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Overcoming the Plateau


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I have been studying Chinese since the middle of 2007. This year, I completed the most advanced Chinese course that my university offers.

However, recently I feel like I'm banging my head against a brick wall. I studied mainly 书面语 this year, yet I still have problems with daily communication. Because I don't have Chinese friends to converse with, my spoken Chinese leaves a lot to be desired. I sat the HSK level 5 (new system) this year, and I failed because I found myself forgetting how to write many basic hanzi in the exam. Now and then, I find myself forgetting sentence structures that are simple and which I have used countless times (e.g. today I forgot how to say "give change" --> 找给你).

Has anybody here had a similar experience, and if so, how did you get yourself out of this place?

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Yup, I've been there, and I am still working on it.

This is a very common problem, and it comes about because university courses leave huge, gaping holes in your knowledge. 4 years is barely enough to get a Chinese kid talking Chinese well, so 4 years of part-time Chinese study at a university will not by itself give you a sufficient background to use Chinese confidently. When you get to the point in a university curriculum where you study 书面语 and newspaper articles, your vocabulary will have been tailored so that you can follow the textbooks. You will therefore still struggle immensely with native-level material not tailored for the course, because there will be huge areas of the language you have not been exposed to.

Actually learning the language and internalizing all the grammatical structures is going to take immense amounts of repetition until the structures become lodged in your brain. The only way of doing this is maximizing your exposure to the language by, e.g., reading Chinese texts, watching Chinese TV shows and communicating in Chinese as much as possible.

As a strategy, I'd suggest trying to work as much Chinese into your daily routine as possible. Find some Chinese websites with content that interests you, and find time to read them for at least 15 minutes a day. Listen to Chinese podcasts in the car. Start watching a Chinese TV-series (there are many great recommendations in the "first episode project" here on the forum). Perhaps you have someone you could talk with in Chinese on a regular basis?

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This is the curse of learning Chinese abroad. Many of us know it.

You're missing everyday exposure to the language, and Chinese demands lots of exposure compared to some other languages. The most useful approach, in my experience, is to create this exposure yourself:

- Lots of listening. Check the Episode Project for some good shows and start watching. Passive listening skills are very useful, and they will increase your spoken language too.

- Conversation as often as you can. This part is very difficult. I found a "Chinese Corner" in my town and attended it very often and it was really helpful. You can also try a language exchange partner. Prepare for it in advance, by looking up some vocabulary and trying to use it in conversation. I don't know where you're located, but there is a good chance that there is a Chinese student who wants to practice with you.

- Read a real book. If you're looking at passing HSK5, it's time to read some real stuff. Something in the neighbourhood of 1000 pages. It will help with vocabulary (somewhat) and grammar and sentence structure (a lot)! I'd recommend our Comic reading project, but you should be past that stage and will profit from real books. Check the Book of the Month subforum for some good recommendation.

I can't say that I've beaten the plateau, but I do feel that I'm still improving steadily. You need to expose yourself to lots of native material and push through. After you've read all the four classics and watched 300 movies in Mandarin, your Chinese will be much better :)

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Do more writing. Even simple items like grocery lists, write them in Chinese. Use Skritter to help review and learn characters. Start a blog in Chinese. Whatever gets you to write will get you through your next HSK if you are going to be expected to write some basic characters.

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I agree with Meng, I write shopping lists in Chinese, as well as other things I have to write down. If your goal is practical communication, you can try and recreate normal daily conversations you might have in Chinese. I also use a Chinese OS on my computer, and Chinese iPhone, ipod and itunes interfaces and try to know the names in Chinese of objects I use daily. For me, this creates a more practical vocabulary than you might get in a college course, where it seems like a lot of the lessons focus on things like Beijing Opera. That, strangely, doesn't come up a lot in everyday conversation.

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Hitting your plateau in Chinese or any other language can be difficult. I started learning Chinese around the same time as you, 2007, and I've definitely felt the same way. For a long time, it seemed that my Chinese hadn't improved significantly over the years I was studying.

You get through it with loads of hard work and self confidence. You have to convince yourself that speaking Chinese well is something that you want to do and start taking different steps every day to make the change.

Other posters' advice is spot on; you should start incorporating Chinese into your everyday life. When I felt that I was forgetting how to write down even the simplest Hanzi, I realized it was because outside of the classroom setting, I wasn't writing Chinese by hand at all. My solution was to start keeping a hand-written diary in Chinese that I would commit to writing in every single day.

I stopped logging into my Youtube account and instead started using Youku, I started listening to only Mandarin songs in my iPod, instead of reading regular books I started reading Chinese comics and reading materials for students of Chinese...these things can really help!

Chinese can be frustrating, but you have to grind it out and stay motivated.

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a lot of good adivce above (especially speaking more) and a lot of good strategies to get over it. But in the end, I would say the main point is:

Dont worry, we have ALL had it. Just hang in there, keep studying, speaking, writing, just dont give up. You might not feel like you are getting better, but you are. And you will get there. I dont think there is a single fluent speaker on this forum who has not been hitting his/her head against that same brick wall. It has mental blood stains from previous generations all over it. That brick wall is what makes learning Chinese special - because so many people give up on it. Just keep hitting it, it will come down!

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