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Five Years of Chinese Self-study as a Heritage Speaker

Five years ago, in 2017, I decided to earnestly start self-studying Chinese. I was born in China but emigrated when I was seven years old. The small amount of Chinese ability I retained from half a year of elementary school was rusty after so many years of neglect, especially considering that I never enrolled in Chinese school nor taken classes. I had a limited vocabulary, could only converse about basic topics, and could not read/write at all.

After five years of self-study, I can now comfortably express myself in Chinese and converse with native speakers, as well as read/write at an intermediate level (2000-2500 words). In this post, I will cover why I began learning, and describe methods that I found after some trial and error that let me consistently make progress while also balancing my career and life. There are many resources available for new language learners, but few for heritage learners. If you are looking to learn your heritage language, I hope my experiences can help.

Why I started

In 2017, I visited my extended family in China after a long period of away. I had so much I wanted to talk to them about, from my experiences living in Canada and the US, my college life, how excited I was to start a new job at a startup, and hear about how their lives progressed since our time apart. However, my inadequate Chinese speaking skills were a hinderance. I often could not communicate exactly what I wanted, nor grasp the nuances of what they were saying. Furthermore, I couldn’t understand their group chats on WeChat and give/receive updates about our lives while apart.

Due to these shortcomings, I felt unnecessarily distanced from my family members. Frustrated with this personal failure, I resolved to improve my Chinese skills so I could communicate more effectively by the next time I returned.

Although being able to communicate better with my family was the motivation that sparked my learning, I have since also realized some additional benefits that motivate me to sustain this journey:

  • Increased social circle: there are lots of native Chinese speakers in the US, many of whom work in the same industry as me. Conversing with them in Chinese led to some important friendships that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
  • Exposure to different ideas: the Sinosphere has a wealth of traditional and modern culture ranging from old poems to modern pop songs that I was able to experience with some language proficiency. This led to a more vibrant life (not to mention a bigger karaoke repertoire).
  • Discipline and sense of accomplishment: having a regimented language study plan led to more discipline in other areas of my life. Making progress in my studies makes me feel accomplished and fulfilled.

How I learned

I experimented with many learning methods, and found some that helped me consistently and effectively make progress while balancing a full-time career and various personal commitments. Some of the most helpful methods include:

Goal & scope setting

Coming up with goals and scopes for what I wanted to learn helped keep me on track and not feel overwhelmed. My personal goal started as being able to communicate more effectively with others. For me, this meant focusing on speaking, listening, reading, and texting skills, as well as prioritizing vocabulary for day-to-day communication. I made the compromise to not practice hand-writing characters, and deprioritized literary vocabulary. As regrettable as this may be, I decided to scope my learning to align with my personal goals and stay focused.

Improving verbal skills as a heritage speaker

Most new language learners attend regular lessons with a tutor. Fortunately, most heritage speakers have the advantage of an existing family and social environment where they can speak the language. I decided to leverage this environment and forgo attending classes. I initially started with calling my parents more frequently. Firstly - one should always call home more often, secondly - it also let me practice speaking Chinese. In these calls, I would try to challenge myself with vocabulary and subject matter, ranging from my personal life to current events.

As I began feeling more comfortable with my verbal skills, I made an active effort to spend more time with Chinese speaking acquaintances and colleagues, during which I limited myself to Chinese only. It was tremendously awkward at first and led to some misunderstandings, and I am quite grateful to them for putting up with me. Over time, my continued efforts led to smoother communication and deepened friendships.

Learning to read

Written Chinese with its many varied characters is notoriously difficult to pick up, and reading was an area of struggle for me. I began learning how to read by starting with space-repeated flashcards (recommended apps are Pleco or Anki). I downloaded Pleco on my phone, and started with HSK words up to level 5. For each word, I would memorize the Chinese characters so I can read it, and the pinyin so I can type it.

After mastering HSK 5, I felt confident enough to start surfing the Chinese web. The Chinese Dictionary Chrome Extension was helpful for learning and saving newly encountered words to my flashcards. I initially could only read very slowly, often encountering unknown words - over time, this got better and better.

Integrating with existing routines

Integrating my studies with existing routines helped me stay consistent during my studies. I reviewed flashcards between sets at the gym, listened to audio-lessons and podcasts while sitting in traffic or on a run, got lunch/coffee regularly with Chinese speaking friends, and forced myself to study for a few minutes before surfing the web. These integrations were a great forcing function for me to make consistent and steady progress, and probably led to me spending a few hours a week of studying without too much active effort.

Digital immersion

Immersion is one of the most effective methods to learn a language. However, given that I did not live in a Chinese speaking society, I decided to immerse myself through digital mediums. For me, this included:

  • changing my iPhone language to Chinese
  • browsing more Chinese sites/apps, such as Zhihu or 1point3acres
  • consuming more Chinese music and TV shows

Initially, my lack of language ability was a barrier for me to effectively consume these mediums. However, by choosing mediums that were interesting or relevant in ways other than purely for language learning (e.g. I enjoy listening to Jay Chou, 1point3acres has relevant career content, etc.), I was able to sustain these habits and slowly integrate them into my daily life - creating a virtuous cycle where improving my language abilities increases the value I derive from these mediums, which leads to more time spent, which leads to further language ability improvements.


In the past five years, I have had periods of both productivity and plateau. Others who dedicate more time to studying may achieve greater results in five years than I did, however I am overall very happy with my progress and consistency. Today, I am able to express myself effectively to my extended family members over the phone and text, and hope to visit them in-person once I am able. I hope to encourage more heritage speakers to learn their heritage language as it can add tremendous value to your life!