More Tips for Adult Language Learners

How Adults Can Get the Most Out of their Chinese Classes

Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese really want to speed up the learning process. Unfortunately, language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. There really is no way to make the process go faster. It takes about the same number of hours to learn language no matter what an app promises. Students cannot “leap frog” the different stages. Sure, you can quit your job, move to China, sign up for language classes, and live with a host family. Your progress will be greater in one year than someone who just has class in the US for one hour per week. It will still take the same number of total hours to master the language, however. In any case, there are ways that adult learners can give their studies a shot in the arm. Below are a few tips.

Tips for Listening

Many students worry about their speaking. Output (speaking), however, comes long after input (listening). In other words, students need a flood of input in order to produce a trickle of output. Almost every adult student thinks that speaking practice is important. In fact, we do not learn to speak through practice, we learn through listening. Okay, okay, you say, that is great, but I REALLY want to improve my speaking, how can I do that? One way that students can get the most out of their listening (and thereby improve their speaking) is to pay close attention to how teachers and native speakers talk to them in Chinese. A good teacher will not spend much time at all on correcting grammar or pronunciation errors. More on that here. Instead, she will just use the more native-like structure or pronunciation in her response. Here is an example in English:

Students: “I goed to the store yesterday.”

Teacher: “So after you went to the store yesterday, what did you do?”

Note, that the teacher does not explicitly correct what the student said. She just uses the correct formation (“went” instead of  “goed”) in her response. So for students who are worried that they are making lots of mistakes when they speak in their second language, listen carefully to the response. Do you hear your teacher (or someone else) saying something a bit different? Paying attention to these differences might be useful to you.

Tips for Reading

Just like listening, reading is input. Input is how we learn language. We need to do lots of reading in Chinese in order to improve our language abilities. The problem with reading in Chinese is that students don’t want to do it :). It seems exhaustive and overwhelming. Because of these problems, students don’t even get started with it. Students can do two things to improve their reading experience in Chinese. Firstly, they should choose readings that are meant for language learners. Secondly, they should try to read shorter things.

Many ambitious students want to start reading authentic resources as soon as possible. Authentic resources are written by native speakers for native speakers. These are unfortunately too complex for beginner and intermediate students. They get frustrated and give up. A better choice for lower level students are graded readers. I’ve had great success with books like Susan You Mafan for beginner advanced and intermediate low students.

Students also get frustrated when they bite off more than they can chew. Instead of trying to read an entire book in one sitting, they should read shorter passages. Spending 15 minutes at a time reading is plenty for beginner and intermediate students. Social media often has nice, short options for reading.


Tips for Adult Language Learners

Is language learning hopeless for adult students?

photo of adults learning
Should these folks just give up? No! Adults can learn a language too.

So you are an adult who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese. It probably seems like the cards are stacked against you. Lots of people think that it is hopeless for adults to become fluent in a second language. It is also hard to find the time to learn a language when you have a busy adult schedule. The good news is that while there is evidence that older learners will likely not become native-like speakers, they can still achieve high levels of fluency. There is plenty of hope for adult learners. Below are some tips for adult students who want to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Motivation counts for a lot

Most of my adult students lament the fact that they are not starting as young kids. Most people believe that young children have an easier time learning a second language. While young kids (i.e. children <8 years old) may have some advantages, they lack the motivation of adult students. Motivation drives students to sit down an study for hours, attend classes in their spare time, and seek out resources for language learning. Highly motivated students really can achieve high levels of proficiency. Many of my adult students feel self-conscious on their first day of class. What they don’t realize is that just being there already says a lot about them. Adult students who seek out Chinese classes are usually very motivated people who are high achievers in other areas of their lives. Slackers never make it in the door.

venn diagram of showing adults who learn Chinese
If you are in a Chinese language class, you probably already have many qualities that will help you in the learning process, such as drive, discipline and motivation.

Don’t try to speak right away

Highly motivated students often have a couple bad habits that don’t help them in the language learning process. They are so eager to learn that they usually want to speak right away. They fret over their pronunciation and want to “practice” to get it right as quickly as possible. To really have good pronunciation, learners need to listen. Only with lots of input (i.e. hearing something over and over again), can students really say something correctly. It may seem too “passive” to just sit there and listen, but this is exactly what students must do in order to improve.

It is a marathon, not a sprint

Language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. Learners simply cannot leap-frog the steps of language learning. Sometimes students can fake their way through complex interactions in Chinese, but they can’t fool their brains. Becoming proficient in Mandarin Chinese does not happen over night. Students need to be patient and accept that their progress will probably be slower than they’d like.

Interested in adult classes? NEISD organizes my adult group classes, more information is on their website:

Interested in private lessons? Use the contact page to get in touch.

Do you have a short-term need to learn some Chinese, for a business trip or vacation to China? China Boot Camp classes might be the best choice for you. More information is on the Mandarin Classes page.