3 Key Habits I Used to Learn Chinese

After failing three times, on my third try learning Chinese I actually became conversational. Here’s what I did, which is generally applicable to any language:

  1. I used Duolingo for 30 minutes every day for over a year.
  2. I went to Chinese language exchanges twice a month, for a year and a half.
  3. I used Hellotalk to find a great language partner to chat and do video calls with. I also used it to crowd source corrections for my bad Chinese.

That’s it! The key is consistent effort over a long time (2 years), mixing solo practice and real conversation.

Other tips:

  • Do your daily practice as early in the day as possible. Your motivation is finite, and depletes throughout the day. You’re more likely to skip a day if you wait until the evening, when you’re tired.
  • For Duolingo exercises that require typing, try using voice dictation into your phone’s keyboard instead. This is another opportunity to practice vocalizing, and can be additional confirmation that you’re pronouncing things correctly. That said, it comes at the expense of losing writing practice. This wasn’t as important for me.
  • It’s extremely important to deliberately practice translating sentences from your native language to the one you’re learning. You’ll never be able to hold a conversation otherwise. It’s equally important to get feedback on whether your translations are idiomatic — Hellotalk is great for this.
  • Make it competitive. My friend Sam was also learning and we challenged each other with friendly competition and started texting exclusively in Chinese. It was important that we had similar motivation levels.
  • Watch children’s cartoons. I watched Peppa Pig in Chinese to practice native speed listening. This was helpful, but having actual conversations was way better.
  • meetup.com is a good place to search for language exchanges near you.

Key Insights

Daily practice

It’s critical to commit to daily practice. This helps you quickly internalize the bad news: this will take a lot of your time. It helps you commit to taking this seriously as a hobby, which is a vital mental shift.

Vocalize, vocalize, vocalize.

It’s critical to actually vocalize during solo practice. I cannot stress this enough. Saying new words is the most embarrassing and uncomfortable part of language learning, but it’s also the most crucial. You need to train your vocal chords.

You need to go beyond what Duolingo requires for vocalization practice. Even if the exercise doesn’t require speaking, do it anyway. My rule of thumb: I do not move to the next exercise until I can say the sentence out loud without hesitation. This may take as many as 10 extra repetitions to reach, but it’s worth it! You need to train your vocal chords.

This might be awkward if you don’t do Duolingo in private. I encourage you to push past this. I did my Duolingo during my daily subway commutes and gradually overcame my fear of looking like a weirdo for muttering to myself. Wearing earbuds is a simple solution- people will just think you’re on the phone.

Go to language exchanges

Language exchanges were the #1 contributing factor to my success. There’s just no match for real conversation practice, and these meetups are as real as it gets. Plus, they’re a lot of fun and you can make some really great new friends 🙂

Find a great language partner, and help each other

It’s extremely helpful to find a language partner — someone who is in the opposite of your situation: wanting to learn English, and whose English is about as good as your Chinese is. This is ideal because being someone’s language mentor is a lot of work, and this way there is fairness in the exchange. Someone who can speak both Chinese and English fluently will not be a good language partner because you will be mostly taking from them without giving back.

This is one reason why Hellotalk is such a great platform. As you learn, you will need to ask a lot of questions. What’s the idiomatic way to say this? Is this sentence correct? You’ll need to ask more questions than 1 person, who is volunteering their time, could possibly help you with. Hellotalk lets you leverage a whole community of people eager to correct and help you. This will let you ask all the questions you want, and get all the answers you need, without exhausting any one person.

You can do it!

You can learn that language you’ve always wanted to learn! Just practice every day, vocalize as much as you can, and make sure to regularly practice in a real conversational environment.

Any thoughts?