How I plan to become fluent in Chinese (in short: Skritter)

skritter-logoI drafted this post 10 weeks ago, after arriving in Shanghai, but never published it.

I intended to stay in Shanghai for 6 months, perhaps longer, but will now be going back to Silicon Valley by mid-June.

I’m publishing anyway because I hope my original plan, and suggested tips/tools/websites, can be helpful to others. The plan has worked well for me in the 3 months I’ve been here.

How well?

For one, the Chinese government administers a Mandarin test called the HSK (汉语水平考试). It’s like the Chinese TOEFL. There are 6 levels, from 1 (beginner) to 6 (expert).

To pass level 1, you need to read and write ~150 words. To pass level 6, you need to read and write ~5000 words. At this level, you’re essentially at native fluency.

When I first got to China, I could barely pass level 4 (~1200 words).

In 3 months of following the below plan, I can now pass level 5 and if I stayed around for 3 more months, I’m confident I could pass level 6.

Now, that’s not saying I’ll be truly fluent – getting there requires using the language (both verbal and written) on a close-to-fulltime basis, which is something I don’t do.

The people I’ve seen come closest to true fluency typically work in an all-Chinese office. Even with a Chinese girlfriend (which is a tactic, of sorts), your Chinese will plateau fairly quickly since most conversational Chinese is relatively superficial.

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I’m glad to be spending time here in Shanghai.

My main priority is to really invest in learning Mandarin (汉语, which literally translates to “language of the Han”).

Why am I doing this?

Understanding my heritage – which comes through speaking the language – is important. There are of course career opportunities.

Also, I love learning languages! The process is tough but the results are immediate and tangible. You learn to think and express yourself in new ways.

People who intensively study languages show significant growth in areas of the brain. Interestingly, the same thing does not happen to med school students.

Immanuel Kant believed that when you do something like learn a new language, it connects you with a world that was inaccessible before. This “enlargement of thought” was a central and driving purpose of life and in theory put you closer to an all-knowing, all-speaking God.

While it was fun to be in Rio for 10 days, I would have experienced it on a deeper level had I understood Portuguese.

Here’s what I’ve been doing

1. Using Skritter to memorize HSK vocabulary

This is where you should start.

Skritter is an iPhone app, a Chinese character-writing game which *almost* makes the process of memorizing characters fun. It tracks your progress (I love seeing stats like how many new characters I learned last week) and adjusts to your skill level and progress.

As Tim Ferriss says, content is more important than process. I agree it’s a key part of any efficiency-maximizing language learning process.

It’s clear what words are needed to pass each HSK level. Here’s a great example. You just load those lists into Skritter and you’re on your way!

*Skritter is not cheap. There is a 15-day unlimited trial period, then you pay $14.99/mo for access. However, I use it 30-60 minutes a day and I can say it’s easily the best pound-for-pound language-learning-investment I’ve made

2. Private tutoring sessions

I take classes with That’s Mandarin last week. 3 sessions per week, 2 hours per session.

I chose them for 2 reasons:

1. Their classrooms were the nicest. Free coffee and tea. That they put so much attention into their learning space is indicative of their commitment to students

2. Their teachers had the most nuanced understanding of Chinese. As my friends know, I ask “Why” a lot, and they were able to answer more “Why” questions than other teachers

One teaching method they employ is to watch popular Chinese movies together, pausing after specific exchanges to discuss exactly what’s going on. For those that read Chinese, the movie we’re watching is 杜拉拉升职记.

Other language centers showed me outdated language books which still talked about stuff like SOEs and “iron rice bowls” (铁饭碗)…irrelevant crap from the 70s and 80s.

*Tutoring sessions are particularly helpful for taking characters I study in Skritter and learning to write/read/speak them in the right context

3. Reading, and lots of it

The HSK is primarily a reading test. There are writing, listening, and speaking components, but the most important skill is quick and thorough reading.

I’ve been reading the essays of a famous young Chinese blogger named Han Han (韩寒).

The software and tools I’m using

A. Skritter – as mentioned above, a critical piece of the puzzle; if you’re serious about learning Chinese, download Skritter now. Thanks to Linus for sharing it with me

B. Pleco – far and away the best iPhone Chinese dictionary

C. Han Han’s blog posts (eg, content you enjoy reading) – here’s a link to an English translation, which includes links to the original posts

D. FluentU – I enjoy using this to read and learn Chinese song lyrics

The biggest obstacles to reaching HSK 6

1. Shanghai is such an international city that I usually spend an entire day only speaking English. I hang out with few locals, and even then the conversation is 80% English

2. The people who reach fluency fastest are FORCED to use it. Sometimes this is a full-time, immersive language-learning environment. Other times it’s because they work in a Chinese-speaking office (which can be a GREAT forcing function). I have neither…

3. The distractions of the city itself. Shanghai is like New York – it can lead to too much socializing, too much headless-chicken-syndrome

If you’re interested in mastering Mandarin, please download Skritter!!

What language are you learning? What tools/methods do you find most helpful?

Click here to read about the daily habits that I track and why.