Fellow linguonaut, welcome! Or, 欢迎! In this guide, we’re going to see how to bring your Mandarin Chinese from a basic to an intermediate level. 😺
Having achieved basic Chinese is already quite a feat, and this new phase is a peculiar one, because:
- on the one hand, you now enjoy using Chinese, now that you can express your thoughts, albeit primitively;
- on the other, the language is still a Great Wall to climb, with no summit on sight. ⛰️
How can one keep being productive in their study routine? Studying efficiently, possibly with some sense of gratification? As someone who has made every conceivable mistake when learning languages, allow me to share my BS-derived wisdom. 😆
In this post, I’ll go through some points, which are key if one wants to attain an intermediate level of Chinese. More specifically:
- Some notions about Traditional and Simplified Chinese,
- proven useless ways to learn Chinese (and proven useful),
- how to memorize characters more and faster, 🧠
- some good reasons to keep improving,
Enough of intro talks. Let’s dive right in.
Good reasons for achieving an intermediate Chinese level
#1 Speaking Chinese helps pay the rent
If you manage to get a B2 in Chinese, chances are you are hardly going to be unemployed, fired or furloughed ever again.
I have friends dismissing it. They say it’s just an urban legend: to them, the relevance of Chinese is overstated; much better to master other common languages, like French or Spanish, to find employement.
The main argument of this folk is that if you search them up on job portals, there are more vacancies concerning these languages than Chinese. 👔 What a biased thought.
For a starter, we should look at the candidate-per-vacancy ratio: if there are a hundred offers for Portuguese speakers and a thousand candidates, the ratio is 10:1; but if job ads for Chinese speakers are fifty for a pool of suitable candidates of ten, then the ratio is 1:5 and this means, my friend, if you speak Chinese there are five vacancies out there for you.
You can actually tell companies it’s YOU not being interested in working for them. 🤩
Then, China won’t dwindle in the foreseeable future: it’s world’s factory, the new global leader on par with the USA, it sends out millions of tourists every year and imports whatever is importable (even waste paper or pork offals).
Many ask: will the Chinese language cease to be relevant? Puf, one day maybe, in two or three millennia. 🌏
Moreover, in a world increasingly incapable of focusing, speaking Chinese will be ever more valuable to companies.
#2 Take notes in Chinese nobody can understand
OK, this is the geek version of the languages many kids invented for their sole entertainment: ever heard of this super cool phenomenon called idioglossia? That is, in short, the private language you create and use for yourself or with siblings, at the most.
It’s going to take you a while to get enough Chinese to be able to have a journal full of 汉字, but imagine the look on the snoopers’ faces when they find it out… You no longer have to fear prying eyes.
Passwords and locks, bye-bye. 👋
No one will scold you anymore for letting off steam during a meeting by jotting down phrases, in the corner of your notebook, like this guy is a jerk, because you can write 他是个笨蛋 tā shìgè bèndàn.
And who’s going to find out? 😉 Just keep feigning interest, nodding attentively. 😬
#3 Understand people’s tattoos
The Chinese writing is amazing, how can you not want to put it on your skin? What is difficult to explain is that translating to Chinese is not an exact science: actually, it is freaking strenuous, with so many variables there are to take into account. 😰
A Chinese-English translator is one of the humans I admire most in the world, because Google Translate may −surprisingly− be more reliable here than in other languages, but machine translation is still a minefield.
Do your research before going to the tattoo shop. Be your daughter’s name or a Frida Kahlo’s quote, seek counsel if you’re not sure. ☝️
One option is to go for the mere aesthetics of the Chinese characters, leaving any pretension of meaning behind: hanzis truly have an intrinsic artistic essence. At that point, no problem if you decide to tattoo yourself ice skating or chicken noodle soup, if you are fine sparkling giggles every now and again.
#4 Understanding China
Snappy videos on social media aren’t the best way to understand this huge mystery shrouded in secrecy that China is. A few books, some travels but MOSTLY achieving a decent level of Chinese, will do.
Actually, there is nothing like learning Chinese to decrypt China. 🇨🇳
I am sceptical about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis because I have seen no smoking gun so far. At its core, the hypothesis implies that a language affects its speakers’ perception and judgement.
You may have already heard comments the like of: Germans are organized because their language is highly logical.
And yet… I have a hunch that there is yet a lot to discover in this field. 🤔
Without claiming expertise on the matter, it seems to me that certain aspects of the Chinese worldview have a direct correlation to the language. The conception of time, Taoism, even food.
If you’d like to know more of the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis, other than a wealth of info about languages, Michael Erard‘s Babel no More: in Search for the World’s most Extraordinary Language Learners is a huge read: there are real data and sound conclusions, weaved in a literary-journalistic flair. 🤓
But learning Chinese is vital also for a hundred other reasons: talk to native speakers, read original materials, visit the country without relying neither on English nor on interpreters. Otherwise, it’d be like getting an idea of how a movie is by talking to people who watched it rather than watching it myself: nonsense.
#5 Aiming at an intermediate Chinese is like doing mental Crossfit
Chinese is true bodybuilding for the brain: the mental load an hour of Chinese requires is brutal. 💦
Learning radicals, stroke order, characters, tones, prosody, classifiers, idioms… as I said, brutal. You’ll have pain in parts of your brain you didn’t even know you had.
But there is a treasure trove of benefits too. Learning Chinese provokes a cascade of positive psychological side effects:
- it enhances your sharpness; 🪒
- it decreases your complaints about how difficult other things are: German, car mechanics, coding in Python, IFRS? Kid’s play;
- but also puts a lot of wealth in your cognitive retirement pot. What do I mean by this? 🏧
Well, if you consider that bilingual people experience the onset of dementia about four-five years later than monolinguals, you do realize what difference it makes, in life, to learn a language. 💪
I have no specific data, but my feeling is that with a language the like of Chinese, the effort is such that that fortunate delay may be longer.
So, you may be young and think I don’t even know if I’ll make it to the next year!, to which my rebuttal is: yeah, you know, when I was eighteen, being forty years old was as alien a concept as seeing flying goats, but guess what? I’m forty and one day I’ll likely be seventy. And so will you. 👴
Allow me a full-blown rant on this: have you ever spent an hour with an Alzheimer patient? If you did, you’d be doing all that’s possible to delay cognitive diseases, even a single day.
If you want to lose sleep, have a look at the statistics provided by the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Learning Chinese, or others languages, isn’t a panacea but neither can we ignore its benefits on the cognitive field. 🧠
But way earlier than retirement, there is waiting for you one of the things every human being should experience: understanding a whole sentence in Chinese, from the beginning to the end, with neither explanations nor repetitions. It comes unannounced, and when it does, it’s like being thrown in an instant into psychedelic paradise. 🍭
So, instead of planning a trip to Amsterdam, put some Chinese textbooks into your Amazon cart. 😉
And now, a few suggestions to achieve a B1.
Intermediate Chinese: Reach a B1 level
As we shall never change a winning team, neither shall we change a winning textbook series.
New Practical Chinese Reader vol. 3 – Textbook
New Practical Chinese Reader vol. 3 – Workbook
The reason is straightforward: this is arguably the best Chinese textbook in town. Yes: it graphically seems a remnant from the 1980s; yes: it wasn’t designed with the self-learner in mind. But it still is top of the class.
That is why you’ll pardon me if I suggest it also for conquering the next peak: Mandarin Chinese B2.
Intermediate Chinese: Reach a B2 level
New Practical Chinese Reader vol. 4 – Textbook
New Practical Chinese Reader vol. 4 – Workbook
Without getting too much into details, these books come with a few shortcomings, which will be solved with the help of a teacher, albeit occasional.
Truth be told, you could still sort things out on your own, I imagine, but to date, I can’t recall anyone achieving a B2 command of Chinese without any tutor’s support. Certainly not me. It would be at the cost of going substantially slower and strewing around more mistakes than you’d like. 🐌
As for these textbooks, working on a lesson at a time, ideally every day for at least 30-60 minutes, is the way to go. If you can’t, try 1-2 hours three times a week. Less than that, it is going to take forever.
To shorten up the learning process, this book comes in handy:
Remembering Simplified Hanzi 2, by James Heisig and Timothy Richardson: this book is worth gold. Mister Heisig has been the first to make such use of mnemonics to learn 1.500 Chinese characters.
We should have a textbook like this for every language.
Now, a question many have in the back of their mind. Mandarin, Mandarin… but what about Cantonese?
Should I learn it? Is it useful in life? Does it improve my Mandarin Chinese anyhow? Let’s see.
Uhm, as much as I love all languages, I have to emit a couple of alerts concerning Cantonese:
- You could (and will) find it in Simplified characters too, but it is customarily written in Traditional Chinese;
- It’s a VERY different language from Mandarin Chinese.
On the other hand:
- Now with this thing called the Internet material is plentiful also for Cantonese and you can easily find teachers online; 💻
- after all, it’s still China’s second most spoken language;
- many of our Chinese neighbours are Cantonese speakers, so you could also speak it at Chinese (and “Japanese” 🙃) restaurants, nail salons and Asian supermarkets too.
So, to know a bit about the experience of learning Cantonese, I asked the only friend of mine experienced in the matter. I myself have never learned more than a few words. He told me what follows:
“If you have a level of Mandarin C1 or above, it’s great to use that as a tool to learn Cantonese, so that you will somehow keep them “separated” in your brain. If it is not the case, then through your mother tongue. I have used scholar tomes and laymen textbooks and I’d recommend those, for beginners:
Remembering Traditional Hanzi, 1 and 2, by James W. Heisig and Timothy W. Richardson: I’m one of the million fans Heisig has. The tenets of his method and the work he’s done for each hanzi is priceless.
I saw results immediately, but that would be useless without a real coursebook like Teach Yourself’s:
Complete Cantonese, by Hugh Baker and Pui-Kei Ho: though far from perfection, it’s the go-to method for any English-speaking independent learner.
By working with Remembering Traditional Hanzi alongside Complete Cantonese, you may have the impression you’re spending too much time on memorizing hanzi, time you could use to actually learn Cantonese: watch out! There is no actual learning of Cantonese if you don’t know hanzis well!
One last piece of advice: I would advise against learning Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time. It taxes a lot on the brain. Become reasonably fluent in either, before beginning to learn the other.”
And that is all from my friend Piotr. 😉
Films and series in Chinese
I’m not a big fan of TV or cinema overall, but undoubtedly these are huge tools to foster your Chinese. There probably are many places where to get movies and series, but I’d recommend Viki:
Pros: there is plenty of choices; you can choose the subtitles you prefer; if you don’t mind ads, a restricted catalogue and standard definition, it’s free.
Cons: most of what’s there is for teens; you have to show some linguistic resilience, as content is for natives and to understand you’ll have to go slow, pause often, check words…
I’d resort to movies and series just as I’m approaching B2.
Morsels of Chinese Culture
China is difficult enough to be understood even knowing the local culture(s); ignoring them is a surefire way of not understanding anything.
There probably are countless books on this theme. I have read my share and liked a few. If I had to commend two, now, I’d offer you these:
A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, by Yu-Lan Fung, The Free Press.
One of the best books one could ever read, period. It’s solid philosophy here, to which the author adds his unique twist. Awesome.
The Chinese Art Book, by Colin MacKenzie, Phaidon.
It’s a visual work with plenty of notes. Outstanding glossy paper, excellent binding, superb layout and content as curated as it can get. I think I am in good company when I say that Phaidon’s books provoke sensual pleasure in readers.
If you have others in mind you think should be on our top priority list, please comment below.
FAQ about achieving an intermediate Chinese
Q: Don’t you recommend Anki?
A: I used it for a while, but with me, it didn’t work. I prefer tools the like of Chineasy or Heisig.
Q: Do you have recommendations for Chinese calligraphy?
A: I do! But haven’t I written enough? As soon as I can, I’ll sit and write about it, but if your passion is burning, you may want to consider this title:
Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique, by Yee Chiang, Harvard University Press.
It truly is a primer to this wonderful art. It was published in the 1970s and it’s ageing as good as French wine.
I strongly advise you to read this before taking a brush in your hands.
Q: I’m in love with China and Chinese but the process of learning is proving cumbersome. I struggle making time for the actual study. What’s wrong with me?
A: Well, a delirious passion for something helps one getting to know it more and more. If it’s not the case, try adding a bit of structure to your days: all of us make time for stuff we love, though some hobbies do require an initial boost of willpower.
I, for one thing, have struggled with it my entire life, until I decided that laxness had to be put to rest. Put learning Chinese on the front burner, now. 🔥
If I woke up and asked myself hmmm what would I like doing today?, the answer would invariably be: eat chocolate, binge on The Lord of the Rings, discover a new cool folk band on YouTube. Why? Because I’m an incurable sloth. 🦥
As soon as I wake up, I grab my mug of coffee and take care of the most important-urgent thing of the day. I know we live in the culture of Don’t be too hard on yourself: but with me, it doesn’t work. I had to take the exact opposite stance.
The good news is: once the habit is built, then you see yourself committing to study even when you’re knackered. 💪
Q: I have an eight-year-old fascinated by Chinese. Should I wait or encourage her to pursue her passion right away?
A: Ehm, you’re really asking this to me? Right away! It could be a whim, but it could also be the beginning of something bigger. If you’re thinking in terms of it’s too hard for her age, forget about hardness.
Encourage your daughter, with no pressure: maybe she’ll ask immediately for more, maybe she’ll put Chinese on hold and pick it up later in life. 👧
However, building up language skills, early in life and independently, is an excellent thing. So, if I were you, I’d give her something like this:
Chineasy for Children, by Thames and Hudson: it’s the children version of the textbooks described above. It’s light, but it’s REAL Chinese, and entertaining.
Why are you still here?
Improving your Chinese is a sound option, whoever you may want to become.
Achieving an intermediate Chinese level is like unlocking an extra ability in a role-playing video game: new personal, educational and professional opportunities become available. 👔
In case you’ve fallen here by mistake, as your current Chinese knowledge is next to nought, here’s a post you may want to look at: Learn Chinese: A Guide for Beginners
By achieving an intermediate Chinese, besides becoming a more confident speaker, you’ll be in the starting grid if you want to: get an education in traditional Chinese medicine ⚕️, join a Shaolin monastery, play on a Xiku stage 🎭, enjoy Tang poetry, cultivate zen, pursue an acupuncture degree, read the sources of Taoism ☯️, investigate the history of the Jesuit missions, practice classical calligraphy, progress toward kung fu mastery 🥋, paint hand fans. Not bad, huh? 😉
Now, I have a trivial thing to ask you.
Learning enough Chinese to bother you with and putting all this together has been a daunting task. If this guide has been of any use to you, would you mind sharing it? For you, it’s merely a matter of two clicks, but to me, it’d help to make this project sustainable. 谢谢. 🙏
Thank you for taking the time to wade through this post. And remember: focus on the journey, not on the destination.
Your personal Sinologist,