On the surface, studying Mandarin Chinese solo sounds like a horrifyingly ill-advised idea. Stuffing all of a culture’s communicative signifiers into your head without a guiding hand? Yikes. But actually, there are clear and meaningful advantages to self-studying Mandarin, and solo students can apply many impactful learning strategies that are often unfeasible in a classroom setting. Below are four reasons why studying Mandarin Chinese solo can elevate you, not just as a Mandarin speaker, but also as a person.
Before we dive in, I would like to clarify that I do not recommend self-studying as an absolute beginner in Mandarin. The first two things that every Chinese learner should master is pronunciation and tones, both of which you absolutely cannot learn on your own, unless you have a near-prodigious capacity for mimicking sounds and tongue placements.
Pronunciation is the aspect of Chinese learning that is most often overlooked. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered a fellow Mandarin student whose inability to correctly produce basic sounds has interfered with their attempts at communication. If you’re starting from square one, do yourself a favor and find a language tutor who can make sure your pronunciation and tones are accurate from the get go. This will make your Mandarin journey much smoother overall.
In a classroom, the textbook you’re using basically determines the content of the course and the words you will learn. If you’re self-studying, you can research different textbooks and order the one that most appeals to you. In my experience, the quality (in terms of relevance of the content and usefulness of key vocabulary) varies substantially, so finding a well-written textbook to guide you through your solo studying is crucial.
Also, without all those hours in class, you’ll have more time to learn Chinese through media and entertainment. For me, the most valuable method of learning has been watching movies. Not only are movies great for boosting your listening comprehension, they also show you how Chinese people actually speak. After watching a handful of movies, you’ll pick up all kinds of phrases and exclamations that you’d never learn in a language program.
Movies are also great for instilling confidence in the language learner. Nothing feels better than realizing you’ve just understood an exchange between characters without reading the subtitles. And as someone self-studying Mandarin, this will help compensate for one of the several advantages of the classroom environment — the opportunity to listen actively to your teacher speaking native zhōngwén for multiple hours each day.
I’m a big-time fan of Chinese cinema, so enhancing my Mandarin proficiency has mostly been a welcome byproduct of watching films I love. If you aren’t as into movies, identify the aspect of Chinese culture that attracts you the most and set about finding media content that relates to it.
Ever been in a Chinese class where the teacher has asked each student to read the same sentence out loud, one at a time? Ever seen a teacher move on to the next grammar point only because the most advanced student in the class said he/she understands it, while everyone else is staring in blank confusion? These will undoubtedly be familiar situations for anyone who has ever taken a group Mandarin course in China. One of the key downsides of classroom language learning is being forced to study the exact same content, at the exact same speed as everyone else, whether or not it suits you.
Although Chinese courses are typically divided into three levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), there will still invariably be a significant gap in proficiency between the highest and lowest-level students in the class. There are students whose spoken Chinese verges on fluency, but since they only started writing and reading last year, they’ll get placed in the intermediate class. Or, maybe there’s a student whose spoken Mandarin and listening abilities are rather limited, but since he has passed HSK5 and has a deep understanding of textbook Chinese, he’s placed in the advanced class.
The point is, your classmates’ reading, writing, listening, and speaking levels will really be all across the board. This means that the amount of time your teacher spends on a certain question or grammar point is less likely to match your needs. There’s a strong chance that you’ll either spend long periods of time on material you understand within seconds, or whiz from one text to the next and only catch about 30 percent of the meaning.
If you self-study, you are your own teacher. You determine how quickly you move through your chosen material. The best part of this is that you get to devote extended time to concepts you find challenging. You can reread a text multiple times and practice reading sentences with difficult grammar structures out loud until they start to sound natural.
Each language learner has a particular language skill that they are comparatively lacking in. Figure out which yours is, and apportion your study time accordingly. I’m an intermediate speaker, listener, and reader, but a beginner writer, so every day I devote about half an hour to memorizing the strokes of ten high-frequency characters.
In a classroom, you’ll spend a relatively equal amount of time building each language skill (with a probable emphasis on reading and writing). However, the reality is that no language learner is equally advanced in each skill. You need to dedicate time to the language component that you struggle with the most, and self-studying affords you that freedom.
In January of this year, I was in the middle of HSK2 and could read a few hundred characters. I wanted to enroll in a language program in Beijing in September for which I needed an HSK4 certificate to be eligible for. So, for seven months, I studied by myself for three hours every day. By August, I had passed the HSK4 test and could read over 2,000 characters. Throughout this process, I came to the conclusion that self-study is by far the best option if you want to prepare for a test in a short amount of time.
To be clear, the HSK exams are a shaky indicator of Chinese proficiency at best. What they test, essentially, is a language learner’s familiarity with the specific testing format and the content introduced in the HSK books. By no means does passing HSK6 mean you will automatically be able to converse with Chinese people with a native-like fluency, but there is a reason that HSK is the standardized test of proficiency for Mandarin learners. The topics and vocabulary covered in the books provide a sturdy foundation for students to carry with them into the real Mandarin-speaking world. Also, HSK5 and 6 certifications go a long way in securing professional-level employment and a higher visa category in China.
There are dozens of group and individual courses offering HSK preparation and guidance in China, but you don’t necessarily need them. If you meticulously read the books, take extensive notes, and get acquainted with the exam format through practice tests, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which you wouldn’t eventually pass. There will be passages you don’t fully grasp, and for times like these it would pay dividends to have a Chinese friend you can consult with. You could also use an app like Bilingua to find language exchange buddies who can answer some of your questions, or search for YouTube videos that address your particular point of confusion.
Preparing for a standardized Mandarin test is a linear process. Day by day, you move from one chapter to the next, and eventually you’re ready for the test. It’s not the most social or emotionally stimulating way to learn the language, but at the same time, if you have a higher HSK level, and consequently a wider vocabulary and knowledge of sentence structures, your experience will be much richer when you finally make that jump into a more interactive, conversation-based language setting. Because of those seven months of self-studying, I can now have wide-ranging and engaging discussions with my classmates, which is by far my favorite part of my language program.
Easily the toughest part of self-studying Chinese is manufacturing the motivation to sit down alone and bury yourself in a textbook for hours on a daily basis. When you’re in a Mandarin class, there are external factors providing that motivation for you, whether it’s your grade, your fear of disappointing your teacher, or a class full of other students to compete against.
When you’re self-studying, there are no immediate rewards. You won’t get a chance to show off the cool new colloquial phrase you just picked up or win praise from your teacher. Ultimately, you just have to block out all distractions and do the dang work. There will be days when it feels aimless and isolating, but if you’re serious about learning Chinese, you’ll get through it.
Possibly the most beneficial part of self-studying a language is that it forces you formulate a plan for how to achieve a goal, instead of paying someone else to do it for you. You make your own curriculum, which requires critical thinking and implementation of a structure that works for you. You learn new things about yourself, and develop qualities like diligence, accountability, and time management.
Also, discovering the fundamental truth that sustained repetition yields results can affect how you approach other tasks in your life. When I played basketball alone recently, I noticed that I was much more patient when working on certain moves and shots, and I was able to maintain focus over time and analyze my performance in ways that I hadn’t before. Whether it’s your work, your hobbies, or your relationships with family and friends, self-studying a language teaches you lessons that can be applied to all spheres of life.
Pronunciation and tones:
Mandarin Blueprint: https://www.mandarinblueprint.com/
Anki App: https://apps.ankiweb.net/
The Chairman’s Bao: https://www.thechairmansbao.com/
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Keywords: studying Mandarin Chinese solo
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