How to Learn Chinese Mandarin: Where to Start And How to Keep Going.

So you wanna know where to start when learning Chinese, or how to gain momentum and push through to fluency? Read on, dear reader…

Despite being only a mere mortal like yourself (in that I am not yet fluent in Chinese, – but it is only a matter of time) I am quite experienced in learning languages and have developed strategies and techniques that have saved me literally hours, days, months, maybe even years. These I will share with you today, so that you may learn from my past mistakes and less time studying and more picking up Chinese chicks!


learning chinese


Okay, so, if I could impart only one thing on you it would be that confidence is half the battle.

If you spend too much time worrying about whether you will ever reach fluency, firstly, that is time you will not be spending injecting Chinese into your brain, but secondly, and most importantly, it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – you won’t enjoy the process, will associate Chinese with stress and essentially never become fluent.

This ‘blind faith’, as an atheist, is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. But you really have no choice but to take my word for it that if you:

  1. Put in the time (listening, writing and, eventually, speaking)
  2. Enjoy yourself
  3. Believe you will become fluent

Then fluency is an inevitable result.

“But, Chinese is such a hard language compared to French or Spanish!”

Don’t get sucked into this idea.

Chinese is not harder, Chinese is just far more different to English than most European languages are. Plenty of Westerners have managed to tame the beast. Off the top of my head, take Steve Kaufmann or Luca Lampariello, for example.

In fact, I would argue that Chinese is actually objectively easier and more logical than any other language I’ve come across (with the exception of Chinese characters – logical in theory, but struggle city in practice for anyone trying to learn it who doesn’t use it every day).

Consider these things:

  • Rather than having completely separate words for related concepts, one character in Chinese will represent a ‘concept’ that will manifest itself in a huge number of multi-syllable words, ie:
    工 (gōng) – representing the idea of ‘work’, present in other words such as 工作 (to work), 工厂(factory/plant), 工地 (workplace), 工匠 (craftsman), 工力 (craftsmanship), 工业 (industry), the list goes on.
  • No conjugations. No tenses. No cases. No plurals. No gender.
    Therefore, no memorising ‘je peux, tu peux, il peut, nous pouvons’. Nuff said.
  • No long words – say goodbye to ‘anticonstitutionnellement’, ‘Unkameradschaftlichkeit’ and ‘electroencefalografistas’.

I could go on for ages about how simple and logical Chinese really is.
Also, don’t be afraid of tones. They can be learned naturally through extensive listening.


Two Language Gurus: Head to Head
Two Language Gurus: Head to Head

Although the sometimes vicious debate present amongst the language learning community would have you believe otherwise (I’m looking at you, Steve and Benny), there is no hard-and-fast rule to language learning. What works for some may work for others. What seems to be unanimous is that a lot of input in the form of listening and reading is needed at some stage, with output (speaking) following either once a good level of comprehension has been achieved or from the start, in addition to input.

Here is what I would advise for those beginning their Chinese studies, and for those already on the path.


Learning Chinese can be struggle city. But only if you don’t have fun while you’re doing it!
  1. Get some materials. Textbooks are okay, as long as they have dialogs with a recorded version. If you’ve got the dough, ChinesePod is great.
  2. Do a significant amount of input (reading and listening) with this beginner material. This is the hard bit, where the language gradually becomes less ‘foreign’ – in other words, you get used to the language. To make rapid progress, try to dedicate at least 30 minutes a day (an hour is better).
  3. Work the language into your life. I’m not really an advocate of ignoring your friends and family who don’t speak the language, or listening to the language while you’re talking to them and while you sleep (per AJATT), or changing the language on your computer and phone into Chinese – this is too annoying for me. Instead, make use of dead time. Do you daydream on the train/bus? Now you listen to Chinese. Do you wait in lines? Now you listen to Chinese while you wait in lines. Do you walk the dog? Paint your house? Daydream? Listen to Chinese while you do these things. You’ll see how easy it is. I would estimate that the average person has about 1-2 hours a day of dead time, this meaning time they do NOTHING else. If you studied Chinese only in the time you otherwise would be wasting, you will see massive progress. Now imagine if you fit some Chinese into your free time, too?
  4. Two words. Mini goals. Learn 30 words a week, and then step it up after a couple of weeks. Listen to 30 minutes of Chinese a day – then step it up to an hour incrementally. I’m soon to write an entire post over on my own blog dedicated to explaining the importance of mini goals.
  5. Characters. Forget about them for the first month. After that though, they are important. Spend 15 minutes a day learning them. Although it may seem tedious, it’s worth learning the radicals first, or as you encounter them – this will enable you to quite accurately guess new characters later on.
  6. Get an SRS. Do your reps daily, and add sentences whenever you can. Also, I’ve found sentences are better than words, as you learn grammar and new vocabulary simultaneously – it also seems much less boring than just drilling single words. If you have the option/can be bothered, add sentences with audio so you don’t get a botchy pronunciation (or just do a lot of listening). Where to get sentences? Mine them from the dialogs in your textbook, from ChinesePod, wherever. Just make sure they are correct!

Intermediate Learners

If you could speak Chinese, you’d probably be looking as chuffed as this guy.
  1. Enjoy. This is the best part of the language learning journey. The language is starting to become familiar, and you can start doing fun stuff in the language! Like, watching TV shows from YouKu (the Chinese version of YouTube, but with full episodes) and actually understanding them! Or, reading authentic, interesting content and books. Or making friends, or…
  2. Get a girlfriend/boyfriend. Now this may be a difficult and in some circumstances unethical task (if you are just using them to practice your 中文). The truth is, that at the intermediate level you need to actually increase the amount of input you’re getting in the language in order to step it up and push through to the advanced level. At the very least, get some friends! If you live in a cultural melting pot (like my own city, Melbourne, or like, NYC, etc) then you should have no problem meeting Chinese people. Or go study overseas (this may not be practical for you – but if you’re at Uni, go on exchange like I am!) Or, hey, why not get some Chinese roomies? Instant friends that have to hang with you!
  3. Everyday. Even more important than in the beginner stage, at this level you need to be having contact with the language every day in order to incorporate it into your psychic. This is because the language needs to become part of the fabric of your mind, which is just not possible if you only study on the weekend. There’s a saying that goes ‘learn a language and gain another soul’. This is because you develop a borderline personality disorder when you learn another language – you will find your thinking and personality will be heavily influenced by cultural elements of the target language.
  4. Don’t give up. At this point, you have got it in the bag! The hard yards are almost over. Like I said, this is the best part, it is all downhill from here. You don’t have to agonise over mind numbingly boring hospital-grade artificial learning materials, and can get onto some juicy stuff. It’s simply a matter of continuing to consistently expose yourself to the language, and talk as much as possible. Language acquisition is a natural process, and we are inherently good at it by virtue of being human. Just don’t stress, it will come!

Anyway, that’s all from me, for now.

There is an abundance of resources out there to help learn Chinese, yet it can all be very confusing and time-consuming for the new student to find the best way and the right materials to help.s

Wanting to provide some assistance to students, at one of the regular meetings of the Learn Mandarin Now team, we decided to commission a survey to find out the preferred methods savvy, modern, Chinese language students use. After some thought on how to do this, we agreed to ask 50 or so top bloggers what resources they use to get ahead with learning Chinese—after all…, they should know!


Just who did we ask?

Actually, we asked a wide cross-section of people including teachers of Chinese, native speakers, new and experienced students of the language (both Chinese from overseas and foreign students) and, of course, top bloggers.

The aim: to get a wide variety of opinions and suggestions.

The top 10 recommendations

For reasons such as ease of being able to study whenever the student wanted to and the variety of options on offer, the results, perhaps not surprisingly, showed that the preferred methods to learn Chinese are primarily web based. Other students, however, still preferred to learn and practice with other students or people in their day-to-day lives or via hard copy items such as books.

With 42% of votes Pleco, an integrated Chinese-English dictionary/flashcard system, which not only allows students to learn via Smartphones, but also offers a variety of other features such as being able to look up unknown Chinese words ‘live’, came out on top.

22% of respondents went for human interaction, either learning or practicing with Chinese friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, work colleagues or via other social interaction with native Chinese speakers.

Multi-media captured 20% of the votes, and this included watching Chinese TV programs, dramas, documentaries or movies, or even listening to Chinese songs in order to listen to tones, and learn more common words and colloquial phrases.

The MDBG Dictionary, a comprehensive dictionary which offers the ability to look up a huge number of words in Chinese, Pinyin or English was also a popular choice—easy to use and readily available—and it garnered 14% of the votes.

Both also polling 14% were: (i) WeChat (Weixin), “the new way to connect with friends across platforms”, offering voice and group chat, free calls, video calls and the obligatory message stickers, and thereby especially popular with the younger generation looking to instantly chat in and learn Chinese; and (ii) Anki, a spaced repetition software programme which makes remembering things easy. As it’s considered more efficient than traditional study methods, time spent studying can be decreased or the amount learned greatly increased. The programme is content-agnostic and supports images, audio, videos and scientific mark-ups.

Skritter which is suitable for Smartphones or PC’s and allows the student to learn how to correctly learn to write Chinese characters—even suggesting corrections to any mistakes if they appear, scored 12%, as did Memrise which offers a wide variety of on-line courses and aims to make learning joyful and exciting.

Rounding off the top 10 with 8% was Line Dict, a very useful on-line Chinese dictionary which translates both words and phrases from Chinese to English and vice-versa, using Chinese characters and Pinyin—plus offering handwriting recognition and the ability to view stroke orders for characters, and also Chinese Pod which promotes itself as a site offering “Chinese learning for busy people”, with over 3,000 short, self-contained, award-winning lessons.

It was both exciting and rewarding for us at Learn Mandarin Now to do this survey and we may well repeat it at some future date. If you’d like to know more about the results in detail you can also read: How to learn Chinese: great tips from 50 top bloggers, one of our other related articles.

Happy learning!

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