I was lucky enough this year to go to Shanghai during the summer. I spent three months there in total and studied Chinese while I was there and I wanted to share my experience.
I picked three months because I couldn’t take any longer than that off work and I don’t want to quit my job. That sounds like a long time but our boss lets us work remotely for part of the year because most of our work is digital.
I also chose three months because that is the time Benny Lewis claims you need to become relatively fluent in a language and that was the amount of time Scott Young spent learning Chinese during his ‘year without English.’ Based on that, I didn’t think I would become fluent but I thought I might be able to get to a decent level of proficiency.
My level of Chinese before I went to China
I had done a similar thing with French and had quite a bit of success so I assumed that China would be the same. I booked my tickets six months before I flew so I had plenty of time to start studying Chinese and picking up what I could.
I was working full time during those six months, so my learning was limited to evenings, weekends and a bit on my commute when I wasn’t too tired.
I started off learning pinyin, I could read and pronounce pinyin comfortably before I went to China. I also tried to learn the tones, and although I knew them in theory when I arrived I couldn’t really pronounce them properly, nor could I hear them when people spoke to me.
I downloaded the Chinese skill app and started to work my way through the modules. The app is pretty easy to use and I felt I started to get a basic grasp of Chinese grammar, as well as learning a few words here and there.
If I’m honest, apart from that I didn’t really do that much before I went to Shanghai and I didn’t speak it either which was definitely a mistake, as when I got there I felt like I wasted a lot of time getting to a basic speaking proficiency.
How I studied in Shanghai
I had intended to just use Chinese after being inspired by Benny and Scott, but it didn’t really pan out that way for me and I ended up using a lot more English than I’d intended.
I tried to speak only Chinese but because I didn’t really have that much Chinese to use and Shanghai is quite international, I found a lot of people would reply to me in English.
Because I’d learnt some Chinese before I went and I could read pinyin, luckily I didn’t have to start as a complete beginner and instead I joined a level one class part way through their course. The problem with my class is that everyone socialised in English.
I had hoped we would all go out together to Chinese restaurants and speak only in Chinese, maybe we would have a Chinese speaking whatsapp group as well but this didn’t happen.
The majority of people on my course were au pairs and by the time they had finished their duties and been to class they just wanted to unwind. I ended up hanging out with these people a lot as I didn’t know anyone else in Shanghai and so I talked mostly English in my spare time.
The classes themselves weren’t actually that good. The learning style is very different to the UK and the teacher spent most of the time talking to us, giving us little time to practise speaking. However, he explained the grammar points very well and as long as I went home and studied them to remember them I found I remembered all of the grammar pretty well.
I bought a HSK1 textbook and worked through a few exercises everyday. I found it was really useful to keep the grammar structure in my head and I found it was helping me to speak correctly, even if not fluently.
I would really recommend buying a textbook even if you’re not going to take the exams because it helps you to grasp all of the vocabulary and grammar points you need for your level of learning.
Speaking to locals
This was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, with people often not being able to understand me. I had a few knocks when the person just switched to English but I persevered with this. Every time I spoke to any local in Shanghai I would use Mandarin.
I also picked a local restaurant and coffee shop that I went to most days, so they could get used to me and the conversation could develop a bit. I ended up being able to tell them why I was in China, what I was doing and how I was studying. They started to ask me questions about my life in the UK and my family; this really helped me a lot.
I also used www.conversationexchange.com to find locals to speak with. We would meet up in cafes or restaurants and speak half the time in English and half the time in Chinese. I found this to be one of the most useful things I did.
Mistakes I made
- A tutor probably would have been better than a class. The class wasn’t flexible and my classmates didn’t want to speak Chinese, so the benefits of taking the class were outweighed by the cons. If I could go back and do it again I would have used a tutor and self study so I could make sure there was more speaking practise in my class.
- I should have spoken more before I went. I feel like I wasted a lot of speaking opportunities because I wasn’t confident or because I didn’t have the ability to speak. I should’ve started speaking practise a long time before I arrived in China so I could have used every speaking opportunity possible rather than having exchanges that I stumbled through or just switched to English.
- Because China was far away and I felt homesick, I relied too heavily on English speakers for socialisation. I spent far too much time speaking English when I should have been speaking Chinese.
- Shanghai is very international. Lots of people can speak English and there are lots of expats. I should have probably picked a city with less people who spoke English to give me more of a chance to use my Chinese.
My Chinese when I left Shanghai
If you’ve read my three months in Paris, you’ll know that after my three months, I was a strong A2 and I could use French in most of my day to day communications and I felt pretty confident with my level. Well unfortunately for me, Chinese wasn’t quite the same.
I could probably take the HSK2 exam but that exam doesn’t include a speaking section. Just a very easy listening and reading section that uses pinyin.
I could order things in shops and restaurants but I would still struggle sometimes when waiters replied to me with a question.
I could have basic conversations with other people at my level or very patient Chinese people.
What I’ve learnt
If I were to do this again with a different language I would definitely study more before I went, especially speaking. I don’t have the confidence that Benny Lewis or Scott Young have so for me, speaking with no knowledge was incredibly difficult. I woudld 100% fit in online speaking practise before I tried to do something like that again. Because my first few weeks were full of wasted opportunities when I ended up using English because I didn’t have the capability to use Chinese.
If during my six months before my flight, I had skyped someone for one hour a day, I know I would’ve improved much more quickly when I was actually in Shanghai.
Also the tones do matter! People well tell you the tones don’t really matter and you can get by without them but they do. I found I would be saying a word and the person wouldn’t be able to understand me, this would go on for ages then when they finally understood me they would repeat the exact same word back to me with a slightly different pronunciation. so don’t listen to people who say the tones don’t matter, because they do.
My three months weren’t perfect and I could’ve learnt better but I know what I should do next time. Before Chinese I had only ever learnt romantic languages, which I had success with and gave me lots of confidence.
I was expecting it to be the same and it wasn’t. Now that isn’t a problem, nor was it a waste of time, but looking forward I definitely need to adapt my learning style if I want to have success in other languages that aren’t just in the romantic family.
If you’re planning on doing a similar trip and want some recommendations of apps to use before you go to China then here are some of our recommendations.