Learning Mandarin Chinese Online

One of my resolutions this year was to re-learn Chinese, pass my exams and use the language more efficiently. It started off well. I booked my exam for May and I spent at least an hour a day studying. Learning new vocabulary, working through past papers and translating texts at my level (ish).

However, none of that helped because I wasn’t actually speaking Mandarin. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t remember, but I knew it wasn’t much, and that really felt like a punch to the gut.

Throughout my childhood and teen years I spent hours studying Mandarin. I tried to learn as much as possible in terms of vocabulary, grammar and colloquialisms and although I felt shy, I knew I could get by in pretty much any situation. That gave me a fantastic sense of pride. Sadly, that pride is no longer there.

COVID put a stop to exams across the world so naturally mine was one of them. I’ll admit that I gave up. Although not because I wanted to, but because I genuinely did not have the time to study. I kept thinking ‘I’ll have more time next month’ but life kept getting busier and busier.

Enough was enough. When would I have enough time? Well, when I made time. So I spent a few days searching online for a teacher, and a platform that suited me. As much as I’d like to pay someone directly, I suppose not everyone wants to work that way. I chose iTalki. I narrowed my search down to six teachers who seemed qualified and dedicated in their role and in the end I emailed two of them. One never replied but the lady who did, well, she is perfect!

iTalki is a teaching system for any language. The teachers have to sign up, upload their certificates and create a profile for themselves. They’re allowed to add a video as well, which I think is a nice touch and it certainly helped me pick the teacher I did.

You have to purchase ‘iTalki’ credits to pay for your lessons, which can be done via Paypal, credit or debit card. It’s simple enough although you have to pay in US dollars, so the exchange rate may be an issue for some.

The teacher I booked with offered a trial lesson, but I went for a full 45 minutes to start with. I had the books I needed for the exam preparation course and she has additional materials as well.

So, how was lesson one?

I was nervous, but so excited. I knew I would not remember nearly as much as I needed to but my teacher seemed so patient! She corrected me, filled in the vocabulary I didn’t know and wrote everything in the chat box – characters and romanisation!. (These chats are automatically saved so I didn’t need to write everything down during the lesson, which is a huge bonus!)

We spent most of the lesson chatting about my upbringing, my education and some common interests such as Taiwan, the food we miss and how it’s different in the UK. She made me feel at ease despite my severe lack of vocabulary. What did you expect Claire? To get shouted at?

During the last 15 minutes we used the workbook. I read through a few dialogues, without too much difficulty (yay!) but realised there were a lot of words I could read, yet had no idea what they meant anymore!

Over the following days I practised my new vocabulary on homemade flashcards and the Duolingo app and I was thoroughly enjoying it. I was learning important, useful new words and I pushed on to prepare for my next lesson!

There is no doubt that lesson two was trickier. I felt no embarrassment at actually speaking Mandarin, but I was painfully aware that I did not have the range of vocabulary to explain what I wanted to. I ended up with 55 new words that day, and no, I haven’t memorised them all yet!

However, speaking for an hour definitely helped me realise my potential and it flew by faster than my initial 45 minute lesson. I will be booking one hour lessons in the future and will consider having two lessons a week if I can keep bringing in a steady income.

A week without Mandarin almost feels like too long!

Here are my top tips for learning Mandarin Chinese.

  • Buy a set of text and workbooks. You will need them.
  • Get yourself a dictionary. A physical and online copy if possible and download Pleco and Duolingo.
  • Have a notebook only for vocabulary and grammar. It will make a huge difference to not have these muddled up amongst answers, scribbles and classroom notes.
  • Speak! Speak straight away. Forget about getting it wrong or sounding silly, because believe me, the longer you go without speaking the more nervous / shy / worried you will be about it.
  • Don’t force yourself to learn the characters straight away. They are tricky at first sight, but without understanding the basic Mandarin phrases they will be meaningless. Later on, hopefully, you will realise how amazing and straightforward the characters actually are. (My favourite part of Mandarin is the writing and the history of the characters!)
  • HAVE FUN! It’s a tough language to crack at first, but do not give up. It is an absolutely fascinating language and honestly, it isn’t that difficult once you get over the first few hurdles. Plus, it opens so many doors into business, history, art and a whole new world.

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