Speaking Chinese

I’m pretty much always revising the way that I learn Cantonese and Mandarin, as you can probably tell from the wild paths this blog has zigzagged across over the years.

I think there are only three things which I’ve consistently pushed:

  1. Using Anki for reading
  2. Using focused listening-based learning for learning how to speak
  3. Trying to making learning context-rich

Methods for learning how to read and write Chinese are relatively abundant on the Internet, so I’ve moved the stuff about reading into a separate post.

Active Learning

For predominantly spoken languages like Cantonese, an approach based on listening and speaking is the only one which is feasible.

For other languages, you will have to develop your speaking and listening skills at some point, so the following method will work nicely for you, too.

I assume the following things:

  1. You want to learn to a near-native standard
  2. You would like to do so relatively quickly
  3. You have access to native speakers who are willing to record themselves for you
  4. In order to develop good speaking and listening skills, lots of comprehensible aural input is required

You do not need to use software like Anki to develop your listening and speaking skills, because it is prohibitively time-consuming to create such material. Anki is appropriate only for learning to read.


Make a short list of items that you want to learn today.

If you’re a beginner, make a short list, in English, of things you would like to learn.

For example, you might like to learn topics such ‘basic food’ or ‘parts of a car’ or the sentence pattern ‘put X on Y’.

You could use pictures, objects or a related entries in a dictionary for reference.

Then, record a native saying each word slowly, both with and without simple sentences for context. Limit each recording to about 3 minutes.

Then, you revise on your own. You have authoritative recordings which are tailor-made for you, so you don’t need to waste time worrying about Romanization or how to write.  You can listen to and repeat content from the mp3s that you make for the rest of your language learning career, and beyond.

(You might also read the page ‘Chinese Dialogues‘ for more specific ideas for creating mp3s.)

Intermediate and Advanced Learners

Make a short list of vocabulary and sentence patterns you would like to learn.

You might get ideas from a variety of sources:

  • TV shows (great –there’s lots of context to learn from)
  • Radio shows (good for advanced learners)
  • Songs (okay, if you like singing)
  • Books (okay, but not really applicable to spoken languages)

Items might be:

  • A set of words that are related in some way (this should form most of your items)
  • Sentence patterns (「dam2 X 落個袋度」或「唔該你畀我 Y」)
  • A specific, funny sentence (我都話咗你架啦,你又唔聽!」或「你係咪食玻璃大架?

Similar to the beginner stage, you should then record yourself talking with a native about the items that you want to learn.

Do not worry about learning your own mistakes – it is difficult to explain exactly why, but it will not happen[1].

Again, you should repeat your i+1 mp3s as much as possible.

As you learn, relevant actions, pictures, objects and funny mnemonics will all help you ingrain words more firmly.

Other Learning

Holding conversations with natives, passively listening to the mp3s that you make and watching TV in your target language will give your learning a big boost in the long run.

The more you do, the bigger the boost will be; you are ultimately bound only by the number of hours available each day.

Last updated: 6th January 2015

[1] Possible reasons: Your native speaker corrects you when necessary; your brain has some filter which screens out stuff which it knows might be wrong; you spend so much time focusing on what your native is saying when listening that you have no time to listen to yourself; on recordings, your native speaks for much longer than you, so statistically you hear good L2 more than not-so-good L2; you can hear that you said something wrong when listening, and you mentally correct yourself each time; you edit out serious mistakes using Audacity…

One thought on “Speaking Chinese

Comments are closed.