Most common mistakes Chinese learners make and how to avoid them

June 05, 2022

Learning Chinese is not easy, which is why it is important to have the right learning habits and tools to set yourself up on the way to success. Unfortunately, many learners spend years studying Chinese without significant progress and still struggling to make basic conversations with native speakers.

In this article, we want to share important tips to help you avoid the most common mistakes that Chinese learners make and help you reach fluency faster and more effectively.

1) Practice speaking with native speakers (and with your classmates)

Talking with your classmates in Chinese

Unfortunately, most students learning Chinese don’t get enough speaking practice. If you are taking a Chinese course, and especially if you are learning on your own from an app, the most important thing you need to do to make faster progress is to practice more speaking.

Unfortunately, many students focus too much on learning Chinese grammar and memorizing new vocabulary and not enough on speaking. However, if your eventual goal is to be able to have conversations in Chinese, you have to start practicing as early as possible.

Having real conversations in Chinese with native speakers (or even with your classmates) will help you increase your fluency, shorten the time it takes for words travel from your brain to your tongue, get you adjusted to different Chinese accents, and introduce you to how people actually speak in real life. Good Chinese teachers will make sure you practice speaking during class but since time in class is limited, a lot of the work has to be done by you after class.

What’s more, practicing speaking will save you money! While classes cost money, speaking does not. By speaking more outside of class you will make much faster progress in your learning.

You can start practicing your speaking practically from day one. Even if you do not have a broad vocabulary yet, just go around asking people for their name and how old they are. Trust me, even repeating the same questions over and over and hearing different answers will increase your fluency and help you increase your vocabulary!

Finally, another great way to improve your speaking is by practicing listening. By actively engaging in listening to real-life conversations you will pick up new vocabulary and sentence structures that you can later try out yourself. So get out there and start talking!

2) Ditch the flashcards

Flashcards for learning Chinese

Memorizing individual words without any context is hard. We create new knowledge by making connections between new information and existing information that we already have; when you try to memorize words individually, you are missing those neuron connections that help make new Chinese words stick in your memory.

In addition, when you try to learn from vocabulary lists, you are lacking context. Context is necessary to understand how exactly a word is used in Chinese. Otherwise, you might know the definition of a word, but you will not be able to use it in a conversation, or you might use it wrongly.

Therefore, using flashcards and flashcard-based apps (Anki, Memrise etc.) might be useful as a supplementary tool, but I do not recommend learning new words solely by using flashcards.

It is much more efficient to learn words as part of sentences, so you can understand their context. After learning each new word, try to make your own sentences, not only in class and for homework, but also in real-life conversations. This will help you remember new words more easily and also know how to use them correctly in real life.

3) Don’t translate directly from English

Don't translate Chinese directly from English

Another common mistake Chinese learners make is translating words and sentences directly from English to Chinese (this applies to other languages as well). It is a bad habit that many beginner-level Chinese learners have.

The problem with direct translation is that any two languages (especially languages as different as English and Chinese) have different grammar and many words that cannot simply be translated directly.

So instead of translating directly from your native language into Chinese, try learning new words in Chinese using Chinese. Ask your teacher or a friend to give you examples of how the word is used in different situations and learn the word from the Chinese context.

Luckily, the more Chinese you learn, the easier it will be to learn Chinese just using Chinese.

4) Pay attention to your Chinese pronunciation, even if you are a beginner!

pinyin

The learning mistake that I personally regret the most is not paying enough attention to my pronunciation in Chinese when I started learning.

Chinese tones are super important because, as you probably already know, a different tone in Chinese can completely change the meaning of a word. As eager beginners, we are often tempted to ignore tones so that our conversation flows better, hoping that the other side will understand us from context.

Not only does this often not work, but do you really want to go around sounding “like a foreigner” every time you speak Chinese? The thing native speakers of any language are often most impressed by is a Chinese learner who sounds like a native speaker.

So next time you are having a conversation in Chinese and you are not sure what the correct tone of a word is, check it quickly in a dictionary or ask your conversation partner. Chances are, they will be happy to help.

5) Learn Chinese Culture

Peking duck most popular Chinese food dishes

The deeper your cultural understanding of China and the Chinese culture, the easier it will be to have meaningful conversations and build rapport with Chinese people.

A proven way to impress a stranger in China is to demonstrate your knowledge of their regional culture. Moreover, understanding the culture will help you understand the motivation behind what is being said, thereby understanding also why it has been said.

Culture includes many things – cuisine, habits, geography, traditions, history, music, books and much more.

If you are not sure where to start learning about Chinese culture, you can start with the Chinese Culture section of our blog on our website.

Conclusion

Learning Chinese is not just studying words and grammar, but also learning how to communicate with native speakers, how to sound more native, and gaining a deeper understanding of the Chinese culture. If you are just beginning your Chinese learning journey, make sure you do not make the mistakes above, then you will certainly see your Chinese proficiency soar!

To make sure you don't fall into any of the traps above, sign up for online Chinese classes now.

Post contributed by Ilya