I hope everyone had a wonderful New Year, drank lots, ate lots and overall had a much-needed rest!
However, it’s time now to get back to the grind. For some of you that means going back to work and for others, it means going back to school. For all of us, though, it means getting back to pursuing our language goals!
And so, on the off chance that your New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to become fluent in Chinese, I’ve decided to write a blog post about how you can achieve just that!
Before we delve into that, however, let’s first define the word ‘fluent’. Many people disagree on the meaning of the word ‘fluent’ and as a result, there is much controversy surrounding people who claim to be ‘fluent’ in many languages.
Benny Lewis, the Irish polyglot comes to mind with his ‘Fluent in 3 months’ language missions where he attempts to learn a new language to ‘fluency’ in just 3 months.
Many people hail Benny as a language learning genius for what he’s been able to accomplish, while others say the level he’s able to attain is actually nowhere near true ‘fluency’.
So why do people have such different views?
It’s because they have different definitions of ‘fluency’.
While some people believe fluency to merely be the ability to fluidly engage in conversation, others believe it means total and utter mastery of the language.
What’s my view, you ask?
I share the popular opinion that one should have the right to call themselves fluent when, and only when they have achieved a level that corresponds to ‘B2’ on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). If you’ve never heard of that before, then check out this helpful Wikipedia page.
Also, I believe ‘fluency’ to only refer to one’s speaking skills. So, yes, you can technically be ‘fluent’ in Chinese without knowing how to read or write it.
I have met a few people like this before. “Great!” You’re thinking, “I’ll just neglect characters all together and speak, speak, speak!” Okay, slow down. That’s not a good idea.
Because the act of reading in a language is a very good and arguably very necessary thing to do if one wishes to become ‘fluent’, according to the definition I provided, that is.
Yes, I know I just contradicted myself by saying I have met people who could speak Chinese fluently but couldn’t read or write it.
What I said wasn’t entirely true. These people I referred to were either ‘special cases’ – people who’d spent lots of time (I’m talking multiple years here) in the country, immersed in the language OR they did have SOME knowledge of characters, just not enough to read, say, an entire novel.
Anyway, I’ll stop my rambling now. Let’s get into how to become fluent in Chinese by the end of 2018!
Recognize that it’s not going to be easy
Achieving fluency in a year is not going to be easy, especially if your target language is Chinese.
Even though a year sounds like a long time, it really isn’t. Achieving fluency in Chinese by the end of 2018 is going to take dedication, commitment, the right resources and most importantly, planning. Which bring me to my next point.
Plan, plan, and plan some more
All the resources, teachers and textbooks in the world aren’t going to help you if you don’t have a solid plan in place for exactly how you’re going to achieve fluency.
In order to come up with a watertight plan for exactly how you’re going to achieve fluency, you need to first define your goals.
The gist of it though is to define a very specific goal, which you will then break up into smaller milestones. Remember to attach a time frame to each milestone.
For example, you could have 12 monthly milestones or perhaps 6 2nd monthly milestones.
Each milestone should then be broken up down into weekly action steps. I know it sounds like a lot of effort, but if you’re serious about achieving fluency then you need to have a seriously well thought out, step-by-step plan.
Again, this method of goal setting is very powerful. To learn more, grab a copy of our e-book.
Once you have a rock solid plan in place, it’s time to…
Gather your resources and create your ‘curriculum’
This may actually be one of the easiest steps in the whole process of learning Chinese to fluency. Don’t get me wrong, choosing the best resources for you, that match your style of learning, is very important but the sheer abundance of resources available today (both free and paid) makes finding resources extremely easy.
If you’re truly serious about achieving fluency by the end of the year then you need to take some time to do research on which resources will benefit you, personally, the most.
Once you’ve done this you need to take some more time and build yourself a custom curriculum that will take you from beginner to fluent over the course of your chosen time-frame (one year)!
How do you do that?
Well, this is where the importance of graded learning comes in. In other words, graded learning refers to a step-by-step approach to language learning, whereby with each ‘step’ you increase the difficulty of what you’re studying by a small amount so as to make sure you’re constantly challenging yourself.
This approach ensures that you aren’t wasting time by re-learning things you already know or spending copious amounts of time and energy doing exercises that are too easy for you.
However, there is a drawback to this approach. If you make things too difficult for yourself, you won’t learn anything and will instead feel demotivated.
So, you need to find a balance.
Make sure that the resources you’re working from at any given time are just a little bit above your level – enough to keep engaged and but not too much that you have no idea what’s going on.
I’d encourage you to pick up our e-book to get more in-depth information on this approach to learning Chinese.
Make sure to include time with native speakers in your plan
This one is very important. I’m sorry to say this but you’re not going to achieve fluency by studying solely on your own. You’re going to need to spend time with native speakers one way or another.
And by ‘spend time with native speakers’ what I really mean is come up with a plan that allows you to speak with native speakers as much as possible.
This could be as easy as going onto italki and scheduling a weekly Class with a tutor or you could look for Chinese teachers in your area whom you can have one-on-one classes with (highly recommended, by the way).
You could even plan a trip to China or Taiwan for the end of the year!
Whatever you decide to do, it’s important to get practice with native speakers. At the very least you’re going to need a native speaker to correct your tones.
Because nobody pronounces tones correctly right from the get-go. Your Chinese will benefit greatly from a bit of pronunciation training early on.
This brings me to my next point.
Take tones seriously right from the beginning
Tones need not be so scary as people make them out to be. They are actually quite straightforward!
If, in the beginning, you get into the habit of, say, pronouncing a second tone like a third tone then it’s going to be really hard to correct that later on.
That’s why you should take tones seriously from the beginning and invest a little extra time and perhaps money into finding a native speaker to correct your pronunciation.
Again, a Chinese friend, italki tutor or local Chinese teacher will do the trick.
Pinyin is your friend
Many learners of Chinese are so frantic to get to grips with Chinese characters that they almost neglect Pinyin entirely.
Don’t underestimate the power of Pinyin! Especially if your goal is to speak Chinese fluently.
In case you have no idea what Pinyin is, essentially it’s the Romanized form of written Chinese. If you want more information then check out this link.
A solid understanding of how to read and write in Pinyin will unlock so many resources that were previously inaccessible. That’s why Learning Pinyin to a high proficiency is an absolute must.
And the good news is that it won’t take long at all!
That’s right. Pinyin is pretty straightforward and dare I say easy to learn.
Many, many textbooks and other Chinese learning resources are written in Pinyin (or at least, the pinyin accompanies the characters) so you don’t even need to know a single Chinese character before you dive into your studies.
If you want to practice your Chinese by texting with friends or other Chinese natives but you don’t know enough characters – just write in Pinyin. They will have no problem understanding as long as your tone marks are correct.
When you receive a response just copy and paste it into a Characters to Pinyin translator like this one and away you go. You can have a whole written conversation in Chinese without knowing a single character.
Now, I’m not saying that you should just neglect characters all together and just focus on Pinyin. All I’m saying is that knowing Pinyin allows you to ‘hack’ your learning – by letting you read anything in Chinese without actually knowing how to read in Chinese… If that makes sense.
Reading is a really important exercise for improving your vocabulary and grammar knowledge but if you had to sit down and learn 3000 characters first, you’d never achieve fluency in under a year.
That’s why I’m highlighting the importance of knowing how to read Pinyin.
Study at least a little every day
This really is the key to progressing in any skill. DO IT EVERY DAY.
Studying for hours one day and doing nothing the next is not as effective as doing a little bit every single day.
I agree that is it hard to imagine yourself studying Chinese every single day for a year. Realistically, you’re probably going to miss a couple of days here and there, and if that’s due to being sick or planning your wedding (for example) then that’s OKAY!
Otherwise, though, it’s pure laziness and that’s just not going to fly, homeboy/girl!
Immerse yourself in Chinese
It’s really important to understand that purely ‘studying’ Chinese is not enough to achieve fluency.
You need to experience the language. You need to absorb the language.
And how do you do that you ask?
Simple. By immersing yourself in it.
Don’t worry, though. You do not have to go to the country to truly immerse yourself in a language!
You can read more about how to immerse yourself in a language without going to the country, here.
Lastly, remember that learning a new language is supposed to be FUN!
If you’re tearing your hair out every day while you pour over grammar rules and try to make sense of everything, YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LAST A WHOLE YEAR.
And this is why so many people give up on learning a new language.
In the beginning focus on speaking and listening. Just accept that fact that you’re not going to understand all the intricacies of a language overnight.
Open your mind to the language and allow it to flow through you. Surrender yourself to the language learning process.
If something is really bothering you, then find a tutor or native Chinese speaker to help explain it to you.
Just remember that feeling confused is totally normal!
Here are some other articles that I really recommend you read.