Do you need Chinese in your day-to-day life? Your answer should impact how you study

There are four main skills required for fluency in any language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Chinese is unique from western alphabetic languages in that the aural components of listening and speaking and the visual components of reading and writing are not well integrated with each other. For example, it’s possible to know the sound of the character 车(che1/car) but not know how to recognize or write it on paper. Similarly, I can know how to recognize it, but not know how it sounds. Sometimes you can correctly guess the sound from the construction of the character, but not always.

This means that for Chinese more so than for other languages, you really need to decide which of these four skills you want to focus on, because they don’t all directly reinforce each other like they do in other languages. For example, if I see an unfamiliar word in Spanish, I can “sound it out” into its spoken form, so my reading practice reinforces my speaking and listening skills too. This doesn’t work as well with Chinese for the reasons explained above.

Given these unique qualities of the language, the next relevant questions are: should you focus on one skill more than the others? If so, which one? Or should you try to keep them all in balance?

I chose to focus more heavily on reading at first, based on two principles:

  • Input skills (reading and listening) provide more broad benefit than output skills (writing and speaking). This is because input skills: (1) expose you to new Chinese content like vocabulary and grammar, and (2) polish and refine the content you already know. Output skills only do the latter. Both are valuable forms of practice, but especially early on, input skills will deliver more benefit per hour invested.
  • Based on the way that most people study, reading will teach both character recognition and pronunciation. This is because when you see an unfamiliar word in a book or article, you will most likely look it up in a dictionary. The dictionary will show you both the meaning and the pronunciation. It is less common to use a dictionary when listening, unless you are also using a transcript. Typically, when I hear an unfamiliar word spoken, I will (1) ask the speaker to explain it, or (2) try to figure it out from context. Both of these methods only give me the meaning of the word and leave me unable to write or recognize it. I think this quirk is probably why there are so many heritage learners (students who speak Chinese at home with family, but want to improve their skills further) out there who can speak and listen but cannot read or write, but fewer students who can read and write but cannot speak or listen.

To summarize the above two principles for each learning type:

  • Reading benefits reading, listening, writing, and speaking
  • Listening benefits listening and speaking
  • Writing benefits writing
  • Speaking benefits speaking

So, I chose to focus on reading, and to some extent listening first and then catch up the other skills at a slower pace. For me, this approach was faster and easier than developing all four skills equally. I believe this also led to less “re-work,” where I would first study basic Chinese and then relearn more complex Chinese to replace the basic Chinese I had used previously. This made my overall learning journey shorter than it would have otherwise been.

One other benefit to this method is that you are less likely to reinforce mistakes. If you start to speak from day 1, you will necessarily say a lot of things incorrectly due to lack of exposure to the language. However, if you start to speak after you have read a few graded readers of listened to a few Chinese TV shows for children, you will have a better feel for the language and make fewer mistakes. These mistakes will also be less likely to become habitual.

Now, back to the title of the article. If you live in China or otherwise need Chinese in your day-to-day life, you are probably better off developing these skills equally. However, for those of us that do not need Chinese every day, it will probably be faster and more efficient to focus more on reading at the outset. You can then catch up the other skills a bit more slowly, as desired. It may make your learning experience a smoother one.

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