How I practice with Natives to learn Chinese effectively.

Photo by MD Duran

Practicing with Natives is one of the most important and effective ways of improving your Mandarin. However this can be taken further by consciously thinking about how you are practicing with natives.

Throughout my time learning Chinese, I’ve realised that there are some simple steps I can take to ensure that I’m efficiently using my time while practicing with Native speakers.

Todays post is about the simple methods I use and how you can also implement such methods.

Establish rules with your native partner

This section is mostly in regards to people doing a language exchange with a native.

Here is a bunch of things I found to be useful based on my experience of doing language exchanges.

Hold each other accountable


It can be super easy to get caught up with other things and neglect practicing Chinese.

I’m guilty of it too.

By holding each other accountable, you are more likely to consistently practice.

As discussed previously, consistency is one of the biggest factors in allowing you to progress in Mandarin.

A great way to do this is to agree to meet x times per week. This might seem too ‘rigid’ but having a structure like this will help you stay accountable.

Use Mandarin as much as possible

Personally, I’ve found that creating a ‘mandarin only’ environment is the most efficient way for me to learn.

So when I do a language exchange, I make it clear that I only want to use Mandarin for my half of the exchange.

This means that if I don’t understand some vocabulary from my language partner, I will firstly ask them to explain it using Chinese.

If I still don’t understand, I will get my partner to use body language such as hand gestures to try and help me understand.

If all else fails, I will allow them to say the English equivalent or send me the vocab via message so I can look it up using Pleco.

The point is I’m trying to cultivate my Chinese in a way that i’m not translating from English in my head, but cutting out the middle man and thinking in Chinese.

Note - Initially when you are a beginner this can be especially hard. Try using only Mandarin and see how you go. If you feel it’s not effective, then start by integrating English as well.

Be clear about how you want to be taught

Don’t just say “teach me Chinese”. It’s not helpful, as everyone has different learning styles.

You need to give hints to your partner about the methods you prefer for learning Chinese. Although you might not be confident in the language, you can lead the conversation by asking things like “what is this”, “why” etc.

If you are exchanging in person, a great idea is to bring magazines or kids books and go through page by page, not reading the story but discussing the pictures.

I found that the visual effect of seeing the pictures while practicing helped me retain vocabulary more easily.

Vary the conversations

Don’t fall into the trap of having the same conversation every time. It can be super easy to talk about the same things, especially introductions.

We resort back to introductions as that’s most likely what we have practiced the most, so we feel comfortable conversing about that.

But if we want to continue learning Mandarin, we have to get out of our comfort zone by talking about other topics.

This, in the long term, will also be more enjoyable than finding a native, introducing yourself, and then moving onto a new native, in a cycle.

If possible, try to discuss things you are both interested in, so that it’s fun for you as well as your partner.

Try to incorporate new vocabulary when speaking

Photo by Annika Gordon

Using a spaced repetition system (SRS) like Anki is not enough to properly learn new vocabulary.

The problem is that you will learn the definitions of vocabulary on their own, but not necessarily in context. What ends up happening is that although you can recall the new vocabulary on it’s own, when you try to put it into real conversations you will struggle.

To really understand new vocabulary you should aim to use it in context, for example when conversing with natives.

In summary, when having conversations with natives, try to think about new vocabulary you have recently been learning and add it into the conversation if possible.

Expect to make mistakes

When I learn new vocabulary I’m excited to try and use it with a native.

However sometimes when I try to use it, my native partners have absolutely no idea what im trying to say. This would drive me insane as I really thought I was saying it properly.

But the reality is you will make mistakes, especially if it’s something you recently learned.

Therefore I think having the mindset of expecting be wrong is realistic and means you don’t get as annoyed about making mistakes. It’s okay to be wrong, because that’s how we learn.

Do some activities while using Chinese


Variation can be great not only for keeping you and your native friends entertained, but also for learning.

Something I found effective was to go do activities or play games together but only use Chinese. It can be super interesting!

For example when I did my exchange year in China, me and my Chinese friends would go to an internet cafe sometimes and play together.

Another activity we used to go do is playing Mahjong. Not only was this a super fun activity where I could learn new vocabulary, but I could also learn more about Chinese culture which is also important.


I think it’s worth reviewing how we are learning periodically, and that’s why I wrote this post. I’ve been reviewing how I’m using my time to practice with Natives.

What do you guys think? Is there some other effective tips that I’ve missed?

let me know in the comments below!

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