You’ve already decided to learn Mandarin Chinese.
But you’ve got another big decision to make.
Life would be much simpler if Mandarin Chinese came in one, uniform written language.
You know, where you could learn one easy alphabet and be off to the races.
Well, this isn’t the case.
You already know that you’ll need to learn tons of characters to master written Mandarin Chinese—but it doesn’t end there.
You’ll have the option of learning either traditional or simplified Chinese characters. If you’re feeling really gung-ho, then you can learn both.
However, keep in mind that there are roughly 7,000 characters, and you need to know about 3,000 to read and write at a fluent level. Learning both adds significantly to that count.
Nevertheless, if you feel you’ve got the chops to tackle both—or if you’d just like to keep your options open—then refer to the below list of best websites to learn Chinese. These courses offer both traditional and simplified versions of written Chinese for you to study.
The Difference Between Traditional and Simplified Mandarin Chinese
Simplified Mandarin characters contain fewer strokes. Watch this YouTube video to see a clear comparison of the 50 most commonly used characters in their traditional and simplified forms.
A Quick History of Traditional Simplified Characters
This split all began in the 1950s, when the People’s Republic of China introduced simplified characters to increase the literacy of the general populace.
The first official simplified character transcripts were released in 1956 with the support of Chairman Mao Zedong. A revised transcript was released in 1964. The conversion, however, wasn’t made without criticism, and many intellectuals of the day opposed simplification. This was a big deal, a matter of great importance for many people, and some of the more vocal critics were imprisoned in labor camps for voicing their objections.
Who Uses Simplified and Who Sticks to Traditional
Simplified characters eventually became the norm throughout China, though some regions gradually began shifting back to traditional. Today, simplified characters are mostly used in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore, while traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities abroad.
That said, many native speakers nowadays more or less understand both traditional and simplified, regardless of the region of their upbringing.
Traditional or Simplified? Which Is Right for Me?
There’s this notion that beginners should learn simplified because it’s, well, simpler. The belief is that they can learn Chinese faster since the characters are easier to memorize.
While this is certainly true, this shouldn’t be your main motivator for choosing simplified over traditional. Your selection should be based on one single factor: Which region do you plan on visiting? Go with traditional if you plan on visiting Taiwan or Hong Kong. For anywhere else in China, go with simplified.
Of course, if you plan on traveling extensively back and forth between the different regions, then it may be in your best interest to learn both. The motivators beyond travel, though, differ. Do you want to read classic Chinese texts or study art? Then you’ll want to learn your traditional Chinese characters. Some people learn both just so they can sing Chinese karaoke classics regardless of whether the lyrics appear on screen in traditional or simplified characters.
In any case, whatever your choice may be, the best way to learn to read Chinese is through simple immersion and putting in the hours, regardless of how repetitive or challenging it gets. To do this, you’ll want to find a Chinese course that suits your needs.
The Chinese online courses we’ve assembled below offer great quality, and they’ve also decided to make their courses available in both traditional and simplified characters, to help you achieve any of your Mandarin Chinese goals.
6 Chinese Online Courses That Teach Traditional and Simplified Characters
Alright, now that we’ve got some of the explanations and historical contexts out of the way, we can move on to the meat and potatoes.
This course hooks you up with a live teacher who can coach you through your lessons via Skype.
All instructors are originally from China, so you can be confident you’re getting a native speaker to teach you—and you can choose your instructor based on their region of origin and the type of Chinese writing they’re most capable of teaching. The live sessions are all one-on-one, so it’s all about you.
While most courses are designed to suit the needs of adult learners, there’s a special children’s course tailored to kids ages three to nine. Additional courses are also available for anyone who’s planning to use their Chinese for business purposes. All online class sessions are recorded, and you can acquire an audio of your session with your tutor upon request—this is a great way to hear how you sound while speaking Chinese, listen to your accent and identify areas for improvement. And if you missed anything while speaking with your instructor, you can always play the session back and repeat the lesson on your own time.
And of course, no matter the Chinese online course type, the writing portion is available in both traditional and simplified Chinese.
Love learning the natural, real-life Mandarin Chinese that natives speak?
Can’t get enough of Chinese pop culture and entertainment?
Then you’ll love this program, which lets you gain instant access to over 1,700 Mandarin Chinese videos dispersed across six fluency levels.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
All videos are divided by category. You can learn basic greetings one day and the names of various fruits the next, then start diving into politics, celebrity interviews and documentaries. If you prefer the old-school way of learning with pencil and paper, you can download and print out the PDF transcript of each video.
To keep the course interesting and interactive every step of the way, you’ll have access to multiple learning tools, including quizzes and flashcards. All characters come with pinyin to help you get the pronunciation and tone down pat. Turn the pinyin or English subtitles on and off at your discretion to test your comprehension or give yourself additional reading support.
At the initial signup, you’ll be asked to select between traditional and simplified characters, but you can always change your language settings later on. Start your free trial today to see what all the buzz is about!
Who hasn’t heard of Rosetta Stone?
This is probably the biggest name out there in language immersion software. This program is known for using image recall learning, so it’s a perfect way to learn and reinforce knowledge of Chinese characters. All of the Chinese exercises come with images, so you memorize words, characters and pronunciations by associating them with the accompanied images. At the ends of units, you’ll take quizzes where you match images with the correct characters.
When you buy the classic yellow box from Rosetta Stone, a headset is included to allow you to speak in the exercises. The software will assess your pronunciation and monitor it for clarity and accuracy. All lessons can be done in your choice of pinyin, traditional or simplified characters. You’ll choose which script you want to learn when you get started, but can always change this in your course settings.
This site provides plenty of resources. It’s simple, but it’s all free of charge. And the best part—especially for any learner trying to study both types of characters—it comes with a conversion tool where you can convert traditional characters to simplified and vice versa, and even convert your traditional and simplified characters right into pinyin.
As an added bonus, there’s a section where you can translate English names into Chinese. The common male name Aaron, for example, is translated as 阿隆 (Ā lōng). What does your name look like in Chinese?
Chinese-Tools is especially useful if you want to learn calligraphy writing the right way. One whole section will teach you how to write the key strokes and radicals in Chinese calligraphy, and another shows you how to write the most common characters stroke by stroke.
The site also has a forum where you can ask questions or discuss Chinese culture, news and politics with other learners. It’s a great place to throw out all your questions about Chinese characters and how to write them!
Chinese Learn Online
This Chinese online course provides seven difficulty levels. Each lesson comes complete with an MP3 file, transcripts with pop-up translations and a comprehensive review exercise. All transcripts include pinyin, simplified and traditional characters.
The course is designed to get the brain wired for listening to Chinese. Beginner courses use more English and less Chinese, with the English gradually phased out as you progress.
Yes, this course is more heavily focused on listening and speaking rather than reading and writing. There are, however, printable PDF writing sheets that outline stroke order for each character. This is a great feature, because we all know the best way to learn Chinese characters is to write them out by hand—a lot.
Another handy feature is the site’s word bank, where you can enter an English term (or a term in pinyin) and get the Chinese translation in traditional or simplified characters.
Learn Chinese Online
The homepage doesn’t appear to offer much given its rather simplistic design, but don’t be fooled—this online course provides plenty of free resources, and is worth bookmarking in your browser for later reference.
The site itself is self-managed by a single Mandarin and Cantonese instructor who provides private coaching at an affordable hourly rate. One of the site’s more useful features is a section containing 4,000 traditional characters, which basically constitutes all the characters you’ll need to know to read and write at 100% fluency. The same section exists for learning the simplified characters.
There you have it!
You’ve got six Chinese online courses that will have you writing in traditional characters, simplified characters or both depending on your Mandarin Chinese goals.
In any case, you’re not going to learn either if you don’t put in the time and effort.
With this in mind, don’t expect to achieve fluency putting in just 10 minutes a day. You’ve got to keep grinding through day after day of studying!
But don’t worry, when your plane touches down in Taiwan and you can read everything around you at the airport, you’ll see that all the effort you put in was worthwhile.