6 Smart Strategies I Used To Learn Chinese While Teaching English In Shanghai

how I learned chinese

Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post from Dimitris that shares his experience of learning Chinese while living and working as an English teacher in Shanghai. If you're struggling to make the kind of progress you'd hoped for with your Chinese, I think this post will give you some ideas that might help you out.

You’ll learn about:

Over to Dimitris…

Hear that? That nagging little voice telling you that learning Chinese is too difficult? Don’t listen to it! I’ll tell you why…

A year ago I found myself in a pickle: I had just signed a contract to teach English in China, but my Chinese was far from good.

I had spent a lot of time and money on courses but made no major progress. My pronunciation was terrible and my vocabulary limited. Sound familiar?

Don’t worry! There’s nothing wrong with you!

The thing is, I had the wrong approach.I had been so focused on courses I’d missed out on a key part of language learning – it’s crucial to regularly communicate with native speakers!

I had been so focused on courses I’d missed out on a key part of language learning – it’s crucial to regularly communicate with native speakers!

Easy to say, right? How can you do that if you want to learn Chinese but you live in Greece, for example?

It seems impossible at first, but don't worry. There are lots of ways to successfully learn Chinese, no matter where you live. I used many of them and I’m at HSK level 5 now! In this post, I’ll share my story with you.

I'll discuss the things I did to achieve fluency in Chinese and how you can do the same.

1. I Connected With Chinese People and Chinese Culture

shanghai china

Okay – it’s easier said than done. You might not be in a position to move to China or visit the country, but I had already signed a contract to teach English there, so for me, it wasn’t an issue.

As it turned out, this step proved to be the crucial first step in my journey to learn Chinese. It made me realise what I had been doing wrong and what I needed to focus on.

Even if you can’t visit China, you can still get a lot of exposure to the language from home using materials like music and movies or by connecting with Chinese communities in your city.

My mindset changed when I went to China. I decided to become fluent in the language. I made friends with the locals, tried to use Chinese whenever I could and I avoided falling back on my English. I didn’t resort to using English just because I could.

While in China, I used my free time for trips. I explored the country and experienced the everyday life of Chinese people. The benefits of being surrounded by native speakers are numerous and extremely helpful for learning!

Most major cities worldwide have relatively large Chinese communities. Finding out about these communities and connecting with them is a great way to find native speakers to practice with even if you can’t travel. And, of course, you also have the option of doing online language exchanges (more about that in a moment!).

Whether you travel to China or immerse yourself from home, start by connecting to China and its people and culture.

2. I Focused On The Fundamentals

chinese fundamentals

The first thing you need to do when learning any language is to get a handle on the basics.

Technology allows you to easily learn the basics of any language using simple google searches and online resources and Chinese is no different. Let's consider 3 key parts of Chinese that you need to master as a beginner:

Chinese Pronunciation And Tones

First, practice the four tones of Mandarin Chinese.

It’s best to hear a native speaker pronouncing them so you can get used to the differences. There are lots of different tools for doing this but I started with online pronunciation guides found on YouTube. You can find lots of different options by searching for phrases like ‘Chinese Pronunciation'

You can find lots of different options by searching for phrases like ‘Chinese Pronunciation' or ‘Chinese Tones'.Many of these are well-made and perfect for beginners. Go through several series to make sure you can say the tones with ease.

Many of these videos are well-made and perfect for beginners. Go through several series to make sure you can say the tones with ease.

chinese tones youtube

Just repeat the tones as often as you can and don’t worry too much about perfecting them right away. Have some fun with it!

Next, continue to practice your pronunciation and listening with a program like FluentU.

FluentU is a real-world video platform which gives you an extensive library of Chinese videos, with interactive bi-lingual subtitles, looping functionality, a hover-dictionary … and much more!

Use these to practice hearing and repeating the tones in longer combinations, as they sound different in context than they do in isolation.

Watch as many videos as you can – the more people you hear the better. And don’t worry – the videos are interesting and relatable!

Once you’ve started to get the hang of pronunciation, you can try listening to podcasts or a Chinese radio station to improve your listening skills. (My personal favourite station is Radio Taiwan International).


Next, you need to learn the most frequent groups of words in Chinese. Focus on topics you’re likely to use in conversation such as:

Make flashcards and practice regularly, set mini-goals for yourself, and don’t try to take giant steps.

What kind of flashcards should you use?

For me, a combination of physical cards and FluentU’s interactive flashcard system did the job.

In my opinion, traditional, physical cards are best for beginners and offer the best focus possible. That rectangular space confines the word(s) and makes you really pay attention.

You can also add photos, drawings or coloured letters to your flashcards. This will help you remember the words more easily as you'll have more sensory information to help you.

Practice with your flashcards as often as you can. Repetition helps burn the words into your long-term memory.

I found that the digitised flashcards on FluentU offer everything you need: audio, relevant images, dynamic games… And I’ll say it again: practice with these whenever you can! The more you practice, the faster you'll learn.


Finally, learn to hold basic conversations.

Plan the kind of conversations you're most likely to have and practice them until they become second-nature.

Why not have a friend help you practice these? Learning with friends is very helpful! Yoyo Chinese is one site which offers a series of video lessons with basic conversations that are great for this.

learn chinese through story

3. I Found Teachers and Learning Partners To Practice With

italki chinese

Thanks to the internet, you can learn Chinese with real people right from the comfort of your own home.

All you need is Skype, free time and some dedication!

Here's how it works.

Head over to a site like italki or My Language Exchange.

Italki functions like a social network where students can create a profile and connect with teachers. Prices range depending on the quality of the teacher and their demand. Lessons can last from 30 to ninety minutes. You can even schedule trial lessons and try a few different teachers until you find one who makes you feel comfortable.

Pro tip: If you don’t have the budget for private lessons, go to the community tab and find a language learning partner who is willing to talk with you and correct your mistakes. In return for helping you with your Chinese, you help that person with English or another language. This is a great way to practice if you have some free time but can't afford to take lessons with a teacher.

You should also check out My Language Exchange. It is one of the oldest and busiest language learning sites around. The interface is very basic, but there is a strong community vibe.

The only downside?

You have to pay a fee to access all the features and to initiate contact with the other members.

Both sites offer flexible learning options and a huge selection of teachers, so you can easily choose someone who suits your budget and learning needs.

To maximise learning, try to schedule quick lessons daily. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn in thirty minutes a day!

Technology is great, but the human element of classes or language exchanges can definitely make the learning process much more interesting.

4. I Watched Chinese Movies

chinese movies

Yes, I know – it sounds too easy. But you shouldn’t underestimate this type of audio-visual learning! Just relax, enjoy and your brain will pick things up. You’ll be surprised!

We learn by context; we don’t need to understand every single word to follow what’s going on. So, don’t worry if you don’t understand everything right away.

There are a number of frequent words that get repeated throughout any movie and these will quickly become familiar to you:

Your brain will connect the words to the context. And your vocabulary will expand with every movie you watch. Not to mention you'll have a lot of fun!

Plus, China has one of the largest film industries in the world. This means you can find many movies from any genre you like.

But, where can you find these?

Well, there are many websites where you can watch them for free, such as Iqiyi Movie, M1905, Sohu Movie and Xunlei Kankan Movie.

Personally, I recommend Youku and Baidu – websites considered to be the Chinese YouTube. These sites haves lots of great Chinese movies and offer many popular Chinese TV series too.

One more thing, try not to watch the movies with English subtitles. Instead, use the Chinese subtitles.

Learning is multi-sensory; the more senses you use the better. Your brain will connect the spoken words with the written ones in the subtitles and help you learn more quickly.

5. I Used Technology To The Max

smart strategies use technology to learn

Nowadays, technology can help you in many ways. There are numerous high-quality free language exchange programs and apps you can download and use with ease.

Here are some particularly good Chinese apps that I recommend trying out in your learning:

WeChat – It’s a free Chinese app offering text messaging, video sharing and various features for contacting people if desired. Why are these features important? Well, you can ask strangers who are locals to add you as a friend so you can chat. This way they can practice English while teaching you Chinese. It’s the perfect exchange.

Perapera – This Chrome extension is Chinese popup dictionary. Very simple and handy. You can browse Chinese websites and read articles in Chinese while quickly seeing the pronunciation and definition of words.

Zhongwen – This Chinese-English dictionary is also a chrome extension. It’s a great, easy tool which includes links to Chinese Grammar Wiki.

Online Video Sites – YouTube, Baidu, and Youku videos are perfect for practising your Chinese. These sites have lots of video-series that guide you through the basics.

6. I Didn’t Give Up!

chinese temple architechture

I didn’t give up.

And neither should you.

Chinese is a very difficult language to master, but if you keep going and work hard, you can learn it successfully.

As you've seen in this post, there are many ways to practice Chinese and the ones I mentioned are those that best suited me and helped me in my learning.

Try some of the ideas and tools mentioned in this post, choose what works best for you and give it all you’ve got!

All the hard work will be worth when you find yourself having conversations and connecting with people in Chinese.

What strategies are you using to learn Chinese? Which of the ideas in this post are you most looking forward to trying out? Let us know in the comments!

This is a guest post by Dimitris Vlachos of Movinhand, a service that helps workers find jobs and move abroad.

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