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How I Learned to Speak Mandarin Chinese while Living in Kansas


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

If there is one language where it is important to speak to natives regularly, it’s Mandarin Chinese (or any Chinese dialect really).

The reason for this is simple: you must practise Chinese tones if you want to be able to speak the language!

A year ago I was in a pretty difficult situation: I had spent about six months learning Mandarin and couldn’t speak a word of it. I had spent about $200 on Rosetta Stone (mistake #1) and not only was my vocabulary in dire straits, my pronunciation was terrible. I was looking at my progress at the time thinking “is this impossible or am I just stupid?”

Sound familiar? Yes? Then please keep reading. You’re not stupid and Mandarin is far from impossible (in fact, I bet it’s easier than you originally thought – I’m now at HSK Level 5).

For those of you who don’t know Mandarin, the language consists of five different tones which need to be pronounced correctly for a given word, or else you’ll completely change the meaning of the word.

Because of this, people often look at me like “exactly what is wrong with you?” when I tell them I am learning Mandarin, especially where I live (the middle of Kansas). But I’m here to tell you today that no matter where you live, you can learn the language of your choosing. Let me give you the seven ways I have used to practise Chinese tones in the middle of Kansas.

Tip 1: Speak To Chinese Waiters

Let me start here by saying: some of these tips you might read and then think to yourself “yeah Ryan, that’s obvious.” To which I respond: if it’s obvious why aren’t you doing it?

Chinese restaurants are probably one of the most underrated and underused ways to learn Chinese and improve your speaking ability. Why? Well honestly because it is simply a little uncomfortable to speak with your waiter in a language you probably aren’t that comfortable with using yet.

I get you. About a million different things are going through your head when you think about talking to a brand new person in their native tongue, almost all of them revolving around “what if I look like a complete idiot?”, or my personal favourite “they will most likely find this offensive.”

Let me stop you right there. Those who are unafraid of looking stupid are the most successful language learners. Don’t focus so much on the details! You need to practise and trust me, they will know you are learning and will give you a break for mispronouncing shì (是) (“to be”) as shí (十) (“ten”). Will you get a chuckle or two? Sure. But you need thicker skin than that to achieve your fluency goals anyway, so why not start here?

Also: no, they absolutely will not find this offensive. Do you have any idea how many westerners can speak Mandarin? Very few. If anything, they will be impressed.

So this weekend, go to a Chinese restaurant, have a seat and say these exact words: “nǐ hǎo. wǒ de míng zi shì [your name] ér qiě wǒ zài xué zhōng wén” (“Hi. My name is [your name] and I’m learning Mandarin Chinese”), and go from there. What are you going to say next? Who cares! Just talk. You will get better, I promise you.

Tip 2: Teach What You Already Know

Let me give you a little story that makes this specific tip my favourite one on the list.

I was absolutely stuck on Chinese grammar. And when I say stuck, I mean stuck. For some reason it just would not resonate with me. After all, Mandarin is a completely different way of looking at the world.

After hours of frustrating work, I remembered a piece of advice given to me by one of my old high school teachers: “Learn what you are doing as if you are going to teach it.”

Boom, talk about a “Eureka!” moment. It seemed so simple now. Let’s create some material that would help another language learner learn Chinese grammar and through that process, I will become the master.

Now how do you apply this to pronunciation? Simple: head on over to italki and reach out to a couple of language buddies that are a little newer to learning Mandarin. Offer to teach them pronunciation.

This backs you into that corner and forces you to learn. After all, you’re not going to teach them the wrong way to do something are you?

Tip 3: Teach English to Chinese Speakers

Probably one of the most underused resources to help one learn Chinese is by teaching English to Chinese people.

It is absolutely no secret that the number of English tutors who can speak Mandarin is dramatically less than the number of teachers that is needed. In case you have been asleep for the past 15 years, China is now an economic superpower and happens to carry the world’s biggest population, all of whom begin learning English from the age of five.

This is probably the biggest opportunity for you to improve your Mandarin because, guess what, you don’t have to be fluent in Mandarin to teach English. Which is kind of appalling when you think about it, but that is the time we live in.

I have two friends I went to highschool with who spent two years in Shanghai teaching English and came back knowing how to say “nǐ hǎo” (“hello”) and “wǒ xiǎng yào yì pí pí jiǔ” (“I want a bottle of beer.”) which is apparently all that is needed to get by as an English teacher.

This does not have to be your story though. Head over to Boxfish and apply to become a tutor. You will get paid for your time and you will be able to use this time to speak to native Chinese speakers.

Yeah, I get it, you have to teach them English so you might be thinking to yourself, “that doesn’t sound like the best time to improve my Mandarin, Ryan.” Well not with that attitude it isn’t.

Listen to their pronunciation, listen to how they talk. Learn how to flow with the words that your student is saying. This is going to help you tenfold when improving your own Chinese pronunciation, trust me.

Not to mention: you get paid in the process! What do you have to lose?

Tip 4: Learn Chinese Through Testing

Don’t underestimate the impact that testing can have on your Chinese skills. Recent studies on memory have shown that the use of testing while learning concepts is far more effective at reinforcing material in the student’s memory than just about anything else.

And by testing I do mean using an actual test. Which one, you ask? Why the HSK of course.

Using the practice tests at the link above can tremendously improve your abilities. I’ve seen the greatest leaps forward in my listening comprehension and speaking abilities when going through these tests.

I of course was using a tutor, which was helpful because I had instant access to questions. But you don’t need a tutor to benefit from this study method.

Simply:

  • Print off the practice tests
  • Download the MP3
  • Listen to the MP3 while writing out the pinyin you hear
  • Translate every sentence

Yes, I know the test is in Chinese characters. But look at this as an opportunity to make your written Chinese as awesome as your spoken. You won’t get better unless you practise.

Tip 5: Schedule a Full Weekend of Only Chinese

This one no doubt will raise a few eyebrows but just hear me out, I’m not (that) crazy.

Let me start by saying that I get compliments on my pronunciation all the time, and I don’t say this to brag; I say it to inspire you and because I can attribute it to the following method I found to rapidly improve my speaking skills.

For two weekends in a row, I simply locked myself in my apartment and went over the audio lessons from Yoyo Chinese Beginner and Intermediate lessons over and over again. I was inspired by the fact that I had been studying Mandarin for six months and yet still only knew something along the lines of 400 words! Me being the obviously patient person I am (kidding), I decided something needed to change.

The results? Outstanding. Before I had been tripping over the flow of one tone to the next.Now, I simply intuitively pick it up. I attribute this ability to the discipline I had to take a couple weekends off from the friends and simply practise.

There is actually a good amount of logic behind these kind of results when you think about it. People tend to think it should take you years to learn a new skill, but I simply think it is the number of hours you put into learning it.

Mastery will come after a certain number of hours. How quickly you devote those hours is entirely up to YOU!

Tip 6: Do a Two-week Exchange (for Free!)

This is by far one of the greatest pieces of advice I could ever give to anyone wanting to improve any part of Mandarin, or simply wanting an adventure.

When it comes to studying in China, you might think that ship has sailed for you if you are out of college, or if you don’t have a year to take off of work. Or if schooling isn’t an option for you because you don’t want to go to a university, or perhaps your Mandarin isn’t as up to speed as you think it should be to attend a university or get a job in China.

I have great news for you: no matter how old you are, you can study in China, at an immersion program, for the exact amount of time you wish to study. I have a school to recommend actually: Hutong School. Go check them out. You can do a program for a little as a week. I personally recommend two weeks because you will have made the trip to China.

Not to mention, you can get this for absolutely free. Take a look around at Chinese education grants. There are scholarships you can apply for on Hutong’s site that will finance your education in China.

Bottom line: immersion is the best way to learn a new language (and I mean real immersion, not Rosetta Stone). Live a little and take a two-week exchange my friend!

Tip 7: Contribute to Google Translate

This is probably one of the most unknown ways to learn Chinese because I don’t think many people consider being a contributor to the Google Translate community to be a good way to learn the language, and that it should be reserved for those who already speak it.

Let me be the first to tell you this simply isn’t the case. It’s no secret that Google has quite a way to go when it comes to accurately translating any language. I find mistakes all the time.

Because of this, they have created the translation community. This is by and large one of the best ways to learn your target language and I highly suggest you head over there now to sign up for an account.

Click on “become a contributor” when prompted, which brings you to various sentences written in Simplified or Traditional Chinese, depending on the one you want to learn (if you’re stuck on characters, begin with Simplified).

From there, you translate the sentences you see. If you don’t know a character, look it up in an online dictionary or Google translate. What I have found is that Google has not quite gotten Chinese grammar down, but obviously knows the meaning of individual characters.

You can use this to your advantage. Since the characters are known but the entire meaning of the sentence is not, you can help piece together what they are trying to say. This is going to give you a more intuitive feel for the characters and how they flow in the sentence, which will be reflected in your future conversations with native speakers.

Worried about making a mistake? No worries, Google checks these translations using other human beings over and over again before they post them to the web. In my experience, the less you are afraid of making a mistake, the quicker you learn the language.

You Can Learn Chinese, Even in Kansas

In the end, it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it. I may have stolen that quote from Across The Universe, but it still is very very true indeed.

What I mean by this is that Mandarin is not nearly as hard as you think it is. When you learn a new language, you are simply learning a new way to think. What better way to learn how to think than to immerse yourself in the other’s point of view?

For those of you naysayers who think you can’t do this sort of thing if you aren’t in China, now you know differently. I live in Kansas which is obviously known for its burgeoning Chinese population, and I am doing just fine. If I can do it, so can you!

加油!再见!

author headshot

Ryan Wells

Founder, Zhong Wen Central

Ryan became fascinated with Mandarin after a Navy recruiter laughed at him for learning Spanish. He's the founder of Zhong Wen Central.

Speaks: English, Mandarin, Portuguese

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