Daily Chinese Practice: A Guide for Beginners


How to Organise a Self-Learner's Language Practice?

I've been learning Chinese for just two weeks and thus I still consider myself a total beginner, although I can already say a few phrases. I'm following the best method I know of in combination with Scurfield & Song's introductory audio course. On this page, I describe in detail what my daily Chinese sessions consist of. This way of structuring a student's home practice proved highly efficient when I was teaching and learning other languages. It should be applicable to at least levels A1-B1 (Beginner-Intermediate).

I practise my Chinese almost every day for at least one hour. Sometimes it takes up to 1.5-2 hours. Most of the time is spent on copying the pronunciation of native speakers on the recordings. I start each session with a warm-up, then I repeat phrases I learnt some time ago, then I proceed to learning new phrases.

I explain each of these steps in the following sections. Feel free to adapt them to your needs.


1. Warm-up


Time requried: 3 minutes

The phonetic system of a foreign language is generally very much different from that of your native language. It invokes a different set of muscles in your lips and tongue, and the order in which they are triggered is also "unnatural". If you try to utter a sentence in a foreign language you will tend to use the familiar sounds of your native language and the result will be mediocre. That's why it is very important to prepare your tongue and facial muscles at the beginning of each session before you actually start to speak. That way, you'll be able to copy the pronunciation of a native speaker more accurately.

You can choose any set of vocal warm-up exercises like the kind actors use. I personally like this one:




Time requried: 5 minutes

The whole point of our method is to learn like a child, remember? Children have the luxury of living in their native-language environment on a 24/7 basis, which most adults don't have access to. This is a serious factor that impedes our progress.

What do we usually do before a Chinese class? Work at the office? Drive home? Hang out with friends? We probably talk and/or think in our native language right up until the moment our foreign-language session starts. The brain is quite an inert system and it needs some time to activate the areas responsible for the second language you're learning. Fortunately, it doesn't take long to tune your brain to the right wavelength.

In order to immerse myself in a Chinese environment I usually listen to native speech for around 5 minutes at the beginning of each session. It can be almost anything: a dialogue from my course, a cartoon, a TV programme. It doesn't matter that I don't understand most of what they say, I just listen to the intonation and try to make out what I can.


2. Repeat Old Material

Two Weeks Old

Time requried: 10 minutes

Successful language learning is all about repeating the same things over and over again. So, after the warm-up, I first go over the stuff I learnt two weeks ago. For example, I learnt the phrase 再见 (zàijiàn) 14 days ago. What I need to do now is open the relevant recording and practise this phrase again, in the same way I worked on it on the first day, i. e. by playing it and "mocking" the pronunciation as many times as it takes to sound very close to the speaker. Then I should proceed to the next phrase from the same session 14 days ago, and so on.


One Week Old

Time requried: 10 minutes

Once I've finished repeating the material from two weeks ago I proceed to repeating the phrases from one week ago. Everything is the same as in the previous step, only the phrases are "fresher".


One Day Old

Time requried: 10 minutes

This is probably the most challenging part of repeating old material. You first heard those phrases about 24 hours ago and you've probably forgotten the intricacies of their pronunciation or even whole phrases. Again, this step is similar to the previous ones:

Play - Mock - Play - Mock ...


3. Learn New Material

Time requried: 15 minutes

At this point, I have repeated all the old material scheduled for today and I'm about 60% into my session. By this moment, the areas in my brain related to acquiring Chinese have lit up like a Christmas tree and I'm ready to learn something new.

I first listen to the new dialogue from my course and try to understand it as best I can without pausing the recording. Then I open the course's PDF to the transcript and listen to the dialogue phrase by phrase, making sure that I understand everything correctly. I only need the book for the English translation of each phrase and I don't look at the Chinese/Pinyin.

Once everything in the dialogue is clear, I proceed to the same old routine, applying it to each phrase:

Play - Mock - Play - Mock ...

If the dialogue is too long or if some phrases take much longer than expected I divide it into two or more sessions. As a beginner, I'm more focused on the quality of my pronunciation rather than the number of phrases I can cover per unit time. This snail's pace will eventually pay off.


4. Repeat the New Material

Time requried: 5 minutes

While today's material is still sitting in my short-term memory it is a good idea to reinforce it. So, I go back to the first phrase of today's session, play it and repeat after the speaker. It normally suffices to do this a couple of times, since I just practised those sentences throuh and through.

Our memory is a very leaky pot. One hour after the lesson, we forget a considerable part of its material. This loss is not as trivial as forgetting, say, 3 words out of 10. You may still remember all of them but you probably have not retained the slightest nuances in the pronunciation on which you worked so hard. That's why I find it useful to repeat today's phrases about 1 hour after the session. You don't even have to play the recordings, just recall the phrases and say each of them out loud at least one time. It won't take too long.

When possible, I also do this reinforcement the next morning.