I took a job in Langfang, a small city between Beijing and Tianjin, and my Chinese rose to a new level. I was often the only English speaker in the open office area where my desk was. Eavesdropping became a great language learning tool.
I studied Chinese in school for over ten years, the final year being at a Chinese university in Beijing. All this did NOT make me fluent. It didn’t make me sound Chinese. So what did? Talking to lots of people – especially taxi drivers.
I am often asked how I learned Mandarin Chinese. The short answer is good fortune and hard work. When I arrived in Beijing I could already read and write Chinese pretty well. Listening comprehension, however, took me a long time.