Progressing from intermediate to advanced Chinese

This is a guest post that I wrote for in August. If you haven’t read before it’s a great blog that features guest posts from Chinese teachers and learners of Chinese, with a focus ranging from lessons and keywords, to opinions on how best to learn Chinese.

Becoming an advanced learner of Chinese

If you’re learning Chinese then you’ll be all too familiar with the peaks and dips that come with the process.  One day you’re on top of the world speaking fluently and reading Chinese as if you were born in Beijing and other days you fumble every word and can’t seem to read a sentence even if your life depended on it.  Students who aren’t serious about learning Chinese quit learning the first time they hit one of these dips, each of which represents a hurdle or barrier that must be passed in order to ascend to the next level of learning.  As Seth Godin explains in The Dip, during any process when you reach a period of difficulty, or a “dip”, then you have the choice to either give up or continue on and make it through.  The choice is based on whether or not you will be successful after continuing, or will you just be wasting your time.  If you’ve learned Chinese to the point were you are about to enter the advanced stages of learning, then it’s safe to say that you aren’t wasting your time so you must continue and climb your way to the next level.

How can you maintain your motivation?

While you’re at the early and intermediate stages of learning, there is a clear course set for you – just stick to the provided learning materials and you’ll be sure to reach the next level.  Making it to advanced level isn’t so straightforward as there probably isn’t such a clear path to the next level, – you’re on your own! The choice is now yours regarding which learning materials to use, how to use them, and how best to divide your time. This is one of the reasons that not all learners progress to true advanced Chinese, along with the fact that most intermediate learners become complacent with their ability and don’t push themselves to break through into advanced level.   You’ve almost certainly noticed that the number of students in a Chinese class decrease in correlation with the increasing difficulty of the lesson.

What can you do to maintain the motivation to drive yourself and continue improving and successfully proceed to advance level?

Focus on what interests you

One of the things that turns a lot of people off learning a language is the amount of time spent learning apparently useless words or mundane topics that text books are commonly filled with. The beauty of finally making it through to upper-intermediate and advanced levels is now you can chose what you want to learn.  Whatever it is that interests you, learn that.  If you like reading novels, business books, magazines, technology blogs – the choice is yours.  Don’t feel that you’re restricted to learning materials designed for foreign students of Chinese, venture away from this area and find books that are written for native readers, you’re sure to find a wealth of material on any subject.

Listen to and read the news

What’s the fundamental benchmark of learning a language to a decent level of fluency that you are guaranteed to be challenged on by a friend once they know you have learnt Chinese? “So can you read a newspaper?”  This is an ability that doesn’t come naturally during the learning process – to understand a Chinese language newspaper or a Chinese news reporter takes a lot of practice. There are many abbreviations, technical words, regional differences and other news-lingo that you need to learn. Luckily, with the Internet, finding sources for learning materials is easy – you only have to open your web browser and within seconds you can be watching television news reports from Taipei or reading the online version of the China Times.  Spend a few hours per week or once a day if you have time, reading and listening to online news reports.  Try to read news from a few sources and from both mainland China and other Chinese speaking countries such as Taiwan to ensure you get a broad view of the news.  When listening to Chinese news reports, don’t be put off if at first you can only pick out a few keywords – you’ll find after two or three listenings it gets a lot easier.

Choose your teacher wisely

Something that should also adapt as you progress while learning Chinese is the role of the teacher. You need to pick the right teacher for each level of learning.   When you were a beginner, the class might have been more one-way – just keep your ears open and listen to the teacher, you can ask questions but in the end what the teacher says goes!   At advanced level, to keep you interested and also help diversify and expand you knowledge, class should take the form of a guided discussion.  You’re already at the stage were you can read a lot of Chinese, your comprehension is at a competent level, so at this stage the teacher should point out subtleties, help in comparing and analysing texts, and provide diverse listening exercises from multiple sources among other activities. The class is more of a forum with the teacher guiding the students rather than the students simply listening and repeating which is much the case at beginner level.  That’s one of the benefits of – you can select your teacher, and if you prefer one  teacher over another then that’s your choice to make.  There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a class where the teaching style is directed at a different level than your current ability.

It’s your choice

This is by no means an extensive list and simply a few key areas to get you thinking about how you can maintain your motivation for learning Chinese.  Everyone is different, so the areas chosen to focus on will be different for every person.  The main thing to understand is that however you choose to take your learning to the next level it is going to require a huge amount of time and effort, and you’ll need constant and consistent exposure to Chinese.  Although you’ve made it this far, the next goal is in reach you need to push on to achieve it.

We’d love to hear about what level you’re at and how you spend your time learning Chinese. How you keep your motivation up during the “dips” and what do you think makes a great teacher at each level? Please let us know in the comments below!