To self-study Mandarin Chinese; how I try to nail it … on and offline

Blog about AJ, a language student.

September 24, 2017

The first thing you’ll probably notice when you search online for ‘self-study or learn Mandarin’ is that there are ads all fudging over. On a ten results search page, a first of many pages, I counted no less than seven ads. Pretty steep, if you ask me. And it shows that, one, there’s money to be made here. And, two, that with millions of results there’s no lack of materials really. Quantity a plenty and quality, well, you come across it once in a while – I suppose.

Road sign in China.
Can you guess what this road sign is all about? It might help if you can read some Chinese characters 🙂

What I personally dislike to see on such a language site:

Small characters. I’m talking about font-size eight or less. My eyes are not equipped for this. Of course you can zoom in with your browser, but sometimes I’m just plain lazy so … fix it please!

No characters. Peking university for instance has these nice beginner courses, but unfortunately they only use pinyin. I feel they should’ve used both.

A cultural overkill. I’ve been there, done that; I don’t need more. Don’t tell me how to hold my chopsticks. I just want to improve my language skills.

A too fast a pace; like “I AM” a native speaker and “I AM” here just for fudging fun. I can’t handle fifty new words a minute on top of a complex grammatical structure.

• And … a lack of structure or heart. I feel with a great deal of sites it’s all over the place. Like their intentions are good, they want to make a buck or two and teach people how to say “你好/ nǐ hǎo,” but it’s not overly obvious they are passionate about what they do. They seem to just copy/paste what-ever they can find and throw it at you. Like there’s no heart.

Bookstore in mainland China.
Even in China, brick-and-mortar stores – in this case a bookstore – often get less and less visitors.

I’ve said it before, but I am a big fan of Yoyo Chinese, which is run by Yangyang – a Beijing native and a current LA resident. She’s a born natural.

Recently I’ve also stumbled upon Akiko, a Singaporean teacher who gave herself a Japanese name 🙂 They – Yangyang and Akiko – could’ve been sisters if you ask me; I find them quite similar. Akiko’s site, Akiko Lingo Land, is smaller though and she has some distractions it seems (= less updates). Nevertheless, she has some cool stuff available. She’s good. She, too, has heart.

So what I normally do is just watch an online video or two and, if needed, replay it. YouTube is good for this too. For me it’s all about repetition. You just loop the %$#& out of it. That’s how I roll. And then when you talk to a Chinese friend you can easily throw in a nice phrase – just to impress the fudge out of them.

Chinese characters on a hotel room sign.
In order to avoid ‘being carefully thrown down,’ you’d better self-study some fancy looking characters.

Some cool words I’ve self-studied or learned over the past week:

• 吃土 / Chī tǔ (eat dirt)
• 真棒 / Zhēn bàng (awesome)
• 小目标 / Xiǎo mùbiāo (small goal)
• 女汉子 / nǚ hàn zi (woman who can do everything …)

And to put it all together into one sentence: “女汉子告诉她的真棒的朋友: ‘吃土!我有小目标!’ / Nǚhànzi Gàosù tā de zhēnbàng de péngyǒu: “Chī tǔ! Wǒ yǒu xiǎo mùbiāo!” (Superwoman tells her awesome friend: “Eat dirt! I have a small goal!”)

What’s also helpful is those sight word books for toddlers. I have a whole bunch of them. I got them for 12 rmb each, which is less than $2.

How toddlers in China learn the language.

Learning a new language with a sight word book.
The above sight word book is about fruit and displays twenty-two different kinds.

So, it might take a while to get all the stuff you need to avoid having to sign up for a brick-and-mortar course, but you can do it, easily. The hard part, of course, is to put in the time and find the motivation to keep going. For me it helps greatly that, you know, I lived there for a period of time and, hence, know a dozen or so Chinese. So … your turn. What’s your reason to self-study or learn Mandarin? I’d love to hear from you.



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The number of most commonly used characters you’ll need to know in order to understand a certain percentage of the Chinese language.

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