biggest hindrances to your Chinese language journey. Though having a Chinese teacher with scheduled classes and assigned homework may seem too traditional, it’s still one of the best methods for combatting laziness.
About learning with a Chinese teacher
Obviously, learning Chinese with an experienced teacher is beneficial, especially if you’re a beginner. They’ve studied the best methods of teaching Chinese as a second language, and are better equipped to answer your questions. They’ll also be more adept at grading their language in a way that you can understand.
And while a Chinese person may want to practice speaking your native tongue with you, a teacher will be willing to speak with you completely in Chinese. So if learning Chinese matters to you, don’t hesitate to invest in a good teacher!
So why is learning Chinese on your own difficult?
Self-learning apps are a bonus
It’s great to self-learn the Chinese language with apps or online self-learning courses. And the options are plenty. There are apps like Duolingo, HelloChinese, and so many more. The appeal of these apps is huge, right? Not only are they very affordable or cheap, but they also come with the promise of you just spending five minutes every day — and within one or two years you’ll be fluent!
Unfortunately, a new language (and especially Mandarin) isn’t that easy, but these tools are great nonetheless. These apps introduce you to new vocabulary — while graded readers like Du Chinese or The Chairman’s Bao improve your reading and sentence structure. More specific apps like Skritter teach you how to write beautiful Hanzi characters.
Then there are also self-learning courses with pre-recorded videos, such as Yoyo Chinese or ChinesePod (and the same goes for all the free content on YouTube). They teach you vocab, grammar, explain sentence structure, and more.
Again, these are all really good tools, and yet they are not enough to become fluent in Chinese, for two main reasons:
You need to speak (with a real person)
This is kinda obvious, but you need to speak and speak and speak. Self-learning by definition is solitary and who is going to check your pronunciation from tongue-position to intonation (key in Mandarin!) — or whether you are using a word correctly? (We’ll get back on this why teachers are better for this than friends).
Apps aren’t big enough
CEFRL (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) has six levels to grade language proficiency, with the highest (C2) being described as “Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.” Self-learning apps or platforms aren’t nearly big enough to get you to that level.
When you learn Mandarin through Duolingo, you can probably order coffee in Chinese, but will you be able to answer if the waiter says: “Sorry, could you pay in cash? Our internet connection is down at the moment.”
At GoEast Mandarin we teach Chinese from HSK1 to HSK6, after which you know ~5000 Chinese words and ~2600 Chinese Hanzi characters. Yet when you finish HSK6 you will still have problems to read Chinese books for adults (it gets you halfway), because there are so many Chinese words outside of the HSK curriculum.
Because the HSK levels are quite literature-language, you may want to learn Spoken Chinese for more daily Chinese, and if you work in an office, you may want to learn Business Chinese. And then if you work in a specific field, then you can take a custom course. At GoEast Mandarin we have students learning additional insurance language or aviation terms. So a learning journey can include over a dozen of books. There’s no app remotely big enough to cover that.
It’s hard for your friends to replace professional Chinese teachers
To talk Chinese with Chinese locals is another great way to improve and speed up your learning process. It’s also motivating, because you’re finally using Mandarin outside of the classroom in real-life situations; that’s the whole point of learning it.
But there are some big reasons why friends make poor teachers.
If they understand what you say, it doesn’t matter how you say it
Friends get used to your poor pronunciation, even though your pronunciation or sentence structure isn’t correct. And because they know what you are trying to say, they’ll just keep the conversation going. You’ll ingrain poor habits as you continue, and when you speak to new people they’ll have trouble understanding you.
It’s not fair to expect them to be teachers
Can you imagine a friend interrupting your anecdote and saying: “Ah, here you should use 着急Zhāojí (anxious) not 紧张Jǐnzhāng (tension)”. Conversations between friends don’t work that way, they’re more casual and relaxed. It’s not fair to expect your friend to be your teacher, it’s hard work.
A teacher is a translator and a guide
They might not be fluent in English, and may not realize that the way you say that is because you don’t understand the grammar, or because English grammar is that way.
No gradual curve to learning
Chinese is neatly graded from HSK1 to HSK6, introducing you to new vocabulary and increasingly complex grammar structures one-by-one. Apps may do this well, but friends usually don’t. They will use very advanced Chinese words when your level is only elementary. How else will you chit-chat about a TV show or a football match? But do you know ‘越位Yuèwèi’ means off-side in football terms?
Apps or friends are the booster engines, but the main haul is still a Chinese teacher
Language is more than vocabulary that is put on a sentence structure — like a coloring page. What we, as a Chinese language school, often see is that self-learning students have hugely impressive vocabulary knowledge, maybe up to five thousand words, but they can’t properly hold a conversation in Chinese, or answer questions correctly. Also, pronunciation is often quite poor.
A language is a hugely complex system of words, structure, context, and culture — and so is learning a language.
You need to know the context of the words
Let’s take the example of a simple Chinese word like 当Dāng. In Duolingo you may first encounter this as ‘当然Dāngrán’ (Of course), and after that ‘当时Dāngshí’ (At that time)， before learning it as a singular character ‘当Dāng’ (at a time or place). But depending on the context, 当Dāng’s meaning can vary from ‘to accept’, ‘manage’, ‘should’, ‘in someone’s presence’, ‘at that time or place’, ‘end’ or ‘to serve as’. This is very hard for a self-learning APP to teach you. How will it know you understand these variations?
Languages don’t overlap neatly
Let’s keep using the sample of 当Dāng. If you look at that last meaning, ‘to serve as’, you think you know how to use it, because in English you can say ‘he serves as X’.
In Chinese, 当Dāng is commonly used for jobs” “他当老师Tā dāng lǎoshī” (He is a teacher), but you don’t say “他当朋友Tā dāng péngyǒu” (he is a friend). In English, you may even liberally use language to say ‘the money serves as my retirement plan’ but there’s no way in Chinese you’d say ‘这笔钱当我的退休计划Zhè bǐ qián dāng wǒ de tuìxiū jìhuà’.
You need to know the unspoken aspects of the Chinese language
Is this formal or casual? Is this old or modern style? Is ‘可能Kěnéng’ (possible) more likely than ‘估计Gūjì’？And ‘差不都Chà bù dōu’ and ‘或多或小huò duō huò xiǎo’ both mean ‘more or less’ but you use the latter only in negative situations.
What only a professional Chinese teacher can do
- Opportunities for you to speak, so that you not just hear how to use a word or grammar structure, but also that you will use it yourself. A proper teaching technique is to make you use a grammar structure at least three times in different sentences so that you will remember it well.
- Instant feedback. The sooner the feedback is provided when the mistake is made, the quicker you will learn. Incorrect use of language is corrected before it is ingrained.
- A gradual learning curve. With a professional teacher, you will become conversational quickly, and gradually you will add more details to your Chinese language, step-by-step. When you learn new words, you won’t learn all the definitions at once, but revisit words in later stages.
- Context and body language. A teacher doesn’t just teach you parts of a language, he or she helps you to communicate with other people. A big part of that is implicit meaning.
- Holistic. You will learn and develop everything in balance: speaking, listening, reading, writing, each of them pulling along the other.
Can you learn Chinese on your own? Yes, but we encourage our Chinese language students to use self-learning apps and to speak Chinese with native Chinese people — but we also expect them to arrive on time for class with their Chinese teacher.