The World Is Yours: 15 Effective Tips to Learn Chinese by Yourself
Learning Chinese on your own is a difficult task and it’s hard to know exactly where to start to improve your Chinese language skills.
That’s why I’ve put this guide together for you: To help you navigate the wide variety of resources on the web, from pinyin all the way to chengyu.
So it’s time to channel your inner superhero and get pumped up to start your journey to learn Chinese by yourself.
- 1. Learn the Chinese Tones
- 2. Become Familiar with the Pinyin System
- 3. Start with Chinese Greetings
- 4. Group New Words by Theme
- 5. Combine Your Interests with Your Learning
- 6. Tackle Chinese Characters
- 7. Form Your Own Sentences
- 8. Meet Regularly with a Conversation Partner
- 9. Watch Chinese Shows with Subtitles
- 10. Study with Music Videos
- 11. Listen to Audiobooks
- 12. Listen to Podcasts
- 13. Stay Motivated by Having Specific Goals
- 14. Choose Your Study Method(s)
- 15. Practice Every Day
- Why You Should Start Learning Mandarin Chinese
- Where to Learn Mandarin Chinese
- Can You Learn Chinese Really Fast?
1. Learn the Chinese Tones
As you may already know, Chinese is a tonal language. Before you panic, know that if you can sing a song (bad singing counts too), you can speak in tones.
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, you’ll learn what each marking means, as well as how to pronounce and hear every tone.
Spend a good amount of time listening to and identifying the four distinct tones, and practice them out loud. At this stage, it doesn’t matter whether you’re just saying “Ah” in various tones, the most important thing is to get used to it.
Why? Well, because speaking without correct tones could land you in a lot of confusion—and sometimes even in trouble! You don’t want to be talking about a horse (third tone) when you’re really referring to your mother (first tone).
2. Become Familiar with the Pinyin System
Pinyin is a fantastic invention that should be forever honored as the bridge that connects the English speaker to the world of Chinese. It’s the official phonetic system for transcribing the pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet.
You can learn how to pronounce Chinese words with pinyin, which gives you the phonetic reading as well as the tone of the word. This BBC language guide is a good place to start your pinyin journey. You can also 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.
Vowels are usually easy to pick up, but foreigners may struggle with the correct articulation of the consonants—like “zh,” “ch” and “j.” Invest a good amount of time getting your pronunciation right because a strong foundation will take you a long way.
3. Start with Chinese Greetings
Now you’re ready to learn the basics. As with learning any other language, being able to greet others and introduce yourself is pretty much your first priority.
This is where you bring together what you’ve learned about tones and pinyin. Try reading the pinyin and pronouncing some greeting words on your own, and then listen to an audio clip and see if it matches. If it does, you’re on the right track. Well done!
One helpful tip is to learn the meanings of individual words as you go along. For example, the word 你好—which is a greeting that’s equivalent to “hello”—can be broken down to 你 (you) and 好 (good). Learning individual words in phrases will make things easier since you’ll be able to see the logic and, of course, expand your vocabulary.
Chinese Tools has a good guide for starting to learn basic Chinese words and phrases.
4. Group New Words by Theme
Once you’ve learned how to introduce yourself, introduce your family and your pet.
Done making introductions? You can talk about your favorite food, and while you’re at it, you might as well learn some other common foods in Chinese.
You can then learn how to order food in a restaurant. How do you get to the restaurant? You might need to learn how to give (and receive) directions.
Congratulations! From just that little journey, you now know some new vocabulary surrounding family, food and directions. You also know basic sentence structures for making introductions, describing your favorite things and giving directions.
Learning in themes and topics enables you to flow through your learning with ease and structure, rather than picking random words to learn each day that have little correlation to one another.
5. Combine Your Interests with Your Learning
It may seem like common sense, but learning Chinese through things that you find interesting will make the learning process more fun.
Don’t keep your learning so serious to the point that it becomes a burden to you. Learning should be enjoyable, so try to match it with your interests.
If you’re into music, for example, use music to learn Chinese. If you love reading, check out some interesting Chinese novels. If you’re a fan of movies and TV shows, then use the Chinese counterpart.
You can get even more niche, like finding a Chinese-speaking Discord group that plays your favorite game, or joining a subreddit that shares recipes in Chinese.
There are so many avenues of learning available for you to discover!
6. 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.
7. Form Your Own Sentences
I won’t lie to you—Chinese sentence structure can be 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.
Memorizing stock phrases and pre-formed sentences is definitely a good way to start talking right away. But once you’ve learned enough words and have some basic grammar concepts under your belt, you should start trying to form your own sentences.
These can be pretty simple. For example, if you learned about food this week, perhaps you could form the sentence, “The fish is delicious.” Next week, when you learn how to give directions, you could expand on the sentence to say, “You can eat delicious fish in the restaurant at the end of this road.”
Take a look at this explanation from FluentU and this guide by Written Chinese about Chinese sentence structure. Then, build on the words and sentence structures that you’re learning as you go along.
8. Meet Regularly with a Conversation Partner
When I was taking Chinese in Beijing, I was fortunate enough to have a language partner. I got to learn more Mandarin from her while she learned English from me: a win-win situation! We got to cover more areas than the ones taught in class, like Chinese slang and various expressions. I became familiar with the real language.
So if you have a friend who’s good at Mandarin, see if they’re willing to help you out. If you don’t, you can look for a conversation partner elsewhere. Is there a university near where you live, a library offering classes or a meetup group of Chinese speakers? Those are all good places to start.
You can also look for a Chinese conversation partner online. You can check out mylanguageexchange.com or conversation exchange for online conversation partners.
9. Watch Chinese Shows with Subtitles
Once you’ve covered the basics, watching Chinese shows is the next step. Whether it’s dramas or variety shows, you’ll be exposed to new characters and vocabulary.
While you should definitely pick the genre that you love the most, I personally think that Chinese romantic comedies and light dramas make good learning tools. They often feature realistic (if overly dramatic) dialogue that’s pretty easy to follow along with.
Talk shows or variety shows are equally entertaining, but there’s a tendency for you to feel lost in their conversations. If you’re not that familiar with Chinese current events and culture, you might not fully understand what their humorous statements are all about.
Whatever you choose to watch, look for options that have subtitles. Mainstream options like Netflix and Hulu are starting to host more Chinese content, from TV shows to movies. In some streaming services, subtitles are even available in Chinese—Netflix is especially good about this, though the subtitles are sometimes auto-generated, leaving room for error.
The FluentU website and language learning iOS and Android app is a good place to find video clips with accurate subtitles. On FluentU, you’ll find short videos featuring authentic Chinese content, including TV shows, commercials, inspirational talks and more.
Every video has interactive subtitles in English, Chinese and pinyin that allow you to hover over any word to see an in-context definition and native pronunciation. You can also see other videos where the word appears in that context, for a deeper understanding of the right situations in which to use the word. From here, you could make flashcard decks by turning any word in a video into a flashcard.
Watching with subtitles will significantly improve your character recognition skills. You can reinforce them further with FluentU’s quizzes, which test you on your understanding of the vocabulary in each video or in your own vocabulary lists. These exercises also let you improve your speaking and typing skills through various types of questions.
Whether you watch clips or full movies, make sure you’re watching actively. This might mean that you look up definitions to unknown words if you’re using FluentU or write them down in a notebook if you’re just watching.
10. Study with Music Videos
Using music is one of the best ways to learn a new language because it’s fun and interesting!
But why use music videos instead of just listening to Chinese songs? Well, sometimes what’s going on in the music video can give you context to better understand the song, and other times it’s a great peek into the culture. But the biggest benefit is that you can have a preview of the Chinese characters and follow along with the lyrics.
Watching music videos will really help you become familiar with pronunciation, as intonations are learned over time with more exposure.
So choose the genre that best suits your taste. Not sure where to start? We’ve gathered the best Mandopop songs and karaoke classics for you. If these work out well and you want more, check out youku.com or tudou.com, which have a really comprehensive list of videos.
11. Listen to Audiobooks
If you’ve noticed, all the references I’ve listed here so far target both your listening and reading skills. That’s because it works best that way. You won’t get the most out of your learning if you merely target one of them. It’s for this exact reason that audio books will really help you out. Merely reading a book won’t do: You have to listen to the words at the same time.
For starters, you can download Chinese course textbooks. Most of these have an accompanying audiobook, so it’ll help you grasp the basics of the language. But if you wish to stick to novels and comics, there is a wide range of topics and titles available on websites like Audible, Kobo and websites geared toward kids like Huayu World.
You can also check out these Chinese novels, but they’re only recommended if you’re already in the intermediate level. These novels are purely Chinese characters; there’s no pinyin to help you out.
12. Listen to Podcasts
If you know where to look, podcasts can become your new on-the-go best friend. There’s a great variety of topics, as well as numerous podcasts focused on teaching Chinese basics to beginners.
Unless you’re a complete beginner, though, I recommend that you pick podcasts that are geared towards specific interests and Chinese culture. This will expose you to a wider range of vocabulary—words that aren’t normally covered in educational material.
For a start, try podcasts with short episodes. Stories like the ones on Chinese Folk Tales or Grandma’s Story in Chinese are especially fun and easy to listen to. A podcast like BBC news offers detailed updates on politics, but be forewarned, you have to possess some intermediate level of Chinese to listen to them. News has a totally different lingo.
If you’re looking for podcasts aimed at specific interests like sports, movies and science, you can check out the iTunes store or Google podcasts.
13. Stay Motivated by Having Specific Goals
What’s your main motivation for learning Chinese? Is it for business, for travel or just because?
Whatever your reasons are, use them as motivation for you to continue learning.
There will always be a time when you feel discouraged or out of sorts. When that time comes, think of your reason for learning the language to get you back on track.
You can also gear your lessons toward these goals. If you’re learning for travel purposes, acquaint yourself with the basic Chinese travel words and shopping phrases. Once you see the practical applications of the language, you’ll want to keep on learning.
14. Choose Your Study Method(s)
So, how do you learn best? With quick, handy apps? With textbooks that explain grammar concepts in depth?
Whether you prefer websites and apps, textbooks and stories, movies and TV shows or something else, tailor your studying around what you like.
Choose resources that fit your learning style. And remember, you can choose multiple strategies to keep things interesting!
Of course, if you find yourself losing steam, switch up your learning methods. You may find that your study tastes have changed.
15. Practice Every Day
Never stop practicing.
No matter how busy life gets, set aside time to practice the things you’ve learned.
Only have five minutes during your coffee break? Whip out an app and review.
Running late in the morning? Put on some Chinese songs in the car and sing along.
Daily practice will help you remember what you’ve already learned, and encourage you to keep going. And the more you practice, the more it’ll become a part of your routine.
And once Chinese becomes a part of your life for good, the path to fluency really opens up!
Why You Should Start Learning Mandarin Chinese
Are you still on the fence about whether you should dedicate the time and effort toward learning Chinese with these tips? Then these three features of the Chinese language will definitely help you cement that decision:
More and more people are learning Chinese. It’s the very reason why there are a lot of online Chinese courses cropping up. Or the fact that there is a huge spike in the number of foreign students enrolling in Chinese language courses in Beijing and Shanghai. Learning Chinese has become a global phenomenon!
The sudden interest in the Chinese language is mainly due to its applicability. When China opened its doors to foreign trade, investors and entrepreneurs started flowing in. But English is not widely used in the country, so the most practical solution is to adapt to the locals. How? By learning their language.
Today, one out of every five companies has a satellite office or at least an external working relation in China. Most likely, the corporation you’re a part of has a Chinese shareholder—be it a supplier, client or a director. So it’s quite obvious that learning Chinese will give you a huge advantage in the business world.
Rich Culture and History
China is one of the oldest nations in the world. With over 8,000 years of history, there’s no doubt why people across the globe are taking a special interest in its rich culture and history.
The Chinese language is a piece of art in and of itself. You’ll be amazed at how the characters were formed or how each character relates to a specific object. Learning the language will help you untangle the many mysteries of Chinese culture. You’ll get a glimpse of it, and then you’ll surely want to keep on unraveling them.
Where to Learn Mandarin Chinese
Learning is everywhere and anywhere. Of course, the most rapid and effective way is to live abroad in China or Taiwan for a good couple of months to immerse yourself in the language and culture. You could choose an intensive study program, or actually live and work there.
But if that’s not feasible right now, then you’d be glad to know there are many ways to learn effectively right where you are.
Where to Learn Chinese Offline
Don’t be too quick to dismiss the textbook as an old and uncool method of learning. They may be old-school, but textbooks offer a really solid foundation to your learning—especially if you want to learn how to write Chinese.
Chinese storybooks are also a great way to learn, so don’t be shy to pick up children’s books. However, be sure that you’re reading books in simplified Chinese, as they do in China. Of course, if you want to learn traditional Chinese characters (which are beautiful, by the way), that’s another level of commitment altogether.
Make friends with Chinese people! It shouldn’t be too hard since Chinese communities exist almost everywhere in the world. Nothing substitutes face-to-face conversation. Strike up a conversation on the streets, and you may be surprised to learn that people are generally helpful when they see your sincere intentions to learn. When you head to a Chinese restaurant, order in Chinese and chat up the waiters.
Where to Learn Chinese Online
There are lots of online resources for you to pick up Chinese, many of which are even free. Audio and video tools are abundant, and so are podcasts, as I mentioned earlier. The advantage is that you could easily learn on the go with these online resources. Turn your hour-long commute (or any form of waiting time) into a Chinese lesson.
Apart from learning through formal tools online, one way that would really boost your learning is to watch Chinese television, movies, and listen to songs online. These methods help you learn Chinese the way that it’s actually spoken, and also give you a great insight into Chinese culture.
There are tons of movie and music streaming platforms to get that exposure to Chinese in real-life, from Netflix to Hulu.
Lastly, if you can’t seem to find a Chinese community where you live, you could always make a friend online via a penpal website and start chatting in Chinese! It’s not quite the same, but as a learner, you’ll have to seize every opportunity you get.
Can You Learn Chinese Really Fast?
You may have heard of people who have developed techniques that allow them to understand and converse in any foreign language within a short period of time—some as quickly as three months.
You can’t expect to become fluent in a short time. Even getting to true intermediate level—the point at which you can comfortably have everyday conversations and talk about certain topics at length—will take longer than a few months to get to.
It’s important that your learning goals are realistic when you start. But even knowing all that, it is possible to learn the basics of Chinese quickly so you can hold very simple conversations within a few months or even weeks. It will take some intensive learning and a concentrated effort.
If you’re really serious about learning quickly, then you may want to read up about how some individuals have managed to hack Chinese. One resource is Hacking Chinese, and it details some methods that a Westerner has used to learn the language quickly.
The real takeaway, though, is that everybody has their own way of learning. So while you may get some great insights from these sites, don’t necessarily expect the same results—that would only give you unnecessary stress along the way.
Learning Chinese, as with anything in this world, is about patience, dedication and pushing your limits appropriately. But don’t forget to have fun with it, too! Because if it’s not enjoyable, why learn?
And that completes the list! All these tips are sure-fire steps to learning Mandarin Chinese by yourself.
Remember that you already have the superpowers within to make your mark in the world, so use that power to learn Chinese on your own—and enjoy the journey!