Developing Chinese Fluency – An Introduction
I am sure all students of foreign languages have considered their own fluency at some point in their language learning journey. As someone who wants to learn to speak Chinese, it’s a constant consideration.
“Fluency can be described as the ability to process language receptively and productively at a reasonable speed”Nation (2014)
I’m sure you’ve been in the same position as me before at some point in your journey. Confident in reciting your flashcards, passed HSK exams but still struggle to understand basic conversations with a native speaker or a TV show.
The key reason behind this, in my opinion at least, is that fluency and passing exams are two different skills. So here we will focus on the first part, developing Chinese fluency.
This article is focused on more advanced learners. If you are beginning your journey, check out my guide to starting Chinese learning here.
The key point: to tell you what the textbook won’t tell you on developing Chinese fluency.
Ways to Develop Fluency
Immersion is a highly effective method for developing Chinese fluency for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it allows you to learn the way that native speakers actually speak to each other, rather than what a textbook tells you. For examples, you rarely hear “Nǐ hǎo ma?” in the real world but all textbooks will teach it to you.
Secondly, it provides continuous exposure to the language, helping you to “soak” the language. This is thought to help your understanding of the flow of the language. My opinion is that it also helps to expose you to words that you have learned, helping them to push further into your learned words.
The last point I will cover here is vocabulary. If you are immersing in the Chinese language in areas that you enjoy, you will pick up the vocabulary that is most useful to you. For example, if you are like me and love Chinese food, you will quickly pick up the vocabulary that is useful to you and your pursuit of eating delicious Chinese food.
Too many times, I have struggled with learning an obscure word as part of an example, which I feel is extremely unlikely to ever come in handy in my day to day life.
A great way of immersing in a language in a safe space, is with a teacher. Check out Dtlingo.com to find a great Chinese language tutor.
Consistency is very important in developing or learning any skill, not only in developing Chinese fluency. I wrote about this very topic in my recent blog post.
Consistency is important in developing Chinese fluency most important for our memory retention. The quote at the start of blog mentions “at reasonable speed” as a fundamental part of fluency. Consistency means that we are coming back to our Chinese skills regularly and often, training our brain on how to find the information we need quickly. In this case, Chinese skills. You can simply think of this as “preventing forgetting”.
Think of consistency as building muscle memory, but for your brain.
The second part of consistency is your own mental health. I know, strange right? Learning a new language, and especially Chinese, and especially for developing Chinese fluency, takes a long time.
The 10,000 hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitive complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good unless you practise for 10,000 hoursGladwell, 2008
This can be likened to a marathon, and you are certainly less likely to stick at learning to speak Chinese fluently if you burn yourself out. Slow and steady wins the race here.
The last point I will discuss here as part of consistency is naturalisation. Consistency allows you to immerse in you skill more often, developing identification with the skill, in this case speaking Chinese more fluently.
Long term, consistent study is crucial for developing Chinese fluency. The steady and repetitive input cannot be understated in its importance.
3. Extensive Reading
Extensive reading is the act of reading a lot of different material, often. More specifically reading from a wide variety of topics and reading a lot. This has been studied and shown to be extremely beneficial for language learning is building their skills, and can play a key role in your developing Chinese fluency.
Key tip for extensive reading: read things you enjoy!
One benefit is that it exposes you to a lot of authentic, natural language. This helps in developing Chinese fluency as it will help learners to become more familiar with the nuances in lots of different areas in the Chinese language, including the vocabulary, idioms and slang.
Extensive reading will help to discover a lot of new vocabulary. This is particularly effective if you are reading a lot of content from areas of your interest. For example, if you like sports you can read about a lot of different sporting topics and drastically improve your vocabulary and fluency in that area. This is super useful for when you come to use your new skills in your interested subject area.
Extensive reading will also make huge improvements to your reading speed. I often say, if you want to improve in a skill, do that skill.
Lastly, extensive reading has been shown to have a positive effect on learners speaking ability. Exposure to native, well written content often improves overall comprehension and proficient at both understanding and creating grammatically accurate sentences.
If you’re looking for an easy way into reading, Mandarin Companion is a great start, check out the amazon link (affiliate link) below. I’ve had great success with this content and it’s really help to kickstart my reading abilities.
4. Comprehensible Input
Comprehensible input simply means language input for the learner that they can understand. This is particularly important for learning to speak Chinese, especially when trying to develop Chinese fluency.
Stephen Krashen has proposed for years that learners make the most progress when they are consuming content a little above their current level. This can also be described as content that you are able to understand around 90-95% relatively easily.
This builds in an idea of incremental learning, or gradual continuous improvement.
One of the key benefits of this is that it doesn’t overwhelm the learner. I’m sure we have all been in that position, wanting to study or practise our Chinese skills only to be blown away in the first 5 minutes of a film or TV series. This is not great for your morale, and hence picking content closer to your understanding can be much more enjoyable.
This in turn leads to less anxiety and more confidence in your abilities. If you are often overwhelmed and lost in your Chinese practise, it would be very difficult to be confident and inhibit your progress towards developing Chinese fluency.
This is a really important point for me, and I would say it has been pivotal in my Chinese learning journey. It is important to take time to use Chinese rather than learn Chinese.
A key tip for comprehensible input: Pick content you enjoy consuming!
5. Embrace Failure
Writing this section is based purely on my own experience and something that I have had to struggle to overcome in the past, but was also something key in my ability in developing Chinese fluency.
By embracing failure I mean to accept that you will make mistakes and won’t be perfect while you are learning, and that’s okay. It is important not to let this affect your morale too much and to take these small mistakes as learning experiences. Afterall, we don’t learn by getting things right.
I am a firm believer that if you want to improve in something, you need to practise that thing. Developing Chinese fluency is no exception to that rule, and to improve you will need to start speaking and engaging with the Chinese language. When you start, and it should be as soon as possible, you will make a lot of mistakes just like everyone else.
This is very personal to me, as I had a few key experiences during my time trying to use Chinese which I let affect my negatively and thus inhibited my journey in developing Chinese fluency.
My top tip is to try to be shameless in your errors and treat them as opportunities to learn, rather than feeling bad about them. This is a little known key to developing Chinese fluency.
6. Stress Based Learning
Stress based learning is a theory they is linked to a lot of the above sections, particularly comprehensible input and embracing failure.
Stress based learning theory states that the best way to learn and practise, in this case to help in developing Chinese fluency, is to target language practise that is not too stressful and not too easy.
Developing Chinese fluency requires being able to access your Chinese skills in a quick way. So lets discuss the two scenarios for studying to develop fluency.
If your study is always alone at home, with no feedback or pressure there will be a couple of things to consider. You will be less likely to build confidence in your abilities as your learning may be considered “too safe”. Furthermore you won’t be ready for those native level conversations with people and won’t build the necessary skills to access the information you need quickly, under some level of pressure. After all, natural conversations are moving very quickly and you need to learn to access the information quickly to develop Chinese fluency.
The second scenario is if you dive into learning, and venture out to talk with natives without much background study or practise. Likely you will be lost in the discussion very quickly, and you won’t be gaining a lot of comprehensible input. Secondly you are likely to become disheartened at the lack of understanding. It’s important to consider your own moral ewhen learning or developing Chinese fluency.
Key Take Away
Note that for developing Chinese fluency different things will work for different people, and most people will benefit from a mixture of the above two scenarios to help in developing Chinese fluency. The key is to find balance in the level of stress that you have while learning. It will be highly personal, but you want to find a level that pushes you a little, without destroying your confidence or motivation.
Feedback from native speakers is very important when developing Chinese fluency. Simply put, if you are making errors you need to know about them so you can correct them. If you don’t have high quality feedback you run the risk of carrying errors with you for a long time, inhibiting your ability to develop Chinese fluency.
A great source of feedback could be a teacher or a friend. Someone that is willing to be patient with you and point out points that you could improve.
Friends are an excellent way to do this, mainly because you also get the immersion of speaking with native speakers at the same time. Check out apps like Tandem or HelloTalk to find language partners and hopefully friends!
A second place is online communities, my personal favourite where I’ve had a lot of really good experience is chinese-forums.com. There are plenty of other learners at all levels, and it’s a great feedback, inspiration and new ideas.
My last tip is to be patient! Developing Chinese fluency takes time, it isn’t a sprint. To really ingrain the skills necessary to be fluent in Chinese into our brain, takes a long time. Don’t try to perfect your Chinese overnight, settle in for the long journey.
Embrace the journey in developing Chinese fluency and focus on small, consistent study sessions. If you stick to it in the long run, you’ll be a natural in no time.
I believe all of these ideas for developing Chinese fluency can be helpful for everyone, if employed in a personal way to you. I think it can be easily summarised as such:
- Stay consistent
- Don’t be afraid of feedback
- Consume a lot of Chinese content that you understand
- Have fun with it!
These are the key points that I learned on my journey in developing Chinese fluency, and I believe that I would be much further along in my journey had I used these ideas from the start. To learn more about my personal journey you can check out my blog here.
Nation, P. Developing fluency. In Exploring EFL Fluency in Asia; Muller T., Adamson, J., P. Brown, S. Herder., Eds.; Springer: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, 11-25
MLA. Gladwell, Malcolm, 1963- author. Outliers : the Story of Success. New York :Little, Brown and Company, 2008.