How should I start learning Chinese?
Most people start studying Chinese with whatever resource they happen to stumble upon. It’s hard to know what you should focus on and where to find quality materials. This post will help give you a clearer path forward.
The beginning may feel like a daunting, exciting and confusing place to be. But don’t worry, everybody started where you are now. There are tons of courses, apps, and websites out there that will make learning Chinese much easier.
This isn’t a long-term study plan. It’s a guide to take you from knowing absolutely nothing or very little and get you up to the lower intermediate level.
For some, this may only take a couple of months. Others will lose motivation and never get beyond this stage. Before we begin, you’ll need to think about a few questions.
Why do you want to learn Chinese?
Everyone’s situation is unique. We’re all motivated to learn Chinese for different reasons. Whatever your reason, it’s important to adjust your plan to fit this.
If you only want to be able to talk to your Chinese girlfriend’s parents – is it worth the time learning to read and write? If you only want to be able to read Chinese novels – should you spend the energy learning to speak?
How much time and money are you willing to spend learning Chinese?
Learning Chinese really doesn’t have to be expensive. That said, a few paid resources will make things that much easier. But, if you’re broke, don’t sweat it. There are tons of free materials available as well.
The more important question: How much time are you willing to spend learning Chinese?
Don’t set unrealistic expectations and burn yourself out. Learning the language is a marathon, not a sprint. More important is building a good study habit that you can stick to, and of course, having fun with it.
How do you learn best?
Do you need to be around other people or can you study independently? Do you need a structured course or are you comfortable pulling materials from different places? You know how you learn best. Do what works for you.
Be realistic about your goals and the time it will take to reach them.
Let’s not make excuses.
If you don’t have the time to study Chinese – that’s fine.
If it’s not a priority for you – that’s fine.
You don’t need to be in China to study Chinese. During this first stage especially – it doesn’t matter where you are. If you were in China, you wouldn’t understand anything anyway.
Now is the time to build a solid foundation.
I don’t plan on teaching you anything in this post.
There are tons of people far more qualified to teach Chinese. However, I doubt that there’s anyone who has tested and researched as many different websites, courses, apps, podcasts, tools, and tutoring services as I have.
I’m going to use those findings, and my own experiences learning the language, to help you figure out where you should put your time and energy. I’m simply going to point you in the right direction.
The rest is on you.
Learn the Chinese Alphabet (Pinyin)
Before you start learning new words, sentences, grammar rules, reading, writing, and everything else – you have to learn the absolute basics.
If you were studying English, this would be the alphabet. Since you’re studying Chinese, it’s pinyin.
Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation. This is the first step in learning Chinese.
Chinese children learn pinyin before learning characters, and so should you. This isn’t to say you should ignore characters as a beginner, just that you have to do this first.
Each Chinese character is represented by a single syllable – composed of an initial and a final.
Take a second to play around a little with this chart but don’t worry if it’s confusing for now.
Learn to Pronounce Pinyin
Chinese has an absurd number of similar sounding words. The differences in sounds are subtle, and for beginner students, hard to hear.
You can’t just read pinyin like you would English. You can’t just mimic audio and assume you’re pronouncing things correctly. You can’t trust when native speakers say your pronunciation is good.
It may be tempting to quickly move past this phase in order to begin learning more interesting things, but you need to slow down. In fact, slow way down.
Nail pronunciation early on. If you do this, you’ll sound more natural than advanced speakers who have been studying for years.
If you ignore pronunciation, it won’t matter how many words you know because nobody will understand anything you say.
As you learn words, sentences and start communicating in Chinese, you’ll be reinforcing the pronunciation habits that you learned early on. Make sure you’re reinforcing the right things.
I’m very picky about the resources I recommend for learning pronunciation.
The reason for this is that often times writers or video creators try to simplify pronunciation too much. It’s fairly common to see people comparing a pronunciation sound to an English sound that’s “close enough.”
“Close enough” may be good enough for someone looking for survival Chinese before a vacation. But, for someone beginning the multi-year journey of learning Chinese, “close enough” just doesn’t cut it.
To avoid rewriting my post about learning Chinese pronunciation, I’m only going to list my top choice here. I suggest reading that post as it does include a lot of other useful resources.
ChineseFor.Us – Pinyin Drills Course
This is easily the most thorough course you’ll find regarding pinyin.
Actually, ChineseFor.Us has the most thorough beginner course, writing course, and tones course as well.
Given how much I’ve stressed the importance of learning pronunciation, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the resource that covers it most in-depth would be my top choice. A subscription does cost money, but it’s relatively inexpensive.
Learn Chinese Tones
Tones are one of those things that makes Chinese seem very difficult for beginners. Truthfully, they’re not as difficult as beginners often fear.
I’ll often hear people make the same excuse.
“I just don’t have an ear for Chinese.” Of course, you don’t. Nobody does when they start learning. Like everything, it takes some time and a conscious effort to learn to hear the differences in tones.
They are incredibly important and ignoring them would be a huge mistake. Like I said already, tones aren’t terribly difficult. A simple way to begin thinking of them is the “Dude System.”
First Tone: Dūde, the disapproving tone, as to the clumsy roommate who’s just knocked over your three-foot Graphix and gotten bong water all over your Poli Sci 142 reader: “Dude, I can’t believe you spilled my bong again!”
Second Tone: Dúde?, in the concerned but creeped-out way you might address the roommate you discover sitting naked and cross-legged in the dark, chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” and sounding a little brass bell.
Third Tone: Duǔde, scornfully, as if your roommate has asked to borrow 50 dollars so his sensei can align his chakras: “Yeah right, dude.”
Fourth Tone: Dùde!, as if you are exclaiming in triumph to your roommate when coming home from class having gotten a date with mega-babe Elena from your macroeconomics class.
You’re still going to have to put in the effort to train your ears. I found this free tone training course by Wordswing to be extremely helpful when I first started. I highly recommend it.
Again, ChineseFor.Us has the most thorough course on learning Chinese tones – Tone Drills Course. It may go more in-depth than you necessarily need as a beginner. But, that’s a good thing. Remember, you’re trying to build a foundation here, make sure it’s solid.
Many other resources don’t teach the third tone particularly well. So, if the resources you choose to use simply say it “falls then rises,” you should read this article on Sinosplice and this one on Hacking Chinese.
I also liked this article – 5 Lies Teachers Tell You About Mandarin Tones.
Learn Chinese Words
As you get a handle on pinyin and tones, it’s time to start learning Chinese words – lots of words. This is a long-term process that you’ll almost certainly continue using for as long as you study Chinese.
The best way to learn new words is from context. Basically learning words you read or hear while studying or just going about your life.
It’s generally a bad idea to take words from a word list and try to memorize all of them – at least for students past the elementary level.
For beginners though, you still want to learn from context, but I don’t mind taking words straight from word lists. The reason is pretty obvious. It’s hard to learn from context if you don’t have any base words you know.
That said, assuming you’re using a textbook, course, or podcasts, you should add relevant words to your flashcard list (we’ll talk about this in a minute). It doesn’t make sense to add everything though. Just because you heard the word dinosaur, doesn’t mean you need to learn it right now.
It’s time to build your vocabulary with high-frequency words.
SRS – Your New Best Friend
Spaced repetition software (SRS) is basically smart flashcards. Using SRS will save you a ton of time reviewing words and prevent you from forgetting words you’ve already learned.
When you review words, each time you correctly remember the word, the longer the interval between reviewing will be next time. So if you correctly remember a word, next time maybe it’ll be due in two days, then five days, then ten days and so on for as long as you remember it correctly.
If you forget the word, then the interval will be shortened and you’ll see that card more often.
People often try to add too many cards to their flashcard list, then get discouraged by the huge pile of words they need to get through. Be careful about the words you need to learn and try not to overfill your list.
SRS is best used as a way to review what you’ve already learned from other places. Not as a means of learning everything.
The only time I would say it’s reasonable to use SRS as a means of learning, instead of reviewing, is as an absolute beginner. This is simply because you need to build a solid base of words to build upon.
As you reach higher levels of Chinese, the total amount of time spent on SRS compared to other resources should be fairly small, probably less than 20% of your study time.
You have a few different resources to choose from when using SRS software. Many courses actually use their own software as well, but I’d rather have a dedicated space for all my flashcards.
There are three main options and different people have different preferences. My favorite is easily Pleco.
Pleco is a dictionary app with a ton of extra features. It can do many different things and is something I use on a daily basis. One feature it has is flashcards.
Unfortunately, these cost $10 to access. For me, it’s worth the price. The reason is that I often will look up a word in Pleco, then want to see example sentences to go with it. Adding words to review here is really easy as I don’t need to switch apps again.
Anki is a much more DIY flashcard app and isn’t specific for learning languages. It’s a lot more customizable as you can add pictures, sentences, audio and so on.
For me though, I prefer the ease of quickly adding a word over these extra features. Anki is free on Android but costs $24.99 on iOS. You can, however, use it in your phone’s browser to avoid paying.
There are also quite a few flashcard decks already made from other people. But, be careful overusing pre-made decks.
Memrise would be the third choice and one of the most popular options. There are tons of user-made courses ranging from HSK lists, grammar, restaurant menu items, and so on. It’s free to use and a bit more fun and gamified than the other options. It’s pretty great, but again, avoid over-relying on the pre-made lists.
Don’t try to make flashcards by hand or review lists of words written on paper. I know not everyone loves using digital resources like this. But if you don’t use SRS, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time learning and reviewing words.
Work on your active listening skills
Improving your listening comprehension is another thing that’s going to be with you for the whole time you’re studying Chinese. For most people, it will be the most important of the skills they learn – above reading, writing, and even speaking.
You need to understand what people say to you before you can answer. Otherwise, you’ll end up repeating the same sentences over and over without actually answering people’s questions.
Many people make the mistake of thinking they can just pick up the language by being exposed to it. That’s not going to work. There are countless expats in China that have been here for years and can’t speak any Chinese.
Other people often think that they can just watch TV shows and they’ll pick up the language that way.
Again, that’s not going to work.
You need comprehensible input. Basically, you need to listen to things that you can understand most of. You need resources at your level.
There are quite a few podcasts you can use for learning Chinese. Instead of rewriting that post, I’m only going to share my top choice.
It’s one of my favorite resources and one you’ll see lots of people recommend – ChinesePod.
ChinesePod has lessons at varying levels, ranging from Newbie to Media.
The lessons focus on a dialogue and the hosts discuss the dialogue together; including important vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar points, and interesting cultural information.
There are an absurd number of lessons in their library, so you’ll be able to find a lesson based on whatever topic you’d prefer to learn about. I’ve used ChinesePod a ton over the last year and a half, and it’s a resource I strongly recommend. (ChinesePod Review)
Learn to Speak Chinese
Like pretty much everything related to learning Chinese, you’ll need a lot of practice to improve your spoken Chinese.
It’s really important that you continue to focus on proper pronunciation with clear tones. Make sure that you’re practicing the right things and building good habits.
At this beginner stage, most of your speaking practice will be mimicking single words, phrases, simple sentences.
Mimicking native speakers is a great way to improve your speech rhythm and cadence. It can be very helpful to record yourself speaking and compare it to the original recording.
It’s important to be a bit hard on yourself. I’ve found Chinese people to be very quick to say that you speak great Chinese, even if this is far from the truth. You’ll need to constantly work on this.
You don’t necessarily need any fancy tools for this. You can mimic lines from a podcast, course, or youtube video. There are tons of apps you can use to record yourself.
One resource that I think is really great for improving your spoken Chinese is called Speechling.
The free version offers lots of recorded sentences in either a man or woman’s voice. They can be categorized by topic or difficulty level.
The audio of a sentence will play, then you’ll record yourself saying the same sentence. Right after that, you’ll hear the audio again. This sandwich effect makes it very easy to spot differences in your recordings and the native speakers. This is all included in the free plan.
With a premium plan, you can also submit an unlimited number of recordings each month to be corrected. This provides a great opportunity to get non-biased feedback on your speech.
Teachers, Tutors, and Language Exchanges
Not surprisingly, one of the best ways to improve your speaking (and listening) is by talking with a Chinese person.
You have lots of options available for this and different people will have different preferences.
I’ve preferred to pay for a tutor to help me with conversational classes. I don’t like focusing too much on things like grammar or vocabulary because I’ve always felt I could learn those more efficiently, and cheaper, elsewhere.
I’ve taken a lot of classes on italki with different tutors to practice speaking Chinese.
Some teachers I’ve thought were amazing, others I couldn’t wait for the lesson to finally end. For me, it’s worked great to take classes with several different teachers, and then find one or two that I want to work with on a regular basis.
italki is the most affordable and convenient place to find a tutor. There are far more teachers compared to other platforms and they offer classes at cheaper prices. I’ve rarely paid over $10/hour for lessons. I’ve also tried Verbling, Hanbridge Mandarin, and eChineseLearning but italki was easily my favorite.
If you don’t have money to spend on lessons, that’s not a problem. It’s definitely not an excuse to not practice speaking Chinese.
The reason I prefer paying for classes instead of doing language exchanges is that I don’t have so much free time. With language exchanges, you’ll be expected to help the other person learn their target language just as much as they help you.
It can be a great way to make friends and learn a language, it’s just likely to be a bit less efficient than paying for classes.
There are a number of places you can find a language exchange partner.
italki also has a large community of people interested in language exchanges.
Hellotalk is probably the most popular app for this and in my experience, the best.
Learn to Read Chinese
A lot of people are very intimidated by Chinese characters and the thought of reading Chinese. I personally, find reading Chinese to be a very enjoyable experience, and often times easier than understanding spoken Chinese.
But, it all depends on where you place your energy and what your goals are.
In the beginning, you will likely need to use pinyin as a crutch. But the sooner you can move away from a dependence on pinyin and start reading characters by themselves, the better off you will be.
Eventually, you won’t have a choice.
In fact, as you reach higher levels of Chinese, reading pinyin will become more challenging than reading characters and you’ll have a hard time figuring out what the hell the pinyin is meant to say.
Like most things related to Chinese, learning Chinese characters seems far harder than it actually is. When I first started learning Chinese, every character was a confusing mess. Luckily, there’s a method to the madness.
Character components are the pieces that make up all of the characters. Radicals are the components that were used to list characters in older dictionaries. You’ll probably never use a traditional dictionary so the distinction between the two isn’t particularly important.
Learning the components of characters makes recognizing and distinguishing them a much simpler process. I found it much easier to understand how characters were put together after learning the 100 most common radicals. I don’t know if it’s worth the time to learn them all, but it’s worth knowing they exist.
Zizzle is a unique app for learning Chinese characters. It breaks characters down into their component parts and provides short illustrated stories to help you remember how the character is formed, it’s pronunciation, tone, and meaning. On first glance, the app looks rather ridiculous, but it’s actually very effective.
It has never been easier to learn to read Chinese. You don’t need to read books written for five-year-olds. You can read interesting news articles and stories written at a level that you can understand. Reading Chinese can actually be fun and not a chore.
I wrote a whole article about various resources I’ve found for reading Chinese online. But, I’ll briefly mention my favorites here.
The Chairman’s Bao and Du Chinese. These two apps are great. Du Chinese is a bit more fitting for beginners because English translations are included. Whereas the Chairman’s Bao may be better suited for those who read a lot, as they release far more content. You can read my comparison article here, which also includes coupon codes.
I’m also a huge fan of the Mandarin Companion books. Level one is written using approximately 300 unique characters. They say it’s meant for students who have had about one to two years of formal study. But, I think you can jump into it earlier.
I read my first Mandarin Companion book within my first six months of studying. It’s not because I’m super smart or anything. In the beginning, I was constantly looking up words, but by the end of the book, I was actually able to read it fairly smoothly.
Completing that first book was really enjoyable and felt like a huge accomplishment.
Chinese Breeze is another popular graded book series, but I haven’t read any of their titles.
Learn to Write Chinese
Should you learn to write Chinese? I hope you’ve asked yourself this question before diving into it.
Again, people feel differently about whether or not it’s worth the time and energy to learn to write Chinese by hand. Your own goals and motivations will need to play a part in your decision.
I decided that the basics are important to know, but that I’m more interested in focusing on other areas. So, my Chinese handwriting is terrible. I’ve had so few instances were I need to write something in Chinese, and when I do, I can reference the character in my phone or ask someone for help writing.
Your goals may be different than mine and writing Chinese could be a priority for you. If so, you have some good tools that you can make use of.
Skritter would be the most popular option for people looking to learn to write Chinese. It’s a good app that uses SRS and stroke order recognition.
You could also go the old school way, with pen and paper, along with a stroke order dictionary – Arch Chinese or Pleco will work. This is cheaper, but you lose out on some of the convenience and power of SRS.
While it’s very rare that I need to write something by hand, I often find myself needing to type in Chinese. Luckily, this is far easier. You can download a Chinese keyboard and just type in pinyin and manually select the character you’re looking for.
I like typing in Chinese as a means to practice my sentence structure and vocabulary usage. It’s very easy to get your writing corrected by a native Chinese speaker for free. There are a few ways to do this.
First, italki has a notebooks section where you can submit a journal entry and someone will provide corrections. I like using italki for getting feedback on my writing because the structure lends itself nicely to a bit longer form content.
Another option is the app HiNative. You can also ask other questions on this app, such as getting feedback on your pronunciation, asking how to say something, for examples, and a lot more.
Chinese grammar is fairly easy and straight-forward, especially at the beginner level. That said, you’ll still want to spend a bit of time looking at things more closely.
Chinese Grammar Wiki is a great resource for learning Chinese grammar online. Grammar points are organized by difficulty level with lots of example sentences for you to reference.
Structure Your Learning
I hate textbooks, but they’re the default way for learning new skills for a reason.
You don’t have to follow it religiously, but it can be a very useful reference. Integrated Chinese and NPCR are the two most often recommended ones you’ll find. You can also find PDF versions online with some simple googling.
The Hacking Chinese blog and book are both very helpful. I’d recommend the book because it’s a lot more structured and that’s something you really need when you start studying Chinese independently. Either way though, both have a ton of useful information that can save you time.
A course is a great way to add structure. Online courses are actually affordable as well, with there being quite a few options to choose from. I’ve already written a fairly long post comparing the different online courses, and telling you which ones to avoid. So, I’m going to avoid repeating myself here.
Learning Chinese is a long process and has a steep initial learning curve.
It can take months before you feel like you’re really able to understand or say much. That’s okay. If you build a solid foundation in the beginning – it will get easier and more fun.
That’s not to say it will become less challenging – just that you’ll face different challenges. I hope this guide has been a helpful resource and will give some insight into that difficult question – “How do I start learning Chinese?”
I’m still learning myself and have a long way to go. Take everything in this guide with a grain of salt and figure out what works best for you. If I left off anything important or you feel I’m completely wrong about something – please let me know.