13 Fresh, Useful Ways to Practice Chinese Online
Are you tired of your usual methods of studying Chinese—too many movies, TV shows and pop songs?
Looking for something fresh that will push your Chinese to the next level as you surf the internet?
Or perhaps you’re just getting started and are overwhelmed by the number of online options out there.
Look no further!
We have 13 great ways for you to use the internet for Chinese language learning. Whether you’ve just learned your first Chinese word or you’ve been studying Chinese for years, there’s sure to be something here that you’ll find useful.
“But wait! Hold up!” you say. “Thirteen ways of practicing Chinese? Isn’t 13 an unlucky number?”
Friends, we’re learning Chinese now—so 14 is the number I’ll avoid. Fourteen would be bad business indeed, since 四 (sì, “four”) and 死 (sǐ, “to die”) sound so much alike. But as long as we stop at 13, we’ll be fine.
That said, let’s get to ’em!
13 Fresh, Useful Ways to Practice Chinese Online
1. Read Blogs About Learning Chinese
This one’s for all those procrastinators out there who are looking to spend their web surfing time just a little bit more productively. But it’s also for those of you who are looking for some inspiration for the language learning process.
When you feel like your Chinese learning is stuck and just not going anywhere, reading about what’s helpful for other people may be just the ticket to getting you back on track. One great choice that’s Chinese-specific is Hacking Chinese.
But if you’re just looking for some inspiration from people who are really, really good at learning languages, one of these 37 polyglot bloggers is sure to fit your style. Not all of them speak Chinese, but they’ve all learned multiple foreign languages, and they’ve done it well.
2. Become a Kid All over Again
Now, this doesn’t mean you should start watching the American kids TV show “Ni Hao, Kai-lan“; there just isn’t enough Chinese in the show to really make it worth your while.
But if you (or your kids?) are absolute beginners, you might enjoy their kid friendly flashcards. You can listen to the words online, or print them out and use them on their own.
Go to town coloring them in, and play matching games to learn some new vocabulary.
3. Appreciate the Usefulness of an Online Chinese Dictionary
If you haven’t used a Chinese dictionary online before, you may not realize just how useful they can be.
Line Dictionary (formerly Nciku), for example, not only gives you the expected translation and part of speech for a word you look up, but it also lists synonyms and—best of all—gives you example after example of how the word is used in a sentence.
The examples give you a much better feel for when and how a word is used. If you get a lot of confused looks when you try to put together a sentence, try looking up one of the key words in this dictionary. You might learn, for example, that while English speakers “have fun,” Chinese speakers “玩得开心” (Wán de kāixīn, “play happily”).
The examples can also help you figure out the range of meanings a word has, and learn the difference between two similar words.
4. Watch Real-world Chinese Videos on FluentU
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)
5. Play Online Games on Chinese Servers
So you like playing computer games, but all the apps you’ve found for Chinese practice are getting old? That doesn’t mean you can’t play games and learn at the same time. If you play a game like Minecraft that has Chinese as a menu option, this is as simple as switching languages.
Online gaming is also hugely popular among Chinese teenagers, so if you play on Chinese servers, you’ll be playing right alongside them.
League of Legends and Starcraft are two games that have brief guides available online in English explaining how to get started playing the game in Chinese.
6. Take Online Language Lessons from a Chinese Teacher
Did you know that these days, even a Chinese language class can be taken from the comfort of your own home? Hire a professionally certified Chinese teacher and get private lessons online from italki.
You’ll get lessons tailored specifically to your skill level and learning speed, plus you’ll be able to focus your lessons on topics you’re actually interested in. Did you want to perfect your tones? Learn how to do business negotiations in Chinese? Get some explanations for where you’re supposed to use le? Or learn how to correctly describe the haircut you want to your hairdresser?
You can also try eChineseLearning for a Chinese-specific site that has a more structured curriculum available.
The beauty of finding tutors online is that there’s sure to be one available who can teach you what you need to know, instead of forcing you to sit through yet another textbook lesson about life on a university campus. If you’re used to rates charged by American tutors, you’ll also find the prices are very reasonable.
7. Read the New York Times in Chinese
Maybe you’re a news junkie. If so, I’m sure you’ve already realized that you can head on over to a Chinese news website and read the news in Chinese. But what you may not have realized is that the New York Times also has a Chinese edition.
Not only is it not behind a paywall, but the added value for you as a language learner is that many of the articles are available in both Chinese and English, so you can read side by side. You don’t have to wonder what a difficult sentence is actually trying to express because someone has already done that work for you.
8. Talk with an Online Language Exchange Partner
Don’t have a lot of extra cash on hand, but want to interact with a real person? Can’t find anyone where you live who speaks Chinese and can’t move to China either? Get yourself there virtually instead via Skype.
Language exchange websites seem to be everywhere these days. My Language Exchange, the Mixxer, and italki.com are a few websites that match up language learners with each other. Even LinkedIn has a Chinese-English language exchange group.
You can find a language partner who is interested in practicing your native language, and you’ll become both student and teacher. Not only will you get to practice your speaking and listening, but you’ll get an introduction to Chinese culture in a way that a textbook could never offer, and in the process, you might even make a friend.
An upside of an online language exchange is that you can prepare in advance for your conversation. Think of a few open-ended questions you want to ask your partner. While you’re at it, look up some key words for at least one topic you’d like to discuss and think about how you might express your ideas in Chinese.
For example, if you want to talk about basketball, figure out in advance how to ask what someone’s favorite team is and who their favorite player is. Look up the names of your favorites in Chinese. Ask whether they’d rather watch the CBA or the NBA. And be sure to bring up Yao Ming.
9. Listen to or Read Religious Materials in Chinese
For obvious reasons, religious texts have been translated into many languages. And if you’re interested in the idea of using one to study a language, you’re likely to be familiar with it in your own language already.
Just a word of caution, though: Since most of these texts are very old and you’re reading them in translation, you might not get the most natural language usage possible. (King James Bible, anyone?)
Still, you can pick up huge ranges of vocabulary that are probably entirely absent from your Chinese textbooks. One modern translation of the Bible into Chinese can be found here. I chose this one because it also has audio available, letting you read and listen at the same time.
You could also try Buddhist sutras and other Buddhist texts translated into both Chinese and English. Or you can opt to read the Qu’ran in Chinese and English (and many other languages) side by side.
Although Buddhism has undoubtedly had more influence than the others over the course of Chinese history, all the religions represented by these texts have long traditions in China, and there are groups of people there who follow them today.
10. Read a Nobel Laureate Author’s Novel Online
If you really want to make sure you’re reading authentic Chinese (instead of Chinese that might have translation artifacts in it), you might want to try reading Chinese books. What you might not realize is that, unlike English books, many well-known Chinese books are freely available online.
If you’re not an advanced learner, and you’re living in an English-speaking country, look for books that have an English translation available. It will help your understanding to read the book (or part of it) first in English. When you’re ready to tackle the Chinese version, search for the book’s Chinese title online.
For example, the book “To Live” by Yu Hua, often recommended to language learners because of the small number of characters used by the author, is available in Chinese here.
If you’re up for more of a challenge, you can also read books by Nobel laureate author Mo Yan. His works have been widely translated into a variety of languages. Though not a Nobel laureate, some number of Zhang Ai Ling‘s (Eileen Chang’s) works have also been translated to English and adapted to film.
11. Use a Pop-up Chinese-English Translator for Instant Word Look-up
Feeling intimidated by all this advanced reading? Fear not—one benefit of reading online is that you can install a pop-up translator in your web browser and get instantaneous translation for any character you point at.
All you have to do is hover over a character you don’t recognize, and the English translation will pop up. If you’re used to looking up unknown words in the dictionary, this feels a little bit like magic.
Some popular (and free) examples include Zhongwen for Chrome and LiuChan for Firefox.
12. Annotate Any Chinese Text with Dictionary Definitions and Pinyin
There are a couple of downsides to using a pop-up translator. One is that you have to be able to install it on the computer you’re using. The other is that it can be a little too convenient to look up a word instead of trying to remember it on your own.
This is where a text annotator comes in handy. A text annotator is a website that allows you to copy any Chinese text from the web and paste it there. Then, with the click of a button, the site gives you pop-up or in-line definitions to the words.
I like the one at Xiaoma Cidian because it lets you choose your difficulty level. It only gives you automatic translation for words above that level, which forces you to try to remember easier words on your own.
13. Listen to Chinese Radio Online
All this reading is good for you, but if you’re trying to practice your listening skills or want to increase your study time and multitask while you’re washing the dishes, maybe radio would be a better fit.
Even beginners might want to listen just to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the language.
This site has a huge collection of online Chinese radio stations listed. If you want to be sure you’re getting one that’s in Mandarin, the stations from Beijing should be a safe bet. If you want Mandarin with a standard accent, CRI (Beijing) and RTI (Taiwan) may be your best options.
You can use radio to boost your language skills by using talk radio to learn how to talk about current events, or by singing along with pop songs. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by so much Chinese, try to just pick out specific names of political leaders or pop stars while listening.
No matter what type of radio you listen to, you’ll gain an extra bit of value: keeping up on current events and pop culture gives you natural conversation starting points. Ask your taxi driver what he thinks about the latest political developments, or chat with your hairdresser about the latest Mandopop hit. Then go listen some more.
If you keep this up, you’ll find yourself with a natural positive feedback loop. Not only that, but the ability to make small talk in Chinese will increase your language practice opportunities by leaps and bounds.
I hope by now you’ve found at least one way that you can move yourself towards better Chinese using the wonderful world wide web. Happy learning!