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Transitioning from Chinese courses to self-study: Mischa Wilmers

Mandarin Aspirations

Mischa Wilmers is an Employability & Placements Officer at the University of Leeds. He has taken full advantage of what the Business Confucius Institute has to offer, completing all six levels of our evening courses between 2017 and 2019, joining the China Camp trip in 2018 and working towards HSK exams.

In his previous blog post, written after completing our level three course, Mischa described how he got started and what it was like early in his learning journey. We asked him to write an update about his progress after finishing our courses and striking out on his own.

Is it easy to maintain motivation when studying without the structure of a course? What tools and techniques have helped Mischa to keep progressing? Read on for an inspiring account of Mischa’s progress, including an honest description of his struggles and how he has overcome them.

Over to Mischa…

When I wrote my previous blog I had just returned from two highly enjoyable weeks on the BCI’s China Camp, was able to have basic conversations with Chinese people and felt inspired to continue studying towards fluency.

Since completing all the BCI courses my goal has been to build on that foundation of classroom study and reach a level where I can understand native content such as articles, novels, and podcasts.

This blog is about how I went about achieving that goal and which learning tools I found most effective along the way.

Phase 1: Learning Chinese characters

Do I have to learn Chinese characters?

At the time of writing my last blog I had not yet begun to learn Chinese characters.

My evening classes were conducted using the Pinyin romanisation system alongside characters, so despite having had some exposure to Chinese writing I had relied on Pinyin to build a vocabulary base of a few hundred words.

The idea of moving away from the ‘safety net’ of Pinyin seemed a little scary and I kept putting it off.

After all, I told myself, I passed HSK 2 without knowing any characters. Perhaps I could become conversationally fluent without going through the daunting task of learning thousands of characters.

However, it soon became clear that further progress would require an ability to read Chinese.

Reducing my reliance on Pinyin

I set myself a goal of passing the HSK 3 exam, which requires the comprehension of around 600 characters, as well as a listening component. With a full time job, my time was limited so I decided to prioritise recognising characters visually over writing them out by hand.

To do this I used the flashcard app Quizlet and regularly flicked through my deck several times a day. I also installed a Chinese keyboard on my phone so that I could text Chinese friends, spelling out the words in Pinyin before selecting the correct character to form sentences.

At the same time I read and listened to short dialogues from the textbook Discover China, as well as practice exam papers provided by the Confucius Institute. I had one to one lessons with a private tutor once a week, which were focussed on preparing for my exam.

Learning characters became quite addictive and, partly because I had already had exposure to them before in my evening classes - as well using beginner apps like DuoLingo - it did not take long before they began to stick and I was able to read short, simple texts.

Learning the first 600 characters required a significant amount of effort but with patience and regular reading practice I was able to pass HSK 3 in May 2019.

Phase 2: Bridging the gap to native content

Still a long way to go

After passing HSK 3 I was simultaneously delighted and frustrated.

Delighted because I had proven to myself that with enough patience learning characters was possible and made new vocabulary easier to remember than relying on pinyin alone. Frustrated because I soon found that I didn’t know anywhere near enough characters to deal comfortably with native content such as news articles or books. Trying to read an article when you know less than 60% of the characters is beyond painstaking.

The same was true of my listening comprehension. Having conversations with native speakers beyond very simple topics was very difficult because most of the time my vocabulary comprehension wasn’t sufficient to understand what they were saying.

I needed to find an engaging way to increase my vocabulary beyond the typical words and phrases that come up in classroom textbooks in order to bridge the gap to native content. That’s when I discovered graded readers.

Building reading skills with graded readers

In the summer of 2019 I became obsessed with graded readers.

At that time, a holiday I had planned fell through and I used the time I had off work to study Chinese full time for three weeks.

I worked with two series of readers: Mandarin Companion and Beijing Language and Culture University Press, both of which I recommend. The books are set at various levels of difficulty according to the number of different words they use, starting at around 300 characters and progressing to beyond 1000.

Each book is around 100 pages long and contains a short story, written largely using the most common characters, with the definitions of any less common words included in English at the bottom of the page. This makes them easy to read without having to spend time looking up characters and words in a dictionary, a particularly laborious process for Mandarin. The readers also include audio versions so I could listen to the stories too.

By the end of the three weeks I had read several books and felt my reading fluency as well as my character recognition was steadily improving. I continued to use graded readers as my primary study tool for some time afterwards and was able to get beyond the 1000 character mark in this way.

By the autumn of 2019 I had read and listened to almost all of the graded readers I could get my hands on. However, I still felt that reading Chinese websites and articles was very difficult and started searching for a way that I could engage with simpler native content.

In his next post Mischa describes how he started reading authentic content in Mandarin Chinese and what happened when he experienced burnout and stopped studying altogether. What caused this block and did he get back into his regular Chinese-learning routine? Find out here.

Find out more about our Mandarin Chinese courses

Read more about Mischa and his Mandarin learning on his blog,

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.