My Chinese learning journey (update March 2024)

In the summer of 2018, I moved to Shanghai and back then I only planned to stay maybe two years in China, so I didn’t consider it necessary to learn Chinese. In Shanghai, it’s OK to get by without speaking Mandarin. You either point at pictures or show the translated sentence on your phone. For some situations like registering a bank account, either the bank account has someone who can speak English, or you can bring a colleague to help you.

Either way, to solve two years of that marginal hassle, I wasn’t about to spend around 10,000 USD and +700 hours on learning Mandarin. And yet I did.

In late 2018, my manager at the advertising agency (native Chinese) pushed me to take Mandarin lessons. She had worked in Hong Kong before, when her boss pushed her to learn Cantonese — so either she felt it was useful to her or she felt she had to balance out this wrong done to her — so she said I must learn Mandarin too. The gap between Mandarin and Cantonese isn’t as big as English and Mandarin, but alas.

There was only one real school in the Yangpu district, where I worked, which was GoEast. This school is where up until 2024 I have taken nearly all my classes, albeit with many different teachers — although frmo 2018 to 2023, I did try a few hours of sampling at Italki (online), LTL (online), and IMCPI (in Shanghai). In 2024, I switched to my first non-GoEast teacher (more on that beneath).

Early beginnings: 2018

Pushed by my manager, I duly signed up for the HSK1 course with a group class, with a German girl and a South-African guy, and we’d do 36 class hours in 9 weeks. The South-African guy already spoke a bit of Chinese but by the end of the course, we were all level, sort of (Dare say, I even felt a little ahead, because I was the only one doing my homework). And despite having started to learn Mandarin not on my own initiative, I did take learning Chinese seriously, I even left a business trip in Hong Kong earlier to make it back on time for the class on Thursday.

GoEast Mandarin

GoEast Mandarin

GoEast Mandarin

Mandarin didn’t turn out to be the struggle I imagined it’d be. Actually, the classes from Ellie and Stella were fun and I didn’t mind riding the long way to school on my scooter. (Also the agency I worked at allowed me to leave a bit earlier on Tuesday & Thursday.) The progress from zero was fast, and in a few weeks I could order some rice and say my name and nationality. I felt great. I was never good with languages in high school, so to be learning Mandarin and progressing as well as learning it was a surprise. But then again, I was a totally different person in 2018 compared to 2005 — plus I was learning a foreign language while living abroad, which is very different than learning in a classroom and having no way to speak French or German with natives, or actually not having any real benefit or purpose for the language, other than grades on school.

But come the end of the HSK1 course, it was almost the Chinese New Year (early 2019), and my brother and his girlfriend were about to come to China, and I figured I’d just take a short break and maybe self-learn in the process. Three weeks became three months, and all this time I didn’t learn any Chinese. I realized I really lack self-discipline without a teacher, plus I also sort of decided to stay in China longer than just two years.

Hence, in April 2019 I resumed Mandarin classes at GoEast, this time with Myra 老师. I choose private classes, because I did feel my earlier two classmates didn’t do homework and held back the pace of the class as a result, and time rather than budget being my main restriction here. That was early 2019, and after that I’ve never looked back and have always maintained 2 to 4 class hours per week. Zero exceptions (read: Why Mandarin is like brushing your teeth).

GoEast Mandarin

HSK2 went by quickly, but Myra left GoEast after I finished HSK2, so I did GoEast’s Hanzi course in a group class setting with Morris 老师. GoEast has a method of first teaching you HSK1 & 2 without characters, just focusing on speaking and reading Pinyin, before introducing characters. This makes sense: introducing characters may kill early momentum (and motivation).

The Hanzi course was my favorite course, ever. Suddenly the sounds of the language started to make sense, and it was easier to distinguish “10” and “to be” and “teacher” and “time”, which are both pronounced as “shi”, but now I could read them as 十, 是, 师, and 时. I walked around Shanghai and now saw so many characters I could recognize, on menus and store facades. Suddenly I could connect to it, the language becoming from sounds to something more physical. The first time I read a Hanzi character (我) without first having the Pinyin in my mind, yet instead just reading the meaning (me) was magical.

GoEast Mandarin

The threshold of conversations in Chinese

After that came HSK3, again with Morris but this time private class (sample video). And HSK3 is a milestone because after it I felt I could really make all conversations I wanted — kinda about every topic even though I would need to flex my way around conversations. For instance, I could say “country” and “boss”, but not “president (of a country)”, so I’d say “boss of the country” and Chinese friends would understand me. HSK3 was a fantastic threshold, and I started actively making some Chinese friends, including Eva.

GoEast Mandarin

HSK4 added more detail to those conversations, and really moved my Chinese from an elementary to an intermediate level. My speaking improved with Chinese friends, and my GoEast teacher (still Morris) helped me improve my grammar, reading skills, new words, and characters. HSK4 took the pace out of my learning; they’re two long books. But at the end of the course, I was immensely proud. I know how I saw — before covid — many students on the GoEast campus carrying these red books, and I could hear their conversations in Chinese, and I was sure I could never reach that level. And yet with a slow process and almost 300 hours of class, I did.

GoEast Mandarin

GoEast Mandarin

HSK4 would naturally lead to HSK5, but I decided against this. Already with HSK4, I found the books becoming boring and full of pedantic life advice. I remember a text in HSK4 about a taxi driver who is in a traffic jam every day, but he loved it because he can calm down. And other texts are all about how you should 学习努力 (study hard) so you can 成功 (succeed). Not just that: HSK5 and HSK6 go firmly into the Chinese written language, which is vastly different from then Chinese spoken language.

Out of HSK and into Spoken Chinese

I choose Spoken Chinese, also to try it out and invigorate my studies, because my motivation was lacking after HSK4. I started with Morris and in the first few classes, I was just smiling at the classes at how useful they were, learning so many useful words and re-using words but with new meanings or usages.

Quickly though, Morris left GoEast to move back to his hometown Chengdu. And even though it wasn’t my choice — as I very much adored Morris as a teacher — it was good to change teachers too, after 250 hours with him. It brought some fresh energy to my studies. Victoria was my new teacher, and we soon got into a good rhythm. She prepared for each class really well, and she knew exactly which words I knew and didn’t.

GoEast Mandarin

Victoria and I went through Developing Chinese, Intermediate Books 1 and 2, which in the summer of 2021 was just interrupted by me joining the summer course at GoEast.

This was a group class again, on the other campus in downtown Shanghai. I had to take the metro three times a week, which honestly tired me more than the class itself. The course was interesting, mostly using ‘real life’ materials from Bilibili vloggers, so the words were very close to real life, as well as the speed and slight accents in their Mandarin. This course was taught by Shishi 老师, who did great. But somehow I did not connect to the course well. Maybe it was that the students in the group class had different levels, or maybe I just got too used to taking private classes that the pace of group class felt too slow. Or it was the learning materials, real-life videos being too random, despite the supplementary PPT’s? I don’t know. But came the end of 54 hours, I was glad — relieved — to go back to private class with Victoria.

Into Advanced territory

In early 2022, Victoria and I finished Advanced Speaking Course Book 2 (发展汉语,高级汉语), which is my favorite Chinese language book because the topics are really interesting and great for discussion. I actually did some classes with teachers also from another school (IMCPI) but mainly to compare GoEast teachers. And I realized how good a teacher Morris and Victoria were (read: How to know whether you’ve found a good language teacher).

Up the curve

During the Shanghai lockdown (April 2022), Victoria and I started ‘会通5’, but we skipped many chapters because the topics weren’t too new, then quickly onto 会通6. The 会通-series is good and in some areas better than 发展汉语, mainly because it uses fewer idioms, which I don’t think are super helpful. You rarely use them in real-life conversations and they’re hard to remember. But on the downside, it’s also full of straight-up propaganda, for instance, an American lady who lives in Beijing complimenting how well the government has done (“A miracle!”). 吐血!

Anyhow, in the summer of 2022, Lilia老师 took over as Victoria moved back to her hometown in Dongbei — before Lilia & I moved our classes also online because I moved to Zhangjiang.

Lilia had again a slightly different approach, which was great. Victoria and me would mostly talk, but Lilia and I would often write on the screen to create written sentences (even though we’re practicing spoken language). Putting it down makes the structure makes it easier to fix, rather than changing words spoken into the air. Lilia also (kindly) forced me to use sentence structures and certain words which normally would be out of my word rotation. Because even though around 3000 words, I’d still be using the HSK1 & 2 level ones in most of my speech, my lazy brain avoiding the more complex (and elegant) ones.

The learning curve became somewhat invisible to me, although progress is still made. It just comes in breakthroughs like real-life applications or when I look back on videos I made a year ago.

The biggest challenge came in December 2022, when I changed my job. In the office of Pimax, we mainly use Mandarin, which means meetings in Mandarin as well as writing emails or reports in Chinese. I didn’t feel fully ready at the start, but after three months of progression, I do feel more ready and comfortable. Some colleagues’ English is really good as well, but I sometimes find myself sticking to Chinese because that’s the language my mind is in and the words flow more naturally at that moment.

The thing with this kind of immersion is that it only works if you’ve already got an intermediate or advanced level though. It’s a very good point my former classmate Thomas made in his post-HSK6 blog: “A language as difficult as Chinese will not ‘learn itself’ as you live in China, unlike Spanish if you live in Mexico or Spain, as there are some foreigners that have lived for decades in China and still cannot make simple sentences.” Even at an intermediate level and beyond, immersion doesn’t automatically teach you new words automatically. Still need to check the dictionary, write them down, and learn hard to memorize.

So joining a Chinese company to use Mandarin as a working language was a huge boost. If I’d had to draw an (entirely not-scientific) graph it’d look like this. But please note that moving up the scale, especially from HSK4 onwards is much slower than the start.

In March 2023 I switched teachers again, this time to Clytie, but she quickly advised me to focus on pronunciation instead of adding more vocabulary.

Pronunciation classes from early 2023

Of course, it depends on your learning goal, but my goal was always just to talk with friends and colleagues and strangers in Mandarin, and at this point fixing my pronunciation, to accurately pronounce 商 as ‘shāng’ and 上 as ‘shàng’, brings me closer to that goal. So I gladly took Clytie’s advice to focus on pronunciation and go back to HSK3/4ish words.

We started doing several things:

  • Making my ‘bandwidth’ bigger. In English, the highest tones aren’t as high as in Mandarin, and neither are the lowest tones as low as in Mandarin. So basically, my higher tones should be higher, and lower ones should be lower. My mouth needs training.
  • Memorize the exact sounds of each word, especially the basic ones.
  • Train my ears. Lots of words I’ve no idea which tone so I’m just sort of going with what I think is right, sometimes in the right direction, but my ears aren’t that good yet. Some people say it’s much harder to train your ears in your 30s, but that is not useful information because I cannot change my age. I can only try as hard as I can now.
The pronunciation classes were kinda annoying because we’d go over the same sentence again and again. I’d feel I’d be saying it correct, but my teacher Clytie — and soon after Elena as I switched again — would say no. At the same time, that’s also the only way forward. We’d go over common words and sentences, and after class, Elena sent me her voice recording, and my homework would be to record the same text, which we’d then cover in the next lesson. My pronunciation is exaggerated, the tone difference really big, but that’s fine. We’re doing it exaggerated in class so that in normal situations (hopefully) it’ll be still big enough a difference for people to pick up.
It is interesting because people often talk about adding vocabulary and memorizing characters, but I think loads of foreigners could do well with improving their pronunciation (as well as rotation of more specific or complex words). Chaniece on Twitter is also starting pronunciation classes and is updating that on Twitter.
Pronunciation is extremely difficult to change, especially if you’ve already been speaking Chinese for four years. But for me, it’s still the best way forward.

One year of pronunciation classes in 2024

Early 2024, after around 800 class hours with GoEast Mandarin, I switched to a non-GoEast teacher for the first time in my Chinese learning journey. In the years before, I did sometimes try out other schools, but this was just sporadically and to compare them with the GoEast teachers. But now, it’s a real switch — despite me being hugely grateful to GoEast. Without them, I would have never built up enough momentum to keep learning — like a plane needing speed to take off from the runway.

Yet I really wanted to switch to a non-GoEast teacher, to bring a new fresh wave of energy to my studies.

My new teacher 杨老师 (Teacher Yang) is still studying herself, but is hugely qualified (she has a certificate to teach Mandarin as a second language). Before starting, we discussed how to learn together. Now, Yang does everything a school normally does; create the PPT’s that contain a warm-up, vocab, and then a text (copied from a workbook), review my homework recordings, and of course, host the class. She’s a fantastic teacher. She provides the learning materials, she’ll also pick up any mistakes I make in pronunciation — and most importantly, I can really see she’s pushing for my progress.

I found Teacher Yang through Xiaohongshu (小红书), but I would still 100% advise beginning students to go to a proper school, be it offline or online, because you won’t have any ability to judge the quality of your teacher until after a few years of learning Mandarin.

Early 2024 also signals one year of focussing on improving my pronunciation, rather than adding more vocab. I do feel it has improved, but how much is hard to say — although I did have colleagues remark on it. When I focus on my pronunciation while speaking, I’ll speak much slower but I do memorize now exactly the tones of a few hundred basic words (which causes the speaking to be much slower than just rambling it out). I also speak a bit exaggerated:

  • The first tone I’d pronounce really high, the fourth tone really sharp down. In my head it sounds way too much but I’ve never had anyone comment on it other than positive. For instance, a colleague said I pronounced Zhèjiāng浙江 really well.
  • The second tone is still really difficult. It just goes up, but it’s especially difficult if it follows a first tone, because in my head I have to lower the tone, then go up again, still within one word. The second tone is also really short, so it makes it hard to detect.
  • The third tone is also difficult. It doesn’t really go down and up like the textbooks say, it only goes down. It’s like a fourth tone but with a lower starting point. It’s still difficult for me to go super low, especially when it’s between other tones. My mind is constantly telling my vocal cords to lower or go down, slowing down the process of speaking.

My hearing has also improved, but still I have some Chinese words that I find I can copy the pronunciation, even if I don’t know exactly which tone it is. In English and Dutch, vowels are lower than consonants, so a word like 装zhuānɡ still feels a bit like a third tone to me.

Learning Mandarin from 2018 to 2024 (and ongoing)

In this whole learning journey, I could say the only constant is myself but that’s not true. Especially my first two teachers — Ellie & Stella — made me continue with Mandarin, then Morris put the foundation upon which Victoria, Lilia, Clytie, Elena, and Yang have built on. And all these teachers were as invested in my success as I was.

I’m writing down these experiences because the further I get from them, the more I’ll forget the details, for instance, how magical it felt to read Hanzi for the first time.

But it’s also a reminder that an adult of around 30 years — of very normal intelligence! — can learn a language such as Mandarin to a working level proficiency. Just know I didn’t do it alone.

Learning Chinese in a timeline

  • HSK1: 36 hours, group class (November 2018)
  • three months gap
  • HSK2: 32 hours, private class (April 2019)
  • Hanzi course; 36 hours, group class (November 2019)
  • HSK3: 50 hours, private class (December 2019)
  • HSK4上: 72 hours, private class (March 2020)
  • HSK4下: 72 hours, private class (July 2020)
  • Spoken Chinese Intermediate book 1: 50 hours, private class (October 2020)
  • Spoken Chinese Intermediate book 2: 50 hours, private class
  • Spoken Course, China Today: 54 hours (Summer 2021)
  • Spoken Chinese Advanced book 1: 50 hours, private class
  • Spoken Chinese Advanced book 2: 60 hours, private class
  • Mastering Chinese 会通5: 30 hours (April 2022)
  • Mastering Chinese 会通6: 50 hours (July 2022)
  • 焦点中国(高级汉语综合教程): 30 hours (February 2023)
  • Pronunciation classes: 100 hours so far (Started March 2023, to today)
    • 实用对外汉语教学丛书:对外汉语听说教学十四讲
    • 汉语口语速成

Total hours: ~800
(Self-study time is easily twice that amount.)