As I mentioned in my last post, intermediate Chinese has different challenges than beginner Chinese. One way to make sure the transition from beginner to intermediate goes smoothly is to get advice. Advice from people who’ve been successful studying Chinese or from people currently studying Chinese is extremely useful. Everyone’s situation is unique, so you’ll never want to copy someones methods completely, but the advice should provide insight into how to best organize your studies.
I can’t make any very accurate book suggestions. The last intermediate textbook I looked at closely was Beijing University’s “Intermediate Spoken Chinese”. It’s an ok book. When I studied, BLCU’s “Qiao Liang” (bridge) 上、下 were the defacto standards.. but even then they were old. Now they’re probably close to 20 years old! Honestly speaking, I haven’t seen or heard about an intermediate book that stood out from the rest. I’d choose whichever seems the least boring and then focus on your personal goals.
At the intermediate level, you should be learning more advanced grammar patterns (any of the textbooks your choose will provide these) and putting them into use. Also, you probably want to start trying to have conversations about different topics in more depth (a tutor or a language partner is great for this; a girlfriend or wife isn’t usually as ideal–it’s harder to schedule regular sessions with someone close to you). You’ll often have trouble finding the right word (and will often need to learn it on the spot), and sometimes won’t know the right grammatical construction to use.
I’d put away your old flashcards and start focusing on the words and phrases that you’re encountering in your daily life and through your conversations. Always keep a notebook with you and write down the words/phrases that you don’t know. Go over these with a teacher/tutor (or your wife) to figure out which words are more important than others. Try to only study words and phrases that are commonly used or used frequently in your daily life. When a beginner is listening to Chinese, just about everything is unknown. Beginners try and listen for the words they understand and then try to make sense out of the situation. An intermediate learner has enough knowledge to understand many more words and situations, but they’ll often get stuck when they hear a word or series of words they don’t know. Even more frustrating is when you hear a phrase that you think you don’t know, only to realize you’d studied it before. When talking to people, you’ll need to listen for a word you don’t know, ask them to repeat it, and then, try to write the word down (in characters, if possible), and finally, get them to check and make sure you wrote it down properly. A notebook with a pen is still much handier than any electronic device here.
If you want to really improve your spoken Chinese, try to set up two tutor sessions (with different tutors) on the same day, multiple times a week. Practice the words and phrases you learned in your books with the first tutor, and practice the stuff you learned on your own with the second tutor. Try and talk about as many things as possible. Buy a newspaper and try and read the headlines. Find an interesting story (maybe a culture piece) and try talking about it. Try reading it, and then get your tutor to help explain what’s going on.
Characters should be getting easier to learn. That is, when you first started, it probably took many days (or weeks) to remember how to read and write any character. Now, you can memorize more characters faster. But it’s boring. And time intensive. Practicing characters is pretty unavoidable, but you’ll probably want to spend less time than you did before. One exercise you might want to try is to read a sentence from your textbook or another source out loud and then write it down. At first, it will be hard to remember the whole sentence. Sometimes you won’t remember all the characters. But keep at it. This exercise is effective because you are putting yourself in the Chinese mindset and training yourself to speak and write using the same words and phrases that Chinese people do. And you’re practicing writing!
The bottom line
An intermediate learner should have the following goals: the ability to express themselves on different topics, but without nuance; the ability to understand 60-70% of characters they see in a newspaper AND the ability to understand 50-60% of the story (you get the main idea… but maybe miss out on the details).