Can I learn Chinese on my own?
Learning Chinese on your own is definitely possible, but it depends on what you mean by “on my own.” If, for you, this means “without a formal teacher/tutor,” then yes, it’s more difficult but still reasonable.
If “learning Chinese on my own” means “without any Chinese friends,” then it’s very unlikely.
Learning Chinese Without Chinese Friends
Is a dictionary, a textbook, and a mobile phone app enough? They’ll be extremely helpful, but probably not sufficient to help you achieve fluency.
If you’ve grown up in a Western country, Chinese is likely much different than any language you’ve learned before. Here’s a few examples:
- Each character has intonation.
- Questions are not asked by raising your tone, but with question particles.
- There is no word for “yes/no”- questions are answered contextually.
- Grammar often differs from Latin root languages.
- There are many words and phrases that won’t translate easily into your mother tongue.
it’s true that a mobile phone app or online video series can provide valuable, structured ways of introducing and practicing these concepts. However, they won’t be able to answer your questions that arise, and this is where a native Chinese speaker is invaluable.
For example, a textbook or dictionary can tell you the meaning of 动：
动 = move
An app can tell you how to pronounce 动, how to use it, and how not to use it. It can even give you example sentences and exercises, then tell you if you did the exercises correctly or not.
But an important part of the learning process is taking this information and using it to produce your own sentences. And when you attempt to create your own sentences in Chinese, who will confirm if they’re correct or not?
Or, let’s say your curriculum hasn’t yet covered 动， but you need to know how to say “move.” So you open your dictionary app and type “move.” This is your results page:
Which “move” do you use? And how do you use it in a sentence? A native speaker could know the context of your question and give you an immediate answer. Using a dictionary app alone may have you ripping your hairs out after a few word searches.
Learning Chinese Without a Teacher
If you don’t have a Chinese teacher or tutor, it may still be possible for you to reach your goals if you have Chinese friends. However, this requires a clarification:
- Your Chinese friend must be a real friend, and not merely a language exchange partner.
A language partner probably won’t be willing to help you with Chinese for free- usually they want you to help them with your mother tongue in return. This will split your time with them in half (half speaking your language, and half speaking theirs).
If there’s no deeper friendship between you, you probably won’t be hanging out at their house on the weekends, going on road trips, shopping together etc. Your time together will likely be limited to your scheduled meet-ups. Moreover, relevant topics may eventually become scarce, and you can both easily feel awkward or lose interest in meeting up.
However, if they become your real friend, you can spend more time with them in more environments, with less need to schedule meetups. You can more naturally have conversations about the things you’re doing together, and ask “How do you say that?”
Learning Chinese With a Teacher
Obviously, having an experienced Chinese teacher is monumentally beneficial, especially if you’re a beginner. They’ve studied the best methods for teaching those learning Chinese as a second language, and are better equipped to answer your questions. They’ll also be more adept in grading their language in a way that you can understand.
And while a Chinese person may want to practice speaking your native tongue with you, a teacher will be willing to speak with you completely in Chinese.
If learning Chinese is important to you, don’t be afraid to invest in a good teacher!
To determine the ideal method for you, consider some of the most common roadblocks in learning Chinese:
- Boredom – Boredom can arise from “too much of the same.” Add some variety to your language journey! One of the best ways to add variety is by spending time abroad in China. You’ll be completely surrounded by Chinese language, using it and hearing it everywhere you go. Otherwise, you can try splitting your time between instruction, self-study, and hanging out with Chinese friends.
- Burnout – Mental fatigue is real, and can come about from too much variety in curriculum. While variety is good, you don’t need to be using 3 mobile apps and 2 textbooks at once. These will likely all be using different vocabulary sets. Try to stick to learning 1 or 2 vocabulary sets at a time. And take time to let your brain relax!
- Discouragement – “I’ll never be fluent in Chinese.” This feeling can often creep up when you’re facing language that is beyond your current level. Maybe the grammar structures you’re studying are too complex for you, or your Chinese friends don’t slow down when they talk to you, or you’re trying to watch Chinese movies when you’re still new to the language. This is where a teacher can be invaluable. Chinese teachers are skilled at guiding your study according to your current level, while helping to pace and encourage you.
- Procrastination – The thought “I’ll study if I have time later,” can be one of the biggest hinderances to your language journey. Though having a teacher with scheduled classes and assigned homework may seem too traditional, it’s still one of the best methods for combatting laziness.
Chinese proficiency is a worthy goal! However, it will take time. Learn to love the journey. (And be nice to your Chinese friends!)