Okay, so there’s pinyin and characters.
That’s pretty simple, right?
Wait. When learning Chinese characters, you can either learn simplified or traditional characters. Or both.
There are also four tones. But also a neutral tone. So… are there five tones?
When it comes to learning Chinese, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle.
Figuring out how to learn the Chinese language can actually be one of the hardest parts!
As a beginner, you can follow eight simple steps to conquer the Chinese language.
Things to Keep in Mind as You Learn the Chinese Language
It’s not as difficult as you think.
At the beginning of your journey to fluency, the Chinese language seems crazy. It’s so different from English that it seems impossible to comprehend, let alone master.
Take a deep breath. It actually isn’t that scary.
Yes, Chinese is vastly different from English. However, the language rules are consistent and make sense. And even though the pinyin alphabet and tones are weird, keep in mind that you already know all of the sounds. You’ve made these sounds in English words before—you just need to get used to making them in different contexts.
In my opinion, covering the basics is the hardest part because it’s just so overwhelming at first. But once I had a handle on pinyin, tones and sentence structure, everything else started coming to me much more quickly. So even if it’s difficult at first, don’t freak out… It gets better.
Consistency is key.
This is true when you’re learning any language, but because Chinese is so different from English, it can be easy to forget the rules and patterns if you don’t revisit the material regularly.
If possible, try to get a little studying in every day. This can be as little as five minutes if you’re really in a time crunch.
If you need a little motivation to practice daily, try creating a study schedule or assigning a different activity to each day to keep yourself from burning out. For example, watch an episode of a Chinese TV show on Monday, review your vocabulary flashcards on Tuesday and squeeze in a few minutes of studying with your favorite language app on Wednesday. Spicing things up will make daily language study less of a drag.
Cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, vacuuming the carpet—you have enough chores on your to-do list. Learning Chinese shouldn’t be just one more chore you have to accomplish.
If it becomes a burden, you won’t want to learn. Find study methods you enjoy.
Some days, you probably won’t be in the mood to study. When you feel unmotivated, remind yourself why you’re studying Chinese. Is it because becoming fluent has been a lifelong goal? Maybe you’re planning a trip to China next year. Or, you’re dating a Chinese person and are preparing to meet their family.
Remembering the bigger picture can get you excited and restore that passion.
How to Learn the Chinese Language in 8 Practical Steps
1. Choose Your Study Method(s)
How do you learn best? With quick, handy apps? With textbooks that explain grammar concepts in depth?
Decide how you want to learn Chinese, and choose resources that fit your learning style. Remember, you can choose multiple strategies to keep things interesting!
Websites and apps
Digital study tools are probably the most convenient things out there. You can spend hours using them on your couch or just a couple minutes while waiting in line at the grocery store.
My favorite programs are ones that have a website you can use on your computer and an app you can use on your phone. That way, you can study anywhere.
Some people prefer a website interface over an app interface, or vice-versa. Choosing software that provides options for both doesn’t limit you.
Duolingo focuses specifically on vocabulary, so if learning words is your main focus, it’s a great app to reach your goals. It’s also designed to be used for just five minutes per day, so studying for a little bit every day shouldn’t be difficult.
FluentU is a program that takes real-world videos—like Chinese commercials, movie trailers and music videos—and turns them into language lessons. Each video features annotated subtitles, so you can just hover over a word to see its definition, part of speech and an associated image.
After watching a video, hop on over to FluentU’s Quiz Mode, which reinforces vocabulary with interactive activities. This software introduces you to Chinese culture as you learn vocabulary, listening, reading and speaking. It’s also available on your web browser, iOS device and Android device.
Rocket Languages is another program that can be accessed on your computer, iOS device or Android device. The software’s bread and butter is audio clips. The audio will help you get accustomed to native Chinese accents and speaking speeds. And, you can listen to clips while you accomplish other tasks, like going for a jog or unloading the dishwasher. You can also easily track your progress, and the program makes learning Chinese writing simple with specialized writing lessons.
Textbooks and stories
Textbooks get a bad rap from people studying outside of a traditional classroom setting. However, they definitely have some pros.
First of all, books of all kinds can improve your Chinese reading skills. And if you choose the right one, a textbook can present material in a methodical way. This approach can be helpful with a language like Chinese, which can be so overwhelming that many people aren’t sure how to get started.
As a beginner, you may like “Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1.” This textbook walks you through pinyin, phonetics and beginning grammar. It’s available in both traditional and simplified Chinese, so it’s perfect regardless of which type you’re studying.
But textbooks aren’t the only books for learning Chinese. You can also improve reading skills with novels, biographies and newspaper articles in the language. But as a beginner, simple short stories are probably the best fit.
To find short stories that interest you, check out websites like 童话故事网 (tóng huà gù shì wǎng) — Fairytale Short Stories and 人生屋小故事大道理全集 (rén shēng wū xiǎo gù shì dà dào lǐ quán jí) — Life House’s Big List of Short Stories. Find a story that suits your level, and have fun reading!
Movies and TV shows
Netflix. YouTube. Viki. Youku.
There are plenty of places to find complete Chinese movies and TV series.
On Netflix, check out the movie “Railroad Tigers.” It’s a World War II film starring Jackie Chan, and the dialogue is relatively easy for a novice learner to follow. Plus, you can follow along with English subtitles to make the script easier to understand.
Looking for a TV show you can enjoy for a long time? Try watching “The Jin Xing Show.” You can find full episodes on YouTube. The host interviews popular figures in China. The dialogue is fairly slow, making this a great show for novice learners.
2. Start with Pinyin and Tones
Pinyin is the romanized spelling system in Chinese. Have you ever looked at a Chinese character and thought, “How in the world am I supposed to pronounce that?” Well, each character has a pinyin spelling that teaches you how to pronounce it.
Here are a few basic examples:
- 猫 (māo) — cat
- 狗 (gǒu) — dog
- 羊 (yáng) — sheep
- 兔子 (tùzi) — rabbit
To figure out how to pronounce the character 猫, look at the pinyin: māo.
There’s an entire pinyin alphabet. Take a look at the alphabet broken down by consonants and vowels. I recommend memorizing the sound of each letter in the alphabet before moving on to full words.
Wait, but what are the marks over the vowels in each word? Those marks tell you what tone to use with each syllable. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning if you say the “correct” Chinese word with the wrong tone, you could end up saying a completely different word by accident.
In Chinese, there are four tones and one neutral tone… which could arguably mean there are five tones. But, there are four tone markings:
- tone 1: lē
- tone 2: lé
- tone 3: lě
- tone 4: lè
As you study tones, you’ll learn what each marking means, as well as how to pronounce and hear every tone.
Pinyin and tones are the foundation for the rest of the language. Some people choose to learn pinyin and characters simultaneously. I found it easier to learn pinyin first and plug the characters back in later, but it’s up to you.
3. Tackle Chinese Characters
Knowing pinyin is essential for knowing how to speak and listen to Chinese. But if you want to develop other skills, such as reading and writing, memorizing characters is crucial.
Learning pinyin and tones teaches you pronunciation. When you learn to associate that pronunciation with characters, the learning process really starts to speed up.
Apps, websites and books are all great tools for learning to associate characters with definitions and pronunciation. If you want to go with an old-school tactic, you can simply create flashcards. Make one flashcard for the pinyin and its definition, one for the character and its definition and finally, one for the character and its pinyin. FluentU allows you to create your own digital flashcards, as well as access pre-made decks.
4. Build Your Vocabulary
Some people do prefer to jump straight into learning full sentences. That may work for you, especially if you’re visiting a Mandarin-speaking country soon and want to learn practical phrases quickly. But in my case, it was helpful to learn individual words first so I could plug them into various sentences later.
First, you may want to cover simple vocabulary, such as pronouns, common verbs, days of the week, days of the month, numbers, family members and animals.
Then, you can move on to more specialized words that interest you. For example, you could learn words related to your career, job title and workspace. Or, you could study travel-related words like transportation, directions and types of attractions.
Depending on your preference, you may decide to study a bunch of vocab before moving on to learning to form sentences. Or, you can cover simple words, learn to put together sentences, then go back to focusing on advanced vocab categories. Either way is fine because you’ll never stop learning new words throughout your language-learning journey.
Remember, when you learn new words, memorize both the pinyin and character for each new word.
5. Learn Sentence Structure
Alright, it’s time to plug those vocab words into sentences!
I won’t lie to you—Chinese sentence structure is weird. Sometimes there’s no subject. Sometimes there’s no verb. Sometimes there’s neither! It’s very different from the English language or any romance languages you may have learned in school growing up.
The good news? The rules surrounding sentence structure and grammar are consistent. Once you start to pick up the patterns, you’ll be able to continue making all different types of basic sentences with the words you’ve already learned.
6. Put Together More Complex Phrases
Now that you know how to build a simple sentence, you can challenge yourself. Remember the more advanced vocab you memorized before you started tackling sentence structures? Try plugging in those words to talk about new topics.
Here are a few examples of simple phrases, then examples of using the same pattern to talk about a more complex topic.
- 我的房间 (wǒ de fángjiān) — my room
- 我妈妈的房间 (wǒ māmā de fángjiān) — my mom’s room
- 我老板的会议 (wǒ lǎobǎn de huìyì) — my boss’s meeting
- 我国的政治 (wǒguó de zhèngzhì) — my country’s politics
Once you learn how to say “my” (which is wǒ de), you can learn to put together the simple structure “my subject’s object,” which is wǒ [subject] de [object]. Once you’ve mastered that pattern with simple words, like “mom” and “room,” start plugging in the more advanced vocabulary you’ve already memorized.
Think of it in terms of building blocks! Once you have a firm foundation, you can build more and more intricate designs.
7. Focus on Each Language Skill
To become fluent in any language, you should focus on each essential skill: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
In the Chinese language, all four skills really work together and complement each other. To speak and comprehend spoken Chinese, you need to understand how to read pinyin. In the real world, if you want to read or write, you’ll need to know characters. To know how to read characters aloud, you need to have a firm grasp of pinyin.
Sure, some of us enjoy writing in a foreign language more than reading or listening more than speaking. But, I’d argue that conquering all four skills is even more crucial in the Chinese language than other languages because they’re truly interwoven.
Using an app like FluentU can help you work on multiple skills simultaneously. Watch a video to improve your listening skills. Repeat after the video to rehearse speaking. Read along with the subtitles to read pinyin and characters. Then, take quizzes to practice reading, writing and listening to the material.
You can also get creative with how you build on each skill. As you become more advanced, try watching an episode of your favorite Chinese TV show without subtitles to amp up your listening skills. Or, write a five-paragraph essay about how you believe your company could improve.
8. Find a Language Partner
Meeting with a language partner is a great way to practice speaking and listening in Chinese. You can even exchange written material if you want to practice reading and writing.
When it comes to a language partner, you have a few options. You may choose a language exchange partner whom you meet to learn Chinese and who meets you to learn English. For example, you could converse in English for 30 minutes, then Chinese for 30 minutes.
The trick here is to find someone whose English capabilities are on a similar level as your Chinese capabilities. It’s draining to talk in English about literature and politics for 30 minutes, then try to talk about your favorite animal in Chinese for a half hour.
You could also find someone who is learning Chinese just like you are. You could meet up but agree to only talk in Chinese. Once again, it helps if you’re on a similar level.
In my experience, it can also help to find someone whose native language is different than yours. If you’re both English speakers, it’s tempting to just slide into English whenever things get difficult. But if their native language is French, you both need to lean on Chinese to communicate.
Finally, you might choose a tutor instead of a peer. This could save you time so that you can focus on your own needs. The tutor also might be able to answer in-depth questions about grammar or pronunciation.
Regardless of what type of language partner you’re looking for, you can check out websites and apps like Bilingua or italki to find your perfect match. For instance, italki connects you to professional language teachers and partners for one-on-one language lessons. They allow you to choose your own teacher and then select a schedule that fits your needs. Plus, the site has tons of additional features, like a “Notebook” section where you can post your writing and have native speakers correct it.
These eight steps for how to learn the Chinese language should help any beginner get organized. Steps seven and eight apply to advanced learners too. You should never stop growing in each skill or meeting with a helpful language partner!
Time to get started with step one. So, which resources will you choose?
Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer based in Nashville. She writes about language learning, travel and personal finance. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.
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