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. The first step is to figure out which of these tools you’re going to use.
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 newspapers – should you spend the energy learning to speak?
How much time and money are you willing to spend learning Chinese?
Everyone has different resources. Some may be time poor and cash rich while others have all the time in the world but not any money to spend. A few unfortunate folks have neither time nor money. Do you have other resources available to help you learn Chinese? Perhaps your Chinese speaking friends are willing to help you or your local library has free materials. Figure out what you have available to you and how much you’re willing to put into learning Chinese.
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.
This post will focus learning the four main skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. There will be places where things overlap – hopefully, it doesn’t become too chaotic. Let’s get into it…
Use a textbook or course to keep you on the right path.
* Get a textbook, seriously. A textbook doesn’t have to be your primary study material but being able to reference it is incredibly valuable. It will provide you with guidance when you’re not sure what to focus on and clarity when you’re confused. NPCR and Integrated Chinese are the two most recommended ones. If money is an issue, you can find PDF versions with some simple googling. While you don’t necessarily need a grammar book – you can read my article comparing a few options.
* Find a course. If you’re already enrolled in a course, that’s fantastic. If not, you may want to consider finding one either in person or online. While a course is nowhere near as mandatory as a textbook, it’ll be the best option for a lot of people. Edx and Coursera have free beginner level courses that you join. Yoyo Chinese is a good paid course for beginners – Get 10% off with the coupon code 10NRES. Review of Yoyo Chinese. Chinese Zero to Hero! is a very affordable course that might be enough to replace a textbook. Get 15% off with the coupon code “ALR15”. Review of Chinese Zero to Hero!
* Hacking Chinese and other online resources – Although this is a bit less structured and really should be used in conjunction with at least a textbook, it’s a great resource. You can find tons of useful articles that help you figure out what to focus on and how to go about learning things.
* There are lots of other online courses that you may want to consider. Most work better combined with other resources. I’ll talk more about these later.
Learn to Speak Chinese (and some listening)
Learn Chinese Tones
People constantly use tones as an excuse for why learning Chinese is impossible. In reality, learning the tones isn’t terribly difficult and is something you can’t ignore.
When you start learning Chinese it’s hard to notice the differences in tones. Some people make the excuse of “not having an ear for Chinese.” Nobody does when they first start. You can learn to hear the differences – it just takes some practice.
- * I particularly enjoyed the “dude rule” found in this Quora post.
* Whatever resources you choose to use will talk about tones. In addition to that, I suggest this article as it explains a lot of common mistakes and things that are often taught incorrectly.
* Train yourself to hear the differences in tones. This free tone training course was really helpful when I started learning tones. I haven’t personally tried these drills from Sinosplice but I’d be surprised if they weren’t very good.
* Make use of pinyin charts. (below)
Learn to Pronounce Chinese Words
I’m intentionally listing this before learning new words. It might feel a bit weird to learn how to pronounce words whose meanings you don’t yet know. However, I suggest focusing on pronunciation first. Very few people do this. Learning words and sentences before pronunciation helps to create a lot of bad habits and mistakes that become harder to change the longer you’ve been making them.
Every word you learn, you’ll need to be practicing saying it out loud – a lot of times. Make sure, from the very beginning, that you’re saying it correctly. If you don’t learn good pronunciation, nobody will be able to understand what you’re saying.
Luckily, there are lots of resources to help you. Let’s look at the free ones first.
* Yoyo Chinese pinyin chart – This video pinyin chart shows all the different pinyin initials and finals. There are suggestions of equivalent English sounds and the video makes it easier to understand what your mouth should be doing.
* Any recording device or app – This one is pretty simple. Listen to a short clip of someone speaking Chinese and record yourself mimicking them. Listen and compare the difference. Sometimes it can be hard to hear the difference yourself though so it’s best if you can get input from a native teacher. If money is an issue, you can find language exchange partners from hellotalk or italki. Just be sure to be clear with them that you’re looking for help on your pronunciation and ask for honest feedback.
* Repeat out loud often – This is better than nothing but also a good way to start forming bad habits. It’s surprising how many courses have the student repeat out loud but don’t provide feedback. Be careful of this trap. Make sure you’re practicing the right things.
* Here’s a list of extra resources from Hacking Chinese that you may find helpful.
There are some paid resources to help you with your pronunciation as well.
* Chinesepod’s Say it Right Series – Chinesepod is fantastic and I’ll talk about it later. Included in their premium subscription is a course on pronunciation that is very well made.
* A tutor – I’ve found italki and Verbling to be the easiest and cheapest places to find a tutor. Try this bingo activity to make sure you get honest feedback from your tutor. Too often people will just want to tell you that you’re doing a great job. Read my review of italki.
* WaiChinese – This app needs major improvement but it’s still useful. It helps you learn pronunciation by having you record audio after listening to a native speakers recording. You’ll see a visualization of the audio for both. Then, you can submit it to a teacher for correction. You can read my review of WaiChinese here.
Learn lots of Chinese words
Now is the time to start learning words – a lot of words. This will be a long process that stays with you for your entire Mandarin learning journey. However, the strategy that a beginner uses will be different than the strategy for intermediate or higher students. When you’re at a higher level, it’s best to learn new words from context (reading, listening). But at the beginning, you don’t know enough to do that. To start, our strategy is to use brute force with the right tools.
You should use SRS flashcards. They make it easy to study new words whenever you have a little bit of time available. The system will make it so you spend your time where it’s needed and not repeating words that you already know. Generally, SRS should be used as a review tool and not for learning new characters. However, the absolute beginning is the exception in my opinion.
You have three main flashcard options.
* Pleco – Everybody learning Chinese should have Pleco downloaded on their phone. It’s a free dictionary but has a lot of paid add-ons. Unfortunately, the flashcards are an add-on that costs $10. It’s worth it though because of how convenient it is to use. You can quickly add words you hear or learn in other contexts to your flashcard list to make sure you don’t forget it.
* Memrise – Memrise is very popular and more fun (though less efficient for me) than the other options. It makes use of both game elements and mnenomics. It has lots of user made courses for everything from HSK lists, reading a menu, grammar and more. Read my review of Memrise.
You can make flashcards by hand but I don’t recommend it. It’s just much more time consuming and without SRS you’ll end up reviewing words you don’t need to review and ignoring words that you do need to practice more.
In the beginning, it’s okay to learn from pre-made lists but you really want to avoid learning new words this way as you reach a higher level of Chinese. Learning from context will make words much easier to remember and learn how to use properly.
Improve your Chinese listening comprehension (and some speaking)
As you start learning some Chinese words – it’s also time to work on your listening skills. For most people, listening will be the most important skill – above reading, writing and even talking. What use is speaking if you don’t know what the conversation is about? There’s no quick way to understanding spoken Chinese. It’ll take a lot of practice and you’ll always need to be working on your listening skills – even as you become more proficient in Chinese. Luckily, there are a ton of resources available to you. It’s also fairly easy to find time to listen to Chinese – on your way to work, while cleaning the house or having breakfast. Unfortunately, most things will require a small subscription fee. Let’s look at the podcasts first…
* Check out this post I made about the best podcasts for learning Chinese.
Courses and Apps
There are also a number of general courses/apps/websites that have a heavy audio component. A lot of these ask you to repeat the words after you hear them. Because of that, I think you should focus on getting good pronunciation first – otherwise, you’ll start developing bad speaking habits.
* Michel Thomas – This is a popular audio course but I don’t know much about it.
* HelloChinese and ChineseSkill – These are both free apps that are very similar to each other. I think they’re better fit for casually getting acquainted to learning Chinese than serious studying. But, they’re both good and it’s hard to complain about something free. Read my review of ChineseSkill.
There are a few resources that I think are either very bad or just not worth paying for. Now seems like a good enough time to mention them.
- * Rocket Chinese – This is one of the worst products I’ve seen. You can read my review to see why.
* Rosetta Stone – Save your money.
* I’m sure there are others. Be wary of promises that are too good to be true. Learning Chinese isn’t going to be quick and easy.
The most important thing is to spend a lot of time listening to materials at your level. Many people try to jump right into native TV shows and movies but at this stage, you won’t understand enough. Your time will be better spent with more appropriate materials.
Characters and Reading
In the first few months you probably won’t be reading much. The reason is that first you should try to get a solid grasp of pinyin and need to learn a lot of words and characters before you can read much of anything. Some people choose to ignore characters completely in the beginning but I think this is a big mistake. Starting to learn how characters now and how they work will make life easier later.
Learning Characters and Character Components
Character components – 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. I remember before I learned the 100 most common radicals, every character just looked like a confusing mess. Learning the components will make it much easier to recognize characters. Read this (and other) articles from Hacking Chinese for more advice on how to learn characters.
Mnemonics – Some characters are just difficult to remember. That’s when using mnemonics is really helpful. This is basically creaing a story or image to help you remember something.
Zizzle is an outstanding app that uses pictures and stories to make it easier to remember characters and their components – read my review of Zizzle. Use the coupon code “ALLLANGUAGERESOURCES” to get 15% off all 3-month and annual subscriptions, as well as packs.
Memrise is free and has user created courses that also contain mnenomics and SRS. However, you don’t need an app to make good mnemonics. The best ones are personal and emotional – imagining a sexy or scary story will be much more helpful than a generic mnenomic that you can’t relate to.
As you start to get a handle on characters and know enough words – you should start looking for easy reading materials.
Practice Reading Materials
* The Chairman’s Bao – This is a simplified newspaper made for people learning Chinese. It’s awesome. Articles are arranged by HSK level so even low level students can find interesting materials to read. There is also audio to go along with each article. You can read my full review. Use the coupon code “tcbalr20” to get 20% off any individual subscription.
* Du Chinese – This is another awesome app. You can read and listen to articles that are arranged by difficulty level. I also wrote a review of DuChinese. Use the coupon code “ALLLANGUAGERESOURCES” to get 10% off a subscription.
How important is learning to write characters by hand for you? It’s a question you need to really consider. Let’s take a real quick look at reasons to learn to write characters and reasons to ignore writing.
- * It’s a huge time investment. Time spent learning to write by hand means less time to learn other skills like speaking or listening.
* How often do you really need to write by hand anyway? Most written communication will be done on phone or computer. For those, you only need to know pinyin and be able to recognize the character.
Learn to write
- * It makes it easier to remember characters. Do you really know a character if you can’t recreate it yourself? It’s very easy to confuse different similar looking characters – learning to write by hand makes it much easier to distinguish characters.
* It’s fun and you enjoy it.
* You need to be able to write by hand for your work.
* It makes reading other people’s written Chinese easier.
If you decide that learning to write is important to you, you’ll have a few resources that you should consider using.
- * Skritter – Skritter is a paid app that uses SRS and stroke order recognition. It’s the most recommended and best resource for learning to write characters. Get a one week free trial and use coupon code “alllanguageresources” to get 45% off your first month.
* Pen and paper + stroke order dictionary – You can find the stroke order for characters from a few different places. Arch Chinese is a very good online dictionary that you can use to learn to write characters. Pleco also has this feature.
* Inkstone – I haven’t tried Inkstone but it’s free and may be worth looking at.
Let’s face it, you’re much more likely to use written Chinese on your phone and computer than by hand. There are a number of places where you can get practice communicating with writing.
- * Wechat – The Facebook/messenger/everything app for people living in China.
* Lang-8 – A great community where you can get feedback on your writing from native speakers.
* Busuu – I mentioned earlier that Busuu wasn’t worth paying for. It’s not, but the language exchange part of the app is free and quite good.
* HiNative – You can use this app to ask native speakers any questions you may have about Chinese. You can also get feedback on your writing.
Start Learning Chinese
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. I want this to be the best guide possible for people starting to learn Chinese.