How not to learn Chinese in Singapore

I have been trying to learn Mandarin since before I moved to Singapore in 2008. I have made embarrassingly little progress.

That’s starting to change.

At a cost of SG $245, I have registered for HSK Level 3 and HSKK Beginner in mid-June 2022. The HSK is the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, the standardized test for Mandarin Chinese. HSKK is a separate speaking test.

When I take the test, I will have been studying Chinese either for twenty years, or two months, depending on how you count. I’m good at languages, but this is going to be tough. I am taking stock of the resources available to me and trying to decide what to do and how. This process includes reflecting on all the things I’ve done before.

Why so little progress?

Partly it’s that I don’t need to use Mandarin in Singapore; IMO it would be more obnoxious than not to trot out my beginner Chinese with a local native speaker of English for the sake of practicing ordering coffee or whatever. Partly it’s that regular lessons don’t fit well with the last eleven years of jobs I’ve had in terms of scheduling. At least that’s what I tell myself.

What’s been tried?

Here are the ways in which I have tried—and will be trying—to learn Chinese:

2002–2003: Took a year of Japanese 
I had to study a non–Indo-European language for my linguistics degree. Two of my choices (I don’t remember the others) were Japanese and Chinese. Italian, French, Spanish, and other languages of normal difficulty were 50 minutes of class three times a week; Japanese was 50 minutes 5 times a week; and Chinese was 80 minutes five time a week. I didn’t dare take Chinese because of other time commitments, but a friend of a friend of mine did, and I’ve been jealous ever since. Still, I did learn how to write kanji, and there’s a lot of overlap between kanji and hanzi.

2007–2008 (?): Studied casually on my own
I was working for a publisher and picked up a set of three textbooks and workbooks for free. I think for a while I was trying to practice writing five new characters each week, cumulatively. I’ve got a ton of books about Chinese and China, actually. Occasionally I read one.

2007–2008 (?): Studied casually with a Chinese friend
I answered an ad on a local US campus message board and made friends with the Chinese wife of a Chinese graduate student. The idea was for me to help her improve her English and for her to help me with Chinese. Her English was already pretty fluent, so we spent most of the time chatting in English, but she did help me practice pronouncing pinyin syllables. Maybe she also looked over my handwriting.

2008: Moved to Singapore
Singapore’s primary language is English, but Mandarin Chinese is one of the other three official languages. Some locals speak other dialects (Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, etc.). Shop signs, especially food stalls, and various signboards and notices are sometimes written in Chinese as well as English. A moderately keen observer can easily learn to recognize the Chinese characters for words like “push” and “pull” and “emergency exit”. Someone more interested in learning can pick up a lot more by using the environment to reinforce other types of learning.

2009–2010: Made flashcards
I had a ton of business cards on which I wrote characters and their meanings and pronunciations. I think they helped a little… but they didn’t help during the years they spent in a box.

2009: Got a job with mainland Chinese colleagues
For about a year, I worked in a small Singapore office of less than 10 people. Two or three of them were from China. My knowledge wasn’t enough to begin to understand their conversations at lunch. Meanwhile, I worked via email and chat with a team of Chinese speakers of English located in the company’s Chengdu office. I learned a bit about Chinese phraseology from the mistakes in their written English.

2009–2010: Took a Reasonably Serious class
I took two terms of non-credit night classes at the “continuing education” branch of The National University of Singapore. They were not cheap, but they were worthwhile; unfortunately all those adult classes were discontinued. I think my class was two hours twice a week, and I remember the course as being pretty systematic. I don’t think we had homework to hand in, though, or any tests. If we didn’t, we should have.

2009–2022 (intermittently): Subscribed to Chinesepod 
I downloaded audio files from and listened to lessons on my smartphone while commuting. These are good. They have other materials, but I just use the audio files.

2013–2022 (intermittently): Attended community centre classes
I signed up for two terms of 90-minute night classes at a nearby community centre. After moving to a different location, I signed up at a different one for a term. Recently, I signed up for classes in three different locations, none of them particularly nearby; one was completely useless so I cut my losses and just stopped going. Community Centre classes are cheap, but even at best, not particularly rigorous. Still, unlike self-study methods, attending a live class (usually) gives students the chance to practice speaking.

2012–2020 (intermittently): Visited China
I was in China briefly as a tourist a couple of times. Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou. I’ve been to Hong Kong and Taiwan, too. Honestly, the best practice is when the person you’re talking to only speaks the language you’re trying to learn. Saying something relevant and being understood feels like such a win. But I mostly went to foreigner-friendly places where someone spoke English, or there was an English-speaking Chinese friend or tour guide with me.

2018: Studied casually with a Chinese neighbor
I joined an informal class conducted by a mainland Chinese neighbor. She had young children and I had a job with strange hours, so the friendship didn’t quite get off the ground, and then I moved and she wasn’t my neighbor anymore, and then later she left the country. Oh well.

2022: Tried a class on Coursera
Videos are just not how I learn. I learn mainly by reading. Unless it’s, like, ninety seconds of cats freaking out about cucumbers, I have zero attention span for watching online videos. I did a few basic Coursera Chinese lessons and passed some stupid quizzes, then lost interest. Would definitely not pay actual money for more of the same, and I can’t really imagine that the non-free Coursera Chinese lessons are much better than the free ones.

2022: Started listening to The Lion King in Mandarin
Uh, so, many years ago, I memorized the The Lion King (1994) by listening to a tape recording of it over and over again. Which means that when I listen to it in Chinese, I know what they’re saying even when I don’t know what they’re saying. I’ve been listening to it at .75 speed, which makes the songs sound weird but makes it easier to hear individual words and phrases. Although knowing how to say “hyena” in Mandarin isn’t going to help me pass HSK L3, I’ve picked up a lot, and some of it is practical.

2022: Hired an expensive home tutor
She was an extrovert who somehow believed, in spite of my insistence otherwise, that I would benefit from her advice to try out Chinese with strangers in public places in Singapore, in order to, say, get directions to somewhere. Welp, lady, I don’t even ask strangers for directions in English. I type the destination in the map app on my phone. I have less than zero desire to do otherwise. Also, she was completely unaware of some basic pronunciation rules that a teacher ought to know. In contrast, one of my community centre teachers is really good at giving guidance about tones.

2022: Live online tutoring. ???
Are we not all tired of Zoom? I’m tired of Zoom. Heck, even my nice webcam is tired of Zoom; video cuts off for no reason after a while. Still, it makes a lot of economic sense to have a live one-to-one class that doesn’t require either party to travel. I’ve arranged a trial lesson. We’ll see how it goes.

2022: Installed various phone apps
Apps don’t really appeal to me for most purposes, maps being an exception. But it turns out that gamifying repetition for learning is something apps are ridiculously good at. I wish I’d realized that earlier.

I can’t stand the name, because I keep thinking it should be “Duolinguo”. In romance languages, words that sound like “lingua” mean “tongue” (body part) and/or “tongue” (language). Nevertheless, did I sign up for the free trial? Yes. Am I paying for at least a month’s subscription? Yes. Is it helping me learn? Yes.

This is a fantastic, free dictionary app. I only just figured out how to use the flashcard feature, which is a better way to study the characters than any other app I tried, because unlike the rest, it can hide the pinyin. And it’s still free.

Other Apps
ChineseSkill, HelloChinese, SuperTest, Skritter
These are all more or less paywalled… haven’t tried out the full versions. ChineseSkill and HelloChinese look like semi-clones of Duolingo, and Skritter is for writing, a somewhat obsolete skill compared to reading, speaking, and listening.

What’s not been tried?

Watch media with Chinese audio and English subtitles.
A lot of people learn foreign languages by watching movies or tv shows in the target language and reading the subtitles. I could do that because I have a lot of DVDs with Chinese audio and English subtitles; some are Chinese or Hong Kong movies and some are Hollywood movies produced for an Asian market.

Regularly talking to friends in Chinese.
Yes, I know people who speak Mandarin. But I don’t know enough Mandarin to “just chat”. No native speaker is going to be long amused by the types of conversations I can have. “Hello! Nice to meet you! I am American! I am learning Chinese! I like to eat rice but I don’t like to eat fish! I have one younger brother! I want to buy half a kilo of grapes! Where is the train station? Thank you! Good night!”

Regularly studying with a classmate.
When I was in the Reasonably Serious class, my classmates were at a similar level and similarly committed. If I’m not in such a class, I’m not sure how to find a study partner. Or, to be honest, what I would do if I found one.

Attending a class targeted at business people or expats.
My worry is that if I even find one that fits my schedule, once I pay the big bucks, the class (which I’ll have to spend an hour to get to) will turn out to be the wrong difficulty level, or just disappointing in how it’s delivered. I had a frustrating experience with a writing workshop that put me off ever paying for any more writing workshops. There’s a correlation between quality and price, but… sometimes the correlation isn’t as strong as I’d like. Once bitten, twice shy.

Designing and conducting a class myself.
They say that if you really want to learn something, try teaching it to someone else. I’m convinced that if it weren’t for my still-shaky command of tones, I could teach a pretty good newbie Chinese class myself. I have a background in linguistics. I have a ton of reference materials. I have good computer skills and experience creating curriculum materials. I have experience teaching. And I have experience learning Chinese from the perspective of a native English speaker, something no native Chinese speaker has. If you’re interested, let me know, lol.

Going to live in China.
That would do it for sure.