How to Start Learning Chinese: Your All-in-one Completely Comprehensive Guide
Chinese is such an alluring language.
It’s no wonder learning it has found its way onto your bucket list!
But now that you’re ready to start learning, where should you begin?
I’m going to give you tips to set you up for success, some of my Chinese language learning resources and a step-by-step roadmap on how to start learning Chinese.
- Tips for Starting to Learn Chinese
- How to Start Learning Chinese: Your Comprehensive Guide
- Step 1: Learn Pinyin and the 5 Tones
- Step 2: Gather Your Resources
- Step 3: Practice a Little Each Day
- Step 4: Use Spaced Repetition to Never Forget a Word
- Step 5: Listen to Chinese a Lot
- Step 6: Learn Basic Sentence Structure
- Step 7: Start Learning Characters After 2 Weeks
- Step 8: Get a Language Exchange Partner
Tips for Starting to Learn Chinese
Before diving into how to start learning Chinese, let’s take a look at some tips to set you up for success.
Learn Pinyin on Day 1
Pinyin is the romanization system of Mandarin Chinese. It uses the English alphabet to spell out Chinese words so non-native speakers can see how to pronounce them.
Another important part of pinyin is the five tones. Chinese is a tonal language, which means the tone you use to say a word can change its meaning.
Thus, mastering pinyin before you get serious about learning Chinese is critical.
Luckily, it takes less than an hour to learn!
Don’t Worry About Characters in the Beginning
Usually, learners feel one of two ways about Chinese characters: they’re intimidating or they’re super cool.
And honestly, they’re both!
But learning characters is difficult and might easily demotivate you if you start learning them right away.
Because of this, it’s important to get a grasp on basic vocabulary and grammar before you try to tackle Chinese characters.
When should you attempt to learn this beautiful script?
We’ll talk more about that in the next section!
Create and Stick to a Routine That Works for You
Having a solid routine that works toward realistic goals is just as important as learning vocabulary.
If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s hard to measure progress and can, therefore, hold you back.
Luckily, coming up with a simple routine doesn’t take long and you can tweak it as you find out more about what works for you and what doesn’t.
When planning your routine, it’s good to start small, especially with a language you’ve never studied before.
So maybe try to learn for 15 to 30 minutes a day rather than start at one to two hours.
Keep in mind that a good routine will excite you, whereas a bad routine will only stress you out.
Download Apps So You Can Study On-the-go
You want to know what my absolute favorite thing about today’s world is in terms of learning?
The fact that we can download an app or do a Google search to learn practically anything in such little time!
Apps are great if you’re busy and always on the go.
Apps give you the opportunity to learn Chinese no matter where you are—on the bus, during your lunch break or when you’re in bed binge-watching your favorite Netflix series.
Practice Pronunciation Like Your Life Depends on It
I just told you about the importance of learning pinyin. Now I’m telling you the importance of proper pronunciation.
So many beginner Chinese learners overlook or underestimate the importance of pronunciation—the five tones in particular.
Since the way you say a word changes its meaning, pronunciation carries a much heavier weight in Chinese than in many other languages.
For example, the way you say the syllable “ma” can mean “mom,” “horse” or “to scold.”
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to end up in an awkward conversation where I just accidentally called my mom a horse!
How to Start Learning Chinese: Your Comprehensive Guide
You’re now well on your way to setting yourself up for a successful Chinese-learning journey.
But how do you actually start learning Chinese?
Allow me to present eight steps to learning Chinese as a beginner and ending up well on your way to fluency.
By the end of this, you’ll have a clear roadmap you can start following immediately!
Plus, I’ll sprinkle in some of my absolute favorite Chinese language learning resources that’ll help you as you take these eight steps.
Are you ready to start learning Chinese?
Step 1: Learn Pinyin and the 5 Tones
Don’t worry, I promise I won’t lecture you about the importance of pronunciation anymore! Now that you understand that, here’s how to actually do it—that is, learn pinyin and the five tones.
To start, download a pinyin chart and refer back to it regularly. Print it out and tape it to the front of your notebook or make it the new background of your phone. As you learn new vocabulary, don’t be afraid to refer to the chart for pronunciation help.
Next, listen to Chinese pronunciation with the help of YouTube videos or other forms of audio. You won’t have much success mastering Chinese pronunciation unless you actually hear it!
This YouTube video is stellar!
Step 2: Gather Your Resources
Now that you’ve got a grasp on pinyin and pronunciation, it’s time to gather a few learning resources.
Although your resources can be diverse, it’s a good idea to have one main resource. In other words, choose one high-quality course that’ll take you from Point A to Point B. Prioritize studying with that resource and use your other ones for additional practice.
Step 3: Practice a Little Each Day
We already talked about the importance of having a routine and how it’s better to start off studying a little each day as opposed to taking on too much right away.
Now is the time to take inventory of how much time you actually have and how much of it you want to devote to learning Chinese.
Do you work a nine-to-five job, have two kids, take yoga classes three times a week and enjoy a date night every Friday? If so, you might only be able to devote 15 minutes (or less) to Chinese learning every day.
And that’s okay! You don’t want to stress yourself out only to end up giving up soon after you started.
Or maybe after work you’re so bored that you usually just end up watching Chinese dramas and daydreaming about finally being able to turn the subtitles off. If so, you can likely devote 30 minutes to an hour of study time each day.
Regardless of how busy a life you live, be realistic about how much time you can devote to Chinese and write it down. Make that your goal each day.
To help you practice a little each day, try one or both of these digital resources:
Pimsleur is an audio-based program that teaches languages through listening and repeating.
Each lesson starts off with a conversation you might not understand, but as you work your way through the lesson, you’ll learn the words used in it.
In the end, the conversation replays and you should be able to understand it much better and more completely.
Lessons are 30 minutes long and also available on the Pimsleur app, which makes it easy to complete them on the go.
Drops is known for its video-game-like lessons. As you start a new topic, the vocabulary words fall from the screen in the shape of a raindrop and as you complete the activities new words begin to drop down.
It’s a fun app that makes learning Chinese stress-free. Plus, it’s easy to complete on your commute to work, during your lunch break or whenever you have downtime.
Step 4: Use Spaced Repetition to Never Forget a Word
Sometimes, remembering what you’ve learned is the hardest part of learning a new language.
Fortunately, there’s a solution for that! And it’s called “spaced repetition.”
Instead of reviewing a vocabulary word over and over again, write it on a flashcard (or make a digital one using a flashcard app) and test yourself until you get it right once. Then, set it aside.
The next day (or even a few hours later), go back to your flashcards and test yourself again. Take note of the words you still got wrong.
Continue the process to solidify the new vocabulary in your memory.
Two effective and easy-to-use apps that incorporate spaced repetition into language learning are:
Anki is a spaced repetition flashcard app and a website you can use for free to help make spaced repetition a no-brainer!
Simply make new decks of flashcards for new vocabulary and Anki will tell you when it’s time to review them.
Memrise is a language learning website and app. It teaches languages through flashcard-like features and multi-media sources, such as video and audio.
Like Anki, it uses spaced repetition to help learners remember vocabulary. After a few hours, the new vocabulary you’ve learned will be ready for review.
Review sessions are fun to complete on Memrise as they come in the form of flashcard games and a “Speed Review.”
Step 5: Listen to Chinese a Lot
Exposing yourself to Chinese media—such as music, podcasts, movies and TV shows—is critical to your success. Not only is it great for improving pronunciation, but it’ll also help you build your listening comprehension skills.
You can find tons of Chinese music from simple Google and YouTube searches. Make a playlist of your favorite songs and music videos on YouTube or use my personal Chinese music playlist on Spotify!
There are also virtual immersion platforms like FluentU, which teaches Chinese with authentic short videos like commercials and music videos.
Another great option for listening resources are vlogs.
These are two of my favorites!
Practice your listening skills while watching entertaining videos such as pranks and challenges on the YouTube channel TiffwithMi.
The channel is run by two girls from Singapore who make their videos completely in Mandarin Chinese and include subtitles in characters and English.
Felix Chang is a Taiwanese exchange student currently studying in the United States. He documents his exchange student journey on YouTube and makes entertaining videos, such as comparing Walmart snacks in the U.S. to common snacks in Taiwan.
His channel has videos in both English and Chinese, and his Chinese videos have subtitles in English and characters.
Step 6: Learn Basic Sentence Structure
You’ve nailed pronunciation, learned some basic vocabulary using your awesome new resources and have been getting plenty of exposure to Chinese through fun media. Now what?
It’s time to start putting everything you’ve learned together!
That’s right, now is the best time to start learning how to form sentences on your own.
Most likely, you already know a few phrases and how to use the question particle 吗 (ma). But once you master basic sentence structure, you can go beyond memorizing random phrases and instead start stringing together sentences on your own.
Chinese sentence structure is very similar to English. In fact, the most basic sentence structure is the same in both languages.
Subject + Verb + Object = Basic Sentence Structure
Let’s take a look at some examples.
我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you.
我会说英文 (wǒ huì shuō yīngwén) — I can speak English.
我吃早饭 (wǒ chī zǎo fàn) — I eat breakfast.
Simple, am I right?
As you progress, you’ll learn even more sentence structures that build off of this one.
Step 7: Start Learning Characters After 2 Weeks
You’ve made it to the two-week mark and can officially begin learning Chinese characters.
By now, you’ve likely familiarized yourself with basic Chinese grammar, can form your own simple sentences and know some useful vocabulary.
You’ve also spent enough time with the language to know whether you’re going to continue dedicating yourself to it or not.
As a result, Chinese characters are less likely to scare you out of learning the language. Plus, you can start using them immediately since you know basic grammar structures now!
Most likely, the resources you’ve been using include characters with new vocabulary. One way to begin your character-learning journey is to go back to the beginning lessons and now learn the characters of the vocabulary you already know.
Or you can buy a Chinese character textbook or take a course that focuses on characters.
The following textbook is an excellent resource to have on hand as you learn and master Chinese characters.
“Reading & Writing Chinese”
The “Reading & Writing Chinese” textbook focuses specifically on characters and offers versions in Simplified and Traditional Chinese. So no matter which writing system you choose to learn (or if you’re going with both), you can learn characters with this resource.
The book teaches 1,725 essential characters along with the characters required to take the HSK exam.
As you learn new characters, the book provides step-by-step instructions to help you master the stroke order and empty block spaces for practice.
Step 8: Get a Language Exchange Partner
Welcome to the eighth and final step!
Now that you have some grammar and vocabulary under your belt, it’s time to start putting what you’ve learned into action.
And by that I mean, it’s time to get a language exchange partner!
Language partners are people who are learning your native language and are native speakers of your target language. So in this case, your language partner would be a Chinese speaker learning English. Through having conversations via messaging apps, video or voice calls, you help each other practice the language you’re trying to learn.
Having a language partner is such an important part of your Chinese learning journey.
You can easily get a language partner by downloading an app like HelloTalk or Tandem.
I met my Chinese language partner on HelloTalk almost two years ago, and she’s one of my best friends today! Without her, I wouldn’t be nearly as confident in my Chinese abilities as I am now.
And there you have it—this is how you start learning Chinese!