If you’re a native English speaker, learning Chinese is no small feat. In fact, the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute puts Mandarin Chinese in the hardest category of languages to learn.
But don’t let that discourage you. There are more resources available than ever before to help you learn Chinese fast or even learn on your own. The best way to learn Chinese will depend on your learning goals and preferences.
In this post, we’ll cut through the noise and clutter and give you our top tips for anyone learning Mandarin Chinese, with various learning styles.
If you want to cut to the chase and just see reviews and recommendations for many language learning resources, check these posts:
- Best Apps for Learning Mandarin Chinese: We’ve Tried Them All
- Most Recommended Resources For Learning Chinese
- 19 Best Online Courses for Learning Mandarin Chinese
- Look No Further: 30 Best Podcasts to Learn Mandarin Chinese
- Stay Motivated with 35 Mandarin Chinese YouTube Channels
Most people start studying Chinese with whatever resource they happen to stumble upon. It’s hard to know what you should focus on. 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.
- How should I start learning Chinese?
- How to Learn Chinese Mandarin with Zero Knowledge?
- How to Learn Chinese Mandarin as a Beginner?
- How to Learn Mandarin Chinese — Which Ways for Your Learning Style?
- How to Learn Chinese by Yourself?
How should I start learning Chinese?
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.
How to Learn Chinese Mandarin with Zero Knowledge?
Welcome to learning Chinese Mandarin! This section is designed for absolute beginners with minimal or no prior knowledge of the language. Whether you can only say “ni hao” occasionally, these initial steps are crucial in establishing a strong foundation for future learning.
Take the time to master these foundational elements. What may seem slow now will translate to an accelerated progress and proficiency later on.
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 in English. Pronunciation is important no matter what language you’re learning. Since Mandarin is a tonal language, pronunciation is a necessary part of speaking Chinese. In tonal languages, the pitch or tone of a word changes its meaning.
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 the 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 oftentimes 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
Native speakers won’t be able to understand you unless you master the Chinese tones.
There are a total of five tones in the Chinese language, and you’ll need to learn how to consistently pronounce all of them correctly if you want to speak the language. One of the best ways to practice Chinese tones is by shadowing native speakers.
Tones are one of those things that make 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 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 where 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, the italki app has an Exercise section where you can submit a piece of writing and someone will provide corrections. I like using italki for getting feedback, but LangCorrect better lends itself to getting feedback on longer-form writing.
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.
Learn to Read Chinese
The Chinese writing system is logographic, meaning that Chinese characters often represent words and ideas instead of sounds like letters in an alphabet. This means that to read Chinese characters, you will have to memorize them to some extent. Because of this, 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 oftentimes 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 are some tricks you can use to learn Chinese characters more efficiently.
For starters, you can learn Chinese radicals and how they make up characters. Radicals are a part of a character and usually give a clue to the character’s sound or meaning. In the Chinese language there are about 200 radicals.
A Chinese dictionary will use radicals to organize characters, and every Chinese character has a radical in it. Knowing radicals and recognizing them within other characters will make reading Chinese a lot easier. It will also make characters easier to remember.
You can also use Mnemonics, which are a popular way to help memorize Chinese characters. Mnemonics combine a memorable image with a Chinese character. This image is associated to the Chinese word and helps make the character more memorable.
A great example of mnemonics for Chinese characters can be found here.
Some great programs that help you read Chinese characters are Du Chinese and Skritter. Both apps do great jobs helping Chinese learners start their Chinese character reading journey.
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.
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.
How to Learn Chinese Mandarin as a Beginner?
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, and 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.
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.
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.
When learning tones, it’s vital that you have some sort of feedback on your pronunciation. Listening back to the recording of a native speaker is great feedback. 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.
When mimicking a native speaker, you listen as they say a particular word, syllable, or phrase. After listening several times you then try to mimic what you hear. Then you listen again to the native speaker and compare your pronunciation against theirs. This is one of the most effective ways to learn Chinese tones and develop a natural accent.
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.
If you have a Chinese teacher or language learning partner, having them give feedback on your tone is also a great option.
Shadowing is one of the exact techniques used in Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese course. In every lesson you shadow a native speaker as you learn new words and phrases.
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; is easy to find and message some by using the community features.
Hellotalk is probably the most popular app for this and, in my experience, the best.
How to Learn Mandarin Chinese — Which Ways for Your Learning Style?
Learn Chinese with an immersion based language course
How immersion helps you learn Mandarin Chinese more effectively
Immersion is a popular way to learn Mandarin Chinese. Language immersion is when you learn grammar and vocabulary by using full dialogues or conversations.
But just a heads up, this only happens after you’ve already begun using whole phrases in conversations, listening practice, and reading. Learning through immersion makes grammar more intuitive, as you start to get a feel for how the Chinese language works before learning any rules. It also makes vocabulary more memorable as you have the context of a whole text or conversation to remember, versus just a word for word translation.
With Immersion you don’t learn Chinese on a word for word basis using English translations and long word lists. This is the approach a lot of traditional Chinese courses take. Unfortunately this method teaches you the bad habit of translating Chinese words from English ones in your head before you speak.
Immersion cuts down on the translation step. Instead of learning the exact definition of each Chinese words, you learn the general meaning of whole phrases and sentences. As you progress through an immersion course, you do eventually learn the grammar behind sentences and will learn each word’s definition.
An immersion course for Mandarin Chinese
Our favorite translation based course for learning Chinese is StoryLearning. StoryLearning’s Chinese course is designed to give you a solid foundation in the language and to help prepare you for real conversations with Chinese people.
As its name suggests, StoryLearning teaches Chinese through stories. Each lesson is a self contained short story. All of the lesson stories work together almost like chapters as part of the larger story for the entire course.
With this course you’ll be immersed in Mandarin from day one, listening to and reading Chinese right away. Each story is written in both Chinese characters and pinyin, so it’s no problem if you don’t know how to read Chinese yet.
Each story is especially crafted to use phrases and words you’re likely to use in real conversations. Each lesson gradually builds on the material you learned in the previous lesson, so that by the end of the course you have cohesive knowledge of essential Chinese.
The beginning level course is difficult enough that it will stretch you and train your brain to start thinking in Chinese. But the stories aren’t so hard that they’re intimidating. You’ll never feel lost when working through Story Learning.
Download a Chinese learning app
Language learning apps make it possible to learn Chinese anywhere, and they can be a powerful tool in your Chinese learning arsenal. If you want to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, then you’ll want to pick an app that uses the immersion method to teach you Chinese.
Our favorite Chinese app for language immersion is Pimsleur. The Pimsleur Chinese app is an audio course that teaches conversational Mandarin. Each Chinese lesson on Pimsleur is 30 minutes long and teaches you a collection of Chinese phrases.
With Pimsleur you learn vocabulary by repeating after a native Chinese speaker. You learn each phrase by listening to the speaker pronounce the individual syllables that make up the phrase. After that, you imitate the speaker as they join the syllables together and say the full phrase.
This pronunciation based approach is especially helpful when tackling Chinese tones, and it will help you to speak clearly with a natural accent so that Chinese speakers can understand you.
Once you learn the phrases in the first phase of a Pimsleur lesson, you move on to the second phrase: question and response. Here you’re put on the spot and prompted to answer and ask questions in Mandarin, using the phrases you just learned. You have a short window of time to answer before the correct response is given.
This kind of practice helps you develop your speaking skills similar to the way talking with real people does. There’s no other Chinese learning app that pulls this off as effectively as Pimsleur.
Subscribe to Mandarin Chinese podcasts
Chinese podcasts are a great way to learn vocabulary and grammar, while also working on your listening comprehension skills. If you’re new to the Chinese language than it’s best to start out listening to language learning podcasts.
There are ton of Chinese learning podcasts, but 0ne of our favorites is Chineseclass101. Chineseclass101 episodes are 10-15 minute Chinese lessons. Each episode teaches conversational vocabulary and grammar using a conversation between real native Chinese speakers.
Every episode also include full transcripts of the dialogue in English, traditional Chinese characters, and pinyin. There’s even a feature on the site that lets you play back new words at slower speeds so that you can listen to the native speaker and try to mimic their pronunciation.
My favorite thing about Chineseclass101 is the dialogues take place in situations that are real to life. This way you learn words and phrases that you can start using right away when talking to people.
There are hundreds of episodes on Chineseclass101, with difficulty levels ranging from absolute beginner to advanced. In the beginning level episodes English is used by the hosts to introduce the lesson and explain grammar and vocabulary.
As you progress through the podcast and reach the higher difficulty levels, you’ll notice that less and less English is used until the entire episode is in Mandarin.
Watch Chinese movies and TV shows
Watching Chinese TV and movies is a great way to learn Chinese. It’s also great for getting a taste of Chinese culture. Here’s how you can use Chinese movies and TV to boost your language skills.
Pick a short clip from a movie or show and play it back a few times without any subtitles. Make note of any words and phrases you understand, and listen closely to the ones you don’t. Use the context of the clip and the words you do recognize to guess the meaning of the Chinese phrases that are unfamiliar to you.
After this if you know Chinese characters you can play the clip back using Chinese subtitles. Seeing the characters will help you pick out words and phrases that you already know but maybe didn’t recognize when they were spoken.
If you don’t know Chinese characters yet, there’s an app you can use to work around this but more on that in a second.
If you watched clips with Chinese subtitles and are still stumped by any of the words, you can watch the clip with English subtitles.
Repeating this exercise of watching and listening will help you learn new words and improve your listening comprehension skills.
Another benefit of learning Chinese this way is that movies and TV shows will expose you to informal Chinese like slang and idioms. Mandarin Chinese as it’s spoken in everyday life is often different than the Chinese you learn in a typical course or textbook. Shows and movies will help you learn Chinese as it’s spoken on the street.
A great tool for learning Chinese with movies and tv is FluentU. FluentU is a language learning app that lets you watch Native Chinese content like TV and movie clips and easily switch between English and Mandarin subtitles. Subtitles are also available in pinyin so you don’t have to know Chinese characters to use the app.
All of the subtitles on FluentU are clickable. When you encounter a word you don’t know, simply click the subtitle and you will instantly see the word’s definition, its Chinese character, pronunciation, and a few example sentences. You can even make a flashcard for the word using FluentU’s native spaced repetition flashcard system, so you can review the word later.
Speak Chinese with native speakers
Speaking Chinese with native speakers is one of the most important steps you can take in your language learning journey. You can’t become fluent in Chinese without speaking practice.
Still, many Chinese learners put off speaking for as long as possible. They tell themselves they’ll start to speak Mandarin when they’re ready. They’re convinced that they just need to learn a few more grammar rules, or more Chinese words.
The problem is that there will never be a day when you finally feel ready to speak Mandarin. If you’ve never done it before there will always be some self-consciousness and fear at the thought of speaking Chinese. The good news is that once you take the leap and start practicing with native speakers, the fear subsides and your confidence builds up quickly.
How to prepare for your first conversation with native chinese speakers
Speaking with real people is one of the most exciting and fulfilling parts of learning a second language, and there are some practical steps you can take before your first conversation.
One of the first is to practice some stock Chinese phrases beforehand. For this you’ll want to imagine some of the questions and topics likely to come up the first time you talk to someone in Chinese.
This might be easier than you think. When meeting someone you’ll likely hear questions like:
- What’s your name?
- Where are you From?
- Why are you learning Chinese?
- How long have you been learning Chinese?
- What do you do for work?
- What are your hobbies?
You should practice answering and asking these questions in Mandarin. You can write them out on a conversation cheat sheet for yourself, so that you have a quick reference to look at in case you get stuck while talking to someone.
How to find native chinese speakers to practice with
If you live in or plan to live in China then finding a native Chinese speaker won’t be difficult. If you live in another country then you might have to think a little more creatively to find Chinese speakers.
Most major cities have language exchanges or conversation clubs. You can use a site like Meetup.com to search for a language exchange in your area. If that doesn’t proof fruitful you can take your search online and look for a language partner on sites like My Language Exchange. In China there’s a huge demand for native English speakers to practice English with. So the odds are that you’ll find a lot of Chinese speakers on online language learning communities.
Another option is to check and see if your local university has a foreign language conversation club. Most colleges have a foreign language program or even an exchange student program, so you might be able to find a native speaker there.
Sign up for online Chinese classes
One of best ways to learn the Chinese language is with one on one classes with a teacher. These days more and more language learners are opting to take online lessons via a video chat program like Zoom or Skype.
A professional Chinese teacher will likely have spent a lot of time teaching their native language to foreigners. As a result they will know the common mistakes a native English speaker makes while learning Chinese, and what the most difficult aspects of the language might be for them.
Most importantly your teacher will also know how to help you overcome these common hurdles of the Chinese language. He or she will likely have some tricks up their sleeve to help you with things like mastering the Chinese tones, remembering characters, and understanding grammar.
If you’re interested in online Chinese classes then we recommend italki. Italki is the largest language learning site offering one on one paid lessons with professional language teachers and informal tutors.
There are thousands of Mandarin Chinese teachers on italki. Many of them offer a limited trial lesson for a discounted price, making it easy to try out a few teachers before deciding on one.
Teachers typically provide their own learning materials and lesson plans. However if you’re an independent learner and just want someone to practice with, a lesson with a tutor is also a great option. Tutors are usually cheaper than teachers, with the difference being that teachers usually have some sort of teaching certification and tutors do not.
Italki is an all around great language learning site, and offers some great free resources in addition to their paid lessons. You can search through the profiles of Italki’s other language learners to find a language partner. There’s a ton of native Mandarin speakers looking to improve their English, so finding someone to practice with won’t be hard.
Italki also features a free public journal where you can write in Chinese and have your entries corrected by native speakers. There’s also a discussion board where you can ask specific questions about the Chinese language and get answers from the community.
Listen to Chinese music
If you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, then listening to Chinese music can be a fun and effective way to learn new words and practice your listening skills. Mainland China has a long and varied musical history.
There’s long standing traditions for both Chinese folk and opera going back hundreds of years. If you’re looking for something more modern, China produces its fair share of pop music as well. There’s plenty of Chinese EDM, hip-hop, pop, and rock to be found.
How music can help you learn Chinese
A simple way to incorporate music into your Chinese learning is to listen to a favorite song and then read through the lyrics. You can then look up any words you don’t know. You can then memorize the song to help you remember the new words.
Another fun way to practice Chinese using music is lingoclip.com. Lingoclip lets you play Chinese songs and tests you on the lyrics in real time. You’re prompted to fill in the blanks of the lyrics as the song plays using pinyin.
Read Chinese books
Due to the writing system, reading in Chinese is going to be more difficult than other languages. If you’re a beginner reading Chinese can feel intimidating.
Not to worry though, it’s perfectly fine to start out reading pinyin. Pinyin is a transcription of Chinese words using letters from the Latin alphabet. Pinyin also uses dashes above letters to denote tones. While you’re not as likely to encounter pinyin in China (though kindergarten and early school age children are taught to use it), it’s still the best way to start reading Chinese as a beginner.
After you start reading pinyin, it will be time to move on to Chinese characters. As we mentioned before it’s best to start by learning radicals. Not all characters will be determined by their radicals, but many will.
Fortunately there are a lot of tools available dedicated to teaching you how to read Chinese characters. One great resources is the MDBG Chinese dictionary. With this dictionary it’s easy to copy and paste simplified or traditional Chinese characters to look them up. There’s even a writing feature that lets you write a character into the dictionary to look it up as well. This dictionary also uses Pinyin if you need it!
Another free tool to help you read in Chinese is Nlptool.com. It includes a built in web browser that has a popup English to Chinese dictionary, making it easy to read through Chinese web pages. Nlptool also includes word segmentation, an example sentence search.
How to Learn Chinese by Yourself?
Learning Chinese on your own is not an easy feat, but it’s possible. By gathering all your pinyin and vocabulary knowledge, you can make it possible to learn grammar on your own. However, know that this journey would take a lot of effort and hard work on your part.
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 too. 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. Just get started.
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.