The 20 Best Ways 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. Tackle Chinese Characters
- 6. Form Your Own Sentences
- 7. Try Coursera’s Mandarin Courses
- 8. Use Language Apps
- 9. Combine Interests into Learning
- 10. Go to Chinese Events Locally
- 11. Meet Regularly with a Conversation Partner
- 12. Use the Internet in Chinese
- 13. Watch Chinese Shows with Subtitles
- 14. Study with Music Videos
- 15. Listen to Audiobooks
- 16. Listen to Podcasts
- 17. Record Your Own Study Material
- 18. Stay Motivated with Specific Goals
- 19. Choose and Organize Your Study Methods
- 20. 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. 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.
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 create flashcards. Make one flashcard for the pinyin and its definition. Then one for the character and its definition. And finally, one for the character and its pinyin.
You can also label objects in your home with Chinese Post-its. It’s a great way to remember that 桌子 (zhuō zǐ) is “table” and that the characters for “window” are 窗子 (chuāng zǐ).
Make sure to rearrange the sticky notes after about a week. If you don’t change their positions, you’ll get used to them and simply stop reading them!
Labeling actual items is a hack for beginning learners, but advanced learners can place Post-its of words, phrases, idioms and full sentences around the house as well. This way, every time you look in the mirror, there’s a vocabulary word (or something more complex) staring back at you.
6. 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.
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.
To further build on the words and sentence structures that you’re learning, try writing a journal in Chinese. Writing in a journal—especially writing in one by hand—is a great way to reinforce and practice your character writing skills, as well as your vocabulary.
7. Try Coursera’s Mandarin Courses
Some Coursera courses can be done on your own schedule, so if you’re trying to learn Mandarin from home, it’s one of the best resources out there for online Chinese classes.
Universities in China and Taiwan use Coursera to post classes they offer online. While each course costs money, you can apply for financial aid to help cover the costs.
Some popular Mandarin courses include:
- Chinese for Beginners – This course from Peking University tackles all the beginner concepts, from basic grammar to tones to vocabulary words.
- Mandarin Chinese for Intermediate Learners: Part 1 – Are you stuck in the weird limbo of being neither a beginner Chinese speaker nor an advanced one? This course from Shanghai Jiao Tong University is for you.
- Learn Chinese: HSK Test Preparation Specialization – If you want to pass the HSK (Chinese Proficiency Test) for levels one, two or three, this Peking University course will help you ace it.
8. Use Language Apps
Language apps are definitely taking over the language-learning industry, and many of them are totally free to use. Use them to supplement your other study methods for greater success!
Here are a few favorites:
- Duolingo (Android/iPhone) – This free language app has a simple interface, self-pacing feature and pleasant visuals.
- Busuu (Android/iPhone) – Similar in form to Duolingo, you’ll get a more substantial Chinese education but for a higher price.
- HelloTalk (Android/iPhone) – Connect with other Chinese speakers for the purpose of language exchange in simple, SMS-style chat rooms.
- Hanping Chinese Lite (Android) – This has to be one of the best app-based English-Chinese dictionaries out there.
9. Combine Interests into 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!
10. Go to Chinese Events Locally
If you live in a medium-sized or larger city, chances are good that there’s a Confucius Institute associated with one of the local universities. I’ve been to Autumn Festival celebrations and a discussion of the legacy at Deng Xiaoping at my Confucius Institute—which is just to say that there’s a huge variety of activities.
These events attract local people in the Chinese community, teachers at the Confucius Institute and non-Chinese people who, like you, are interested in Chinese language and culture.
Perhaps there are Chinese-language churches or places of worship nearby, too. Try going to a religious service at a Chinese-language church to really immerse yourself in the local Chinese community. A religious service is a great language experience—it’s all about reading and listening, right?
Or, look up your city’s local Chinese cultural center. In cities with a substantial Chinese or Taiwanese immigrant population, you’ll likely find a Chinese cultural center.
Typically, these centers have restaurants, places to shop and services for Chinese speakers who don’t know much English, plus tons more.
Many Chinese cultural centers even offer Mandarin classes for free (or at least for a very low cost)!
11. 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 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.
Language exchange helps you become 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 not, is there a university near where you live? Maybe there’s a library offering classes or a meetup group of Chinese speakers? Those are all good places to find a language partner.
You can also look for a Chinese conversation partner online. Check out mylanguageexchange.com or conversation exchange. You might also find language exchange groups near you via Facebook!
12. Use the Internet in Chinese
To start, change your smartphone’s language setting to Chinese. Instead of saying November 1, your phone will now display 11月1日.
This hack is great for reinforcing things like dates, times, everyday vocabulary and technology-related vocabulary (which, nowadays, is our everyday vocabulary).
Next, change Google’s default language to Chinese. This is a good way to practice words that are related to the internet and computers.
Changing your language to Chinese in Google’s Account Settings means your basic Google text will change, so instead of “images” it will say 图片 (tú piàn). It also means that your associated Gmail, YouTube and Google+ accounts will all be displayed in Chinese. Be prepared to do some trial-and-error clicking at first!
It also means that you’re more likely to see results in Chinese. But if you really only want to see search results in English, make sure you go into Search Settings and tell Google your results preferences after changing your Account Settings.
Lastly, browse or join Weibo. If you create an account on Weibo (a Twitter-like social media platform popular in China), you can participate in the chatter or just browse through other people’s conversations.
Write about what you had for breakfast, or your profound thoughts on the state of the world, in Chinese. And remember to engage! Practice your vocabulary and use the slang words you’ve been itching to try. See if your breakfast post gets any comments. Respond. Respond to others’ comments.
13. 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 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.
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 apps are 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 can 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 for unknown words if you’re using FluentU or write them down in a notebook if you’re just watching.
14. 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. 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 really comprehensive lists of videos.
15. Listen to Audiobooks
If you’ve noticed, many of the references I’ve listed so far target both your listening and reading skills. That’s because it works best that way. You’ll get the most out of your learning if you target multiple skills at a time.
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.
Or stick to novels and comics! There is a wide range of topics and titles available on websites like Audible and Kobo, or websites geared toward kids, like Huayu World.
16. 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, 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 (be forewarned: you have to possess an intermediate level of Chinese to listen to them).
If you’re looking for podcasts aimed at specific interests like sports, movies and science, check out the iTunes store or Google podcasts.
17. Record Your Own Study Material
A major problem that many learners face when teaching themselves Chinese is speeding up their word recognition. This method is a great way to improve this.
Every day, record ten Chinese words that you have recently learned.
Use the best pronunciation and tone as possible, and record yourself saying the words that you learned recently. After each word, wait five seconds and then say the English meaning of the word. Make a second recording of the opposites, with the English first and then the Chinese five seconds later.
Play it back whenever you have time to study. The aim is to be able to remember the English meaning (or the Chinese pronunciation) before the answer is said five seconds later. Repeat this process until you can remember the words with 100% accuracy.
This will help you improve the pace of your Chinese. To keep up with real-world conversations, you’ll need to be able to recall words and form sentences at a fast rate. Practicing faster recall means you will be better prepared for the stresses of speaking Chinese with others.
18. Stay Motivated with Specific Goals
What’s your main motivation for learning Chinese?
Maybe it’s for business, for travel or just because. Whatever your reasons are, use them as motivation to continue learning.
Try to gear your lessons toward these goals. If you’re learning for travel purposes, acquaint yourself with basic Chinese travel words and shopping phrases.
It’s easy for solo learners to feel demoralized if they don’t feel like they’re making consistent progress with their Chinese. When you feel discouraged, think of your reason for learning the language to get you back on track.
If you need a specific goal to aim for, use HSK character/word lists to give your learning a clear direction.
Each level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK)—the preeminent Chinese examination—has an associated vocab list comprised of hundreds of characters and words. Once you work out what level you’re at, you can aim your self-study at learning the material needed to pass the next level of the HSK test.
19. Choose and Organize Your Study Methods
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.
Of course, if you find yourself losing steam, switch up your learning methods. You may find that your study tastes have changed.
Even when studying in enjoyable ways, however, solo learners may easily lose focus and motivation.
To maintain motivation, create a study plan each week with clearly defined goals to be achieved. Plan out exactly how much time you’ll spend doing which activities.
Here’s an example of such a plan:
- Learn 70 new characters.
- Spend 2 hours listening to Chinese radio.
- Watch one episode of a Chinese TV program.
- Write one 300-character essay.
- Learn 3 new grammar rules.
Daily Plan (with Sunday as an intentional rest day)
Monday: Write out each of the new characters twice, and then add them to flashcard software. Finish study with 1 hour of Chinese radio.
Tuesday: Spend 30 minutes reviewing new character flashcards, then watch a Chinese TV show episode.
Wednesday: Focus on grammar. Learn some new grammar rules outlined in the goals.
Thursday: Write a Chinese essay, then practice writing the new characters.
Friday: Listen to another hour of Chinese radio.
Saturday: Test yourself of your recall of the new characters and rules.
20. Practice Every Day
No matter how busy life gets, or if you don’t complete a single one of the goals you set for yourself, never stop practicing.
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.
A little language practice is always better than none at all.
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, you’ll see the path to fluency is in reach—even for a solo learner like you!
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 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, 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 ways 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!