How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

Posted by Grace Feng on January 3, 2013

In an ideal world, if you can find a partner to practice your spoken mandarin everyday, sure enough it will help to maintain and enhance your speaking skills.?However, in the real world, this is usually not easy to achieve.

How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

Photo by {link:http://www.flickr.com/photos/timothygreigdotcom/367844511/}Timothy Greig{/link}

A three-year old Chinese kid at least has a?nagging mother to listen and talk to, but most of you don’t. :-) That’s OK. What you have that the three-year old doesn’t is your intelligence, ability to connect and analyze things, knowledge and your resolution.

For mandarin learners that are not living in China, or the ones that do live in China but still don’t have enough opportunities to practice their spoken mandarin, finding a way to practice speaking without a partner is crucial.

In this post I want to recommend one method that worked for me for my spoken English when I lived in China. I believe it should work the same way for you if you’re learning mandarin. Let me explain it in steps so it will be easy to follow.

Step 1. Find a movie or a TV episode you like or a talk show that you think is really interesting.

No matter what multimedia clip you pick, it should meet the following requirements:

  • Has conversations between two people that you understand and can hear clearly;
  • The way they talk to each other can somewhat apply to a real life conversation that you might have;
  • The topic they are talking about is something you can relate to
  • They are not using cursing words too much (for your own good :-) )
  • The less background noise/music the better, so the voice you hear is not interfered

I used to work on my English speech by following mp3 recordings of movie “The Bodyguard” and TV Episode “Ally Mcbeal“. Both are among my favorite. :-)

Why mp3? Not DVD? The reason for this is when you watch and practice at the same time, as a matter of fact, the moving pictures are sure to distract you. Speaking practice only needs two sensors on your body to work – your ear and your mouth … and of course your brain. The more you concentrate on them, the better results you got, the less time you need to reach your goal.

Step 2. Record the video clip you picked into mp3. (If you know how, skip the following geek stuff and go to Step 3 )

There are lots of ways to convert videos into mp3 files. Here I’ll introduce one method that works well for me and is totally free. All you need to have is a computer that can access the Internet, which I believe whoever is reading this and learning mandarin online should already meet the requirement.

Download a free software called Audacity from its official web site here:


Install it on your computer following the default steps.

Once done, go to your sound volume control and click “System Sounds”: (My screenshot is based on Windows 7)

How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

In the open menu, choose “Recording” tab. Right click “Microphone” and choose “Disable”:

How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

Right click “Stereo Mix” and choose “Enable” to enable recording from your computer’s audio output:

How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

Click “OK” to close the menu. If you already opened Audacity before you did the above operation, please close it and re-open it. Otherwise, open Audacity. In the source input drop down menu as shown in the following picture, choose the “Stereo Mix” option. The actual option name on your computer could vary depends on the sound card driver you’re using.

How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to

Once that is selected, you can click the red dot button to record the audio output when you play video in another window. Whenever you want to stop recording, click the orange square button to stop. You can click the green triangle button to play what you’ve recorded. If you’re happy with the result, click on “File” from the top menu and choose “Export” to save it into a mp3 file.


Step 3 . Listen attentively to the recordings, stop on each sentence and imitate what you hear. Listen to your own voice and keep tuning at it.

If you can’t listen well, you can’t speak well. That’s the truth about any language we learn. Particularly for mandarin, to get the sound, the tone and the rhythm right are three essential goals you need to achieve in order to speak fluent and beautiful mandarin. Those three features of spoken mandarin need to be worked on intensively while you can fully concentrate for a period of time. It doesn’t have to be long. Any uninterrupted fifteen minutes you can find from your daily agenda is good for a go. I used to do it just before bedtime, when the world around me was quiet enough for me to concentrate. In the absence of a partner, recording is your best friend. Your ear is your best helper for your own pronunciation.

Therefore, if you are not sure you have caught everything in the recorded conversation, you should keep replaying your clip until you do hear every nuance of the speaking.

Step 4. Speak out loud and clearly, speak with your true feelings.

There are two points I need to emphasize here in this step.

First, when you imitate what you heard, try to use different speaking volumes. You can repeat with your normal volume first, then speak louder and more clearly. You will find that once you speak louder, your pronunciation will be magnified. You’ll likely to hear problematic sound that you can’t hear with normal volume.

Second, speak as if that’s exactly what you want to say, as if that’s your own words. Language is a tool of communications. If you are simply repeating dialogues without your own emotional input, the sentence that comes out of your mouth will sound monotonous?and boring. Your feel of the language can only be enhanced through your genuine use of the language to express your genuine needs and feelings. It holds true with your reading too. If you try to think and feel together with the protagonist in your reading, you will notice that the words and sentences sink in easily since they can talk to your mind through a story.

It is also worth mentioning that learning to speak with different spoken manners can also help to add colors to your own speech. To practice different ways to deliver your words is often underestimated in language learning. Movie clips are good at demonstrating various manners in speaking, either whispering or shouting, angrily or excitingly, gently or formidably. There are just so many ways to express a single line. Don’t be afraid to add your personality to your spoken mandarin! It will only make you sound better, not worse. :-)

Step 5. Make reading Chinese a habit to nourish your speaking.

If you don’t know much in your new language, you can’t talk much in your new language.?

There are two ways our mind works while we speak a foreign language: think in our mother tone and then translate, ?or think directly in the foreign language. Obviously the latter is ideal if you want your mandarin speaking to reach a certain fluency. However, you can’t transform from “translation” mode to “intuition” mode without a solid vocab and grammar base built up in your mind. That base needs to be built through regular reading in the new language and needs to be refilled and re-enforced via reading again and again. Once your brain has stocked enough familiar knowledge in the form of your new language you should be able to gradually think “in” the language.

Your speaking will pick up quickly if you can think more “in” the language. The reason is quite obvious. You saved the time to switch between your mother tone and the new language” over translation. Your speaking will become more intuitive and inviting if you spit out your thoughts directly as the way they are in your mind.


To summarize, there are actually lots you can do to improve your spoken Mandarin when you don’t have a partner to practice with. That being said, the desire to talk to someone in your new language will grow stronger and stronger once you’ve done enough home practice with recordings. That’s a very good sign that your “speaking system” is ready for a big leap. You can use language exchange sites to find someone to practice real conversation with. Or if you do have friends that speak mandarin, just step out and say:”一起喝杯茶吧 ?yīqǐ?hē?bēi?chá?ba ! (Let’s have some tea together!)”


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8 Responses to “How to improve your spoken mandarin without a partner to talk to”

  1. nothing


    01-08-2013 1:00 am

    Great idea! Can’t wait to try!


    • nothing

      Grace Feng:

      01-08-2013 4:09 am

      Hi Joy, I’ve checked out a few posts on your blog – very well written! I know it’s not easy to adapt to an environment that is so different from your old life. But all it counts really is your attitude. I love your attitude towards life and your adventures.


  2. nothing


    01-09-2013 4:47 am

    Hello, nice post. It got me thinking, what would you do if you can’t really understand everything by just listening? Should you watch the video afterwards, or before listening to the mp3 version?


    • nothing

      Grace Feng:

      01-09-2013 5:14 am

      Hi Kim,

      I’d suggest to watch the video and understand most of it first before you practice your speaking with the mp3. If after your repetitive listening, you still don’t understand certain part that you hear, it is better to check the video subtitle and make sure you do understand. You got to know what you speak … make sense? :-)



  3. nothing


    06-23-2014 3:28 am

    I do really Love your weblog. Thanks a millions. thats really work a lot and i learn a lot on your page i wanna be the ever follower of your page . hope i can master my chinese soon after.
    Thanks and cheers,


    • nothing

      Grace Feng:

      06-23-2014 1:12 pm

      You will, Alix! If you keep using the language as part of your life. Even though there’s no one you can talk to around you. You can always find ways to use it if you want to.

      Thanks for your kind words! I’m always here to help if you need.



  4. nothing

    Anthony Gómez:

    07-03-2018 12:20 am

    Thanks for write this good article!
    I want to add other way to practice. There are many websites which do the same, but i use this one (Only works on Chrome)
    It take your speech directly and write it on the screen, so you can realize if your pronuntiation is right or not by look at the characters.


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