8 Simple Ways to Stretch Your Mandarin
When you’re learning Mandarin, more is always more, right?
The way to become fluent in Mandarin is to continually increase what you know all the time. By moving from easier topics to harder ones. By gradually expanding your vocabulary. Learning more Chinese characters. So on and so forth.
But what if I told you that in always going after new Mandarin to learn, you’re not putting the Mandarin you already know to good use?
While always learning more is essential to becoming fluent in Mandarin (and with Mandarin, there’s always more to learn!), it’s only part of the equation.
The other part is knowing how to get the most out of, or “stretch,” the Mandarin you already have under your belt.
In this article, we’ll cover 8 simple ways you can start stretching your Mandarin before you learn anything new.
But first, do you even know how much Mandarin you know?
Although we use terms like “beginner,” “intermediate” and “advanced” student, none of those terms actually tell you exactly how much you know.
Truth be told, in Mandarin, there are topics that you want to tackle first before moving on to others, so putting them into those buckets is useful.
But in the real world, no two beginner students are the same as in what they know.
There are an infinite number of beginner levels within “beginner” alone. No Where you fall along that spectrum is unique to you.
So to really know how much Mandarin you know, you’ll need to create an inventory of all that Mandarin knowledge stored in that squishy personal supercomputer of yours. The basic idea is this:
You take a notebook and start writing down all the Mandarin you know, off the top of your head, without using any reference materials.
It’s like pretending you’re making a Mandarin textbook for someone else.
When you’re finished, you should have a pretty good collection of the topics you’re strongest at in Mandarin.
Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it a good exercise in reviewing and strengthening what you know? Yes. Are we going to write a future step-by-step article showing you exactly how to do it? Yup!
Now, do you need to do this exercise before moving on to the 8 methods to stretch your Mandarin? Nope!
So let’s get to them.
1. Learn how to say yes in Mandarin
Learning how to yes in Mandarin is essential to stretching your Mandarin because you can jump into a Mandarin conversation without having to know a whole lot.
Well, you at least need to be able to know that someone just asked you a Yes/No question. And maybe some words to help cue you in on the actual question—lest you say yes to something you really meant to say no to. That would be awkward.
We’re not saying you just need to know how to say yes in Mandarin (because, after all, you also need to say no at times…which is point #2!). But being ready to say yes and sound natural in every context is still a useful skill to have, no matter your level of Mandarin.
Is it less than 1% of all the Mandarin you need to know to be fluent? Sure!
But saying yes like a native speaker will still get you a long way in at least getting in more conversation practice—and accepting a hot date, while you’re at it.
2. Learn how to say no in Mandarin
For the same reasons outlined above, learning how to say no in Mandarin will give you an edge in conversations by saying no in the most natural way for every given situation.
3. Learn Mandarin conversation interjections
What if I told you that you could make any native speaker believe you’re following along with what they’re saying by uttering a few simple phrases, even if you can’t understand anything at all.
These are called conversation interjections. They make conversations flow and serve as social cues that let people know you’re listening, understanding and even, at times, agreeing with them.
Of course, the whole point of learning Mandarin is to gradually understand more and more of what the Mandarin speaker is saying. So just using interjections will only get you so far.
Their usefulness lies in that they give you a free pass to join in on Mandarin conversations (even if you can’t say anything other than the interjections!), so that you end up getting more conversation practice than you would otherwise.
You can think of it as “faking it till you make it” in a way, giving you the confidence to step into conversations like you know what you’re doing. Because you do. You just don’t know everything yet.
4. Find a Mandarin conversation partner
We all know the saying, “Use it or lose it.” If you don’t practice what you already know, it fades.
Even as you learn new things, you need to keep practicing what you already know to reinforce those skills and memorize them at a deeper level.
A Mandarin conversation partner will help you keep your current level of Mandarin fresh by putting it into practice.
Social interactions not only present opportunities for you to use what you’ve learned, but they also add another layer of meaning to your Mandarin skills, which in turn, helps enhance memory and recall.
Oh, and you don’t have to settle for just one conversation partner. We like to think of the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts as having many conversation partners at once… sort of like being polyamorous but in a language kind of way!
5. Tell a story in Mandarin…better yet, draw one
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a regular Michelangelo to do this one.
Stick figures will get the job done.
In the Hangouts, one of the things we regularly do is draw stories. It looks like we’re just having a hoot but we’re actually using a very powerful learning tool to improve Mandarin recall.
That’s because drawing a story puts the visual parts of the brain to work alongside those parts that are responsible for language. Drawing a story creates a mental landscape that you can tap into later on, helping you remember the vocabulary from the story better.
So even if you only know 10 words in Mandarin to start with, making a story out of those 10 words and putting it down on paper (even if it’s stick figures) reinforces that knowledge in a way that merely reading can’t. Even better if you turn it into a guessing game, like we do in the Hangouts.
So before you learn anything net new in Mandarin, have you created a story using the Mandarin words you already know?
6. Journal in Chinglish
Journaling is a really good way to jot down memories and discover ideas.
By the way, you don’t have to be a writer to journal. And it’s not just for teenage girls that start every entry with “Dear diary.”
Journaling can be a powerful tool to stretch the Mandarin you already know if you use Mandarin within your entries. We’re not talking about journaling in pure Mandarin here, but just sprinkling Mandarin words you know throughout, in place of the English words—or rather, we’re talking about journaling in Chinglish.
Chinglish is something we really believe in at Mandarin Monkey because it’s an underrated tool that can help anyone step up their Mandarin with relative ease (notice how we didn’t say easy), if used correctly.
But getting back to you, a pen and paper, or a laptop—however you choose to write. Journaling in Chinglish will force your brain to start using those Mandarin words you know within the context of your everyday.
In a future article, we’ll share a very personal and private journal entry in Chinglish. Don’t worry, it won’t be anything scandalous (or will it be?).
Now, you don’t have to share anything personal and your journal entries don’t have to get all philosophical or deep. Just write about your day, even the boring stuff, and see how much Mandarin you can use in between the English words.
7. Uncover your subconscious Mandarin
So there’s the Mandarin you know you know, and then there’s the Mandarin you don’t know you know. It’s a thing, we promise!
And no, it has nothing to do with Freud or psychoanalysis. Just the fact that sometimes we learn something and then, due to not using it every day, it goes deep into our subconscious mind. We didn’t really forget it. It’s just dormant.
The best way to bring that latent Mandarin out is to just listen to more Mandarin.
There are several listening techniques you can try, and we covered a few of them in this article, but really, it’s just as simple as putting on a Mandarin podcast or even a song or TV show and letting your ears do all the work. As you listen, you’ll start to pick up words and phrases you didn’t think you knew. (The mind is funny like that, amirite?)
Sometimes, paradoxically, some phrases will even sound familiar without you knowing exactly what they mean. It’s in the back of your mind somewhere but the memory of it is hazy, like a distant dream. You may even look up the word only to then remember you knew what it meant all along!
Just like a lot of the methods mentioned in this article, listening to wake up any dormant Mandarin reinforces that knowledge for the long term, making it easier to recall the next time.
8. Take a free Mandarin lesson
A Mandarin teacher can, of course, teach you lots of new things (especially our teachers, but we don’t mean to brag). It’s why you go to a Mandarin teacher in the first place.
But they can also teach you to use the Mandarin you already know in more ways and more effectively, too. They can help reinforce important concepts and give you unique analogies and perspectives to see the things you know in a new light.
That’s why taking a free Mandarin lesson makes it to our list of 8 ways to stretch your Mandarin.
During your free lesson, you’ll get to chat with one of our teachers. Topics may include your current Mandarin level, your future goals, the strangest pet you’ve ever brought home. You know, the usual.
And when you’re ready to learn more Mandarin beyond what you already know, you can stick with that teacher, if you so choose! They’ll create a personalized curriculum to help you get to that next level, and then the next.