Don’t become “mute Chinese”

A phenomenon that is usually associated with Chinese learners of English is that of becoming “mute English”, but is also a danger to learners of Chinese, too, is if speaking and pronunciation practice is overlooked.

Mute Chinese

啞巴英語(哑巴英语)

Pinyin: yǎ bā yīng yŭ
English: Mute English

Wikipedia describes this phenomenon as being…

…especially common in the People’s Republic of China, where people can read and understand English as a second language but cannot speak it well. Mute English occurs primarily due to the lack of native English speakers to emulate or practice with, particularly in a country as large as China.

What causes it

So why are learners of Chinese in danger of becoming “mute Chinese”? The reason is that a disproportionate amount of time is spent memorising individual characters, rather than learning how the words are used, and practicing how the words are pronounced. If this sounds familiar to you, then you might start to find that your comprehension of Chinese texts or recognition of characters is developing faster than your speaking and pronunciation ability. While it’s natural when learning a language for your speaking, reading or writing ability to be at different levels, though if you are finding that you are spending hours a day simply memorising characters instead of practicing other areas of Chinese then you are in danger of becoming mute Chinese.

How to avoid it

If you aren’t in a Chinese speaking country studying Chinese, or you don’t have the fortune of some Chinese speaking friends, then finding opportunities to practice speaking can be a bit of a problem.

The first thing you need to do is restructure you time to make sure that you are incorporating a more balanced set of study techniques in your routine. We always recommend recording yourself and then listening back to yourself speaking, this is an excellent way to improve your pronunciation, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you will improve once you hear yourself making mistakes that you were previously unaware of.

Make sure you are checking back in to ChineseHacks a few times a week to our mini Chinese lessons that incorporate key vocabulary lists and, most importantly, real-world examples of how those words are used. Use the tip we mentioned above about recording yourself to read the news bites from the mini Chinese lessons aloud,  and the listen back to yourself.

If you want more of a structured lesson with a teacher to talk to you could also book a lesson with one of our partner websites, ChineseTeachers. As you can make it a long way by yourself, but nothing beats the guidance of a teacher at regular intervals during the learning process.

The important thing is not to confuse learning Chinese with memorising characters, learning how to use and pronounce the characters/words will be more beneficial in the long run.

A post by Steve from Lingomi discusses why you should study less Chinese characters, Steve advocates focusing on pronunciation and not overlooking tone practice in favour of memorising characters.

How do you divide your time among the all of the areas of learning Chinese? Do you find yourself spending a disproportionate amount of time memorising words instead of practicing how to use and pronounce them?

  • Chinese study should be balanced. Unfortunately, because characters are so difficult, exotic, and interesting, people do spend the majority of time studying characters.

    Like you mentioned, much of the time spent studying solitary characters would be better spent studying vocabulary in context (sentences and phrases), pronunciation, or through experience repetition.

  • Sometimes I can write a character by hand, I know what it means, but for the life of me, I can’t recall how to produce the sound. What is the deal with THAT?

    It also bothers me that there are many mundanely simple things that I cannot write by hand. Seriously, I’m staring at a tangerine right now. Do I know the Chinese for tangerine? Yes. Can I pick up a pen and write the character? No. /sigh

    • Henry

      Hi, there are electronic chinese handhelds which allows you to search, learn, and input chinese characters which you don’t know or if you want to learn the correct stroke order the machine will teach you stroke by stroke.

      Hope this helps,

      Henry.

  • ps. actually it’s not that hard to write 😀

  • You wrote a great article. It was really inspiring to read it. Until now most of the time I spent learning the tones and pronunciation and expanding my vocabulary. Just recently I started learning Chinese radicals and practising writing and I must say that now I spent majority of time studying characters. But I will definitely listen to your advises. Thank you.

  • I was close to mute when I arrived in Beijing 7 years ago. I studied in Australia for a long time including a major of Mandarin at university – a course that stressed literacy and a high level of vocabulary. You could theoretically get an HD while bombing the oral component of the class. After taking a placement test at BLCU I was stunned to find I had been placed in nearly the lowest class available. I protested – I could read the entire textbook, after all! I was told to try the class for a week and if I still thought it didn’t suit I could switch. My scorn lasted until the first tingli class – at which point I realised I needed to be in that class. The whole year I found reading class and zonghe fairly elementary, but I finally developed some fluency and respectable listening comprehension. Without that year of foundation building, I doubt the following 6 years would have brought me to the place of fluency I have now.