“Chinese is the hardest language anyone will ever try and learn, right?”
This is a phrase which is heard all too often when discussing Chinese.
The problem is, of course, that it couldn’t be more wrong.
Chinese isn’t hard, it’s just different.
All it takes is the right method and some help in the right places, and learning Chinese can be turned into a simple, rather fun affair.
The key to making Chinese easy isn’t some mystical study technique or full immersion in the language (although the latter does help), but rather arming yourself as a learner with the right mix on online and offline Mandarin Chinese learning tools.
Which Chinese Learning Tools Are Best for Me?
As with many things in life, success in learning Chinese is all about making the right choices. The most important thing is choosing which Chinese learning tools to use and how to use them.
Not all of these tools are able to solve all the problems that you might face when learning Chinese, so a distributed approach is the key to the success. Each of these tools has their own strengths and weaknesses, and knowing when to apply them is critical knowledge.
So among the thousands of apps, programs, games, people or websites, which Chinese learning tools are the best?
We can break Chinese down to six core areas of difficulty, and for each, use a different tool to make it a cinch. These areas are characters, grammar, listening, vocabulary, tones and speaking.
7 Divine Learning Tools: Your Recipe to Make Chinese Easier
1. Anki for Learning Chinese Characters
While it sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, memory hacking is a real thing. But it doesn’t involve any strange technology or brain surgery. Rather, it uses innovative methods that take advantage of the brain’s own peculiar ways.
Right now, the most popular method of memory hacking is through the use of what is called Spaced Repetition Software, also known as SRS. This involves showing a person a large amount of repeating information on flashcards, over a medium to long period of time.
You’ll see difficult words more frequently, and words that you know best will appear less often. SRS enables a user to remember large amounts of information and store it successfully in their long term memory. You’ve probably guessed it already, but this is incredibly useful when it comes to learning Chinese characters.
So how do you start using SRS?
Currently, a nice program for using this technique is called Anki. It can be easily downloaded for free online, and is updated quite regularly. While it was not made just for learning Chinese, it has many powerful functions as well as an easy-to-use interface.
A Chinese language learner only needs to download a deck of flashcards that corresponds to their HSK level (1-6) and then start practicing right away. Simply plug this deck in, and start learning—preferably at least once a day. Using this method, you will be able to learn close to 100 new characters daily—something completely unthinkable with traditional memory techniques.
2. Games for Learning Chinese Tones
We’ve all been in the embarrassing position where a phrase in Mandarin has come out completely wrong, due to tone mistakes. Maybe you went to ask a question (qǐngwèn) but found yourself instead asking for a kiss (qǐng wěn)—or perhaps you are just sick of getting 四 mixed up with 十.
Regardless of your pinyin woes, fear not, because there are simple and fun tools for practicing these tricky tones. Online you can find many games which help both your pronunciation and your tonal accuracy without causing you to rage-quit in exasperation after mere minutes.
Some of the best of these include:
3. FluentU for Real-world Chinese
We mentioned six core areas of Chinese study above, but there are seven items on this list. That’s because FluentU can be used to advance in all Chinese learning areas, and this list would be incomplete with out such an ultimate tool.
FluentU is an online immersion platform that takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. You can browse videos by difficulty (beginner to native), topic (arts and entertainment, health and lifestyle, etc.) and format (video blog, news, shows, etc.).
FluentU is designed to get you comfortable with everyday Mandarin Chinese, easing you into the language by combining all the benefits of complete immersion and native-level conversations with easy-to-read subtitles.
You can tap on any word to instantly look it up. All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add any words to your own vocab list.
Get the most out of your listening by spending time in FluentU’s unique “learn mode” to learn all that the clip has to offer.
“Learn mode” takes your learning history into account, asking questions based on what you already know, which sets you up for success. You have a 100% personalized learning experience.
4. Pleco for Learning Chinese Vocabulary
Lets face the awkward truth, Chinese dictionaries are some of the most arcane and user-unfriendly study tools ever made. Being able to look up an unknown character or word requires a significant amount of Chinese knowledge, including stroke order rules, radical lists and phonetic elements—things a beginner simply doesn’t know.
Luckily, if you are learning Chinese right now there is just one commandment you need to obey: Lock away your Chinese dictionary and download a Chinese dictionary app!
One such popular app is Pleco. Available for both iOS and Android, this app is shows the vast potential which these sort of programs have for learning Chinese. Why is this, you might ask? Because they are so versatile.
Know how a character is pronounced? Do a pinyin search. Know what it looks like, but don’t know its stroke order? Then just draw it with the touch pad. Recognize a radical? Search through all characters incorporating it.
And once you have found a character or word, you can then see words that use the same characters, enabling you to use more complicated phrases which were previously unknown.
We get it, when compared to other languages, listening in Chinese is much harder than it should be. Knowing just which of the hundred meanings of the syllable shi was just said, or which of the myriad of Chinese dialect accents the speaker has, makes listening a lot more difficult than almost any other part of Chinese learning.
What’s more, most common Chinese courses have audio tapes with mind numbingly boring content, making listening practice a chore.
Luckily, now there is a vast repository of Chinese language video content online, hosted on Chinese video sharing sites Youku and Tudou. Functioning in similar ways to YouTube, these sites enable someone without access to Chinese TV to watch a huge amount of Chinese language programming.
Language lessons, TV series and so-called Micro Movies (微电影) can all be found with relatively little requisite Chinese knowledge. What’s more, as with most Chinese video programming, videos on these sites more often than not come with Chinese character subtitles. This means that not only will you have assistance on deciphering unfamiliar spoken words, but you will also have the advantage of learning new characters too.
6. Chinese Boost for Mastering Grammar
Unlike listening, Chinese grammar is much simpler than the grammar of almost any other language. With no genders, no tenses, no cases and a similar sentence structure to English, it’s usually something that a Chinese language learner can easily master.
That being said, there are a few constructions and phrases which are comparatively tricky, but to make them easier, once again there is a Chinese language tool that can help.
This comes in the form of a website, Chinese Boost – Grammar. With a simple, mobile-friendly interface, this website presents an easy-to-use list of more than a hundred Chinese grammar difficulties.
Each one has its own article that explains the grammar point in depth with a great number of examples, and none of the complex grammatical language that you might find in a textbook.
In addition, if this site isn’t enough to sate your thirst for Chinese grammar knowledge, then there are also online forums that are full of users eager to assist. One of the best of these is Reddit’s /r/ChineseLanguage subreddit, which has the added advantage of integrating with the wider Reddit community.
7. Language Exchanges for Chinese Speaking Practice
The one thing that you can’t practice with websites and computer programs is speaking. Luckily, practicing speaking more often than not will put you in contact with the most useful Chinese learning tool of all: Chinese people.
Even if you live outside of Asia, the Chinese diaspora is one of the largest in the world, and you should have no trouble at all finding a Chinese person to practice your speaking with. Be it at a nearby university, in your city’s Chinatown or even with a teammate in an online game, the best piece of advice for any Chinese language learner is to speak Chinese at every opportunity.
This wonderful resource will show you where to find a language exchange partner, and how to gain the most from your conversation practice.
In addition to refreshing your knowledge, native Chinese speakers will be able to point out the small mistakes you are making with your Chinese, as well as teach you new and interesting colloquial vocabulary. So stop making excuses—go out and start speaking Chinese today!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.