Published on

My Chinese Journey


My journey to learn Mandarin started many years ago, in the Summer of 2018, right before I headed off to university. When choosing my courses for that Fall, I saw that we could use any language courses to count as an elective. I took a few days to decide what language I wanted to learn, but finally landed on Mandarin.

The reason? I’m honestly not really sure, I have no connection to China or Chinese whatsoever. I think it just sounded cool to me at the time, but little did I know that that little decision would completely change the trajectory of my life.

The Blunder Years

Starting in the Fall of 2018, I took my first Mandarin course. The course went through the first half of Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1. Yes, you read that correctly. The first half of the first part of the first level. This consisted of learning some of the basics like pinyin (a way to write Chinese phonetically) and how to write the most common 50 or so characters. We also learned some vocabulary (around 100 words maybe) and a lot of grammar points.

As you can see, it’s not a lot for an entire semester of a University-level course. Naive me from 2018 followed happily along, thinking that all I had to do was sit there and do the coursework and I would reach the end goal: fluency.

I took another class the following semester, then a break during the Fall of 2019, and finally one more class in the Spring of 2020. All of these courses followed essentially the same exact structure: a weekly dialogue filled with 10-15 new words and grammar points, homework which was just copying characters ad nauseam, and finally a short quiz testing if we had memorized how to write the words along with the definition.

I Know Nothing

By this time it had quickly become almost two years since I initially decided to learn Chinese and attended my first class. I probably knew somewhere between 500-800 words (not very well), could understand pretty much nothing except for beginner learner’s materials, and couldn’t be understood by anyone except the Chinese teacher who’s job it is to sit there and listen to terrible accents all day. Oh, I could also repeat a bunch of grammar points that were useless to me cause I couldn’t speak or understand anyway.

What I did learn wasn’t very usable. Quality matters too, and while I was able to rote-memorize a bit of vocabulary and grammar, I didn’t really know how to use it in a sentence. I knew how the textbook dialogues sounded, but I didn’t know how real Chinese sounded. I could theoretically create sentences from words I knew, but it was more like putting a puzzle together than actually outputting language.

At this point you can probably tell that I dislike classroom language learning, and while that’s true, I also don’t think they’re entirely at fault. Language learning is mostly a numbers game, and there’s only so much you can do with a couple hours a week within a semester.

Feeling frustrated, I decided to prove my insanity by continuing to do the exact same thing and taking yet another course during the Fall of 2020. This proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, because after another waste of a semester repeatedly copying characters into a book, I gave myself an ultimatum. During that Winter break, I was either going to figure how to learn Chinese or give up forever.

Immersion Learning

Feeling disheartened at how much time I had “wasted” learning Mandarin and getting nowhere, did a lot of searching on how to learn languages. I was ready to give up when searching around found nothing but sleazy MLM style courses and channels with good production value that all claimed to teach you a language in 30 seconds with a tiny fee of a million dollars before finally finding Matt Vs. Japan.

Matt Vs. Japan is a Japanese learner who has reached a very high level of Japanese, and he talks about something called immersion-based learning. There’s plenty of online resources that go into detail about what this is, but it essentially boils down to a couple of key points:

  1. Language is something that needs to be acquired. (Unlike something concrete, like math)
  2. The best way to acquire language as an adult learner is by obtaining comprehensible input, which is input that is slightly above your current language level.

At this point, December 2020, I joined an amazing community of language learners on Discord called Refold. Thanks to the kind people in the server as well as the Refold guide, I found about sentence mining as well as a ton of tools that to make it easier.

The way that this “method” works is by just immersing yourself in native media. That’s pretty much it. While immersing, when you come across a sentence where there is only one single word that you don’t know, you can “mine” it by putting the whole sentence along with the word definition onto a flashcard.

Screenshot 2024-04-25 101404.png

Every day, you just do the flashcards, then keep immersing and finding more new words. While not easy, I loved how simple and fun it was compared to going through boring textbooks and lectures. I decided to try it out, and for the next 6 months I woke up every day and did my flashcards followed by a few hours of painstakingly going through Chinese TV shows and videos and looking up every word I didn't know while adding to my flashcard collection.

By the end of the 6 months, going into the Summer break of 2021, I had already learned considerably more than I had in the two years of classes combined and had significantly more fun doing it too. I’d learned thousands of words and could actually understand TV shows, listen to podcasts, and even read simple articles and books without much trouble.


I was able to keep the habit going until the start of the next semester, Fall 2021. At that point, Chinese had become a habit that took up multiple hours of my day. As I was really feeling the stress of my last year at university and state of my mental health, I decided to relax a little bit and not adhere as strictly to my daily schedule.

Pasted image 20240425102519.png

That ended up being a terrible decision; I didn't use those extra hours in any meaningfully productive way, either socially or academically. Breaking the habit made immersion much more painful, and it started feeling like a chore that I needed to do rather than something fun. I was burnt out. It was a vicious cycle. The less I immersed, the less I improved. The lack of improvement in turn made me feel more frustrated and reduced my motivation to immerse.

Pasted image 20240425102420.png

Of course, my Chinese still improved over this time period; I was still immersing, albeit not nearly as much as before. It was more in bursts of a few weeks at a time, followed by long periods of nothing. Any immersion usually was short form / easy content through Youtube or Bilibili (a Chinese video sharing platform). During this time, I also decided to stay at my university to obtain my master's degree, tacking on 3 semesters to my original graduation date of Spring 2022.

After almost a full year of this, during Fall 2022, I decided to stray a little bit from the Refold path and start outputting in an effort to reignite my passion for the language. I intermittently used apps like HelloTalk to connect with native speakers and participate in language exchanges, but there was one big confounding factor: I still couldn't speak.

After inputting for so long, it's a very strange experience to be able to completely understand the other person, but not be able to form even a broken reply in response. My attempts at outputting were frustrating and further demoralized me. After so many hours spent towards being able to understand the language, this felt like going back to square one.

A Concrete Goal!

In the following Spring, I found out that it would be possible to do an exchange semester to my university's China campus for the last semester of my degree that Fall. This was probably the best thing that could've happened for my motivation regarding learning Mandarin. All of my burnt out feelings toward the language slipped away, and I could feel myself getting excited to get back to immersing. Now, I had a real goal in my mind, with a real deadline, and that gave me the boost I needed to get over my extended hump.

That semester was most likely the most difficult one of my academic career, but I took every opportunity to get back to immersing on a consistent basis. I decided to forego doing flashcards and reading in favor of spending more time listening to podcasts and watching vlogs, because those skills would be more useful in a real life setting. After the semester was over, I focused more on output by studying phonetics. This video series as well as the Chinese phonology Wikipedia page were my most used tools. I also shadowed podcasts as I listened, trying to copy the intonation and pronunciation of the speakers.

Finally, August came around, and it was time to go to China. I was extremely nervous but also excited about how I would fare finally using what I'd learned for all of these years in the real world.


Since I was going to China anyway, my family decided to do a trip together and go a couple weeks before my semester started so that we could visit a few more cities. During those weeks, we almost always had a language guide with us who helped us translate and get around the city we were in. However, there were plenty of times when they couldn't be there, and in those times it was up to me to be able to communicate with the people around me. Every time I had to approach someone and speak to them, whether it was at a coffee shop, a tourist attraction, or the hotel front-desk, I could feel my heart racing as I worked up the courage to actually speak in Chinese. Each success felt magical, and I almost couldn't believe that I was really communicating in a foreign language!

I'm glad I had that buffer time before the semester started, because it allowed me to quickly befriend a lot of my classmates. I was still nervous and intimidated every time I had to speak, but it wasn't nearly as bad as the first couple weeks. During the first week of school, most of my classmates would introduce themselves and speak to me in English. But when I responded in Mandarin, their face would light up and their entire demeanor would become more open. Soon enough, I was regularly hanging out exclusively with native speakers mostly using only Chinese to communicate.

The path wasn't without its hurdles though. The initial barrage of different accents really threw me off at first, and slang was my greatest enemy (Don't release the pigeon? What?). When going places with friends, they would often be a little confused at what I knew or didn't know how to say. For example, I had a conversation with a barista about coffee beans, and my classmate had no idea what we were talking about due to the specific vocabulary around coffee. But then we walked around to buy things for the dorm and I didn't know words like hangers, pillow, mattress cover, kettle, etc. That's one of the downsides of learning a language through media; they don't often say words like that in TV shows or the Bilibili videos I watched!

Honestly, my life in China and the effects it had on my language ability probably deserves its own post, but I'll try to keep it short. Overall, I found that my listening ability improved drastically over the course of those four months. While my speaking ability also improved, I felt that the biggest gain was in being able to get my point across, even when I didn't know the exact word to use. Funnily enough, I think my reading actually got worse, as I stopped reading any long form content while I was there, but my individual word recognition and skimming improved from constantly using Chinese apps and menus.

Coming Back & The Future

I was sad to leave China. I had a fantastic time, and not just because of the language gains. I'm looking forward to going back some day, potentially in the near future!

Looking back, the butterfly effect of randomly deciding to learn Mandarin as a 17 year-old about to go to college seems both incredible and surreal. This journey has really impact my life in so many ways. I've gained life-long friends, interacted with some many unique people from different backgrounds, and lived halfway across the world for a short-time! It has also led me to discover different things about myself, gain new hobbies, and changed my perspective life. This is definitely not what I imagined when I attended my first Chinese course (almost 5 and 1/2 years ago!), and I wonder what that me would thing about all of this.

After coming back, I've been much more focused on my personal life. I had a few family responsibilities to take care of, and I'm now on the job hunt looking for my first Software Engineering role. Subsequently, I haven't had as much time to study Mandarin, but the point of writing this post was both to share and reflect on my convoluted learning journey as well as to remind myself that I should really get back on those flashcards and C-Dramas!

I'll hopefully make more posts related to language learning and detailing my progress in the future, so stay tuned for that!