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Learning Chinese as a Second or Third Language - General Tips for Developing Intuition

As a young child growing up in Xi’an, China, I remember tracing Chinese characters in practice books and constantly perfecting the stroke orders of certain characters. At the recommendation of my parents, I even switched from writing with my left hand to writing with my right hand, since it was definitely easier to compose long passages while being right-handed. Most definitely, Chinese is an extremely difficult language - with tens of thousands of different characters and four main different tones in regards to pronunciation, there’s a lot to take in and remember (Ren 21). I was lucky enough to learn the language in an environment extremely conducive for doing so, where I was surrounded by native speakers and many other resources. Yet, for others who desire to learn Chinese as a second or third language, such an environment may not be readily available. Nevertheless, do not fear! Learning Chinese is definitely more than possible.

When teaching Chinese to children, it may initially seem like a daunting task. After these lessons, it may be difficult to fathom how to drill the newly learned information into the minds of young kids. After I immigrated to the United States at the age of six, I was immediately thrown into the world of the English language, which I had rarely been exposed to previously in my life. At first, I was clueless on how to learn an entirely new language - I had no clue what the teacher was saying 100% of the time, and would often just sit there cluelessly as my classmates nodded and responded. Over time, however, I found that one of the best ways to learn a new language is to just expose yourself to it as much as possible. Whether this involves taking classes and actively listening and engaging with the instructor, or practicing with as many people as you can find, making a genuine effort to immerse yourself in the Chinese language will help you create an environment as similar to that of being in China and learning the language at its very site. Try to show kids Chinese videos with English subtitles, and soon enough, they’ll pick up certain words and phrases that repeat themselves often! Moreover, listening to Chinese songs or radios, and trying to pick out familiar words, is a helpful tool for training one’s ears to the language in casual settings.

One major factor that makes other languages different from Chinese is the difference in Chinese grammar. As Saul Gitlin, a strategist and commentator in International, Cross-Cultural, and Multilingual Marketing and Communications notes in a HuffPost article, the Chinese language mostly forms sentences in the structure of subject + verb + object, where verbs are usually in one form - not so much conjugated like in English (Gitlin). Generally, sentences are stringed together similarly to those in English - for instance, “I am going to the park today” would sound like 今天我要去公园 (Today I am going park) in Chinese. This makes Chinese have a more intuitive feel for English speakers. Grasping the grammar rules of Chinese is key to understanding the language, because being aware of specific structures will help you identify and grasp the meaning of these sentences.

It may also be helpful to play games relating to the Chinese language, such as charades or pictionary games (where Chinese words are displayed, one person draws, and the other person guesses the word). Extending the learning of a language beyond rote memorization can make interactions more fun and exciting. Over the past years, aside from Chinese and English, I learned Spanish through middle and high school classes. I often found that when I was more interested in the language, I made more of an effort to learn it, and also saw better results. Motivation can be a great power in terms of learning a second or third language. Furthermore, outside of the classroom, I casually learn Korean because of my love for K-Pop music. Although there are no homework assignments that force me to do so, my love for Korean culture has proven to be an effective motivator. It is often important to make language learning fun, so that we have our own drive to learn more!

Grasping intuition of a language can make the learning process easier, as opposed to simply going through the motions. Once we have a working knowledge of how the language should work, it becomes a lot easier to commit new information to memory. Next time, we’ll take a look at tips for pronunciation of the Chinese language!


Jingwen Wu is a first-year student at Stanford University hoping to major in Mathematical and Computational Sciences. She is deeply fascinated by how technology can influence healthcare outcomes, especially in the coming years.


  • Gitlin, Saul. “The 'Long March' to Learning Chinese: Top 5 Tips.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 23 Jan. 2014,

  • Ren, Guanxin. “Which Learning Style Is Most Effective In Learning Chinese As A Second Language.” Journal of International Education Research (JIER), vol. 9, no. 1, 2012, pp. 21–32., doi:10.19030/jier.v9i1.7496.

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