With more than one billion native speakers around the world and a 5,000-year-old history, Mandarin Chinese is an incredibly fascinating language to learn that comes with many payoffs.
Just by knowing conversational Mandarin, you’ll be able to talk to way more people out there—around 14% of the world’s population, to be specific.
It’s the main language that’s spoken by most people in China, which is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world. China is now a rising economic powerhouse, with more companies than ever offering partnerships and job opportunities. Beyond this, Chinese is widely spoken in other countries in Asia, and there is a huge diaspora of Chinese speakers all over the globe.
You’ll also unlock one of the oldest and largest cultures in the world. Learn Chinese and you’ll get access to millions of books throughout history, shows with unique genres and a vast internet space that’s only understandable for Chinese speakers.
Whether you love classic Chinese dishes like hotpot or mapo tofu, want to delve deeper into Confucianism or are a fan of Chinese dramas, learning Chinese will open up a whole new world for you—and you’ll never be the same afterward.
What Is Chinese?
When people bring up Chinese in conversations, they usually mean the Standard Mandarin dialect. Technically speaking, “Chinese” can be a blanket term for all Chinese languages and dialects, including Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka.
Where Mandarin Chinese is Spoken
Mandarin Chinese is primarily spoken in the mainland and Taiwan, and it’s the official language of Singapore. On top of these, there are many speakers of Mandarin and other Chinese varieties in Hong Kong, Macau, as well as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The Philippines also boasts numerous Chinese communities.
But you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to experience the Chinese language and culture. Many major cities and travel hubs in the Americas and Europe have their own little Chinatowns.
Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese
There are two sets of Chinese characters: Traditional and Simplified.
Traditional characters were the original Chinese characters for more than a thousand years back. But with the rise of print media in the 1950s, the government needed to simplify the writing system so the nation could have access to news and announcements. Around 2,000 characters were simplified. Today, traditional characters are mostly used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, while Mainland China and Singapore mainly use simplified characters.
Here are a few examples of traditional and simplified characters side by side:
Aside from Mandarin Chinese, there are other major Chinese dialects, such as Hunanese or Xiang Chinese, Shanghainese or Wu Chinese, Hakka Chinese, Taiwanese (or Min Chinese) and Cantonese. The two most widely spoken varieties of Chinese are Mandarin and Cantonese, but these dialects definitely have more differences between them than similarities.
Mandarin is the national language spoken throughout the mainland and several other areas, while Cantonese is localized to Guangdong and surrounding regions, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. They sound nothing alike, so you’ll have to learn them separately! For one, tones are a lot simpler in Mandarin, while Cantonese has “nine sounds, six tones.”
Mandarin Chinese Language Basics
You might be relieved to know that in Chinese, grammar is a lot simpler compared to other languages. It doesn’t have tenses, genders or plurals in the traditional sense, which makes it much easier to learn. The fewer the rules, the less there is to remember!
If you already know English, then you won’t have as much adjustment with Chinese grammar because basic sentence structure in Chinese is pretty similar to English. And unlike English, there are also way fewer exceptions to the rules. Chinese grammar is pretty straightforward in comparison, with only maybe a couple of exceptions here and there for certain rules.
For most Chinese learners, their first lessons are usually dedicated to getting Chinese pronunciation right—especially the tones. In Chinese, every syllable has one of these tones:
- The first or flat tone as seen in 妈 (mā)
- The second or rising tone as seen in 钱 (qián)
- The third or dipping tone as seen in 远 (yuǎn)
- The fourth or falling tone as seen in 慢 (màn)
- The fifth or neutral tone with no mark, as seen in 了 (le)
To speak Mandarin fluently, you have to be accurate with your tones—otherwise, the meaning of your sentence can change, or native speakers might find you hard to understand. 好 (hǎo) for ” good” and 号 (hào) for “number” are both pronounced “hao,” but the first uses the third tone, while the second uses the fourth tone.
Chinese Writing System
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Chinese language is the writing system. Chinese characters can be incredibly beautiful, as the traditional practice of calligraphy shows. Although there are thousands of Chinese characters in total, you’ll only need to know at least 2,000 for basic proficiency and around 2,500 to cover most of the regular written language.
As a Chinese learner, you’ll likely start with pinyin, which serves as a pronunciation guide for characters. Pinyin spells out the characters and includes the tones. For example, the pinyin for 爱好 or “hobby” is ài hào.
Chinese culture spans more than 5,000 years of history, not to mention more than a billion people in modern times, so it’s very rich and diverse. Even the food is as varied as the dialects in Chinese-speaking areas, from mala spicy Sichuan dishes to soupy Shangdong cuisine and signature Taiwanese beef noodles.
In traditional Chinese culture, you have tea ceremonies, musical instruments like the seven-stringed guqin and yearly festivals like the Dragon Boat and Mid-Autumn Festivals.
Learning Chinese will also expose you to unique popular culture. Did you know that instead of sarcasm, Chinese people use cold jokes, which are funny because they’re so bad? Additionally, with the largest video gaming market in the world and unique apps like WeChat and Weibo, there’s a lot more to explore!
Chinese Immersion Online—Why It Works
Chinese can seem like an intimidating language, but there’s one key to learning it effectively: immersion.
Immersion simply means to surround yourself with Chinese as it’s used authentically. Going to China is a full-on way to immerse yourself, but it’s also possible to do immersion online, from wherever you are. You might improve your pronunciation by imitating the lines in Chinese TV shows, listening to interviews with native speakers or studying the vocabulary that’s used over and over in movies.
Immersion works because your brain’s absorbing how to use the language naturally. And it’s not just the language, but also the culture, body gestures and tone of voice. In fact, a series of brain studies found that immersion teaches learners to process grammar the way native speakers do.
As a language learning program, FluentU immerses you in Chinese by turning authentic Chinese audio and video clips into bite-sized lessons. Each clip comes with learning tools such as flashcards, quizzes and expert-vetted subtitles that unpack each Chinese word, including slang and chengyu (also known as idioms). Every time you pick up a new word, it’s in context—with example sentences and videos on top of definitions to deepen your understanding of the word.
Given the right approach, immersion is the key to getting comfortable with Chinese and eventually becoming fluent in it.
How to Learn Chinese Effectively
Combine these study tactics with immersion, and you’ll be making progress toward your Chinese language learning goals:
Stick to a Regular Schedule
Learning Chinese is a marathon, not a sprint, so keep the language fresh in your mind by using it every day! Since some days can get busy, set aside a minimum amount of time each day, even if it’s as short as five minutes.
To stay consistent, try to set a trigger for studying—maybe you can do your study sessions as soon as you wake up in the morning or right after you finish dinner. This will make Chinese a habit for you (which is essential for language learning).
Learn Vocabulary and Grammar in Context
Instead of memorizing word lists and grammar rules, the best way to remember vocabulary and grammar is to expose yourself to a lot of examples. For instance, you might learn that 就 (jiù) means “just,” but it has several meanings in Chinese that you’ll only learn by looking at the context.
The more you expose yourself to Chinese, the more the most commonly used words and expressions will stick.
Choose Material Appropriate to Your Level
Immersion doesn’t just mean throwing yourself at a complex Chinese movie and trusting you’ll figure out the words on your own. There’s a strategy to it, too. You have to choose resources that are just slightly above your current level. This way, you’ll be able to understand most of the content while still picking up new vocabulary.
This gives you the right amount of discomfort so it’s still stimulating without being too overwhelming.
Use Spaced Repetition for Language Learning
In the world of language learning, spaced repetition comes pretty close as a holy grail for remembering Chinese characters and vocabulary.
With spaced repetition, you do reviews in increasing time intervals. When you learn a new word, you might start by reviewing it every day, then every few days, then eventually up to months or even years in between as the word becomes part of your long-term memory. No need to plan the timing manually, since apps and programs can now make it automatic for you.
Get Fluent in Conversational Chinese
If you want to understand (and participate in) everyday conversations in Chinese, these key practices will get you far:
To master pronunciation, imitating native Chinese speakers is crucial. For self-study, you can refer to authentic Chinese shows or podcasts and imitate how they speak in real-time, trying to match the intonation as much as possible.
Strive for accurate tones, too–the more inaccurate your tones are, the more native speakers are likely to get confused when you talk to them! Upon learning a new word, always check the pinyin for it and remember the tones. Some tone combinations can be tricky, such as words with the third tone followed by the second tone, like in 好玩 (hǎo wán) meaning “fun.”
Being able to listen well is the basis for communicating with someone in Chinese. This means taking in a lot of quality input through authentic videos and audio. As a language learner, having access to transcripts and subtitles can help you follow along better.
For listening practice, play the entire recording and look up words that you don’t know. Once you have a solid grasp of at least most of the words, keep repeating the recording while focusing on listening. Gradually, your brain will get used to the new sounds, and you’ll start understanding Chinese on your own.
The ultimate test of your speaking skills would be to start a conversation with a native Chinese speaker. Even if you don’t live in a Chinese-speaking country, it’s easier than ever to join an online community and find language exchange partners. By immersing in Chinese media such as popular online videos, you’ll have a lot of interesting topics to discuss.
Aside from this, you can also get feedback from technology. It’s now possible to use an app, speak Chinese out loud and then hear corrections from the app about your tones and pronunciation.
Mastering Common Phrases
There are some conversational phrases that you’ll likely use a lot when you speak Mandarin, so it’s worth focusing on them. To name a few:
- 你好 (nǐ hǎo) — Hello
- 你叫什么名字？(nǐ jiào shén me míng zì?) — What’s your name?
- 谢谢 (xiè xie) — Thank you
- 再见！(zài jiàn!) — Goodbye
- 多少钱？(duō shǎo qián?) — How much?
As you become more advanced with Chinese, you’ll pick up more phrases that you won’t really find in textbooks but you’ll hear them a lot in casual conversations and shows. These include colloquial phrases like 算了 (suàn le) for “forget it” and 才不呢 (cái bù ne) for “no way!”
Common FAQs About Learning Chinese
Is Chinese very difficult to learn?
Even though hanzi, or Chinese characters, are such a large departure from the English alphabet, Mandarin Chinese isn’t that hard to learn. At least, not as hard as many make it out to be.
The hardest part of Mandarin isn’t even the reading and writing. It’s actually listening and pronunciation. Everything else about Chinese is fairly straightforward and logical. As long as you put in the time for listening to authentic dialogues and conversing with native speakers, you’ll be able to train your brain to pronounce words correctly and improve your accent overall.
How can I learn Chinese on my own?
With so many resources today for language learners, self-studying Chinese is more doable than ever.
Vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening skills can all be learned on your own as long as you have the right materials. For writing and speaking, you can chat with Chinese speakers both offline or online, regardless of wherever you are in the world.
The HSK system has an organized list of vocabulary words and grammar concepts that you can follow. Another way to learn Chinese would be by studying Chinese media such as talk shows, songs and movies. FluentU also has curated clips that are already annotated for Chinese learners.
How many years would it take to learn Chinese?
Based on the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) scale, it takes at least 2,200 hours of active studying for native English speakers to learn Chinese. This translates to two to five years, depending on how much time you spend studying.
However, you can get conversationally fluent in just a few months. Most of the time, what takes longer with Chinese would be reading and writing, along with learning the literary language. Overall, it can be as quick as a few weeks for you to reach basic competency but it takes years to get close to the native speaker level.
How important are tones?
A wrong tone in Chinese can change the meaning of what you’re saying and cause confusion, so it’s important to be on point with tones.
Here’s something that happened in real life. In a trending video on Weibo, a healthcare worker asked a patient 脚麻吗？(jiǎo má ma?), which literally means “Are your feet numb?” The patient was confused for several seconds because he thought she said 叫妈妈 (jiào mā ma), which means “Call Mom.”
There’s an endless number of awkward albeit funny situations that can arise with incorrect tones. You might even end up switching 问 (wèn) with 吻 (wěn), meaning “to ask” and “to kiss” respectively!
How many Chinese characters do I need to know?
Out of 50,000 Chinese characters in total, the magic number to be able to communicate effectively and read texts like newspapers is at least 2,000.
If you’re basing it on the HSK or 汉语水平考试 (hàn yǔ shuǐ píng kǎo shì), the official Chinese proficiency test, this is the expected character count for each level:
- HSK 1: 150+
- HSK 2: 300+
- HSK 3: 600+
- HSK 4: 1000+
- HSK 5: 1500+
- HSK 6: 2500+
Advanced learners might already know more than 3,000 characters (beyond HSK 6), which covers more than 99% of modern written material.
Do I need to learn to write Chinese characters?
Learning to write Chinese characters by hand isn’t required (unless you’re studying Chinese in an academic setting, where you’ll usually have to write by hand for exams). However, it can help you study Chinese characters better and gain a deeper appreciation of the language.
Being able to type Chinese characters is a much easier process. If you’re using a Chinese keyboard, you simply type out the pronunciation for a character, and your device will show you a list of possible characters that you can tap on and add to your text.
Which jobs require Chinese?
Chinese is required for Chinese language instructors, translators and interpreters. If you plan on teaching Chinese students, knowing Chinese would be helpful for translating words they can’t understand. Subtitlers and transcribers need a strong command of Chinese as well.
Although Chinese isn’t mandatory for other industries such as sales and finance, being proficient in Mandarin certainly opens doors for you and widens your pool of potential employers.