30 Days

How much Mandarin Chinese can adults learn in 30 days? We tried 90 days. Let’s apply lessons learned and see what we can accomplish.

In the 300,000 year history of Homo sapiens, among the 100 billion people who have ever lived, among the nearly 8 billion people currently on the planet, each with a brain holding an estimated 100 billion neurons and perhaps a similar number of glial cells, among the 200,000 years that people could speak and the 5,000 years people could write, among the four writing systems identified as developing independently, only one is still in use. Written Chinese is documented as 3,000+ years old.

This workshop is for up to 3 adults, 21 years and older, with little to no exposure to Mandarin Chinese.

Here is the most important sentence about Mandarin Chinese on this entire site:

The same sounds and similar sounds have multiple meanings in Mandarin Chinese.

Type “shi” in Hanzi Search and you will see more than 40 characters, each with potentially dozens of meanings.

What are the logical implications of attempting to communicate in a language using only 400+ sounds?

  1. If the end in mind is to communicate and connect orally with others, differentially precise pronunciation – initials, finals, and tones – of similar sounds would be mandatory. However earnestly uttered, sounds of words pronounced poorly will sound like other words with unrelated meanings, creating unintended disconnection and a confused, possibly insulted, listener.
  2.  For their brains to optimally differentiate similar-sounding concepts, adults need associated visual and sensory experience. Meanings in Mandarin Chinese are represented by characters. Hence, characters are learned alongside sounds and meanings.

努力 nǔlì effort
奴隶 núlì slave

What are the optimal ways for adults to learn pronunciation and characters?

  1. To have been born to a multi-language family and to have learned multiple languages from infancy.
  2. To live in a Mandarin Chinese-speaking country and work at a Mandarin Chinese school.
  3. Since the first two are impossible for most, the following curriculum has been devised from findings from the facilitator’s reviews of the research literature, education, training, experience as a learner and instructor, and case study data from our 90-day experiment. Links to pages that link to all those sources are below.

Here is the most important sentence on this site about learning Mandarin Chinese as an adult:

To optimize learning, personally meaningful words must be systematically learned and used with others in personally meaningful ways.

Humans use their very selfhoods to communicate with others. Adults learn languages most efficiently through social interaction, particularly when it’s immersive. A systematic way of organizing language is termed an “interlanguage.” “Interlanguage” is defined at the end of the Mandarin Chinese Workshop Syllabus.

The curriculum is based on one hour of study per day, rain or shine, for 30 days.


The greatest challenge to becoming proficient in Mandarin Chinese is retention. The “forgetting curve” is real. Without 1) daily exposure, and 2) personally, consciously and systematically organizing new material with former material, learning the language by adults is nearly impossible. The forgetting curve runs faster than most adult human brains’ ability to remember. Mandarin Chinese classes can have dropout rates as high as 95%. Researchers have found that language learners need 3 to 17 exposures to master a new word.

Unfortunately, if one doesn’t value precision, hesitates to engage personally, and can’t study approximately every day for an hour, engaging in this project is probably not a fit.

This session of the Mandarin Chinese Workshop will operate for 30 days, from November 7 through December 7, 2022. 

If you are able to

  1. study daily for a minimum of one hour each day,
  2. post a daily update on your progress,
  3. attend the weekly conversation practice group on Mondays at 1:00 PM U.S. Eastern,

and would like to participate in the 30-day Mandarin Chinese Workshop, please complete the following steps in order:

  1. Read this entire page.
  2. Read this post introducing the project. Follow the links in that post of interest to you to other pages on this site. Those pages link to primary and secondary sources, numbering 100+.
  3. Read the Statement of Intentions.
  4. On or before November 7, 2022, take the HSKlevel. Email me your a) test date, b) word count, c) character count, d) acknowledgement that you have read the statement of intentions, and e) your copied and pasted answers to the Mandarin Chinese Interest Survey.
  5. Read these sections on the Syllabus:
    – Mandarin Blueprint study support tools
    – Insider tips on using Mandarin Blueprint
    – Research-informed and case study-informed insider tips on learning Mandarin Chinese
  6. On or before November 7, 2022, sign up for Mandarin Blueprint‘s online curriculum and complete the Pronunciation Mastery course in approximately 6 hours during the 14-day free trial. IMPORTANT: Please DO NOT create Traverse flashcards. An explanation is below.
  7. Mindfully using precise pronunciation, mentally and orally, having completed Mandarin Blueprint’s Pronunciation Mastery course, begin learning Mandarin Blueprint’s Level 1 characters.
  8. Carefully monitoring engagement and, when a sense of flow wanes during the one-hour study period, switch to another option listed on the Syllabus or of your own choice.
  9. Mark your calendar for every Monday at 1:00 PM U.S. Eastern to attend the weekly conversation practice group.
  10. Report daily on your progress using our Google doc.

Maintain an inner dialogue.

As you study:

  1. Make personal meaning of the content you learn.
  2. Monitor your inner state. If you find yourself becoming self-critical, or experiencing feelings of shame or humiliation, STOP. Consult with your own inner wisdom, the facilitator, or a trusted teacher.
  3. Monitor your attention. If it moves away from your intention, work it like a muscle and move it back.
  4. Monitor your level of engagement. If, within the designated hour of study, you find yourself pushing yourself to complete a task or your mind wandering repeatedly, PAUSE. Become aware of a task that might be more engaging and shift to it.
  5. Monitor your effort. The goal is to achieve a state of natural flow – of deep absorption and focus – not to use force. By the end of 30 days, the intention is for you to have found the types of engagement and level of effort that are sustainable for you for an hour per day for many years.

Milestones ($)

Add the following as possible, with associated awards.

Pronunciation Mastery. Completion within 14 days.  Award: $20

  1. Caveat A: Please DO NOT make Traverse flash cards. Research findings are insufficient to support the use of spaced repetition software to efficiently gain proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. Skip those videos and the promo videos if you wish. After 30 days, you are welcome to return to Traverse to discover if it might be individually helpful to you. After the Mandarin Blueprint (MB) free trial ends, please notify me and I will send you funds for MB via PayPal.
  2. Caveat B: Feel free to listen to the explanatory videos in the Pronunciation Mastery (PM) course a few times to start, but then listen to most videos once. Pronunciation will be mastered over time and in context. The PM course is simply your first introduction to the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Speed through the course in the 6 hours recommended by Mandarin Blueprint and begin learning Level 1 characters as soon as possible.

Test drive Hello Chinese and determine whether or not it might be personally useful to you. Award: $5

After beginning learning Level 1 characters in Mandarin Blueprint:

Completion of a Hanzi Movie Method chart for using paper and pen to keep track of characters learned: character #, hanzi, props, actor, set, room, pinyin, and keyword, Level 1, Award: $5

  1. Here’s a blank Hanzi Movie Method chart.
  2. Here’s an example of a Hanzi Movie Method chart filled in with the first 124 characters.

Test drive Skritter using the “Mandarin Blueprint Phase 1 – Characters & Components” deck during its free trial period. Begin using the Mandarin Blueprint Level 1 flashcard review decks to practice writing, pronouncing, and learning characters. Determine whether or not this tool might be personally useful to you. Award: $5

Test drive Hack Chinese and determine whether or not it might be personally useful to you. Award: $5

italki. Within 15 days, schedule and complete at least one 30-minute session with an italki instructor to help you review and practice your selection of characters to which you have been exposed.  Funds will be provided. Award: $20

Review of 半. After completing Character # 7 半, review the Hanzi Movie Method with facilitator. $5.

Reconsider homophones. Please use Hanzi Search and type in the pinyin “gan.”
1) How many characters do you see with the pinyin “gan”?
2) Are you able to pick out the character of the “gan” you learned in Level 1?
3) Of the characters you see with the pinyin “gan,” how many have the same tone as the first “gan” you learned in Level 1?
4) Among the characters pronounced “gan” on that page, how many contain the character and component “gan” that you learned in Level 1?
5) What conclusions do you draw from doing this exercise?
Award $5

Levels 1-6. Further completion of the Hanzi Movie Method chart, Levels 1-6, $20.

Phase 1. Complete Phase 1, Levels 1-6. Award: $50

Convo. In person, with a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, attempt to hold a brief conversation in Mandarin Chinese. $20

Read aloud. Wow yourself and fellow workshop members by reading aloud from  Mandarin Companion graded reader Just Friends? (Details are on the Syllabus.) Award: $10

Phase 2. Completion of Phase 2, Levels 7-12. Award: $50

100+ characters. Complete through 想 xiǎng, “to think,” character #117, part way through Level 13. Award: $50

The First Sentence“: From memory, recite with correct pronunciation and tones and hand write on paper in both characters and pinyin. Award: $20

30 days of consecutive study. Award: $100

Total awards possible: $390


Simply Chinese‘s videos are charming.

To hear female voices without scripts, consider listening to Mandarin Corner.

To hear male voices without scripts, consider listening to Dashu Mandarin.

With questions or for more information, please contact Anne Giles.

The Mandarin Chinese Workshop is funded through the legacy of Robert H. Giles, Jr., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech, U.S.A., to foster use of the findings of science to build a system of global, humane, human connection in service to the greater good. Ut Prosim.

Mandarin Chinese Workshop-related links

With questions about the science of teaching and learning Mandarin Chinese, please consult the research literature.

Last updated 11/21/2022

Added these notes on 12/10/22:

Li, P., Jeong, H. The social brain of language: grounding second language learning in social interaction. npj Sci. Learn. 5, 8 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-020-0068-7

Nature link

“These two domains of study (i.e., cognitive neuroscience and language learning) have seen increasingly happy marriages of approaches, theories, and methodologies in the last two decades, driven largely by the New Science of Learning, a framework for studying learning at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, education, and machine learning. Specifically, this framework argues that learning should be studied along three important dimensions: a computational process, a social process, and a process supported by brain circuits linking perception and action.”

Traditional approach vs. social approach (image)

“[L]anguage serves a social communicative purpose and is fundamentally a social behavior.”

“W]e define ‘social interaction’ here as ‘learning through real-life or simulated real-life environments where learners can interact with objects and people, perform actions, receive, use, and integrate perceptual, visuospatial, and other sensorimotor information, which enables learning and communication to become embodied.’”
“Picking up and using a spoon while hearing the sound ‘spoon’ is part of the learning process [for children], which differs from the process where adults sitting in the classroom look at a picture of spoon and associate it to an existing label in their native language.’”
“According to MacWhinney, adult L2 learning is susceptible to several major ‘risk factors,’ factors that prevent adults from acquiring a foreign language to native competence. These include thinking in L1 only (which implies the need to translate from L2 to L1 rather than directly using L2 as a medium), social isolation (learning as an individual or through in-group communities only), and lack of perception-action resonance (lack of direct contact with the target objects or actions in the environment while learning L2). These risk factors, particularly social isolation and lack of perception-action-based contexts, may explain why adult learners display the strong parasitic L2-on-L1 representations [i.e. translating back and forth from L1 to L2].”

“With regard to the risk factors of thinking in L1 and social isolation, empirical evidence has shown that study-abroad experience may provide some environmental support, particularly in attenuating L1 to L2 interference for late adult learners.”

“[B]ilingualism is a highly dynamic developmental process.”
“[H]uman memory research suggests that item-based learning (encoding) and use (retrieval) are highly interdependent. This is due to the associative nature of memory, in which the cognitive operations used for encoding stimulus items directly impact their subsequent retrieval.”

“[S]emantic memories are more successfully retrieved if they are recalled in the same context as when they were originally encoded (e.g., if word lists were encoded underwater they would be recalled better underwater than on dry land).”

“[T]hese technologies can deliver simulated social interactions.”
“[S]imulated social interaction methods, compared with traditional translation/association methods, may result in stronger neural activities in key brain regions implicated for memory, perception and action, which can boost both recall and sustained long-term retention.”

“The authors [Lan et al. and Hsiao et al.] trained American students to learn Mandarin Chinese vocabulary through Second Life, a popular desktop virtual platform of gaming and social networking, and demonstrated that (a) the virtual learners needed only about half of the number of exposures to gain the same level of performance as learners through traditional associative learning, and (b) virtual learners showed faster acceleration of later-stage learning.”
Image of traditional approach vs. social

“[I]t is the struggling students (‘the less successful learners0) who benefitted more from VR [virtual reality] learning than from non-VR learning, whereas for the successful learners, VR versus non-VR learning did not make a significant difference.”

Description of an immersive virtual reality project to learn Mandarin Chinese