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Independent Chinese study: review

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#1 share Tamu

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Posted 28 February 2014 - 09:36 PM


I've been in Taiwan studying Chinese on an independent basis. I'll be slowing down now, so I thought it's a good time to share what I've found while I still have all details fresh.

The flexibility you have studying independently has many advantages, but I know that for me, it also created many questions when I was considering if and how to start out on my own.  So I tried to write up here many details about pragmatic issues which could be helpful in planning such as process, progress, prices, tips.

There are lots of posts about "here's how I got started learning Chinese", both on this forum and elsewhere on the internet. This is just another one to add one more perspective and info. Hopefully it can be useful for beginners who are thinking of studying independently.




I'd always thought about learning Chinese to a good level. I got lucky that things recently worked out personally and professionally that I could live in country and devote most of my time to studying intensively.

I started overseas on my own for several weeks using resources I found on the internet and a grammar book I had.
I then spent 4 months in Taiwan. While in country, I had 3 ways of studying:

  • Private tutors
    For the first month, private tutors were around 40 hours per week. As my level increased, I was able to talk longer and longer with locals, so I gradually reduced the tutor time. Recently, I've had around 10-15 hours per week with tutors.
  • Conversation with locals
    I study in cafes, restaurants and parks all day. I always find people to talk to for very long periods. I now have 20-30 hours of one-on-one conversation each week with a really wide range of locals.
  • Self-study
    All the rest of my time.


In terms of study time, I've been working on Chinese 70-80+ hours each week during the whole period, so something around 1600 hours total.


Independent study vs. organized program

There's no one right way to study a language: goals, circumstances, interests are all different.

I decided to study on my own, not in an organized program, for many reasons:


  • I like the flexibility of independent study.
  • I've studied several languages before, including 2 non Indo-European languages to advanced levels, so I have a good idea of what works for me.
  • There are numerous resources to study Chinese available on-line.
  • Studying on my own with the help of private tutors is significantly more efficient for me compared to being in an organized program. Pace of learning, difficulty of material, and focus all match my interests and level.
  • I don't care about a degree. I'm studying Chinese out of my own interest only.



Study resources


  • Introductory materials
    I downloaded some introductory materials from internet textbooks when I started out just to get going the first few weeks while overseas.
  • Grammar
    I used Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, by Claudia Ross. It covers a broad range of grammar patterns and usage situations, and has several example sentences for every grammar explanation. When I first started learning, I put every Chinese sentence from the book into an Anki deck, then revised so I could produce word-for-word each Chinese sentence when prompted with the English translation. This was my main source of both grammar and sentence structure when I started, as well as vocab. Once in country, I paid a native-speaker to record audio for these sentences, so when I was revising them in Anki I would hear the sentences spoken and mimic.
  • Frequency word lists of vocab
    I used frequency word lists and worked through them on Anki, English-to-Chinese. Memorizing context-less words is just a way to build a base of vocab as fast as possible. Once in country, I kept working through frequency lists, but new vocab gradually came more from words I encounter in the context of daily life: conversations, newspaper articles, media, menus, etc.
  • Conversations with native speakers
    I record as many conversations as I can, and later put native speakers' sentences into Anki (the audio of the actual sentences they say plus the written transcription) and memorize.
  • TV shows as source of example sentences for new vocab
    Around month 2, I started with TV shows and documentaries as a source of sample sentences for new vocab, based on a great idea suggested by Tysond here. Before, I was finding sample sentences for new vocab from the big on-line Chinese-language sites for foreigners... but when I used those sentences, native speakers would often tell me that they sound weird or just wrong. So, I converted a bunch of shows and movies into an enormous database of pre-made SRS cards. Then every time I learned a new word in real life, I searched for it in this pre-built database. Almost always I was able to find several usages of the word.

    The advantage is that the sentences are from real (i.e., native speaker for native speaker) sources, as opposed to the weird-sounding made-for-foreigners sentences. So when I come across a new word or phrase I want to learn, I instantly have several pre-made cards, complete with audio, of the word used in context. Because it's pre-built, it also is a huge time-saver. Sometimes I have to stitch together a few consecutive cards into one so I get the full context of the word, but that's not much time; otherwise, it's a very fast and efficient process. Then I throw the vocab word with the audio of it used in context in the TV shows into my main study deck for memorization.
  • Character recognition
    To get started, I used the same list of frequency words in Anki that I used for memorizing vocab, but in the direction of Chinese character-->English meaning and pinyin pronunciation. I also memorized the most common 100 radicals first, then eventually all the radicals. I found understanding character composition helped a lot (hanzicraft.com is great for this). But it's still just brute-force at first. I found it's really a slog for the first few hundred, but it does get much better after 600. Anki really is ideal for this.
  • Reading
    Reading is a lot more than just character recognition. For reading, I just started by trying to decipher the sentences in the grammar book. After finishing the book, I started with newspaper articles, taking one topic at a time and reading many articles on that topic, then moving to a new topic.

    After month 2, I started doing a lot of timed reading-speed drills, including drills for reading-aloud. I found this idea of imron to be very effective. The whole process of reading with a stopwatch reminds me of running wind sprints in track training, but it's really worked and I plan on continuing it.





I've found that memorizing full sentences for everything at the beginning helps internalize the language more than just learning words and grammar rules separately.


In my case, conscious study of rules is necessary and helpful for some parts of language. But I've found that for me, the best way to learn everything to an acceptable level of naturalness is to memorize as much as possible, effectively drilling at the same time many different areas: vocab, grammar, intonation, etc. Just repeat what I know over and over and over until it's internalized to the point that I'm always getting it right, then riff on them by changing different parts. I don't often use the exact phrases I've memorized in spontaneous speech, but I find that I've internalized their constructions and intonations well enough that I can then easily build my own sentences quickly and in a more natural way when speaking.


I know that memorizing lots of sentences isn't for everyone. I just find that for me, there's too much going on in a language to really study every part consciously. Real linguistic analysis to a very deep level is incredibly complex; the "rules" that a foreign learner sees in a textbook are just a fraction.

Moreover, it's utterly arbitrary. Natural languages are unsystematic, illogical, inexact, redundant. We only occasionally notice it in our native language, but we're constantly confronted with this arbitrariness when we learn a new language as an adult. I always want to ask "why"... but in most cases, there's just no good answer.

So I memorize as much as I can. I use Anki; it's a great tool for memorization. My sentence memorization is always from English to Chinese; I find Chinese to English doesn't drill it in as well.

I try to put audio recordings of native speakers into every Anki card I have. In my case, I've found that I learn the sentence in a deeper way by hearing and repeating the audio than if I focus only on the writing/reading. If that's true for everyone, I don't know. Scientific understanding of the brain and language is extremely limited, and I'm pretty wary of many claims of different foreign language learning methods. I just know that based on my experience learning several foreign languages in different ways, I find that, for me, hearing and memorizing audio of full sentences works well to internalize all the subtlety and arbitrariness of a language.




I meet with tutors each day in Taiwan.

All communication with every tutor was 100% in Chinese from the very beginning. It was silly at first to try to communicate in Chinese because my vocab was so basic and I couldn't read or write. Simply sending a text to arrange the first meetings took hours of pretty inefficient googling to compose the message and then understand what they responded. But I wanted to be clear from the beginning that we would never use English.

In the beginning month, tutors were my mainstay. Each day was from 3 to 8 hours with 2 to 4 tutors. I spent around 40 hours per week with tutors.

As my level increased to the point of being able to have conversations with real people, I gradually spent less time with tutors and more time talking with locals I meet in cafes, restaurants, and the internet.

Most days have been quite pleasant weather, so I usually meet the tutors in parks. In bad weather, we met in cafes.

Potential tutors are everywhere: supply massively exceeds demand. I had nothing arranged before coming but never had a problem finding tutors. I met for tutoring with uni students, unemployed office workers, a professional musician, a writer, a real-estate agent, and retired high-school teachers, as well as several professional Chinese tutors. In total, I worked with about 20 different tutors over the 4 months. At the max point, I had around 10 on rotation.

The good and bad of independent study is the flexibility and variety of different tutors. It's definitely an organizational challenge to interview, schedule, and manage tutors. If I were in a structured learning environment like a uni or private school, all the selection and scheduling would be taken care of. On the other hand, doing it myself I get to pick exactly who seems best for my needs at that point. It offers intense exposure to a huge variety of backgrounds, accents, word usages, etc. And the process of doing it all in Chinese - finding, hiring, scheduling, firing, etc - has actually been very beneficial both for language and cultural understanding.

As an independent learner, you really have to think in advance about what you're looking for in your tutors. The characteristics I find make the best tutors for me are:


  • Tutor's role
    I've found that until I reach advanced levels in a language, the tutor is not "teaching" me the language directly. For me, a tutor's value is as a native speaker willing to talk with me for hours, drill me with new vocab, listen very closely to my speech, correct every error I make, and answer my questions about word usage.

  • Grammar explanations
    At these beginning levels, I don't find it useful to hear explanations from a tutor about grammar. I need the tutor to point out errors I make, but that's it. A good grammar book is enough, and usually better, than any tutor at helping me understand, and memorization and rapid drilling is what internalizes the grammar for me.

  • Experience
    Everyone will have their own views about experience requirements. But in my case, I personally have found that experience teaching Chinese to foreigners is unnecessary. In fact, I generally found that it is a negative.

    One problem is that the tutor has learned a certain way of teaching and is often locked into his/her method. And the methods they showed me weren't my thing.

    But even when I found experienced-but-flexible tutors, I found that the tutor is simply too used to foreigners learning Chinese: s/he understands bad pronunciation and grammar, is more accepting of errors, is accustomed to foreigners learning at a slow pace, and holds me to low foreigner-standards rather than native-standards of accuracy and natural sentence construction. I found the "good enough for a foreigner" mentality is hard to fight in any Chinese native speaker I talk to as a learner, but tutors who have spent lots of time enduring struggling foreigners are particularly bad. People less used to foreigners were significantly better tutors for me.

  • Level of Chinese
    I've found that when I've reached advanced levels in a language, the tutor's knowledge of the language becomes important. For example, a professional interpreter can be a great tutor because s/he is extremely focused on the details of language. But at beginning levels like I'm at in Chinese, I've found that most native speakers are fine; the difference in quality between tutors depends much more on their personal characteristics rather than on their language skill.

  • Reliability
    Reliability is key.

    I had constant issues with tutors cancelling or showing up late. Tutors I worked with over the 4 months had lots of "human resources" type of issues which affected their reliability: a divorce, a few break-ups, problems with parents/children/spouses, a pregnancy, a motorcycle accident, unexpected situations with friends, etc, etc, etc. Some of the issues were real, but some were laughable: one tutor's "broken leg" healed in 4 days, another tutor's dead dog had a miraculous reincarnation when I happened to bump into her and the dog in a park a week later, etc.

    I found there was no way to predict in advance a tutor's reliability. There was no correlation with age, experience, profession, marital status, gender, nothing. One person I thought might be a flake was by far the most reliable; the most unreliable person turned out to be a full-time professional Chinese teacher with an impeccable CV and references.

    Independent tutoring is a tough job. Unsteady hours, low pay, no fixed contract, uncertain long-term prospects. And I wouldn't pretend that it's a thrill to listen to an idiot foreigner like me babbling away for hours in bad accent and broken grammar in their native language. So I was always happy to find someone reliable.

    I also was lucky to find 2 tutors who were flexible and "on-call". When a regularly-scheduled tutor cancelled 1 hour before our meeting, I would contact the "on-call" tutors, and usually one of them would have time to meet.

  • Concentrated focus on my speech and willingness to correct me
    I want a tutor to listen to what I say and correct literally every mistake I make in grammar, word choice, pronunciation... everything.

    It's very, very hard to find someone who can do this to the standard I want. It takes a lot of concentration to listen for several hours to a foreigner speaking in your native language and identify every single error s/he makes. And it takes a certain person to be able to then constantly interrupt the flow of conversation to correct that foreigner.

    Issues I've found: people's focus falls off, they figure my speech is "good enough for a foreigner", they feel bad about correcting me constantly, they think my level is too low to strive yet for better accuracy, they think that errors are acceptable if the meaning can still be understood, they think it's better to let me keep talking rather than stop to correct me, they are interested in the conversation itself and don't want to stop it.

    But I'm very, very insistent that I want the tutor to correct literally every single error I make. Otherwise, I have no way of knowing and I will reinforce errors.

    Constantly correcting me made conversations very, very slow when I was starting out. But that's fine with me.

    I know some people emphasize that in learning a language, it's better to just speak freely and errors will eventually fix themselves or can be corrected explicitly later. But for me, my goal is to speak as correctly as possible. I can have free-flowing speech with acquaintances, random people in cafes, or talking to myself. My purpose in meeting with a tutor is to have a native speaker confirm for me that everything I say is correct according to native-speaker standards.

    When you're learning a language, you have no way of ever really knowing if you're right... you might think you said it correctly, but you don't have the same instinct which you have in your native language. You simply can't judge yourself. But if I know that every mistake I make is being corrected by the tutor, then I also know that what's not being corrected is good....  and that gives me a confidence in the accuracy of my Chinese which I wouldn't otherwise have.



Conversations with locals


I spent a lot of time in conversations with locals while I was staying in Taiwan. I don't know the exact number, but I'd guess there were at least 70 separate people I met randomly with whom I talked for at least an hour straight. Based on the hours of conversation I've recorded, I'd guess that it's probably in total around 125 hours of conversations in the last months.

I studied every day in public places which have lots of people, cafes and parks mostly, in order to create chances to find people with time to talk at length.

In the first month in country, the conversations were only a minute or two: "where are you from" and that's about it. Or I just stopped people on the street to ask directions to places I already knew and tried to figure out the response. I just didn't have the ability to do much more in real-world situations. I could barely understand them, and they could barely understand me lol. So almost all my conversation practice came with paid tutors.

Around the 2 month point I was able to start having real conversations with locals who aren't accustomed to speaking with foreigners. From then on, as my level improved, I gradually reduced the number of hours with tutors and spent more time with locals. It was a wonderful confidence boost to see that I could have real conversations with real locals and that I sounded passable enough that they were willing to talk with me a long time.

I never have trouble now finding locals to talk with for very long (1-3 hours) conversations every day. In fact, my problem is the opposite: sometimes I can't escape to study on my own lol.

I've been speaking with people from a really wide range of ages, interests, professions and (very noticeably) accents.

I record most of the conversations using the computer or a pocket digital voice recorder. Afterwards, I go through the recordings, drill new vocab and constructions, and analyse their speech. I pick out interesting sentences, snip them out, and then practice mimicking each sentence.

People have really been incredibly good to me. They are so friendly, so helpful, so interested in my well-being. Many people have invited me to meet again for meals, several have invited me to parties, corporate events, to meet their families, New Year's activities, taken me to the countryside, taken me hiking. Even apart from the great language practice, it's really been an incredible opportunity to meet people and learn about their lives and culture.

Language exchange

I met with about a dozen language exchange partners.

The "exchange" is funny. When we first meet, I start speaking in Chinese. I suggest an hour of English, then an hour of Chinese. But they always have some reason not to speak English. Sometimes they directly say that they aren't good enough or are nervous, sometimes they have some excuse (my favourite: "I was sick last week, so I don't think my pronunciation is good right now."). But whatever their reason, we just continue speaking only Chinese for 2-4 hours.

A few of them have turned into essentially 24/7-available online chat partners as well (all in Chinese).

I've gradually stopped meeting with new language exchange partners and mainly chat with existing friends or new people I meet in cafes for conversation practice. The language exchange meetings were a crutch for a while as I was transitioning away from tutors, but it's not necessary anymore as I've progressed. I have more conversation opportunities than I have time for now.

Language wars

I've read of many foreigners having "language wars": the foreigner wants to speak Chinese, the Chinese-speaker wants to practice English.

But for me, I've never experienced anything like it. People talk to me in Chinese, always. Even from the beginning, when my knowledge was a few weeks' worth of self-study.

In stores or restaurants, the employees almost always start with me in Chinese. Very occasionally, they start in English... but when I open my mouth to speak Chinese, they instantly switch and the conversation is 100% in Chinese.

I'm in parks and cafes all day. People approach me to chat in Chinese, but no person has ever approached me to speak in English. Even the "wow, you can use chopsticks!" type of people all speak to me only in Chinese (I've found that they strongly believe that using chopsticks well is more impressive than, say, learning the Chinese language lol).

Young, old, male, female, all socioeconomic levels... everyone speaks Chinese to me, always. As I wrote above, even language exchange partners didn't speak to me in English.

I really don't know what's behind the difference between my experience and that of other foreigners. I thought that maybe the "language warring" could be a China thing and not present in Taiwan, or perhaps it's because I'm not in a university environment. But Forumosa (a forum for expats in Taiwan) is rife with stories of language-wars in Taiwan (there are hundreds of posts about it). Even this forum has a thread of foreign complaining about language wars in daily-life in Taiwan...

All I can say is that for me, it was never an issue.





I'm now at what I'd call "advanced survival" level:



  • Hours-long, one-on-one conversations about most topics with native speakers who are not used to foreigners. Language problems don't impede too much for normal topics. Unknown words and areas can be explained with known vocab.
  • Group conversations significantly more difficult, i.e. sitting at a table in a group of 4 native speakers. There are linguistic nuances of group interaction, social and cultural cues which are different, overall speed, inability to slow down and get explanation when I don't understand, and the fact that I'm not directing half the conversation. Even when I understand, it's hard to keep the flow. I'd say I'm at best only at 30% in ability to understand and participate appropriately, i.e. able to read the group dynamics, jump into the flow of conversation at the right time, keep things moving and not slow it down, etc.
  • I can understand to a decent level TV talk shows (unscripted dialogue) that deal with topics I'm familiar with. For unfamiliar topics, the unknown vocab is sometimes too much and I'm scrambling to stay up with what they're saying. I've focused a lot on news programs recently: I can understand a lot of what is said... but the parts I don't understand are usually the most important so I often don't know what's going on until I look up unknown phrases and then go back and listen a second time.
  • Regional mainland accents are totally incomprehensible to me.
  • Homophones are a bigger problem than I'd have imagined. I've found the issue in speech is that if I take too much mental time figuring out one homophone, then I'm scrambling to catch up in the rest of the sentence. I often find it difficult to differentiate similar words based only on context, or to figure out where one word ends and another begins. Also, I usually hear the correct tones now, but it's definitely a mental lag and the tone doesn't yet provide my non-tonal brain as much of an instant clue as it should in distinguishing differences.  I'm now doing homophone drills specifically now and should have focused more on this from the beginning.




  • I found that it's significantly harder to have a good accent in Chinese than I'd initially expected, or that I've found in other languages. I probably did 200+ hours on pronunciation alone and have now reached the point where I have good tones and overall pronunciation, and everyone tells me that I sound extremely clear and easy to understand... but I know that my sentence intonation is stilted and formal except for sentences I've memorized and massively pre-practised. I wrote a separate post about accent work.

    One issue I've noticed is that teachers of Chinese, or other native speakers with lots of foreigner friends, have so much exposure to bad, wrong-tone accents that they gain the skill of figuring out what the foreigner is saying. As a foreign learner, if your only contact is with people who are used to foreigners, you can be lulled into overestimating your pronunciation. It's hard to break out of that cycle, because in many cases most people you speak with at the beginning will be people used to foreigners.



  • I have very little understanding of style, level of formality, register. For most words I know, I have a basic sense of which are more written language and which are more spoken. I know how to appropriately use a few polite request phrases on the one hand, and I know and can use a few modern, young-person slang expressions on the other hand... but otherwise, my ability to vary my speech based on the circumstances of the conversation is very limited.




  • I work on newspapers a lot. Each week, I choose a few topics and read lots of articles only about them. Once I've learned the topic-specific vocab, I can read new newspaper articles on that subject with minimal look-ups.
  • Serious newspaper articles on most unfamiliar topics are impossible to read without many look-ups and are still just vocab-building exercises for me.
  • I focused a lot on menus. I'm now able to understand around 80% of menu items in local neighbourhood restaurants, i.e. know both the meaning of what the menu item is as well as every character in it and the pronunciation. I've found that I understand significantly fewer of the menu items in higher-end restaurants, both because they have a wider variety of food and because their descriptions are more flowery rather than literal.
  • For most emails and texts I receive now, I usually understand easily with at most a few look-ups.
  • Overall, reading is tiring for me. I can do it, but it's not yet enjoyable.
  • Fwiw, I've been learning both traditional and simplified at the same time. I practise reading texts in both formats. I found it's really not too bad if you start out doing both. The only issue was just to maintain the motivation to keep up on simplified while being surrounded by traditional.



  • I'm able to write emails and text messages with few mistakes, but the correct use of particles (e.g., 啊,哦,喔,恩) is still too complex.
  • For anything more sophisticated than emails and texts, my written skills are still too elementary. For practice, I've been writing an article a week and having a tutor correct. My "grammar" is decent, which is the benefit of no morphological inflections in Chinese. But my written language is too simple, too spoken-form, and too awkward. So many times the tutor tells me that what I write is understandable and nothing wrong with the grammar per se... but that it's just not how a Chinese person would say it. I've realized that after already memorizing a grammar book, there are still countless more syntatic patterns that need to be learned. Give me highly-inflected morphology and free word order any day! ;)





The descriptions I wrote above of my level are a more complete assessment than just a one letter ranking, but I know some people who are considering independent study also need to think about testing results when they're planning out if and how to get going, so here's what I found.

I signed up for hsk5. I didn't need it for work or study. I just did it for fun, to gauge myself and especially as motivation to keep up with simplified characters despite living in Taiwan. There are tons of great hsk write-ups, I have nothing insightful to add. I'd only emphasize reading speed as being paramount for doing well on the test. I started with sample hsk4 tests after 2 months; I found they were ok, but reading speed was rough. I spent the next 2 months drilling reading speed, but even then it was still the hardest aspect for me in the actual hsk5.

Based on my experience, the hsk measurements overestimate language competence. I understand that the test has its uses, but it's a very artificial and limited measure which tests not just language ability, but test-taking skill as well.

Real-world language use can be very different. I've seen situations where hsk5 is listed as the requirement for native-environment opportunities in university or a job. Everyone is different, but in my case, I know that I'm just "getting by": I'm not close to being able to consistently participate in an intelligent, adult way in daily life, let alone in an academic or corporate environment.

As for CEFR...

There's been lots of discussion about hsk-CEFR correspondence. Based on my own experience, I think the Hanban claim that hsk5 corresponds to CEFR C1 is a massive overestimate.

It's tricky to apply CEFR to Chinese because the writing presents such different issues and there are no cognates or shared base of vocabulary. Engineering, chemicals, biology, pharmaceuticals, social sciences, philosophy... many words in all those areas are similar in most Indo-European languages and many non Indo-European ones as well, but they're different in Chinese. Names of countries, names of companies, names of current and historical foreign political and business leaders... many of those are also very different in Chinese, and it's a non-trivial amount of work as a beginner to learn enough of all that to understand serious written material.

I've found that it's one thing to be able to read articles which are designed for foreigners and mainly use only heavily-restricted vocabulary; it's another to read wide-ranging material written by and for educated, adult natives and "understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation" (CEFR B2) or "understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning." (CEFR C1).

So if I hold it strictly to CEFR's actual descriptions for both oral and written skills, then I'm B1.

In general, I've found that constant undeserved praise from locals combined with the assessment inflation from Hanban make it easy as a foreigner to overestimate language skill. It's obvious, but passing a test is one thing, using Chinese is another. In the real world, the only thing that matters is your true language skill, not a test grade.




People differ about whether a foreigner studying Chinese today should learn to write by hand. This forum has some posts about it here, here and here.  

For me, I learned to write some characters by hand just because I think it's cool in a way that typing them isn't.

I can write with certainty from memory 800 characters (I know that exact number because it's the size of my Anki handwriting deck right now). Plus probably another few hundred where I'm less certain.

All the other characters I know are recognition only.

I found it was a huge benefit to memorize radicals brute force as fast as possible from the beginning, then really understand character composition (I use hanzicraft.com). Knowing them well made it much easier to remember a character than "this squiggly line goes here" or "this looks like a circle and a hand of a man smiling".

I'd say that writing by hand helped me learn characters and improve reading speed. I think I "know" those characters I can write from memory more deeply than those I can just recognize. But I don't know if it's really necessary. Knowing character components is important, but I could imagine that it's more efficient to not bother with the mechanical skill of writing. It really takes a huge amount of rote repetition to learn to write by hand. I did it late at night when I was too tired to study more vocab, so I felt that I wasn't taking away time that I could put to more productive study use.


Fwiw, everyone tells me my handwriting looks like a 10-year old. That's an improvement, at least - when I started, they told me it looked like a 5-year old :)


I put all prices here in U.S. dollars.


Tutoring Expenses

The main expense directly related to learning was tutoring fees.

As two reference points:

  • the minimum wage is a bit under $4/hour
  • a local university offers private Chinese tutoring at $15/hour.


The rate at which independent tutors initially quoted me ranged from $4 to $16 per hour, with most initial quotes from $5-10. The more experienced/professional tutors usually quoted initial fees toward the high end of the range, but always dropped their rate when they realized how many hours I want to study and that I didn't want them to do any preparation outside "class" hours.

The average rate I actually paid tutors over the period worked out to about $5 per hour of actual "class" time.

Additionally, many days after "class" I also went with the tutors for lunch or dinner. We always kept talking Chinese. I would pay for the meal but not for their time.

Between direct payments to tutors plus all the meals I bought for them, my total tutoring costs over 4 months was about $2200 for 500 hours of one-on-one time.

All payments were cash.

The grammar book I bought cost $40 overseas. Otherwise, I didn't have any expenses directly related to learning.


Living expenses

Everyone will find different living situations, but this is just to give some idea of what rough ranges I found as of February, 2014 for someone looking to study Chinese in Taiwan.

In Taipei, a room in most shared apartments can be found from around $225 to $400/month plus expenses. An apartment on your own can be any price obviously, but you can figure around $350-600 for a small-ish standard place.

Cities outside Taipei are cheaper. Depending on the city, a room in a shared apartment: $150-325, an apartment on your own: $250-$500.

Basic meals in neighbourhood restaurants: $2-$5. Nicer local restaurants double that. Higher-end restaurants $20-30.
Estimates I've seen on university websites budget $250 for monthly food expenses, which seems reasonable for most students.

Phone is about $30/month for unlimited internet use on a month-by-month pre-paid basis, i.e. no contract. Everyone uses the app Line, which has unlimited free chat and calls, so there are usually no per-call or per-sms phone costs beyond internet service (unless you want to buy Line's stickers lol). The phone carriers' internet speed and coverage are very good. Most people now use their phone as a wifi-hotspot, so at-home internet service is unnecessary.

In general, I found most other cost-of-living expenses in Taiwan to be cheaper than Western Europe, the US or Australia. Plus, I was studying pretty much all the time, so I wasn't spending much money anyway.



So in total, I figured about $1100-1400 per month for accommodation, meals, and 125 hours of tutoring.




I'm just a beginner myself, but I hope some info here from my initial stages might be useful for someone else starting out who's thinking of studying independently and comes across this post.

As for me, I can't keep spending 80+ hours per week studying Chinese, it's time to get back to real-life. My conversation skills unfortunately won't progress as much anymore, but I will focus on vocab, more advanced/professional reading, and TV shows. My goal by start next-year is to understand most TV news, enjoy reading a full newspaper and not get a headache, really get into 相声, and - finally - to understand all menu items in restaurants... although I've found that understanding the language on the menu still doesn't always mean I can predict what exactly the restaurant will serve! :)

This is a great forum. In the months I've been studying Chinese, I really have read hundreds (thousands maybe?) of posts on this forum going back 10 years. It's been an incredibly helpful font of information, tips, experiences, and motivation as I learn the language, and I'd like to express my gratitude for an amazing resource.

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#2 share Shelley

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 06:49 AM

Wow +1 from me

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#3 share stoney

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 07:15 AM

Your intensity is staggering. Good for you. I can't talk that much in my own language let alone Chinese.
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#4 share Meng Lelan

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 07:22 AM

So in total, I figured about $1100-1400 per month for accommodation, meals, and 125 hours of tutoring.




Wow that's really good living what you're doing, exactly what I want to do when I finally retire!


What are you planning to do next - how much longer are you staying there and what do you see as the eventual purpose of your Chinese studies?

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#5 share gato

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 10:42 AM

Tamu, that is really impressive and inspiring. You were wise to spend most of your time in the native environment on speaking and listening. You have a good foundation to build on. Now that you are leaving (or have left) this environment, you can probably concentrate on expanding your vocabulary, spending more time on reading (newspapers), writing, and listening (radio and TV shows). With the wide availability of online resources, all those things you can readily do outside of a native environment. Again, very impressive. You have an incredible amount of self-awareness and discipline.

Btw, if you would be share your audio Anki decks online, I am sure many would find them valuable.
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#6 share Milkybar_Kid

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 12:26 PM

That is a great write up.  Very interesting, thank you.

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#7 share pprendeville

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Posted 01 March 2014 - 09:46 PM

Wow +2
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#8 share grawrt

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Posted 02 March 2014 - 12:21 AM

yeah this left me speechless. Really impressive and inspirational for when I eventually go to China <3  Thanks so much for this write up!

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#9 share Wang7

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Posted 02 March 2014 - 02:25 AM

Tamu, this is an outstanding review of your independent study in Taiwan. Thank you very much!

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#10 share roddy

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Posted 03 March 2014 - 08:10 PM

Epic. Great stuff!

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#11 share Tamu

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 09:22 AM

Thanks for the comments. I'm really lucky that everything worked out to have had the chance to spend 4 months in Taiwan studying the language full-time. Not everyone has that luxury, but hopefully independent learners can still find the information helpful. There's really a lot of misinformation on the internet about learning Chinese, and unfortunately loads of it usually is among the first things you come across when doing research on studying. I know from my own experience that it really can skew your view about progress, difficulty, levels, costs, locations. This forum has many realistic posts offsetting that misinformation, and I hope my post can add to that to help anyone who's thinking of studying independently get realistic facts.

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#12 share laurenth

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 06:25 PM

Fantastic write-up. May I ask a question? You say that you



record most of the conversations using the computer or a pocket digital voice recorder.


Do you ask or do you record without telling? In another life, I did some field sociolinguistics and I know that many people tend to change their speech when they know they are being recorded. On the other hand, a hidden recorder often produces recordings that are linguistically more reliable but technically of lower quality. How did you go about it?

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#13 share OneEye

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 06:52 PM


This might be my favorite post ever on this forum. It's like you crystallized everything I've come to learn and realize about how to learn a language since moving here and put it all into one post.


The "Chinese in X months" people out there could learn a lot from this post. This is how it's done, folks.

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#14 share roddy

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 07:00 PM

I think this is key:

I've studied several languages before, including 2 non Indo-European languages to advanced levels, so I have a good idea of what works for me.


It'd be a lucky first-time language learner that hit the ground running this fast...

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#15 share Meng Lelan

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Posted 04 March 2014 - 07:58 PM

 Well, luck is not going to figure greatly in language learning, it's hard work, also  something else too,  the OP may not be in a situation that would prevent doing this (a full time job, parenthood, school, significant others, etc). So the OP may have a relative degree of freedom to do this.

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#16 share GotJack

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Posted 05 March 2014 - 12:18 AM

I think this is the greatest forum post I've ever read. Thankyou sir for such a detailed and interesting account.  


I wonder if you have time, if you could share more about where your motivation to Learn Chinese has come from, you seem to have an incredible work ethic which I'd be interested to hear more about.

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#17 share Tamu

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Posted 06 March 2014 - 07:28 PM

Thanks for the kind comments about this post.

@Laurenth -

Yeah, recording is tricky. People definitely change their speech when they know they're being recorded, so I've found recording using the computer better than a pocket digital recorder.


It's just because of my circumstances. I study all day in cafes and parks. I'm already sitting there with the laptop open. So when I meet someone and start recording our conversation using the computer, it seems more natural than placing a digital recorder between us. The digital recorder is a constant reminder that it's being recorded, but people pretty quickly forget if it's just a computer with no visible sign that it's recording. The downside is that the computer recording quality isn't so great. But since it's for just my own purposes, the recordings are more than good enough to be able to review later, analyze tone contours, and use as samples for shadowing.

The biggest issue I've found is that, regardless of whether or not they're being recorded, Chinese speakers don't necessarily speak in the same way to foreigners as they do to other native speakers. This is true in any language, of course; everyone regulates his/her speech based on perceptions of the listener's language skills. But it seems to me that Chinese is particularly noteworthy for several reasons:


  • Broad category of issues I'd lump under "cultural issues": lack of experience ever speaking Chinese with a foreigner, perceptions of foreigners, experiences with other foreigners, etc, etc. It affects different people in different ways, of course. But many people just don't talk the same when they're  speaking to a foreigner as they do when speaking with a Chinese native speaker, much more than I think is common in European languages. Of course, eventually at some point the people could revert to their normal speech patterns, but it could take quite a long time, depending on the circumstances.

  • As a foreigner, the combination of tones and overall sentence intonation, mood, and emphasis is really tricky, so that's what I'm really interested in analysing and mimicking from the conversations I record. But that becomes complicated if people are changing or exaggerating their tones all the time when speaking to me. I've read some research on this topic. One interesting paper explores the difference between speech directed at adult native speakers, babies, and foreigners.  It found that Chinese speakers "expanded Fo patterns in time and Fo range" when speaking with foreigners as compared to with other adult native speakers.

  • Chinese speakers change and exaggerate tone contours in a very unique way when explaining concepts. From what I've found, it seems many, if not all, speakers do this. I've found that it's notably different than how English-speakers, for example, change their speech when explaining ideas. In my case, since in many conversations native-speakers are explaining their history and culture to me, and since that also tends to be when I now encounter new words and sentence structures, I found that I ended up studying more of this "citational", "explanatory" speech form quite a lot. It definitely was giving a "citational" feel to my speech which I'm still working on fixing. (I wrote about it a bit in this post).

I'd be quite interested in your experiences. What do you think about all this? What have you found?

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#18 share Tamu

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Posted 06 March 2014 - 10:01 PM




I think this is key:


I've studied several languages before, including 2 non Indo-European languages to advanced levels, so I have a good idea of what works for me.



It'd be a lucky first-time language learner that hit the ground running this fast...



Well, luck is not going to figure greatly in language learning, it's hard work, also  something else too,  the OP may not be in a situation that would prevent doing this (a full time job, parenthood, school, significant others, etc). So the OP may have a relative degree of freedom to do this.



I thought about the "luck" issue.

No adult who learns a foreign language is a blank slate. Everyone has their own unique combination of experiences, knowledge, abilities and attitudes which will affect how s/he learns.

I think that having as a child significant exposure to the language is clearly the biggest advantage.

The next best advantage would be exposure to a language in the same family; the more related to the target language, the better.

But for people with no prior exposure to the target language or a closely-related language, what really matters?

In the case of Chinese, I'd see two situations which are directly "lucky":

  • Knowledge of characters. Japanese learning Chinese have a phenomenal advantage over students who have never seen a character in their life. Of course, Japanese have their own learning issues with Chinese, the characters aren't a perfect correspondence, a Japanese student might over-rely on character-recognition to the detriment of spoken ability, etc. But the overall advantage in learning is massive.
  • Music ability. There's a lot of research showing that the ability to discriminate pitch variations in music facilitates the ability to perceive pitch variations in foreign languages. And then we need the physical ability to reproduce those pitch variations accurately to actually speak the language. So musical background and abilities matter to some extent in any language. In Chinese, because the lexical tones are so crucial, when we're starting out musical expertise definitely will have an impact on how quickly and accurately we can understand and speak.


As for whether it's "lucky" specifically to have studied other languages, particularly non Indo-European languages...?


I think that on a direct basis, the benefit of knowing languages unrelated to Mandarin is extremely small. Perhaps these benefits:


  • The one direct benefit I found in my case is that I'm very used to subject-object-verb (SOV) constructions. Chinese is a bit tricky to pin down; it generally seems subject-verb-object (SVO), but has a very strong SOV feeling in limited situations: relative clauses, certain noun phrases, 把 constructions, etc. So my knowledge of SOV constructions perhaps gave me when starting out a better "feel" for those forms in Chinese than someone who has never encountered SOV forms. And languages can be kinda SVO, kinda SOV; for example, German and Dutch use SVO in main clauses, SOV in subordinate clauses, which I imagine would be as beneficial when starting out learning Chinese as knowing a more strictly SOV language. So all in all, I think that whatever direct benefit I got is very small. But someone might disagree if s/he believes that the SOV form of these certain constructions creates enormous, long-term difficulties for learners.
  • Having studied other languages could also have the direct benefit of similar pronunciation. The more sounds of Chinese which are in languages you already know, the easier it will be to pronounce. In my case, I think maybe the ü is easier than it would be if I only knew English. Otherwise, I don't see many pronunciation benefits of languages I know when studying Chinese.
  • I would also say that knowing a tonal language, even if unrelated, would help as well. And within tonal languages, I'd imagine it would be more helpful to be familiar with a language which uses pitch contours to distinguish meaning, rather than pitch register or pitch accent only. But I don't know any tonal languages of any sort, which is a pity lol.

Other than those areas, I don't see any direct benefits of knowing totally unrelated languages.

I think it's harder to evaluate the indirect benefit of having learned languages. It's a really tricky question for many reasons. Scientific understanding of language and the brain is very limited, so we're just stabbing in the dark. Language incorporates so many cultural and societal issues in addition to language itself.

It's tricky just to even define what we're talking about. What counts as "having learned a foreign language" for purposes of conferring indirect benefits in learning a new language? Is it only if you've studied a foreign language to an advanced level? How closely related or unrelated must the language be to one you already know? Similar writing systems or different?

Most people learn a foreign language at some point in their education; I'd guess that very few people on this forum are truly "first-time language learners" who never in their lives studied at all another foreign language before Chinese. So does it count if you started learning at a very young age, as many Europeans do for English? Or does it only count if you start after late adolescence, as most of us here probably have with Chinese?

Everyone will have different opinions about all this. Personally, I think the real indirect advantage of having studied other languages is in understanding the process and realizing how much work is involved.

We all have different backgrounds, abilities and circumstances. I have no music background and can't sing; as I wrote in this post, it was 200+ hours of work for me to overcome this problem. To take an example of a famous foreigner who speaks jaw-droppingly impressive Chinese, I imagine that Julien Gaudfroy was able to tackle this area much more easily than me because of his musical background: he studied at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) and worked as a professional cellist until age 20. So he's "luckier" than me.


But how much luckier is he?


It's crazy to think that his music ability gives him that much more of an advantage; he spent thousands and thousands of hours year after year learning words, sentences, characters, practicing vocab, reading, writing, etc. It denigrates all his hard work and dedication to think that what he accomplished is because he's "lucky" due to his musical background. It also serves as a way to create an excuse for myself to not achieve what he has: "He's really good at music, but I suck at it, so there's no way I'll ever get to his level of Chinese".

But worse than me at music are people who are truly tone-deaf. Their pitch perception is so bad that it affects their ability to perceive emotion and emphasis in their own native language (research here). I'm horrible at music and singing, but I'm not truly tone-deaf. So in comparison to Julien Gaudfroy, I'm unlucky. But in comparison to truly tone-deaf people, I'm lucky.

And then going further along the spectrum, there's people who are hearing impaired who learn Chinese. I read this story by rmpalpha, Meng Lelan's stories like this and this.... It's awe-inspiring. I can't imagine what that must be like. It really puts into perspective my own "bad luck" because of my lack of music ability relative to someone like Julien Gaudfroy.


And it all emphasizes what everyone has in common. People come from different backgrounds, abilities and circumstances when starting to study a totally unknown, unrelated foreign language. But everyone has the potential to learn that language.

The "key" isn't whether you've studied a lot of other languages, including non Indo-European ones. Or have music ability. Or have any type of luck.

I was very lucky to have the right personal and professional circumstances to be able to devote 1600+ hours, essentially all of my waking hours, in the last few months to studying. That's my luck.

And that's a luxury which I know that not everyone has. But I hope that no one who's considering independent study of Chinese and reads this thinks that there's any other luck involved. Everyone who is able to put in a few thousand focused hours, even over a longer period, will definitely see really strong results.

As for what to do, the techniques aren't secret or proprietary. They're public and available for everyone; it doesn't matter what your background or experience is, you can find what you need. Everyone has different tricks and tips that work best for their own circumstances, but the common denominator through everything is hard work and lots of time. There's lots of realistic, solid advice out there from people who have already walked the path to reach a high level. There are many foreigners I know of, including many on this forum, who've reached phenomenal levels and really inspire me to keep going. This website alone is a goldmine of information and techniques; it's given me much motivation and tips while I've been studying, and I'm very grateful that it exists. And modern technology like SRS, pop-up lookups, etc, doesn't eliminate the work required to learn the language, but it definitely can make it more efficient.

There's a lot of misinformation about learning Chinese. Some massively exaggerates the difficulty to the point that you'd think only literal geniuses could ever manage to get there. Some massively underestimates the time required; the "Chinese in x months" people who OneEye mentions are particularly inane examples and are rightly derided for absurd claims.

The truth about learning Chinese, or any language for that matter, is much more prosaic: it's a lot of hard work, a lot of time, but it's quite do-able for all of us.

We all have the ability to learn a language. It's not luck. Insofar as there's any key, the key is hard work. And the determination, motivation and discipline to keep up that hard work, over and over, for hundreds and thousands of hours.


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#19 share Shelley

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Posted 06 March 2014 - 10:03 PM

I have to ask, when you record conversations do you ask the other people if they want to be recorded?

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#20 share icebear

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Posted 06 March 2014 - 10:21 PM

@Shelly - he answered this question in post #17.

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