Learn Chinese from Scratch and Achieve Fluency
Have you ever pictured yourself walking confidently down the streets of Beijing, or Shanghai, speaking to your Chinese friends in fluent Mandarin and smiling to yourself as people walk past in amazement?
Let me tell you something.. and I’m serious about this… If you truly want to learn Chinese, then come next year, that could be you.
What’s more, I’m going to show you how to do it.
Sound good? Awesome!
Let me begin by asking you a question…
Why do people still believe that Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language in the world?
Why do people subscribe to the belief that in order to learn Mandarin to fluency, one must spend years and years studying the language in the country where it is spoken?
Before I answer that question, I want to share with you two important truths.
- Mandarin Chinese is not difficult to learn.
- Mandarin Chinese can be learned to fluency without spending years living in China.
Forget what you have been told about the Chinese language and its complexities.
Yes, Chinese is challenging, but so is learning any other language.
I believe that the reason why so many people still believe Mandarin Chinese is the hardest language in the world is:
a) they began to learn Mandarin with the total wrong approach, or
b) they have mistaken different for difficult.
What follows is a beginner’s guide to learning Mandarin to fluency.
Contents (click to be taken to that section):
- Why you should start learning Mandarin NOW!
- The less obvious reasons to learn Mandarin
- Mandarin language basics: What you need to know as a beginner
- How Mandarin is different from other Chinese dialects
- What mistakes to avoid when starting to learn Mandarin
- The best way to learn Chinese characters
- The best way to learn to speak Mandarin
- Best resources for learning Mandarin online
Why you should start learning Mandarin NOW:
There’s never been a better time to learn Mandarin Chinese! Think about it, China’s economy and world-wide presence is booming. As a result of this, there are more job opportunities than ever before for foreigners in China! Some fields that have experienced a growth in job opportunities for foreigners:
- Education (namely, English language education);
- Tech and IT;
- News and journalism;
- Hospitality and;
Learning Chinese will also open up a huge number of doors for you in terms of business relations and job opportunities in your home country as many companies all over the world are now doing business with China.
Embarking on the journey of learning another language is exciting and often has the potential to even be life-changing. Learning Mandarin Chinese is especially exciting as it’s so different from Western languages.
Being able to speak Chinese gives you the ability to communicate with the 1.2 billion native speakers of Mandarin! That alone is a good enough reason to learn the language in my opinion. This one skill will open up a huge part of the world to you that you previously only had limited access to.
Because due to how deeply intertwined language and culture are in China, learning Mandarin will increase your knowledge of Chinese culture, history, and traditions giving you unique insights into a whole new way of life. Need more convincing? Read my post on why Chinese is the best language to learn in 2019.
Excited yet? You should be.
The less obvious reasons to learn Mandarin:
Some of the advantages of learning Mandarin include job and travel opportunities. However, there are numerous other less obvious advantages to learning Mandarin that many people don’t consider.
Learning to speak Chinese is extremely rewarding
Let’s face it, being able to speak Chinese is a skill that’s revered by most Westerners.
However, it’s not just Westerners who will be impressed by your ability to speak Mandarin, Chinese people will also be delighted when you start speaking to them in their native tongue. You see, Chinese locals never expect foreigners to be able to speak their language but if you can, it will likely make their day.
When my family came to visit me in Beijing, I took them shopping in the hutongs. My mum and sister were in a shoe store trying to ask for prices and an elderly Chinese lady was trying her best to communicate with them.
I saw they were having difficulty and came over to ask the lady how much the shoes were in Chinese. She was so flabbergasted at my ability to speak Mandarin that she gave my mum and sister a hefty discount and continued to chat with me about how I had learned Mandarin and what I was doing in China.
The Chinese language is more than just a language
You’re probably wondering what I mean by this. You see, learning Mandarin is the gateway into the fascinating world of Chinese culture, cuisine and history. China is a large and diverse country. To really understand and appreciate all it has to offer, learning Mandarin is essential.
Mandarin Language basics: What you need to know as a beginner
The core aspects of Chinese grammar are relatively straight-forward to learn. If you really want to learn Mandarin it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the basic workings of the language. Read and internalize the following and you will have a good idea of the basics of Chinese grammar.
Pronouns are minimal. Remembering pronouns in Chinese is easy and to make it even easier, here is a list of them for you:
- 我 – I
- 你 – You
- 他 – He/him
- 她 – She/her
- 你们 – You (plural)
- 他们 – Them/they
- 我们 – We/us
For simple sentences in Chinese, word order is SVO (same as English). This is great news as word order is often something people struggle with in other languages.
- 我吃米饭 – I eat rice
- 他去长城 – He goes to the great wall
- 她是学生 – She is a student
The next bit of good news is that there are no tenses in Mandarin. Instead, tense is denoted by using an expression of time (e.g. ‘tomorrow’, ‘yesterday’, ‘last year’) as part of the sentence.
- 我明天去 – I will go tomorrow
- 我去年毕业了 – I graduated last year
- 我正在学英文 – I’m studying English now
Other common expressions of time include:
- 今天 – Today
- 今年 – This year
- 昨天 – Yesterday
- 明年 – Next year
Expressing ‘now’ in Chinese:
In Mandarin Chinese the words 正在 and 现在 both translate to ‘now’. However, there is a key difference between them that you should be aware of. The word 现在 is a more general form of ‘now’, like how we generally use ‘now’ in English whereas 正在 refers to ‘right now’/’at this very moment’.
Asking questions in Chinese is actually really easy. All you need to do is add the particle ‘ma’ to the end of the sentence. So to turn the sentence ‘他回家‘ (she’s going home) into a question, it becomes ‘他回家吗?’ (is she going home?).
- 你饿吗? – Are you hungry
- 他是学生吗? – Is he a student?
- 你会写汉字吗? – Can you write Chinese characters?
Indicating possession in Chinese is also really easy. In this case, the particle ‘de’ is used to show possession. The particle ‘de’ is placed after the pronoun/name. Have a look at the following example: ‘我的苹果手机’ (my iphone).
- 我的房子 – My house
- 她的电脑 – Her computer
- 他的钱 – His money
Forming the negative in Chinese is, yet again, very straight-forward. To do this, simply add the particle ‘bu’ before the verb or adjective in the sentence. For example: ‘我喜欢狗’ (I like dogs) becomes ‘我不喜欢狗’ (I don’t like dogs).
- 他不吃肉 – He does not eat meat
- 我不喜欢吃西餐 – I do not like Western food
There are four tones in Mandarin – level, rising, falling and then rising and falling.
The first tone in Mandarin Chinese is a high pitched, flat tone. When pronouncing the first tone, your voice should be kept flat throughout and your pitch constant.
The second tone in Mandarin is a rising tone. It rises steadily and moderately. The second tone is akin to saying ‘whaaat?!’ in English in response to something surprising.
The third tone in Mandarin is less straightforward and often confounds many people. The reason for this is that when pronounced in isolation, the third tone dips a little and then rises. However, when it is followed by a first, second or fourth tone, it does not rise.
The fourth tone in Mandarin is a sharp, falling tone. Often words with a fourth tone are pronounced harder and louder.
Many claim that tones make it impossible to learn Mandarin. This simply isn’t true. There are some fantastic strategies for mastering Mandarin tones and pronunciation but above all, it’s important to keep a positive mindset and don’t let tones intimidate you!
Now you’ve seen that Chinese really isn’t that difficult, read my post on learning basic Mandarin in 10 minutes!
How is Mandarin different from other Chinese dialects?
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Enjoyed the video? Read more here: Is Mandarin really the best Chinese dialect to learn?
There are in fact many different dialects of Chinese. However, Mandarin is by far the most dominant and it is also the only official language of China.
Mandarin is usually referred to as ‘putonghua/普通话’ (standard language) or ‘guoyu/国语’ (national language). Mandarin is spoken fluently by over 70% of the Chinese population and that number continues to increase.
The influence of Mandarin extends all over China. Whether you’re in the North or South, you’re likely to hear predominantly Mandarin being spoken. Mandarin is even gaining popularity in Hong Kong as a language that is ‘on the rise’ and occupies the third place in terms of importance, behind English and Cantonese.
Mistakes to avoid when starting to learn Mandarin:
Many people embark on the study of Mandarin Chinese with great enthusiasm but end up giving up after only a few months. The reason for this is that it’s really important to start off on the right foot when starting to learn Mandarin.
Employing the right methods, and having the right attitude from the beginning is going to help you to remain focused and continue to make progress as time goes on. So, what are some key mistakes that you need to watch out for when starting to learn Mandarin?
Don’t start learning Chinese characters right away
When starting to learn Chinese, I wholeheartedly believe it’s better (initially) to spend time on improving your listening and speaking skills than studying Chinese characters.
Because learning Chinese characters is a whole lot easier once you have already been exposed to a substantial amount of Chinese. Learning vocabulary words and then learning the characters for those same words is going to be a lot easier than learning plain characters without a word to link them to.
Spending time hand writing characters every day honestly does nothing to improve your command of the Chinese language. If your goal is to be a master calligrapher, then sure, go ahead.
However, for most of us, our goal is to be able to communicate with people and that’s where listening and speaking skills are the most important.
Something else people do, which is quite common, is to study for hours on end one day and do absolutely no studying the next day. Please, if this describes the way you learn, then it’s time for a change.
When learning Chinese or any new skill for that matter, consistency is king!
The thought of studying Chinese every single day can be a daunting one, especially if you have a full-time job already. What I’m suggesting to you, however, is to do at least 15 minutes a day. On the days where you have more time, you should be doing more than that but make sure, however busy you are, to get at least 15 minutes of Chinese study under your belt every single day!
It’s been shown that by studying for a little bit every single day, you can actually do less but retain more.
Do not neglect the importance of tones
Remember this, just because you’re understood when speaking, doesn’t mean you have mastered the tones. Tones are very important in Mandarin Chinese and you should make sure to take them seriously right from the beginning.
When starting to learn Mandarin, regularly spending time practicing your tones is highly advised.
The reason is that if you neglect tones in the beginning, you’re going to develop bad pronunciation habits later on which will negatively affect your speaking skills.
If, however, you take the time to learn the tones correctly right from the beginning, then your speaking skills will flourish later on, and you won’t have to ever worry about not being understood due to wrong/poor pronunciation.
The best way to learn Chinese characters:
There are a few methods for learning Chinese characters that many people claim are ‘the best’ – the Heisig method comes to mind immediately.
I personally feel however that the actual best method for learning Chinese characters is comprised of three steps:
Step 1: Choosing the right resources
There are a lot of books out there for learning Chinese characters but choosing the right one can be difficult.
In my opinion the right book should:
- Teach you a lot of characters (don’t waste your time with any of these ‘learn the 100 most common Chinese characters’ type books) because, let’s face it, you need to know a lot of characters to be able to read anything of interest.
- Be clearly printed and show you the stroke order of the character, it’s meaning(s), it’s pronunciation and some example words.
- Follow a logical order in terms of teaching the highest frequency characters first.
If you would love to see my recommendation for a book which fulfils these three requirements, then jump down to the resources section at the end.
Step 2: Using spaced-repetition to review and remember the characters you’ve learned
Remembering a character’s meaning and pronunciation is often the most challenging part of learning Hanzi. Due to the sheer amount of characters you need to remember, it’s inevitable you’re going to keep forgetting certain ones.
That’s where the importance of spaced-repetition comes in. Spaced repetition is a powerful method for remembering just about anything. There are various kinds of spaced-repetition software available which help you to implement this technique but by far the most used for language learning is Anki.
Anki is essentially a flashcard tool which let’s you create digital flashcards. It then uses it’s inbuilt spaced repetition algorithm to ensure you review specific flashcards at the exact right time.
To learn more about Anki and spaced-repetition, click here.
Step 3: Practicing writing the characters
This step is important because it’s a lot easier to remember a character once you have physically written it out a few times by hand.
Even if you aren’t concerned about being able to hand-write characters, it’s still a good idea to do so purely as a way to anchor the character in your mind.
In order to get the most out of this step, it’s important to write the character within some sort of grid. When at school, Chinese children use grids to practice their writing as the grid indicates how much room you have to fill for each character and helps you gauge the length of each stroke.
Hanzi Grids is a great tool for this.
The best way to learn to speak Mandarin:
Learn Mandarin passively… at first
I truly believe that your speaking skills in Mandarin are directly proportional to how much exposure you’ve had to the language.
And that’s why I advocate for a ‘input-heavy’ approach.
Don’t get me wrong, speaking practice is paramount to becoming fluent, but exposure to Chinese through listening and reading is just as, if not more, important. Especially during the first few months.
Listening and reading are often referred to as ‘passive learning’, while speaking the language is referred to as ‘active learning’.
Many people want to dive into the active phase as soon as possible without building up a base level in Chinese first through passive activities.
When I was in China I learned the power of ‘passive-learning’. For my first six months living in China I hardly spoke the language. I was working at an international school, surrounded by international staff and when I went out I used minimum Chinese. However, during this time I was being exposed to Mandarin every day.
I was surrounded by people constantly speaking in Mandarin. School children, Chinese teachers, people on the street. So, when I actually did start speaking Mandarin more often, my speaking improved dramatically. Why? because I had already passively learned to understand a lot of Chinese.
Unless you’re moving to China in a week, there’s no reason you should be in a hurry to start speaking. Focus on listening and absorbing as much Mandarin as you can. Build up your vocabulary through listening and reading first and once you feel more comfortable with the language, begin speaking with native speakers.
Research actually shows that just by listening to a new language, even if you don’t understand a word, your brain will begin to create new neural pathways – adapting to the new sounds and patterns.
Check out the resources section below for some fantastic listening and reading resources.
Dialog is KEY
It’s really important to choose content that is made up of a lot of dialogs or conversational language. Studying Chinese literary terms is not going to help you communicate!
Listening to and reading authentic, spoken Chinese is what you should be aiming for. It’s just logic really. If you want to be able to talk to someone about the weather, then it follows that you should learn vocabulary to do with the weather such as ‘hot’, ‘rainy’ etc.
Listen, listen and listen some more
Listening to a new language is always an important part of the learning process but seeing as Chinese is a tonal language, listening is even more paramount to improving your understanding and fluency.
A lot of people don’t understand that ‘studying Mandarin’ doesn’t just mean sitting down at your desk with your pen and paper, ready to dissect the next lesson in your textbook. Take advantage of the little pockets of free time that you have throughout your day to listen to Chinese podcasts or review dialogs.
Best resources for learning Mandarin online:
If you are currently beginning your study of Mandarin Chinese, then you will know that there are a lot of resources out there to choose from. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which ones are worth a shot. That’s why, in order to save you time, I have listed below some of my favorite resources for learning Mandarin online:
Chinese Zero to Hero
If you’re looking for professional quality, affordable, online courses for passing any level of the HSK exam or just improving your Chinese, then look no further than Chinese Zero to Hero!
iTalki solves the problem of finding qualified, native-speaking Mandarin Chinese teachers/tutors. On iTalki you can find a language teacher to give you personalized lessons over Skype for a very reasonable fee! Find your perfect tutor today and learn Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese Mastery e-Book
This e-book serves as a guide to learning and mastering the Chinese language. Written from research and experience gathered over three years, this e-book is guaranteed to help you make serious progress in the language.
In this guide, we present the reader with practical tips, methods and resources for achieving proficiency in a relatively short space of time.
Glossika has created an amazing language learning method, based on audio training, allowing you to learn Mandarin ‘the natural way’. Glossika provides an intelligent online learning platform which adjusts to your level. You can also select the topics that you want to learn about – thereby having the freedom to customize your own learning experience. Click here to check out my in-depth review. Glossika also offers a free demo, so why not try it out?
Chinese Class 101
Chinese class 101 provides a range of valuable resources for serious learners of Mandarin Chinese. This includes hundreds of audio and video lessons, flashcards and other vocabulary learning tools, PDF lesson notes, and a vibrant community forum! What are you waiting for? You can learn Mandarin with Chinese Class 101 now!
Have you ever felt frustrated listening to native speakers of Chinese speak at 100 miles an hour? I know I have. That’s why ‘Conversations’ is so brilliant. Developed by Polyglot and language expert Olly Richards, ‘Conversations’ will help you to rapidly improve your listening skills and understanding of Mandarin Chinese in less than 90 days!
Lingq was created by Steve Kaufman, a well-known polyglot on the web. Lingq boasts a massive library of audio material for Mandarin Chinese which all include matching transcripts. Lingq gives you the ability to save new words, review them, track your known words count and interact with a global community of language learning enthusiasts.
The resources below were created by our team and are absolutely free for you to download. Enjoy 😉
Chinese Words and Phrases
We wrote this Chinese phrasebook with beginners in mind. In this book, you’ll learn critical words, phrases and grammar structures.
From ordering your morning Starbucks to asking for directions, we’ve included everything you would need on a trip to China.
Full HSK3 Anki Flashcard Deck
All the words and phrases you need for the HSK3 exam. Packed with content including characters, pinyin, audio and images! This deck literally has it all!
Suitable for high beginner/low intermediate learners.
Chinese Survival Kit
This Chinese survival kit will give you all of the words and phrases you need to survive your first few weeks in China! Aimed at beginners with little to no knowledge of Chinese.