Ways To Learn Chinese

Ní hǎo! From traveling to textbooks and speaking to software, there are more ways to learn Chinese than ever before. Overall, there are five basic approaches to learning Chinese. In our online Chinese course Rocket Chinese, we make use of those approaches to guarantee a fun and successful learning experience. Let's take a look at these five different approaches and the methods they entail, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each approach:

  1. The Immersion Approach to Learning Chinese
  2. The Translation Approach to Learning Chinese
  3. The Grammar-Based Approach to Learning Chinese
  4. The Communicative Approach to Learning Chinese
  5. The Vocabulary-Based Approach to Learning Chinese

1. The Immersion Approach to Learning Chinese

True to its name, the immersion approach plunges you into Chinese language and culture. It involves traveling to China, spending an extended period of time there, and living your day-to-day life in the language. An often-mentioned alternative to the travel immersion approach is the personal immersion approach, when you learn the language by dating or becoming close friends with someone who speaks Chinese.

The Advantages

For those who don't like formal study, have some time and money to spare, want to learn a language in its natural environment and are outgoing and ambitious, this is the perfect Chinese learning method! Immersion forces Chinese learners to use the language on a daily basis, helps them connect with native speakers, and teaches them valuable knowledge about Chinese culture. Not only that, but it does all of this within a very short period of time. The immersion approach is often cited as the fastest way to learn Chinese.

The Disadvantages

For those of us with less time and money on our hands, learning Chinese by immersion isn't the best option. This method is expensive, time-consuming, and not to mention stressful. Although most native Chinese speakers are welcoming and will help you with your first contact with the language, the initial communication barriers and culture shock can be very stressful and even frightening.

2. The Translation Approach to Learning Chinese

Anyone who studied a language before 1900 or has studied an extinct language (like Latin) has used this approach. In the translation approach, Chinese learners find a book in Chinese and use a bilingual dictionary to translate between Chinese and their native language.

The Advantages

This language learning approach is a very cost-effective way to learn and is considered to be the least expensive way to learn Chinese. If you are willing to invest time and a lot of energy, you can reach a really good level of Chinese spending little money.

The Disadvantages

If actually communicating in Chinese is your goal, then the translation approach is not for you. It is a very difficult and tedious way to learn a language, and it doesn't teach speaking, listening, or writing. Since Chinese is a living language with millions of speakers, probably you can find other ways that will help you obtain a well-rounded Chinese.

3. The Grammar-Based Approach to Learning Chinese

The grammar-based approach is the language learning method typically used in most Chinese-learning textbooks and "teach yourself" language books. These books usually are divided into several chapters that contain a small amount of vocabulary followed by a large dose of grammar rules, which is key to lay the foundations of a perfect Chinese. The emphasis is placed on learning the grammatical rules of Chinese and being able to read and write in that language.

The Advantages

Learning the grammatical rules of Chinese makes it easier to integrate and correctly use new vocabulary. For learners who like to know the rules of a language and want to be able to write well, this is a great and cost-effective method.

The Disadvantages

Once again, students learning Chinese with the grammar-based method do not get many opportunities to actually speak or listen to that language. Students must memorize a lot of grammar rules, which can be very frustrating and sometimes a little boring. In addition, the vocabulary learned is often not the most practical in a Chinese-speaking environment, so students may not be able to use their knowledge right away. This can be frustrating and lead to a lack of motivation when it comes to learning Chinese.

4. The Communicative Approach to Learning Chinese

The communicative approach is the most commonly used by schools that teach Chinese as a second language. If you've learned any other language in a classroom, odds are that you're familiar with this method. The communicative approach involves a teacher who gives lessons to a small group of students. Lessons are usually divided into reading, writing, listening or speaking activities to help students learn Chinese quickly.

The Advantages

Students who learn Chinese with the communicative approach are given a well-rounded education. If the class is planned and taught well, students can learn quickly and have the benefit of live, face-to-face interactions with their teacher and other students in their target language. With this method, students can start holding conversations in Chinese a few weeks after they began the language course. That's why many languages teachers claim that the communicative approach is the best way to learn Chinese.

The Disadvantages

Chinese classes can be very expensive, and it's difficult to predict their quality. The teacher can often make-or-break the students' Chinese learning success. Classes are usually designed with a generic student in mind, and students who learn more slowly or more quickly are not given the extra help they need or are not challenged enough. In addition, it's difficult to make progress after a certain level, so students who already have a good level of Chinese make much slower progress.

5. The Vocabulary-Based Approach to Learning Chinese

Most language-learning software and applications (like Rosetta Stone, Babbel, and Busuu) use a vocabulary-based approach to teach Chinese. In this approach, students learn Chinese by associating words with pictures of the objects they represent. Traditional grammar rules are not taught, but are naturally learned by students as they progress.

The Advantages

Chinese learners can improve their vocabulary very quickly with this method because of the use of repetition and images. Students can save travel time and money by using this method instead of a traditional class, and can progress at their own rate. That's why the vocabulary-based approach has often been considered the easiest way to learn Chinese.

The Disadvantages

While students do learn lots of vocabulary, the vocabulary that is taught is often not useful for those who want to travel to China or people who want to be able to communicate quickly with Chinese. Since grammar is not directly taught, students risk sounding a bit like Tarzan when they try to speak ("Me Tarzan, you Jane..."). Finding a good program that also helps students with basic Chinese grammar rules, speaking, and writing can be expensive, and a lot of language learning software neglects these areas.

Personalize, Mix and Match

Every method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and every method has a slightly different focus. In order to choose the best way to learn Chinese and the best way to learn Chinese online, you must decide what's best for you.

Fortunately, choosing the right method for you is now easier than ever and there are plenty of great language learning resources like Rocket Languages to help. So what are you waiting for? Nǐ qù ba!

Yīhuǐ'er jiàn!

The Rocket Chinese Team