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Learn Chinese: The Beginner-friendly Guide to Studying Mandarin Chinese

It’s time.

It’s time to stop making excuses and actually do it.

It’s time to learn Chinese!

We can hear you protesting now. “But it’s too hard!” “I’ll never be able to learn the writing system!” “I don’t know where to start!”

Well, we have news for you:

Chinese isn’t as hard as you think.

There are tricks to mastering the writing system.

And you can start right here, with our guide to learning Chinese. Let’s go!
 


 

Why Should You Learn Chinese?

Of all the languages there are around the world, why would someone choose to learn Mandarin Chinese?

Let’s take a look at all the reasons why you should be saying “yes” to Chinese.

Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world

With the population at more than a billion in China, it’s not at all surprising that Mandarin is the most common language in the world. As the official standard language of both China and Taiwan, the number of native Mandarin Chinese speakers is around 900 million, which is more than twice the number of native speakers of Hindi, Spanish and English. Also, many other neighboring countries list a variation of Mandarin as one of their spoken languages, so Chinese is pretty widespread.

Over a billion of first- and second-language speakers around the world? That’s a lot of people to communicate with and a lot of learning opportunities. Speaking of opportunities…

Chinese opens doors to more career options

Being bilingual or multilingual doesn’t just mean you can work as a translator, tutor or teacher. In fact, being able to communicate in Chinese means you can better serve Chinese guests if you’re working in hospitality, penetrate the Chinese market if you’re thinking of expanding your business or play a role in a movie where the character has to speak Mandarin.

The ability to speak Mandarin Chinese is a valuable asset that any industry would appreciate and invest in. The world actually becomes your oyster when you learn Chinese!

Knowing Mandarin makes it easier to travel

China may have the largest population in the world, but the vast number of speakers isn’t the only factor to consider. It’s also about the location of these speakers.

For example, while English is widely spoken in Singapore, most Singaporeans are bilingual in English and Mandarin. Also, China’s long history of trading resulted in settlers and influences in Southeast Asia and beyond. The Chinese language is everywhere!

So not only will knowing Mandarin make it easier for you to travel across China, but you’ll most likely spot signs in Chinese when you’re in Malaysia, Indonesia and other nearby countries.

You learn about and appreciate a new culture

Although you can learn plenty about China by traveling through it and eating all the delicious regional cuisine, there’s only so much you can appreciate without knowing the language. The ability to understand Mandarin is the key to an authentic cultural experience. After all, every Chinese character has its own story to tell.

By knowing how to read and speak Chinese, you can examine the evolution of characters, interpret the calligraphy on Chinese scroll paintings in museums, understand all the crazy things happening in a Chinese opera and much more. You can even read and order from an all-Chinese menu, with no pictures necessary!

You can enjoy movies, TV shows, literature and music in another language

Although subtitles are great for foreign films, wouldn’t life be much easier if you could turn your attention away from the bottom of the screen to the entire thing, where all the action is happening? Subtitles may be necessary, but they do take all the fun away. Besides, we’re supposed to watching movies and TV shows, not reading them.

Why Chinese Isn’t as Hard to Learn as You Think

The characters, the pronunciation and the language, in general, can come across as impossible for English speakers. Here are the reasons why that’s a total misconception.

There are many similarities between Chinese and English grammar

It almost sounds unbelievable that a language made from pictographs would have similar grammar structures as English. But at a very basic level, both languages follow the Subject-Verb-Object sentence format, which is a relief for beginners.

And if it makes you feel any better, Chinese has significantly fewer grammar rules compared to English, so if you’re worried about verb conjugations, plurals, gendered nouns and the like, you’re in the clear! Unlike in English, Chinese words always remain the same⁠—you just have to add additional characters to slightly alter the meaning of the sentence.

Subject-related characters share similar structures or components

A cool feature of Chinese writing is that characters that fall within a similar theme tend to share the same radical, which is a graphical component that’s part of the Chinese dictionary. There’s a long list of radicals which you’ll never be expected to remember in its entirety, but it helps to know that themed characters have a structure in common with each other.

For example, characters with the radical 水 (shuǐ) which sometimes appears as 氵 are often related to water, like 河 (hé) for river and 海 (hǎi) for sea.

The sounds of the Chinese alphabet already exist in the English language

It’s difficult to look at pinyin, unofficially known as the Chinese alphabet, without pronouncing the sounds like you would in English. As strange as pinyin may seem, you actually already know (and use) the same sounds in everyday speech! How crazy is that, considering how drastically different the written Chinese and English languages are?

Take the zh sound from the character 中 (zhōng), meaning middle. If you want to compare it to a familiar sound, think of zh as the “dr” part in the word “dragon.” Hacking the Chinese alphabet is just about finding the equivalent sounds in English.

Learning Chinese is more accessible than ever with online resources

Living in the digital age, many of us don’t realize how lucky we are in terms of access to information. Even just going back a decade, most people had to rely on tutors and classes to learn Chinese.

However, not everyone benefits from the traditional classroom setting, especially considering the unrealistic expectation of all students learning at the same pace dictated by the teacher’s curriculum. It can be really demotivating when you don’t seem to be grasping the concepts as quickly as your peers, leaving you more and more disconnected from learning the language.

Thankfully, things are different now. With so many different apps that allow you to learn at your own pace through games, language exchange and others, Chinese learning is easier and more convenient than ever!

Learn Chinese: The Beginner-friendly Guide to Studying Mandarin Chinese

Getting Started: How to Learn Chinese Writing Without Getting Overwhelmed

Obviously, as a beginner, you’ll probably opt to learn Simplified over Traditional Chinese, but even the simplified characters may seem like a lot of hard work. Though a lot of practice is needed, Chinese writing isn’t as impenetrable as you might think. You just have to be methodical about how you learn it.

Study the stroke order

The first step is to learn the stroke order. Just like how you’d write the letters of a word in English from left to right, Mandarin Chinese has an order for how their characters are supposed to be written.

There are four basic rules to the madness: drawing, symmetry, enclosure and overlap. As long as you’ve got these rules down, you can tackle any Chinese character that comes your way.

Learn the basic Chinese characters

Always start off small with the simplest characters in the Chinese language, which range between one and seven strokes. Come to think of it, it’s pretty cool how there are some characters that exist as three strokes or less, kind of like how English contains one- to three-letter words. It makes life a whole lot easier, too, especially when you’re first dipping your toes in Mandarin.

While seven strokes can seem like a lot to remember, here’s an example of what that might look like: The word for “man,” which is 男 (nán), is still quite easy because it’s a combination of the characters 田 (tián) for “field” and 力 (lì) for “strength.” All you have to do is break it down.

Spend time on the building blocks: Chinese radicals and components

Radicals and components are lifesavers when you’re approaching new characters. Even without knowing the dictionary definition, having prior knowledge of character components will give you semantic and phonetic clues to the meaning and pinyin pronunciation. And all of this knowledge comes full circle when it comes to writing out the characters.

For example, the radical in 张 (zhāng), meaning “to stretch,” contains the radical 长 (cháng), which is defined as “long.” So as you can see here, 长 serves as both a semantic and phonetic component in 张.

Master pinyin to help you type in Chinese

Chinese writing isn’t just about the characters. Pinyin is just as important and it makes it much more convenient to type on your phone, laptop or tablet, especially if you don’t have (or simply can’t be bothered to use) the handwriting input. Thus, make sure you study the pinyin of the characters you’re learning.

5 Tips to Learn Mandarin Chinese Quickly and Easily

We’ve covered how to not get stressed over Chinese writing, but what can you, as a novice with no background in the language, do to ensure your Chinese learning journey is as smooth sailing as possible? These five tips will make sure that you’re learning Chinese the best way that you can be!

Learn conversational phrases to get to know the language in a real-world context

As a beginner, you’ll learn that “good morning” in Chinese is 早上好 (zǎoshang hǎo). However, in the real world, 早上好 is quite formal for everyday conversation. You’re more likely to hear locals saying 早 and you wouldn’t really know that unless you’ve got a language partner or you overhear it in natural conversation.

So, rather than learning those formulaic classroom sentences, focus on conversational phrases and real-world dialogues. You want your learning experience to be as genuine and applicable to real life as possible, so listen to native Chinese speakers interacting naturally in person or, if that’s not possible, on FluentU. With FluentU, you’ll also get supportive features for learners like interactive subtitles and multimedia flashcards.

Spend more time listening to learn the Chinese accent

If you feel that you sound awkward when saying sentences like 我很喜欢学中文 (wǒ hěn xǐhuān xué zhōngwén), meaning “I really like learning Chinese,” chances are that you actually do sound awkward. To correct this, just listen to more Chinese audio or watch more videos where you can hear native Chinese speakers talking to each other.

Though, maybe skip on operatic or theatrical productions in Chinese, since actors tend to exaggerate and enunciate in ways that you wouldn’t normally hear in real life. Stick to TV shows, podcasts, FluentU videos, people-watching and other sources where you can hear the natural accent.

Create your own vocabulary lists

The HSK might be the standard Chinese language proficiency test for non-native speakers, but by no means do you have to learn the vocab according to those levels.

Although characters are often divided according to their level of difficulty, you can choose to mix things up. Rather than following HSK standards, how about creating themed vocabulary lists that actually apply to you? For example, you can have a dedicated list for traveling, another about food or fashion, whatever piques your interest and can be used in your daily life!

Another way you can go about learning your vocab list is by grouping characters according to their radicals or components. That way, you can really challenge yourself to see if you can identify the nuances in characters like 土 (tǔ) and 士 (shì), which translate to “earth” and “scholar,” respectively.

Speak more—and make mistakes!

That saying of “use it or lose it” totally applies here. “Using” Chinese, in this case, means putting it to use through speech. You might be really good at memorizing and reading characters, but the only way to know if you’re good at Mandarin is if you actually speak it.

Yes, it can be so intimidating to speak in a language that isn’t your mother tongue since it pushes you so far out of your comfort zone. But mistakes help us learn. If a tutor is out of your budget, consider a language partner or simply talk to yourself in Chinese in front of a mirror! Anything to get you to speak Mandarin Chinese on a daily basis.

Dedicate time for daily writing practice

Between work and personal life, it can feel like there isn’t enough time for writing every day. The truth is that we all have time—you just have to make the time.

Obviously, if you spend a good couple of hours watching Netflix before bed, you’ll be too tired afterward to write out individual characters or sentences. If you dedicate just half an hour a day to writing in your notebook or even in your Chinese handwriting app, you’ll find that writing in Chinese isn’t as difficult as some people make it out to be.

How to Learn Mandarin by Yourself

There isn’t one “best way” to learn Chinese, but we have some of the best methods and resources to teach yourself Chinese right here.

Learn Mandarin Chinese online

With tons and tons of websites and apps catering to a variety of language needs, of course, it’s possible to learn Mandarin Chinese on your own. After all, not everyone benefits from the traditional classroom setup and with people so attached to their phones, you might as well put that extended screen time to good use.

Plus, more time on Chinese online learning platforms could take away meaningless hours spent scrolling through social media.

If you enjoy the freedom to learn anytime, anywhere, as long as you have an internet connection, these are the websites to refer to.

Chinesefor.Us

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Still relatively new in the Chinese online learning landscape, ChineseFor.Us is actually a pretty good competitor to some of the industry’s biggest names.

The courses were designed by Lili Hao, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s Degree in Chinese Linguistics. She also works as an HSK and YST (the children’s version of the HSK) instructor, so her courses have the depth and quality needed especially for beginners. For HSK, she only has courses up until Level 2, though Level 3 should be available on the website soon.

Yoyo Chinese

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The mastermind behind this ever-so-popular website for online Chinese courses is Chinese teacher Yangyang Cheng. Having taught Hollywood celebrities in the past and racking up more than 20 million views on her video lessons, Yangyang has all the interactive tools needed to improve not just your conversational Chinese, but your overall skills in the language, in general.

The lessons are short, structured and fun, and the courses can get you speaking confidently in just six months!

Chinese Zero to Hero

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Compared to the previous websites, Chinese Zero to Hero doesn’t go as deep into the material as you might expect an online Chinese course would. Even with that in mind, this website is still quite impressive in helping students get the most out of their HSK Standard Course textbooks. It’s a fantastic supplement for effective independent study, with the key word being “supplement” since the majority of the material pertains to the HSK courses.

If you want to access Chinese Zero to Hero in an app format, you can download the Teachable app and sign in using your website login details.

Learn Chinese through apps

Does an app make more sense to you? Here are a few intuitive apps that you might not have heard of before.

FluentU (iOS | Android)

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We mentioned FluentU earlier as a great way to study Chinese easily. Why? Well, pop culture is an awesome way to pick up new words and phrases since the language used is current and pertinent to the real world. Rather than opting for textbook-style teaching, FluentU uses a variety of videos to fully immerse you in Chinese, such as movie trailers, music videos, news segments and inspirational talks.

From the videos, you can tap on any word you want to learn to see definitions and audio-enhanced dialogues for relevant contextual information. And if there’s a specific grammar construction or word you need more practice with, you can filter videos to find exactly what you need.

TOFU Learn (iOS | Android)

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If you just want to focus on vocab, TOFU Learn is an advanced flashcard app that’s flexible and simple to use. With the spaced repetition system (SRS) that allows you to review words over time rather than jamming new characters down your throat, the app is basically assuring that everything will embed in your long-term memory.

There are vocab lists on the app, but you can create your personal flashcard decks to make your studying more relevant to you. If you prefer, you can make your own lists using the tools provided on the website.

Zizzle (iOS | Android)

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Zizzle is a creative endeavor that uses the magic of visualized storytelling to improve Chinese reading and writing skills.

Rather than showing lengthy texts, Zizzle utilizes gorgeous animations to tell their entertaining short stories with hilarious characters. According to Zizzle, a study at the University of Munich demonstrated a 79% improvement rate among their Chinese language students, which is pretty impressive, to say the least.

Learn Chinese through YouTube

What can’t you learn on YouTube these days? If you’re one of those that rely on the video-sharing platform for everything, here are three great channels to check out.

Mandarin Corner

This channel has an awesome mix of Chinese grammar lessons, as well as real-life situations such as interviews and casual conversations with everyday Chinese people.

You can also check out the website to download vocabulary lists, flashcards and a whole bunch of study materials that cater to both beginner and intermediate learners.

EverydayChinese—Learn Chinese in Chinatown

Just as the name implies, this channel is all about teaching you the Chinese you need on a day-to-day basis. From real conversations to pronunciation guides and videos for slow reading and writing, Everyday Chinese makes language learning that much more accessible for novices.

There’s even a playlist dedicated to vastly improving beginners’ Chinese in just 101 days.

Learn Chinese with Yi Zhao

One of the few independent Chinese teachers on YouTube with her very own quiz app, Learn Chinese with Yi Zhao is perfect for those who appreciate structured lessons that end with a quick quiz to measure what they’ve learned so far.

The great thing about Yi Zhao’s quiz app is that it takes on a game format to put a fun and entertaining spin on Chinese learning.

Learn Chinese with podcasts

If you love listening to podcasts when you’re traveling to and from work, school or wherever, you can switch out your podcast for a Chinese one. There are many Chinese podcasts that’ll boost your language learning. Here are our favorites:

Popup Chinese

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Popup Chinese is far from your average Chinese language-learning platform. It’s not so often that someone will structure a lesson around infidelity and title the podcast, “10 signs you may have an a**hole for a husband.” As you can probably tell, the lessons sometimes cover controversial topics, though they’re all interesting nonetheless.

While site administrators haven’t released any new content in a while, their lessons are still relevant and maintain that shock factor that may intrigue language learners.

Coffee Break Chinese

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Coffee Break Chinese is another unconventional resource for Chinese learners. Rather than listening to one instructor for the entire lesson, the podcasts (which are also available as video lessons) are more like a conversation between the native speaker, Crystal, and the foreign language learner, Mark. The lessons are informal and casual, where Crystal gives the background of Chinese, while Mark asks a bunch of questions as a learner, just like you.

Unfortunately, there’s no app for Coffee Break Chinese, but you can save the lessons onto your iPhone or iPad downloading the app Documents to manage those files.

Online Chinese lessons with tutors

There are plenty of online resources out there that make it completely possible to learn Chinese on your own. However, at times, guidance from the experts wouldn’t hurt. So for those in need of personalized lesson plans and who wish to correspond with a native or fluent Mandarin speaker for questions and advice, these are the platforms to check out.

The best part about these programs is that you can get private tutoring according to your schedule and location, whether you’re traveling abroad or too cozy to leave your house on a rainy day.

Varsity Tutors (iOS | Android)

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Considered the Ivy League of online language tutoring platforms—and actually, their tutors attended Ivy League or other superior institutions—Varsity Tutors has been featured by the likes of Time Magazine and USA Today. With advanced qualifications and clear background checks, tutors provide top-rated test prep and academic tutoring with a proven track record of success and confidence. And if you prefer a traditional tutoring setup, Varsity Tutors also has an in-home tutoring option.

The app allows you to schedule appointments, upload assignments, communicate with your tutor, manage your account and, of course, get video tutoring.

italki (iOS | Android)

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According to research conducted by New York University, 19 hours spent on italki equals to 35 hours on other language apps, as well as 48 hours in a college semester. So what makes this private tutoring app that effective?

Well, for starters, it’s not just a tutoring app. While the premise of italki is offering one-on-one lessons via video chat, it’s more of an online community where you not only learn Chinese, but also communicate with native speakers to discover Chinese culture. You can tailor your lessons according to your needs, so whether you’re a complete beginner, need a refresher’s course or just want travel-themed classes, it’s all up to you.

Plus, you can choose between 30- to 90-minute lessons to fit into your budget and schedule.

Tandem (iOS | Android)

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Much like italki, Tandem is an online community where you essentially partner up with someone with whom you can exchange language goals.

It’s almost like Tinder for language learning, where you get matched with people with the same learning goals and it’s also like Facebook, where you can post about your interests and follow others for opportunities to practice. You can also leave reviews for partners.

If you’re looking for professional help, you can check out Tandem Tutors for video chat lessons.

And the best part about this app is that it’s a totally free way to learn Chinese!

 

It’s pretty clear that learning and possibly even mastering the Chinese language isn’t as unattainable as you might think. So what are you waiting for? Get started on your Chinese learning journey today!
 

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