10 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Chinese Right Now
One of the most important aspects of learning Chinese is making the best use of your time. It can be easy to
waste all of the little five-minute chunks of time that appear throughout your
day, but if you can put them to use, the benefits add up fast.
One thing that I like about this kind of five-minute learning exercise is that
it’s easy to get motivated for them. When you’re just not in the mood to study,
one of the best tactics is to get yourself to do something for five minutes, or
even one minute, or even thirty seconds. Doing anything is better than doing
nothing, and you’ll often find that getting started is all it takes to get
motivated for more.
There are endless things you can do to improve your Chinese in five minutes, and
every learner builds up their own catalogue of activities they can put to use.
Here’s ten to add to your list, if you don’t do them already.
Do 5 minutes of Chinese flashcards
This is my go-to way to productively use a spare minute or two that pops up. If
you have access to Anki (get it on your computer and smartphone, if you have one), you can easily make
use of any amount of time to improve your Chinese.
You can do flashcards for ten seconds, and you can do them for several hours
(when you’ve got final exams coming up and enough caffeine, at least).
Getting a few flashcards done is an excellent default option for spending study
time, because it’s flexible, customised and can always be a part of your Chinese
study habits. I also love them for their scheduling function. You can add
material to your flashcards deck and know that it will come up for review sooner
Read Chinese for 5 minutes
Flashcards are very good for building vocabulary, increasing 语感 (feel for the
language) and keeping on top of the things you want to remember. But another
important aspect of learning Chinese is stretching yourself and taking on
material that you haven’t seen before.
Reading can be one of the best ways to get that unpredictable element, because
it’s much harder to zone out and ignore the parts you don’t understand. When
you’re listening, it’s easy to just ignore and forget about the harder parts,
but that’s harder to do with reading.
This one may be less versatile than flashcards, but if you’re at a computer with
an internet connection you’ve got access to several lifetimes’ worth of Chinese
reading material. Type some random shit into Baidu and see if you can make sense
of the top result. You’ve got a five-minute time limit so it shouldn’t get too
You can also install various reading apps on your smartphone or tablet, if you
have one. Kindle with an Amazon China account can be really nice, and there are
plenty of Chinese reading apps with free ebooks.
If you’ve got the technology then it’s pretty easy to keep Chinese reading
material with you all the time. Or, of course, you can buy some of those book
Get some listening going
This one is also easy to keep accessible at all times, and is useful throughout
your Chinese learning career (your whole life, hopefully). Listening is
versatile because it can be super low-effort (providing minimal benefit), or
very intense. It can also combine well with other activities you’re doing
without getting in the way.
If you’re at a computer, then search around for some Chinese internet radio.
Try to identify some favourite stations that you can always go to without having
to think about it. If you’re in a Chinese-speaking location, just use FM radio –
one switch and you’ve got Chinese listening practice.
To make sure I have Chinese listening materials available on the go, I keep
various podcasts on my phone (using Pocket Casts), and
sometimes use the FM radio as well. I used to use an iPod for the same thing
before I switched to a smartphone. The point is to make it as easy as possible
to get listening going so that you don’t have to put any thought into it.
Chat online in Chinese
If you can make it work, chatting online in Chinese can be great. It is quite
difficult to get it right though – I’ll write about and link to my thoughts on
this soon. In short, what I’ve found works is:
Note that I’m talking about anonymous / semi-anonymous chats with people you
haven’t met. Chatting with friends is a totally different thing, and in my view
shouldn’t really be seen as a language learning session (even if it has that
Do 听写 for 5 minutes
Listening is a good way to spend time productively or to combine a bit of
language exposure with other activities. It’s very easy to be entirely passive with listening, though, which can eliminate a lot of the beneficial effects.
A sure-fire way to make sure you’re actually engaging with what you’re hearing
is to do 听写 (dictation). As the name suggests, you listen and write, but
there’s quite a lot of scope for variation with this.
Writing out what you hear word for word, trying to summarise, or doing
pre-designed exercises from a listening course all work, and can all be done
right now if you’ve got the materials available.
Learn a Chinese song
Yeah, yeah, I know. When I read stuff like this my reaction is always
“Oh jeez…” But even if it seems unbearably jolly, learning songs is good for
your Chinese. You’ve just got to find songs you like, and spend a little bit of
time with them.
A really good way to learn a song is to translate the lyrics into your native
language (and then post them on your blog!). The goal isn’t to end up with a
nice version of the song in another language, but to make sure you get familiar
with the lyrics and understand them.
If you’re like me then you don’t really enjoy the classic Chinese songs that
everyone knows and wants you to sing at KTV. In the end I’ve ended up learning
various bits and pieces of them against my will, which just goes to show how
effective songs are for getting things lodged in your memory.
Write 10 Chinese characters from memory
If you use Skritter,
than bust that open and get going. You can also set up specific hanzi-writing
flashcards in Anki and keep track of your characters that way. Otherwise, always
having a bit of paper and a pen is good. Just make sure you keep a list of
characters you need to test, perhaps by making a note of any characters you
forget, or new ones that you come across.
Call some Chinese customer service numbers
No, seriously. I’m planning to write a post about this soon, and I’m only
half-joking. After repeated crappy conversations with Chinese companies (I don’t enjoy phoning companies in any language), I realised that you can actually practice this by just randomly
phoning them up.
It might seem a bit weird, but you can think of some vaguely legitimate reason
to phone a large company (e.g. pretend you’re interested in becoming a customer)
and just chat with their representative for a few minutes. I’m not suggesting
you prank them or cause trouble, and a large company can clearly absorb the cost
of one ‘wasted’ call.
Give it a try, it’s pretty funny!
Make 5 Chinese character mnemonics
…or mnemonics for anything in your Chinese studies. Mnemonics are good. Most
people seem to agree on that once they’ve discovered mnemonics, but still don’t
make them a central part of their learning.
The act of making mnemonics is a very good learning activity, and as it’s so
granular it can fill up different chunks of time just nicely.
To do this right now: Which characters have you forgotten recently? What words
have you forgotten? Make mnemonics for them!
Describe your surroundings in Chinese (in detail)
This is one we got taught in our first year of uni, and it’s stuck with me as a
nice way to work on my Chinese at any particular moment. The idea is simple and
works anywhere – describe your surroundings in as much detail as your level of
Chinese allows. Try to use material you find difficult, and try to use words you
find hard to pronounce.
This works best if you can speak out loud, but if you’re not alone, it’s still
beneficial to speak dead quietly or just in your head. Even when you’re alone,
you will feel stupid doing this, because it’s stupid. But you get over that
quickly, and find that it’s surprisingly useful.
Of course, you don’t actually have to describe your surroundings – that’s just a
nice prompt to fall back on. Talk about anything – your day, your plans, your
You might find it’s a nice thing to do in itself, aside from the language
benefits. Even if you don’t go for that hippy crap, do this for your Chinese!
Over to you
Do you do any of these to fill up spare chunks of time? What other good ways are
there to learn Chinese at any given moment?
This content was originally published here.