I did not know a single word in Chinese when I first came to Beijing in July 2013 to study Mandarin. After finishing highschool I decided to spend my gap year trying to achieve fluency in Chinese – something I was back then not very certain I could achieve within only a year.
Mandarin is generally believed to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. The foreign sounds, the thousands of complex characters and the four tones are often enough to keep people from trying to learn the language. I met quite a few people who are interested in learning it, but believe it is too difficult and would take years to learn, so they do not.
So how to reach C1 level (HSK 5) in a year?
I am neither the first student at my school, nor will I be the last, to achieve this. I am also certainly not some kind of genius or even very good at learning languages in general.
At the same time I am of course not saying that Mandarin is an easy langauge to learn. However, with the right attitude, program and motivation it is definitely possible to become fluent within a year.
First, you need the right motives. I have met many people who study Chinese because it is beneficial for their career. I think that’s great and it is one of the reason why I did it, but I mainly started learning out of fascination and interest in the language. I think to learn Chinese quickly, you need to be interested not only in the language, but also the culture and people that come with it. It will make learning Mandarin in China a lot more fun and interesting. Everyone is better at doing something that one enjoys.
Secondly, you need a good teacher. For that, the classes I took at LTL were great. I had several different teachers during the different phases of my program and all were very skilled and helpful. I also found the small group classes at the beginning very good, as starting with Mandarin from zero in a 1-on-1 class would have been a bit scary, but only being in a small group of at the time four students still allowed the teacher to pay attention to each student. Studying four to six hours per day is quite intense and can be exhausting at times but it is worth it. I found the speed at which I progressed surprisingly fast and I started to realize that many things that I was scared of at the beginning, for example the x,j,q sounds, just took some time to get used to.
Thirdly, it is important to pay attention to all aspects of the language. One very important part of this are Chinese characters. While I found the grammar and speaking in Chinese easier than I had thought, the characters were just as difficult as I had imagined. However, if you want to become fluent you have to learn them. In my experience, anyone who thinks that Pinyin is enough and is not willing to spend the time and effort necessary on characters, will not make it past intermediate level. However, Chinese Characters can be very frustrating. For me, it got better over time though, as I learned in class that characters are not just random strokes, but that most follow certain patterns. I also found using some apps like Pleco and it’s fleshcard add on very helpful in learning them
Last but probably most importantly, you have to find Chinese friends and stay in a Mandarin speaking environment. In Bejing at times this was difficult, because it is so easy to make friends with your classmates. The social life at the school is a lot of fun and I very quickly met and made friends with people from all over the world. However, while this was very interesting, all of them could speak English and most were just as bad in Mandarin as I was. That’s where I found my teachers and the staff at LTL great. I practiced my speaking with them every day after class, which helped me a lot to improve my spoken Mandarin. However, in Beijing you usually still end up using quite a lot of English, simply because there are so many foreigners and Chinese who can speak it. That is where Chengde comes in. I stayed and studied Mandarin in Chenge for two months while living in a home stay family and it was an amazing time. Apart from having a lot of history and stunning sights like 避暑山庄, it is simply not possible to speak English in Chengde. While I first found that prospect a bit worrying, it was actually a lot easier than I had thought. My teachers and people in general in Chengde were extremely helpful, nice and patient with my language abilities. My homestay family there was fantastic and once my student coordinator had introduced me to the local football team, it suddenly became very easy to make new friends and I spoke nothing but Chinese all day. I would say that during my year in China, it was during those two months that my Chinese improved the most.
I am back home in Germany now and just received my HSK 5 results. I got 278 points out of 300 which I have been told is pretty good (you need 180 to pass). According to my teacher, with a bit of preparation I could pass HSK 6 as well at the moment. However, for me the next step is to start university now, but I hope to be back in China soon.
For anyone who is looking for an adventure for their gap year that is a bit different to what most other people do, while also learning a very useful skill, I definitely recommend China and learning Mandarin. From helping me to organize the program before I came to China, to the ups and downs during the program, the challenges and excitement in China I have found LTL not just a reliable, competent and trustworthy school, but often also a “home away from home”.
I already miss my friends in Beijing and Chengde, the LTL school family, the food, the language and the daily adventures one experiences when living in China.
If you’re interested in taking your HSK exam with LTL in Beijing, please visit our HSK Exam page.