A Learning Protocol for Adult Students of Mandarin Chinese

The protocol described on this page is an attempt to synthesize the findings of research on language acquisition, neuroscience, and psychology to derive a systematic, research-informed prototype of a protocol by which adults can learn Mandarin Chinese efficiently and effectively.

Among the acquisition difficulty rankings of languages by the U.S. Department of State, Mandarin Chinese is ranked as a Category IV language, among the very hardest to learn. Since now might be a very important time for adults to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, how might we address these difficulties?

The intended outcomes of the protocol are to assist adult learners of Mandarin Chinese to efficiently achieve a level of fluency such that they can effectively communicate with other speakers of Chinese about feelings, thoughts, and ideas, as well as about living, “liking,” loving, and working. Perhaps, through ably speaking about inner and outer experiences, we may achieve some level of mutual understanding, and perhaps contribute, at some level, to world peace.

At essence, the purpose of research on human endeavors is to determine what works for most people, most of the time, better than other things, and better than nothing.

Research suggests that to increase the efficiency and effectiveness with which adults might learn Mandarin Chinese, the five major language learning components of Mandarin Chinese – pronunciation/tones, Pinyin, vocabulary, grammar, and characters – would be engaged in simultaneously and synergistically through consciously selected mechanisms of input, output, and interaction, within a consciously envisioned interlanguage for organizing the components of language – listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Adult learning of Mandarin Chinese is hypothesized to be optimized by engaging in a sort of “flow” in, around, and through all the components, rather than using a task-focused approach and attempting to address one component at a time.

An additional hypothesis of the protocol is that native English-speaking adults – including older adults – can adequately learn second languages online – in near isolation, in the presence of a pandemic, in the absence of immersion – and would do so in systems rather than in components.


  • Input. Any and all exposure to language. Optimized by presence in a language-speaking country and/or voluntary reading.
  • Output. Creation of spoken and written content to communicate rather than to complete tasks, i.e. content created “for real purposes.”
  • Interaction. Opportunities to speak, and build, conversations. Note: The value of interaction is influenced by the nature of corrective feedback given. Corrective feedback that increases anxiety decreases acquisition. Learner anxiety is a known barrier to language acquisition.
  • Interlanguage. One’s own “interlanguage” is an individualized, systematic way to organize second language information, make meaning from it, and produce speaking and other language “output.” According to Gass et al. in Second Language Acquisition, an interlanguage is a means “both consistent and dynamic,” by which “learners themselves impose structure on the available linguistic data and formulate an internalized system.” Further, consciousness of an interlanguage may protect against “fossilization,” a language learner’s creation of over-strong schema and too-early cessation of learning in some areas.
  • Pinyin is the romanization of the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Tones help people pronounce Pinyin well. Characters combine together to form vocabulary. Grammar indicates how to make correct sentences.

Wishing you wealth and prosperityAn introductory course for beginning adult students of Mandarin Chinese that uses the protocol is described here (link forthcoming).

“If you woke up in the morning and could speak Mandarin Chinese fluently, what would you do?”
John Pasden

From the synthesis of research from which the learning protocol was derived, these learning tips arise. They are written in “you-statements” to address the learner.

Self-kindness optimizes. Contrary to popular belief and practice, pressure to work harder, to do more, and to do better – and criticism if one falls short – actually decreases learning. Instead, begin learning Mandarin Chinese by shining the sun of self-kindness on your mind and heart and your brain’s ability to learn.

A specific act of self-kindness one can perform is to acknowledge that achieving instantaneous fluency may be an unspoken wish and, against this measure, all progress is disappointing. One can accept this wish with good humor and, therefore, better tolerate the time and effort learning takes.

Having a conception of one’s own interlanguage may optimize. In contrast to learning languages as components – vocabulary, grammar points, pronunciation, etc. – having an inner vision of how you are creating a dynamic, interrelated, patterned, structured network for learning a second language may optimize use of the brain’s schematic functions and increase the efficiency of learning. Using metaphors or analogies to describe your interlanguage may be helpful. Sketching it may be helpful as well. Asking about new content, “Where does that fit?” may foster integration of content into one’s interlanguage.

Immersion optimizes. The optimal way for the brain to receive language input and to generate language output is two-fold: 1) immersion in experience of all aspects of a language, i.e. listening, speaking, reading, and writing, 2) formal instruction. The more individuals can create an immersion-like, instruction-rich environment for themselves, the more efficient and effective their learning is likely to be.

Awareness of context optimizes. See explanation and diagram above.

Personally meaningful input, output, and interaction optimizes. Attempt to listen, speak, read, and write in ways that are personally important to you and align with your needs, wants, strengths, interests, values and priorities.

Using brain science optimizes. The primary brain functions used for second language learning are attention and memory. Attention uses brain structures and functions that need replenishment. Acknowledge directed attention fatigue and allow quiescent time for the brain to create its interlanguage. Research suggests that attempting to engage in learning that requires sustained focus for 50-minute intervals is optimal. Then, engage in attention-resting activities to restore the brain’s “supply” of attention. Use awareness and experimentation to find the optimal learning schedule to optimize second language acquisition with your own beautiful, complex brain.

It is possible that speaking English during a session devoted to learning Mandarin Chinese may slow, even interfere with, the brain’s natural, internetworking process of building an interlanguage.

Feedback optimizes. Ask teachers and peers for frequent feedback, both informal and formal. Consider formal assessments. Consider training for a test, such as the HSK exams.

Multiple exposures in multiple contexts are usually required for learning new content. Approach each learning event with kindness and curiosity, and as an opportunity to accumulate exposures, rather than insisting it be the definitive event whereby the content is learned absolutely and permanently. Multiple and varied exposures to the same content enhances learning more than does a repeated method with the same content. A multiple-exposures approach fosters delight and reduces judgment. Self-judgment increases anxiety which reduces learning.

Above all, prioritize precise pronunciation. Mandarin Chinese is a precisely pronounced language. In English, often “good enough will do.” In English, the meaning of mispronounced words can usually be discerned. In Mandarin Chinese, an attempt to create “good enough” may be unintelligible, even rude. To be understood and to understand – the essence of communication – pronunciation has to be exact.

A personal anecdote from the author: I had learned a few words and composed a few sentences to show my teachers how well they were teaching me. I have an intense communication style and am eager to please. I spoke quickly, attempting to impress. The look of bafflement on my teacher’s face, then the attempt to hide that so as not to hurt my feelings, was painful to behold. I had blended sounds together such that I spoke a word collage. Every single moment taken to slow down and mindfully practice expressing each syllable precisely will contribute to your listener’s understanding, even joy, and, therefore, your own.

Discover the optimal time to learn to read. When you learn enough pinyin, pronunciation, tones, and vocabulary to have trouble distinguishing the sound of one word’s meaning from another, this is the time to learn to read. Since spoken Mandarin Chinese only contains 400+ syllables, and 4 tones + a neutral tone, many words sound alike, although the characters representing the sounds are distinct. Having an interior mental, visual image of the character that corresponds with the syllable can offer “disambiguation,” i.e. the ability to differentiate one meaning from another.

Read graded readers. As defined by Mandarin Companion, “Graded readers are books created specifically for foreign language learners that are written using carefully controlled words and grammar.” In terms of optimizing second language learning, voluntary reading is second only to immersion. From Mandarin Companion, here’s more about the role and function of graded readers.

Create your own content and discuss it with others. Using one’s interlanguage to generate pieces of writing – from autobiographical sentences, to expository paragraphs, to questions to ask ones teachers and peers, to fiction and poetry – then reading these pieces aloud and asking others to read them aloud, expressing your ideas about them, and listening to the ideas of others, calls forth a glorious, individual integration of what research suggests optimizes second language acquisition: use of previous input, organized in one’s interlanguage, to generate personally meaningful output with which to interact and communicate.

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Resources for independent study 

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The following suggestions for independent study result from a 6-month quest to find online resources for adult learners of Mandarin Chinese in the following areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, input, output, interaction, pronunciation/tones, pinyin, vocabulary, grammar, and characters.

Recommended sources have not been discovered in all areas.

Online courses and textbooks are not included among the recommendations.

  • The author tried multiple online courses, appreciated the earnestness and expertise of the instructors, but found the lack of interaction unsustainable and abandoned all of them after 3 to 6 sessions.
  • The author tried multiple textbooks, grew weary of the classroom-focused content, found small font print versions unreadable, and spent more time wrestling clunky software than studying with electronic and online versions.

Given the need for health and safety during the pandemic, only online options are listed.


  1. Technology available 24-7: Hello Chinese. Providing most of the components in alignment with the research that informs the learning protocol, the Hello Chinese app is beautiful and beautifully coded, has accurate content, offers enough explanation to keep moving but not too much to get discouraged, and blends learning with gamification in engaging and appealing ways. Early learning features are free; premium subscriptions start at $8.99 per month.
  2. People available 24-7: Over 800 italki instructors of Mandarin Chinese are available at varying rates. Results can be filtered by time zone and availability. The author has taken over 100 lessons from 5 instructors. Recommended as knowledgeable, reliable, supportive instructors: Depeng, Benfang, Yue.

Graded readers. Research suggests that reading in the language can rocket launch language acquisition if the learner can read the content. Graded readers offer narratives with grade level-focused vocabulary expressed in sequence and context. Ideally, the learner reads a text version, listens to an audio version, reads aloud to an instructor or peer, asks questions of a native speaker, and discusses the content. The most comprehensive offerings of graded readers come from Mandarin Companion.

Since most current learners of Mandarin Chinese are children and young adults, the content of graded readers is geared towards them. Finding graded readers interesting to adults is difficult. Collaboratively creating one’s own content with an instructor is an option.


  • italki and other instructors
  • Fellow language learners and peers through MyLanguageExchangeMandarin Chinese Conversation Group, and others. (Disclosure: Conversation groups have been difficult to find so the author founded the Mandarin Chinese Conversation Group.)
  • Native speakers willing to have online or phone chats and/or to message through social media.





Contributors to the derivation of this protocol include Depeng Li, Jun Xu, Benfang Wang, and Letty Wang-Moore. Cornelius C. Kubler, Ph.D. responded to questions about learning Mandarin Chinese online during a pandemic. Susan Gass, Ph.D., responded to questions about second language learning in older adults. John Pasden responded to multiple questions. John’s vast contributions to Mandarin Chinese learning merit note and include grammar and pronunciation wikis, courses, a podcast, and co-creation of the Mandarin Companion graded reader series.

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A course for older adult learners is proposed as part of a larger attempt to synthesize the research on learning, psychology, and neuroscience and to derive a systematic, research-based protocol – and engage in it at the same time – to, as an English-speaking older adult, learn Mandarin Chinese efficiently and effectively – without immersion, impossible during a pandemic – such that I – and others who might engage in the protocol – achieve a level of proficiency such that English-speaking and Chinese-speaking people can speak with each other about feelings, thoughts, and ideas, as well as about living, “liking,” loving, and working. Perhaps, through speaking about our inner and outer experience, we may achieve some level of mutual understanding, and perhaps contribute, at some level, to world peace.

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This protocol is a work in progress. The content of this page was last updated 1/15/20.

Expert consultation and scientific inquiry are welcomed. Please contact Anne Giles.

Photo: Depeng, italki instructor

Note: Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., L.P.C. is a beginning student of Mandarin Chinese and also a counselor, able to provide counseling services only to residents of Virginia, U.S.A. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.