10 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Chinese Right Now

One of the most important aspects of learning Chinese is making the best use of your time. It can be easy to waste all of the little five-minute chunks of time that appear throughout your day, but if you can put them to use, the benefits add up fast.

One thing that I like about this kind of five-minute learning exercise is that it's easy to get motivated for them. When you're just not in the mood to study, one of the best tactics is to get yourself to do something for five minutes, or even one minute, or even thirty seconds. Doing anything is better than doing nothing, and you'll often find that getting started is all it takes to get motivated for more.

There are endless things you can do to improve your Chinese in five minutes, and every learner builds up their own catalogue of activities they can put to use. Here's ten to add to your list, if you don't do them already.

Do 5 minutes of Chinese flashcards

This is my go-to way to productively use a spare minute or two that pops up. If you have access to Anki (get it on your computer and smartphone, if you have one), you can easily make use of any amount of time to improve your Chinese.

You can do flashcards for ten seconds, and you can do them for several hours (when you've got final exams coming up and enough caffeine, at least).

Getting a few flashcards done is an excellent default option for spending study time, because it's flexible, customised and can always be a part of your Chinese study habits. I also love them for their scheduling function. You can add material to your flashcards deck and know that it will come up for review sooner or later.

Read Chinese for 5 minutes

Flashcards are very good for building vocabulary, increasing 语感 (feel for the language) and keeping on top of the things you want to remember. But another important aspect of learning Chinese is stretching yourself and taking on material that you haven't seen before.

Reading can be one of the best ways to get that unpredictable element, because it's much harder to zone out and ignore the parts you don't understand. When you're listening, it's easy to just ignore and forget about the harder parts, but that's harder to do with reading.

This one may be less versatile than flashcards, but if you're at a computer with an internet connection you've got access to several lifetimes’ worth of Chinese reading material. Type some random shit into Baidu and see if you can make sense of the top result. You've got a five-minute time limit so it shouldn't get too boring.

You can also install various reading apps on your smartphone or tablet, if you have one. Kindle with an Amazon China account can be really nice, and there are plenty of Chinese reading apps with free ebooks.

If you've got the technology then it's pretty easy to keep Chinese reading material with you all the time. Or, of course, you can buy some of those book things.

Get some listening going

This one is also easy to keep accessible at all times, and is useful throughout your Chinese learning career (your whole life, hopefully). Listening is versatile because it can be super low-effort (providing minimal benefit), or very intense. It can also combine well with other activities you're doing without getting in the way.

If you're at a computer, then search around for some Chinese internet radio. Try to identify some favourite stations that you can always go to without having to think about it. If you're in a Chinese-speaking location, just use FM radio - one switch and you've got Chinese listening practice.

To make sure I have Chinese listening materials available on the go, I keep various podcasts on my phone (using Pocket Casts), and sometimes use the FM radio as well. I used to use an iPod for the same thing before I switched to a smartphone. The point is to make it as easy as possible to get listening going so that you don't have to put any thought into it.

Chat online in Chinese

If you can make it work, chatting online in Chinese can be great. It is quite difficult to get it right though - I'll write about and link to my thoughts on this soon. In short, what I've found works is:

  • Find chances to chat about topics that interest you other than Chinese (e.g. look for Chinese chat rooms about rock music or anteaters or whatever).
  • Try to avoid admitting / focusing on the fact that you're a foreigner, and just drop anyone who wants to practice English with you or do language exchanges.
  • Draw a clear line between language practice and people who you actually like as friends.

Note that I'm talking about anonymous / semi-anonymous chats with people you haven't met. Chatting with friends is a totally different thing, and in my view shouldn't really be seen as a language learning session (even if it has that effect).

Do 听写 for 5 minutes

Listening is a good way to spend time productively or to combine a bit of language exposure with other activities. It's very easy to be entirely passive with listening, though, which can eliminate a lot of the beneficial effects.

A sure-fire way to make sure you're actually engaging with what you're hearing is to do 听写 (dictation). As the name suggests, you listen and write, but there's quite a lot of scope for variation with this.

Writing out what you hear word for word, trying to summarise, or doing pre-designed exercises from a listening course all work, and can all be done right now if you've got the materials available.

Learn a Chinese song

Yeah, yeah, I know. When I read stuff like this my reaction is always “Oh jeez…” But even if it seems unbearably jolly, learning songs is good for your Chinese. You've just got to find songs you like, and spend a little bit of time with them.

A really good way to learn a song is to translate the lyrics into your native language (and then post them on your blog!). The goal isn't to end up with a nice version of the song in another language, but to make sure you get familiar with the lyrics and understand them.

If you're like me then you don't really enjoy the classic Chinese songs that everyone knows and wants you to sing at KTV. In the end I've ended up learning various bits and pieces of them against my will, which just goes to show how effective songs are for getting things lodged in your memory.

Write 10 Chinese characters from memory

If you use Skritter, than bust that open and get going. You can also set up specific hanzi-writing flashcards in Anki and keep track of your characters that way. Otherwise, always having a bit of paper and a pen is good. Just make sure you keep a list of characters you need to test, perhaps by making a note of any characters you forget, or new ones that you come across.

Call some Chinese customer service numbers

No, seriously. I'm planning to write a post about this soon, and I'm only half-joking. After repeated crappy conversations with Chinese companies (I don't enjoy phoning companies in any language), I realised that you can actually practice this by just randomly phoning them up.

It might seem a bit weird, but you can think of some vaguely legitimate reason to phone a large company (e.g. pretend you're interested in becoming a customer) and just chat with their representative for a few minutes. I'm not suggesting you prank them or cause trouble, and a large company can clearly absorb the cost of one ‘wasted’ call.

Give it a try, it's pretty funny!

Make 5 Chinese character mnemonics

…or mnemonics for anything in your Chinese studies. Mnemonics are good. Most people seem to agree on that once they've discovered mnemonics, but still don't make them a central part of their learning.

The act of making mnemonics is a very good learning activity, and as it's so granular it can fill up different chunks of time just nicely.

To do this right now: Which characters have you forgotten recently? What words have you forgotten? Make mnemonics for them!

Describe your surroundings in Chinese (in detail)

This is one we got taught in our first year of uni, and it's stuck with me as a nice way to work on my Chinese at any particular moment. The idea is simple and works anywhere - describe your surroundings in as much detail as your level of Chinese allows. Try to use material you find difficult, and try to use words you find hard to pronounce.

This works best if you can speak out loud, but if you're not alone, it's still beneficial to speak dead quietly or just in your head. Even when you're alone, you will feel stupid doing this, because it's stupid. But you get over that quickly, and find that it's surprisingly useful.

Of course, you don't actually have to describe your surroundings - that's just a nice prompt to fall back on. Talk about anything - your day, your plans, your feelings.

You might find it's a nice thing to do in itself, aside from the language benefits. Even if you don't go for that hippy crap, do this for your Chinese!

Over to you

Do you do any of these to fill up spare chunks of time? What other good ways are there to learn Chinese at any given moment?

Keep reading