I won’t lie—these are all fantastic resources for learning Chinese.
But they all come with one major drawback: They can be expensive.
We often equate higher costs with higher quality.
But here’s the thing: You can learn Chinese for free without compromising on quality.
Don’t believe me?
Check out these seven ways to learn Chinese for free… with resources galore!
Don’t Break the Bank! 7 Ways to Learn Chinese for Free (Resources Included)
1. Use Chinese Apps on the Go
It’s 2020. You don’t need to sit in a classroom to receive a quality education. It’s all on your phone!
You can download free Chinese language-learning apps to learn from your bedroom, the cafe or the car (in the passenger’s seat, of course!).
You may find just one app that you love, but I would actually encourage you to download two or three. This way, you can mix things up if you burn out on one app. Plus, depending on which ones you choose, you can download different apps to develop specific language skills.
You may choose to download apps that are 100% free. Or, you can use apps that are free to download and/or have free trials but eventually ask for a membership subscription. This gives you a chance to figure out what you like and experience multiple apps.
If you do decide to sign up for memberships down the road, a few bucks a month is certainly cheaper than a textbook or even one hour with a tutor.
What’s the best way to learn Chinese? Hear and see the language used in everyday life. But we can’t all travel to China to immerse ourselves in the language 24/7.
That’s where FluentU steps in. FluentU takes real-world videos—like Chinese music videos, movie trailers and celebrity interviews—and turns them into language lessons. Watching authentic videos is a great way to immerse yourself in the language even if you’re just sitting on the couch.
But FluentU doesn’t just throw you to the wolves. Each video comes with learning materials.
For example, videos feature annotated subtitles. Just hover over a Chinese character to see its definition, part of speech and an associated image. If you click on the word, you’ll see a list of videos in the FluentU library that feature this term so that you can keep studying the topic.
Videos also come with interactive quizzes, and FluentU creates flashcard sets based on words you need help memorizing.
FluentU balances immersion with learning materials, making it a great option for Chinese-language students at any level. Sign up for a free trial to access the full video library.
Not only is Duolingo more affordable than a Chinese course at your local college, but it’s more entertaining too!
Duolingo teaches Chinese through gamification. By memorizing vocabulary and answering quiz questions correctly, you earn points to unlock new categories and reach new levels.
This app focuses exclusively on vocabulary, and it divides words up by topics like school, work and food. It’s fantastic if your main goal is memorizing vocab and characters. But if you want to focus on skills like listening comprehension and speaking, I’d recommend downloading one or two more apps to accompany Duolingo.
Writing is an important skill when you’re learning any language, but especially with Chinese.
Unlike romance languages, Chinese involves learning characters. Recognizing characters can be tricky enough, but learning to write them (and the correct stroke order) is a whole other ball game.
Skritter’s main goal is helping learners learn to write Chinese characters… and write them correctly. It’s basically like having a writing coach in the palm of your hand.
You can try Skritter out on the website for free, and the app is also free to download. If you do decide that you want to use Skritter long-term, you can sign up for a membership.
2. Watch Videos on YouTube
Talk about a powerful free learning tool. Your options with YouTube are practically endless! You’ll find dozens of quality channels for people who want to learn Chinese for free.
Watching YouTube videos is a great way to improve your listening skills. Many channels also teach you about Chinese culture, which is a crucial but underrated part of learning a language.
This channel is geared toward Chinese-language students and Chinese-American people. It’s fun to watch Chinese-American participants interact with the language and culture.
For example, watch American-born Chinese people (ABCs) call their parents in “ABCs Call Their Parents in Chinese for the First Time.” (They’re terrified, and it’s hilarious!)
The videos are entertaining and lighthearted. The perfect example of their style is the video “North Americans React to Chinese Movies.”
Lost in Translation videos are in a combination of English and Chinese, and the creators provide both English and Mandarin subtitles for everything. That makes this the perfect channel for beginners!
Krysti Naaa is your typical cool, pretty YouTube vlogger.
One of the most addictive genres on YouTube is the makeup tutorial. That’s Krysti’s specialty, so if you’re obsessed with creating the perfect smokey eye, you’ll like Krysti. She also produces funny videos on topics I never would have thought of, like reviewing Costco foods.
Krysti’s videos are probably best for advanced learners. She speaks quickly and doesn’t provide subtitles. She also uses specialized vocab related to food, makeup, weight loss and appearance. They’re also fairly long at over 20 minutes each.
Oh man, Mamahuhu is a hilarious channel! Follow a multicultural group of friends who live in China and provide commentary on the culture.
Mamahuhu videos are mostly in English, and when people do talk in Chinese, they provide English subtitles. That makes the channel great for beginner learners. However, intermediate and advanced learners still might like the show because you learn a lot about Chinese culture.
Want to learn about Chinese customs? Watch “All About Chinese New Year.”
How about things that are becoming popular in China? Try “We Rented a Fake Chinese Dad.” (Yes, you can rent a parent!)
The group provides hilarious insights into everyday life in China. Learning about culture has never been so enjoyable.
3. Find Your Favorite Chinese Movie or TV Show
Okay, so this activity isn’t necessarily free. But if you’re already subscribed to a streaming service that offers Chinese entertainment, then you can enjoy Chinese movies and shows at no extra cost.
You might be surprised by how many Chinese TV shows and movies are on Netflix. My favorite thing about watching foreign language films on Netflix is that it provides a lot of subtitle and audio options.
If you’re a novice Chinese student, you can watch a Chinese movie with English subtitles. Intermediate learners can find plenty of films with Chinese audio and Mandarin subtitles, and advanced students can try watching without subtitles to boost their listening skills.
If you like rom-coms, check out “This Is Not What I Expected,” a film about a hotel manager and the hotel’s chef who fall in love. This is a great movie for beginners because it features a lot of words related to food and the hospitality industry. And, this is one movie on Netflix that provides subtitles in English but not in Chinese.
Netflix has even produced some Netflix originals in Chinese. “Accidentally in Love” is a Chinese-language show about a wealthy girl who goes against her parents’ wishes by attending an average college. While she’s there, she meets someone unexpected. You can choose subtitles in English, traditional Chinese or simplified Chinese.
Are you an Amazon Prime subscriber? You may not have known that you can find Chinese-language movies on this streaming service.
The selection isn’t as vast as what you’ll find on Netflix, but what Prime does offer is pretty great.
“Beautiful Accident” is a fun movie option on Amazon Prime. In this film, a tough lawyer passes away. Thankfully, she comes back to life, but this time as a housewife and mother—not exactly how she planned to live her life!
If you like “Beautiful Accident” but want to find a TV show instead of a movie, check out “She Is Beautiful.” It’s another story about a successful, ambitious woman. But much to her dismay, her family signs her up for a matchmaking service.
You can usually find English subtitles for Chinese content on Amazon Prime, making the streaming service perfect for novice learners (or for advanced students who don’t mind turning off subtitles altogether).
Finally, a way to watch Chinese movies that’s truly free! You don’t have to pay to watch movies on AsianCrush, and you can watch films from all over Asia.
Looking for a movie that’s a bit more serious than the ones I’ve covered? You might like “The Jade Pendant,” a movie about a young woman who flees China to get out of an arranged marriage. But when she lands in America, her life takes a turn for the worse.
Looking for a dramatic watch that’s not so dark? Watch “Switch of Fate,” a TV show about two women who were switched as babies—and the switch had some pretty huge consequences.
4. Build a Chinese Playlist on Spotify
There are numerous reasons to listen to Chinese songs! First of all, who doesn’t love music? Secondly, it’s definitely one of the more entertaining ways to learn. Thirdly, learning through songs can really push you because a sentence can sound completely different when it’s sung than when it’s spoken.
If you don’t already have a Spotify account, you can create one for free as long as you don’t mind the occasional advertisement.
You may choose to create your own Spotify playlist with whichever songs you like. But if that sounds like too much work, there are some great pre-made Chinese language playlists.
The “Top Chinese Songs 2020” playlist features 46 well-known Chinese songs by famous artists, making up three-and-a-half hours of listening content. “Chinese Songs Top 100” actually features over 100 songs for six hours of content. You’ll definitely never be bored!
Want a little help following along? KKBOX is a fantastic tool for finding lyrics to Chinese songs. Copy and paste the Chinese title into the search bar, and KKBOX will bring up the song lyrics. You have the option to translate them into English, which is super helpful for beginners.
5. Play Chinese Learning Games
Shouldn’t learning a language be fun? If you’re feeling bored or uninspired with your Chinese studies, mix things up by bringing a game into it!
Some of the apps you’ve downloaded may include Chinese games, but it’s good to have some others on hand. Here are some of my favorites:
As a beginner Chinese student, nothing was more difficult for me to grasp than tones. After a few weeks, I could finally identify which tones my teacher was using when reading texts aloud. But if we went off script, I had no idea.
I wish I had known about the Mandarin Chinese Tone Drill then.
I know, I know, nothing with the word “drill” sounds like a game. But the activity is actually pretty enjoyable!
This game randomly selects Chinese words and has you identify which tones it’s using. Beginners can start with single-syllable words, and as they grow more confident, move onto multi-syllable words.
This matching game is for beginner and intermediate students.
The website tells you the sentence in English, then gives you Chinese characters. You have to place the characters in the correct order to form the sentence correctly. You can request a hint if you need to!
The site provides 100 sentences, ranging in difficulty from “What is your name?” to sentences like “Which desk can exchange foreign currency?”
This upper-intermediate game is definitely unique. It’s a mystery storytelling game!
In The Magistrate’s Gallery, you’re an artist who has to save a woman who’s trapped inside a painting. You jump into painting after painting, hearing stories from the characters who live in them. Their stories will lead you to the lost woman.
The game involves 691 Chinese characters, so you’ll definitely be learning some new vocab along the way.
6. Enroll in a Free Online Chinese Course
I know I’ve been poking fun at the classroom setting so far, but plenty of people prefer the traditional classroom experience. And there certainly are advantages to complete Chinese courses.
Believe it or not, you can get the full course experience without spending a dime. The only difference is that it’ll be on your computer rather than in a physical room.
Have you heard of edX? It provides several free Chinese courses through MandarinX. You can audit the courses for free or pay a fee if you want to receive a certificate. Courses are self-paced, so you can fit them into your schedule.
Here’s the list of free edX Mandarin courses:
- Mandarin Chinese, Levels 1-3
- Mandarin Chinese Essentials
- Mandarin Chinese for Business
There’s also a Mandarin for Business professional certification program, but you’ll have to pay several hundred dollars for this course.
Coursera is a platform that connects students to university courses all over the world. They offer tons of free courses taught by top instructors from prestigious academic institutions. You can audit classes, enroll in specializations, earn professional certificates or even work towards an online degree.
Coursera offers a lot of free Chinese courses through Peking University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. (If you’re a beginner, I recommend starting with Chinese for Beginners.)
On Coursera, you’ll find courses for beginner, intermediate and advanced students. You can also enroll in classes targeted toward specific HSK levels or take ones that focus on Chinese characters.
Like edX, these courses are fairly flexible. Assignments do have set deadlines, but if they don’t work with your schedule, you can request to have them moved.
7. Find a Language Exchange Partner
Chinese language tutors can be great, but you also have to pay for them. A fantastic alternative is pairing up with a language partner.
Typically, language partners are people who want to learn each other’s language. You could pair up with a Chinese person learning English, and you’d spend 30 minutes speaking in Chinese, then 30 minutes talking in English.
You could also find another English speaker who’s studying Chinese and meet to practice together.
In both cases, it’s helpful to find someone whose language skills are about as far along as yours. If your language exchange partner is Chinese, you don’t want to talk about American literature for 30 minutes if your Chinese conversation is going to be limited to your favorite pets and types of food. And, if your fellow Chinese-language learner is advanced but you’re a beginner, one or both of you is going to be disappointed.
So, where can you find a language exchange partner? Try creating a free Meetup account for your city. There may be a Meetup group for language exchange partners or for people studying Chinese. And if there isn’t one yet, create one yourself and wait for people to join! If you build it, they will come.
You also might be able to find a Facebook group dedicated to Chinese-to-English language exchanges, especially if you live in a big city.
Striking out when it comes to finding someone to meet with in-person? That’s what your computer is for! Check out MyLanguageExchange.com.
On this site, you can search for a partner who speaks Mandarin and is looking for someone to speak English with them. Everyone creates a profile, so hopefully you can find someone you really click with.
Rent. Student loan payments. Car repairs. We all have financial responsibilities that can stress us out and stretch us thin.
Learning Chinese doesn’t have to be just one more financial commitment.
Learn Chinese for free and receive a high-quality education… on your own terms.
Laura Grace Tarpley is a freelance writer based in Nashville. You can find her work at outlets such as Business Insider, Roads & Kingdoms and The Write Life. Follow her on Twitter @lgtarpley.
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