Ask the Yangxifu: How to Learn Mandarin from Your Chinese Boyfriend or Girlfriend

Learning Mandarin Chinese from your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend
How can you learn Mandarin Chinese from your Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend?

Language Lover asks:

How can I learn Mandarin from my Chinese boyfriend?


That’s easy, of course — pillow talk. 😉

Yeah, right. If it were that easy, I wouldn’t have sounded like such a moron in Mandarin back in 1999, when I dated my first Chinese boyfriend.

He famously had this dream where we’d speak Chinese one day, English the next. But who were we kidding? He was an English major, comfortably fluent in my language, and I was drowning every time I strayed past “Ni Hao” and everything else in my Lonely Planet phrasebook. Even worse, I felt so embarrassed, awkward and inadequate every time I even attempted to say something in Chinese before him. So we didn’t even go there, and just built our relationship in English. Great for us, devastating for my Chinese.

Things get tough when you’re an adult fumbling towards fluency, according to this study:

…children are praised for their efforts in speaking a language, regardless of accuracy, and have ample time and opportunity to listen and learn before producing. In contrast, adults are exposed to a much more complex language from the onset, and are expected to figure out (and produce) accordingly. They are often embarrassed by their lack of mastery of the language and they may develop a sense of inadequacy after experiences of frustration in trying to say exactly what they mean. Such frustration affects self-evaluation, possibly increasing anxiety, and negative impacting on motivation and perseverance.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eventually be good enough to pass for a native speaker, as the same study asserts:

…age is not the critical factor in reaching high levels of L2 [second language] proficiency…. Rather, personal motivation, choice and agency seem to be more crucial factors in ultimate attainment. Indeed, expert L2 users themselves often distinguish between a point in their lives when they first encountered their L2 and a point when they ‘really’ started to learn it.

So, if you’re in a relationship with a native Chinese speaker and want to become fluent, start out with these indispensable tools — chutzpah, and the uncontrollable desire to learn.

But that’s not all. You also need your partner’s support. Remember how I mentioned that first Chinese boyfriend had a dream of a bilingual relationship? That’s all it was — a dream. He never provided the support and encouragement to help me overcome those moments when I just wanted to die after a really harrowing faux pas in Chinese. If you have a partner that makes fun of your Mandarin or would rather play his soccer video game than help you recognize a character, well, you might as well be dreaming when it comes to having a bilingual relationship.

So what does it mean to be supportive in your language studies?

He or she could do the most obvious — teach you, for example. Set a specific schedule for the classes, and make sure he or she conducts the class almost entirely in Mandarin. It might sound tough on you, but it’s the best way to build fluency and confidence in the language.

Of course, don’t leave your honey hanging on how to teach you — give them a guide, for goodness sake! Since Mandarin has exploded as the MUST learn language for business, textbooks abound. I used Conversational Chinese 301 (with audio recordings), but you might find something even better at your local bookstore. You could try a virtual study program, such as ChinesePod, which has downloadable audio lessons with PDF transcripts. Or you might just opt for the ever-popular Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin) I, a mostly audio-based program that comes with notes. Try to keep it simple, and, at first, consider just focusing on speaking and listening, until you get the hang of it.

If you’re a complete Mandarin Chinese virgin, let your partner ease you on in (pun intended, shamelessly so) with pronunciation practice. But be careful — not every Chinese speaks proper Mandarin, which is really based on the local dialect of Beijing. My Chinese husband doesn’t, because he’s from rural Zhejiang (and he has even proclaimed to my friends in the US that Mandarin is not his first language). If you must learn proper Mandarin, double-check it with your audio recordings.

Make sure you set aside time to practice together — completely in Chinese. Maybe that’s during your lesson time, or maybe you do it in addition to lessons. But just do it, and be ruthless about keeping things in Mandarin — even if it’s as simplistic as parroting dialogues, or describing how many people you have in your family.

Don’t forget language fun with Chinese pop culture. Have your Chinese partner help translate and provide pinyin for his favorite songs. Or, better yet, save him or her time by downloading them from one of the websites listed here, or watching a “learn Chinese” music video, such as this subtitled one for Jay Chou’s Dao Xiang.

Live together? You can learn together, too. All of those boring daily rituals have names in Mandarin Chinese, so have your significant other teach you. Some of the first words I learned from John were 刷牙 (brush your teeth) and 熄灯 (lights out).

And, of course, there’s pillow talk, too (as in, how do you say THAT in Chinese?). 😉

What advice do you have for Language Lover?


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

26 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: How to Learn Mandarin from Your Chinese Boyfriend or Girlfriend”

  1. Really good advice from Jocelyn! For me I could speak little bit Chinese before I met my boyfriend but after that my spoken Chinese have improved a lot! Why? Because he doesn’t speak English! (Or Finnish). So we started from really simple daily life things and now we can have longer conversations even my Chinese is still really far from fluent. We live together now so I have my language practise every day. Well, it’s not studying, it’s life where I just have to use Chinese. So with my boyfriend Chinese really came to be my third language.

    Jocelyn said that Jhon is from Zhejiang and therefore his Mandarin isn’t that standard. My boyfriend is from Yangjian (In Guangdong province) and his Mandarin is really far from the one spoken in Beijing. For example he can’t say the R. So it is really bad example for me 🙂

  2. To be honest, I’ve always found it sexier for western women to adopt one of the provincial accents rather than bland standard Mandarin, which actually has a bad reputation of making “men sound like women and women sound like men”.

  3. “I felt so embarrassed, awkward and inadequate every time I even attempted to say something in Chinese before him.”

    Haha thank you so much, Jocelyn, for writing this… I still feel embarrassed using my Chinese XD How long did it take you to speak Mandarin fluently? Sounds like John taught you a lot…

  4. >>>If you’re a complete Mandarin Chinese virgin, let your partner ease you on in (pun intended, shamelessly so)<<<

    Ahhh ha ha ha ha ha!!! This is such a great advice column and such a great thread here. Being a Western female, the sound of a guy speaking Mandarin is enough to drive me wild. On the contrary I "shut down" at the sound of any guy speaking any other language, go figure, maybe my hormones got mixed up in China, I don't know.

  5. Personally I think it’s wise not to rely on your partner as your Mandarin teacher. Even if you have a partner who is initially willing to do this, when work and other things in life get busy, it is likely he or she will put your language learning on the back burner, especially if his/her English is good. I already spoke fluent Mandarin when I met my husband, but he speaks excellent English and never wants to speak Mandarin with me. Even when I speak Mandarin to him, he answers in English and eventually I give up. When I run into a word, phrase, or character I don’t know, he will help me out, but I can’t imagine him teaching me from scratch.

    Of course there are different personalities, but this has been my experience.

    For someone who’s learning, I think it’s best to develop your own personal language-learning program (classes, Pimsleur, or whatever) and stick to it, and then maybe you can try out what you’ve learned on your partner. At least you’ll have someone to correct your mistakes. Having a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife can be a good motivation to stick to your own program, but I still say you’ve got to do the hard work yourself and not rely on your partner to really get it right.

  6. I disagree with the aforementioned advice.

    Look, learning a language isn’t about how many hours of classes you take…..or “setting” aside one hour a day and speaking all Chinese…..that’s gonna get you nowhere. It will take you forever to be fluent.

    Look, I’m not saying classes are bad, they can help. But outside of classes. You HAVE to immerse yourself into the language.

    There is a way that you can completely fluent within a year and a half, but CONVINCING people to do this is the hard part.

    If you really want to be fluent in Chinese as quick as possible…then…

    1. Have your boyfriend speak Chinese to you ALL THE TIME. Meaning NO ENGLISH Whatsoever.

    2. ONLY listen to Chinese programs, ONLY watch Chinese TV shows (even if you don’t understand a word, you will understand at least 2 or 3 at first.)….ONLY visit Chinese websites (even if you don’t understand a word….but hey, this is where the online dictionary comes into play).

    Listen, listen, listen, even if you don’t understand a thing. Keep on listening.

    This is the full immersion program.

    3. Write a lot of Chinese. Now, you don’t have to write them yourself. You can just copy a Chinese book. Copy a sentence many times until YOU GET USED TO IT. Write when you have time. Just keep on writing.

    4. Listen and Watch a Chinese program/series again and again until you understand everything. I CANNOT stress this enough. You HAVE to do this pretty much 24-7. I mean, whenever you can. Whenever you can. Listen to Chinese Ipods on your way to work, listen to Ipod AT work (if possible)…


    What I mean is…..You WILL NOT listen, read, or speak English UNLESS you absolutely have to (speaking to your relatives or parents).

    But otherwise, you will listen and read Chinese all day long.

    No more of this “1-hour-a-day” nonsense.

    If you wanna be fluent as quick as possible. You have to BECOME the language….all the time.

    Yes, it sounds ridiculously hard.

    But it shouldn’t be. Find a Chinese TV show that you like, or a Chinese/Taiwanese program that you like….and just keep on watching it 24-7. How freaking hard is that?

    Sounds easy…but convincing people that you can learn by doing this is the hard part.

    INPUT is everything, especially when you’re learning a language. Forget about grammar and that nonsense. Just focus on input, and listening and listening.

  7. >>>Even when I speak Mandarin to him, he answers in English and eventually I give up. <<<

    I don't know if I could do that. I've met Chinese guys who answer in English to everything I say in Chinese, and it just feels so weird that I just simply dump off the relationship. It feels like I'm playing a ping pong or tennis game with someone who isn't returning the ball to my court and vice versa. A game that goes nowhere I guess.

  8. The thing is you don’t even need Chinese guys to speak Chinese to you…..

    If they don’t use Chinese….forget about it.

    You still have MANY other tools.

    Like TV shows…movies…music…..just act as if they’re your Chinese boyfriend. And listen to them all the time.

    So don’t use the excuse that they don’t speak Chinese to you. That’s not an excuse. There are other ways.

  9. I’m not needing a Chinese boyfriend for the fluency. I’m already fluent. But it just feels bizarre and unromantic to be in a relationship like what I described. Almost like he has a job to preserve his English and I have a job to preserve my Chinese and the relationship is more like jobs and working, not feelings and fun. Then again, this is just my personal preference, not necessarily everyone’s preference. What works for me might not work for others.

    But anyway, the Western male/Chinese female relationships I’ve seen, maybe only 1% of them will have them both speaking Chinese to each other. I actually know Western guys in those relationships who have to take a Chinese class to learn any Chinese at all. Maybe that holds the same for Chinese male/Western female relationships.

    1. @Sara, thanks for the comment, and glad to hear you’re making progress in your Chinese!

      @Richard, thanks for sharing! Well, I speak with a slight “nanfang” accent, and your comment made me smile. 😉

      @Mali, thanks for writing. It is very, very hard to break through that awkwardness, and I never could with my first guy, as he just didn’t give me the support I needed to feel more confident in speaking with him.

      @Li Lan, mmm yeah, there is something sexy about a guy speaking Mandarin. Guess I’m with you about having my hormones tied up in China. 😉

      @Jackie, thanks for the comment, and for making a good point. You’re right that you certainly cannot rely 100 percent on your partner to teach you. I wrote this with a disclaimer in mind that I didn’t even bother to add to this article, which was this — I wanted to share some suggestions on how you might be able to learn *something* from your partner, not on how you might become fluent from your partner. I should edit this to reflect that.

      @Jason, thanks so much for the comment, and for providing some excellent suggestions on how to gain fluency. Like I mentioned to Jackie, I totally agree — expecting your partner to help you become fluent is just not realistic.

      Still, it’s not unrealistic to expect your partner to be supportive in the process. I agree with Li Lan that there’s something just really weird about being in a relationship where your partner wouldn’t even encourage you to speak and learn their language. For some people, that can really bring them down and make them feel as if they’ll never be able to learn. That becomes a very challenging psychological block, especially when it comes from the person who not only matters most to you, but also is your closest representative of that language.

  10. I agree with Jackie actually, when she says that it isn’t wise to rely totally on your partner to be your language teacher. I don’t think putting that much expectation onto someone who never really signed up for the teacher role is very fair, to tell the truth. I learned my Chinese before I met my husband (which is good, since he speaks no English) and my Chinese has certainly improved since we got married, but that’s because we use Chinese every day, not because we sit down and have lessons or because he makes time to help me learn characters.

    It is fine if you and your husband/boyfriend have that kind of relationship where he enjoys teaching you Chinese, but in defense of the partners who don’t want to be built in language teachers (I’ve never tried to teach my husband English, afterall), I don’t think a partner being disinterested in teaching you is necessarily a bad thing. English speakers in China often talk about feeling used by Chinese friends and would-be partners who really just want someone to practice their English with and well, the same thing can go for those of us who expect our Chinese friends to teach us Chinese. I also think that bringing a student/teacher relationship into a romantic one can cause resentment. Can you handle your partner correcting your tones non-stop or interrupting the flow of the conversation to tell you you’ve used the wrong word? Your partner should be someone with whom you can communicate freely without monitoring yourself for mistakes the way you might with a teacher.

    But the question was how can you learn Chinese for your boyfriend, not how can he teach you Chinese. I think the best way to learn is as the above comment stated, immersion! But, if you’re not in China, that can be tough. What I would recommend is taking a course and learning the basics. Learn enough on your own to be able to have a reasonably intelligent conversation. Learn pronounciation, learn your tones. Then, when you have those basics down, use your Chinese as much as possible. If you don’t feel comfortable using it with your partner, find other people willing to help you practice. If you live in China always speak Chinese when you’re out and about, no matter how stupid you think you sound. At some point you just have to get over it and start talking to people.

    I do think that with your partner, whatever language you start speaking in from the beginning will probably always be your primary language that you use with each other. Even as your language ability improves, once you have established a primary language for a relationship it is pretty hard to change. So if you and your partner speak English don’t sweat it. Speak Chinese to him occassionally just to liven things up a bit and make sure that you’re speaking Chinese to his family and friends, to shopkeepers, at the restaraunt, etc. If you have a non-English speaking boyfriend then all the better, you have a blank slate and can use whatever language you want to communicate, so choose Chinese! No matter which language you choose to communicate with your partner (and remember, with your partner moreso than with other people, communication trumps language learning), you’ve got billions of people in the world who speak Chinese so use every opportunity you can get to practice practice practice.

  11. >>Guess I’m with you about having my hormones tied up in China.<<

    Let's just say our hormones got stir fried in China.

    1. @Jessica, thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make some excellent arguments for why this can be problematic.

      @Li Lan, stir-fried — ha! 😉

      @Mish, thanks for sharing the article!

  12. This is a really interesting discussion and I am loving all the various opinions. My Chinese boyfriend and I talk mainly in English at this point– probably because we met in the US and now the relationship is long-distance, cutting down on the amount of time we can talk. I used to give myself a hard time about not speaking in Chinese with him more (I’ve studied Chinese for about 3 years in college and speak it fairly well), but I realized that since our talking time is limited, our mutual priorities are on efficient communication and knowing each other better in shorter amounts of time— aka, speaking in English 70% of the time. I still hate not using Chinese more; he is incredibly patient with me and enjoys hearing me speak Chinese– but at this point I’d rather get to know him better:) I’m going back to China after graduation in December, so I’m sure our use of Chinese will also increase as I practice my Chinese more everyday.

  13. – you had me at “pillow talk”. haha. I agree with you about the hormones thing though, there’s nothing hotter than someone speaking to you in another language, especially Chinese… except local dialects, every boy I meet is always trying to teach me their dialect and I’m like “um, no.”
    I find that the biggest obstacle, the fact that people here are more proud of their local language than standard mandarin so they will want to teach you things that only make sense in a little corner of China and nowhere else. It’s sweet but lacks practicality.
    If you have a boyfriend who doesn’t want to teach you anything though, not even interested in showing you that part of his life with local dialect or Chinese to help you communicate with his friends or family or understand him better you probably should dump him (or talk to him about this first!). It’s an opening up experience, not just about fluency. You should delight in teaching him some English (I find it hilarious to try to get my Chinese friends to speak ghetto slang) and he should delight in you understanding Chinese things too which includes some of the language.
    That’s my two cents anyway!!!

  14. >>>the fact that people here are more proud of their local language than standard mandarin so they will want to teach you <<<

    Oh….! heh, heh, funny you wrote that, after decades of learning Mandarin I'm wanting to learn some Wu dialect like Shanghai hua, er, well, it's a challenge trying to learn on my own….that they are proud of their local dialect, that's a relief to me. Whew.

  15. I agree with Jessica that relationships develop a primary language. I would also say that the only real role for a significant other in language learning is for language practice and occasional questions. To me, the teacher-student relationship seems too different from a romantic relationship for both to coexist in one couple. Having said that, I don’t doubt that such an arrangement works for some couples.

    For myself, my primary language with my wife is Mandarin (sprinkled with a few English words, so that there are a few things I’ve never learned to say in Chinese, but that’s ok, every couple has its couple-lect). When I first met her, my Mandarin was already conversational, to the point I could argue politics with my teacher, and although she was majoring in English and she speaks English well enough to communicate with ease with my monolingual family, she just didn’t like speaking English back then, and so the habit was formed. Has my Mandarin improved because of this? Undoubtedly, and in all the ways outlined above – and Jocelyn, I like that you include mention of the daily rituals, as this is one area where my Mandarin is much stronger than my French, my French having been all classroom-learned, and language classes and textbooks being generally weak on those daily rituals.

    I find Jason’s comment to be way over the top. There is no reason why you can’t get fluent in a language with an hour of study per day, and although immersion is certainly beneficial and something I highly recommend to anybody who asks me about language learning, it is by no means necessary. Not only that, but formal study of grammar is utterly essential for the adult learner, as grammar is not something we will naturally pick up – although it will become more natural as we become more fluent. What will naturally happen is that the grammar of our native language will interfere with the language we are learning, and that interference is something we need to recognise and consciously adjust.

    Taking myself as an example, I have never visited any French-speaking country or territory, and all of my study of French was done in the classroom, and yet when I graduated from university I could speak French pretty well, and was still able to carry out a decent conversation in French when I first moved to Beijing a little more than 3 years after I graduated. I still read French newspapers and books, although my listening, speaking and writing have deteriorated drastically after so many years of neglect.

    Indeed, the key to language learning is not immersion (or any other “get rich quick” scheme), but is mentioned in Jocelyn’s original post: Personal motivation. Whether it’s an hour a day of formal study or Jason’s total immersion, whether you successfully learn any second (third, fourth, fifth…) language depends entirely on whether you are prepared to put in the time and effort. One can fail at total immersion just as easily as one can succeed in purely classroom study, and vice versa.

    1. @MakMak, thanks for stopping by!

      @Meredith, thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like your bf is far supportive than my first Chinese bf ever was — it’s great that yours wants you to learn, and seems to encourage you. Good luck with your study in China — what a great opportunity to finally focus on the language!

      @Li Lan, local dialects are so much fun, don’t get me started! My husband cracks up every time I learn a new word or phrase in his local dialect. 😉

      @Chris, thanks so much for shedding some light on the subject of language study, as you’ve gained a lot of experience in this over the years. I agree — immersion doesn’t mean you’ll learn. I once met a Brit who moved to Spain and had spent years there — yet he could barely speak a word of Spanish. Meanwhile, I made more progress in one semester than he ever did in his entire lifetime, because he just didn’t care and wasn’t motivated (which I found ironic, as he lived there permanently and had a LOT of trouble with basic, daily things).

      @ConfusedLaowai, nice to meet you and thanks for sharing my post! I’m glad you found it helpful.

  16. In grad school I was fed the BS line that it was easiest to learn a language in bed. My wife taught me some Mandarin when were dating, but it rarely stuck (I mostly remembered the inappropriate and/or humorous phrases). But it was the same for her and English (though her English was pretty good when we met). It’s just too easy to get off track when your husband/wife is teaching–there are no consequences for poor study habits, and you’re not paying a tutor.

    Now our agreement is that we just ask specific questions while studying on our own.

  17. First time reader. Good post. Good comments.

    Scheduling a time for structured lessons is the way to go. But it’s better not to force the issue.

    I’ve noticed that speaking Chinese with my girlfriend actually affects her Chinese a lot. Sometimes, I suspect I’m making her Chinese worse! Has that ever happened to you.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Steven. Interesting experience with your girlfriend! I can’t say it’s happened with my Chinese husband, that I’m having a negative effect on his Chinese — if anything, what probably has more of an effect is the fact that he’s going to grad school in the US, which requires him to use English more than 90 percent of the time. He does forget how to write characters from time to time, and then has to think for a moment before it comes back to him.

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