How to Start Learning Chinese

Wondering exactly how to learn Chinese? Confused about how to get going and what you should do?

Let me give you some steps to follow and information to help you get started.

Step 1: Familiarise yourself with Chinese pronunciation and learn Pinyin

The first thing I recommend you do when you’re learning Chinese, before you start with a course, and before you get stuck into Chinese characters, is to get familiar with the sounds of the language and the pronunciation.

At the same time, I recommend you learn Pinyin, – it’s the system used to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese using a Western alphabet, and it will make things a lot easier.

Why is Pinyin so important? Because it’s the system used in most Chinese textbooks, courses and dictionaries. You also use it to type and send text messages in Chinese.

If you know Pinyin, you can see the the pronunciation guide and know how any syllable is pronounced. And you need this guide, because you can’t really tell how a Chinese character is said just by what it looks like.

So in other words, it’s the essential place to start.

Mandarin also has what are called ‘tones‘, which means there are four different ways of pronouncing any given syllable. Saying a syllable with a different pitch contour can change its meaning completely.

It sounds really difficult, but really once you get used to it, it’s not so bad.

It’s difficult to explain everything in writing, so just watch this video and I’ll explain it to you:

I’m also producing a pronunciation course, helping you to get the hang of the tones and some of the difficult sounds, as well as the ones that don’t quite work like English.

Just follow along:

And you can find the complete series of videos here

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Step 2: Find a beginners’ course that suits you

After you are familiar with Chinese pronunciation and how Mandarin is represented in the Roman alphabet using the Pinyin system, you are ready to start the core of your study.

Different courses will be more suited to different people and you might like to have a look at a few and see which one you like. However, at the beginning, exposure to the language and practice is the most important thing, and a dedicated learner will be able to gain from any course.

What I look for in beginner’s Mandarin courses:

1) Lots of audio – you need a lot of help with pronunciation at the beginning and exposure to the language, this is why I much prefer courses with lots of audio as opposed to 1 or 2 CD traditional courses. It is best to have all the audio or almost all the audio in Chinese, without English chat. This is one of the principles behind my own course.

2) Texts in Chinese characters with the Pinyin pronunciation guide and either vocabulary or a full English translation

2) Lots of drills and exercises to help you practice

3) Grammar notes that are simple

4) Texts that are practical and vocabulary that is relevant

I’ve developed my own complete video training course, Survive in Chinese, for beginners in Chinese, which gives you all of this.

Other courses and systems which I have used include FSI Chinese: A Modular Approach, Pimsleur Chinese, Teach Yourself Chinese, Assimil Chinese, Colloquial Chinese 1 and 2 and Living Language Chinese. You can also find podcast series online, which can be useful if you’re often on the move.

I would encourage you to go with your instinct and choose the beginners’ course that appeals the most to you. Also, bear in mind that no beginners’ course can teach you everything and make your fluent on its own, so I recommend that you work through several different beginners’ courses to ‘fill in the gaps’ in your study.

Working through one course thoroughly might take you three or four months. That’s actually quite intensive. Getting through two courses might take you six or eight months or longer. That’s about the length of time you need to get a solid foundation in the language.

Step 3: Start getting into Chinese characters (if you want to)

I’ve explained the basic things you need to know about Chinese characters in this video:

How Chinese characters work (and start writing in 10 minutes)

And this video will also clear up a lot of the misconceptions you may have about characters.

10 Things you Need to Know about Chinese Characters

With each Chinese character, there are essentially three things that you have to learn:

  1. The meaning(s) of the character (because some characters have a couple of different meanings)
  2. The pronunciation of the character, including the tone
  3. How to actually write the character (if you like. This is optional, as I will explain below)

So for example:

  1. 人 = person / human
  2. It’s pronounced rén (the tone mark indicates it is pronounced with the second ‘rising’ tone)
  3. This website shows you how to write the character

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Common questions about Chinese answered

I know you’ve probably still got questions, so let me try to give you some answers to the ones I hear most often..

Everybody says Chinese is the hardest language to learn. Can I really become fluent in Chinese?

If you are committed, persistent and you have the motivation, then YES absolutely you can become fluent in Chinese.

The most important thing is to have a good method, and to study regularly, say a few times a week or do something every day if possible. I started learning the language from scratch and reached basic conversational fluency after about 1.5 years. I then built on that foundation, continued to increase my vocabulary, listening comprehension and knowledge of characters slowly over time.

Eight years later, I’m still going. You can never be perfect (because who is really perfect at anything), but if you keep going for a long period, taking little steps, you’ll be surprised just how good you can get!

How long does it take to become ‘fluent in Chinese’?

It depends what you mean by ‘fluent’. Fluency doesn’t mean perfection, it means being able to keep the flow of a conversation without struggling a lot to understand or find the right words.

If you work at it in the right way, say a few times a week, then you should be able to get by as a tourist and in simple conversations in 3-6 months, and get to basic oral fluency in about a year and a half to 2 years. You still won’t know ‘all the words’, but you’ll be able to use the language without too many difficulties.

After that, you’ll be mainly improving your vocabulary, understanding and learning to talk about more advanced topics.

There’s never really ‘an end’ to learning a language, there is always more that you can learn, and different ways of expressing yourself. But that’s also what makes it interesting…

Do I really need to learn to read and write Chinese?

Well that depends on your learning goals. If you just want to be able to communicate in the language on trips to China or to be able to understand conversations in Chinese and you have limited time, then you shouldn’t feel bad about not learning the characters.

If you are just wanting to travel around China, then just learning a few basic characters that you often see on signs and menus will get you a long way..

Can I learn to speak first, before I learn the writing? Is it possible to learn the writing later?

Yes you can.

However, I recommend that you at least learn to recognise and read characters at the same time as learning to speak, because the written and spoken language are tied together and it will make things easier if you try to connect the characters with the spoken language as you go.

The other thing to say is that it’s much easier to recognize characters than to write them. Learning to write Chinese is a long process, and it is easy to keep forgetting the characters, so accept that and don’t let it worry you.

You can continue to fill them in over time, forget how to write them, remember them again and fix the writing in your brain as you become more familiar with them.

It’s important not to get ‘held back’ by thinking you have to know how to write all the characters perfectly as you go.

The encouraging thing is that if you can just recognise a character and you can connect it with its pronunciation, then you can type or write text messages, which is a lot easier.

Doesn’t Chinese have different tones? I’m not a ‘musical person’…

Mandarin Chinese has 4 different tones. The first tone is a high level tone, the second tone rises in pitch, the third tone falls in pitch and then rises again and the fourth tone falls in pitch. Saying a word or character with a different pitch contour can change its meaning completely.

Sometimes, the second character of a word is unstressed, and some people refer to this as a ‘5th tone’, or say that Mandarin has 4+1 tones. It just depends how you define it.

It’s not true that you have to be ‘musical’ to speak a tonal language, because the change is really in the intonation of the words. You see, every language ‘has tones’ to a certain extent. Think of when you raise your voice at the end of a sentence when you’re asking a question. Or when you are swearing at somebody and your voice drops in pitch.

It’s the same basic idea.

Besides, not everybody in China is ‘musical’ and they still learn to speak Chinese…

Aren’t there 1000s of Chinese characters? Wouldn’t it take years to learn to read?

Yes, there are around 50,000 Chinese characters in existence, but most of them are so rare, you’ll unlikely to see them.

Just by learning the 500 most common ones, you can recognise about 75% of the characters in modern Chinese. And that’s very achievable… With 3000 characters you can read 99.2% of modern Chinese texts.

The other encouraging thing is that recognising characters is also a lot easier than writing them. If you want to learn the writing, you can do it at your own pace.

What are simplified / traditional characters? Which should I learn?

Traditional characters are the original Chinese characters. They came into being in their modern form around the Han dynasty over 2000 years ago and were used throughout Chinese history, right up until the late 20th century.

In the 1950s and 60s the mainland Chinese government simplified a lot of the characters for two reasons. 1) to make them less complicated to read and quicker to write 2) to allow people to learn to read and write more quickly, because there was a problem of illiteracy.

Simplified Chinese characters are used in mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore. Because of the sheer number of people using the internet in China, Simplified Chinese is also more often seen online.

Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and in some Chinese communities abroad. Since they are the ‘original Chinese characters’, you’ll also see them at historical sites such as temples and on inscriptions, in historical books and in calligraphy.

So, simple answer:

If you are interested in mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia then learn simplified Chinese characters. If you are interested in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao then learn traditional Chinese characters.

My advice would be to stick to one type of characters at the beginning. It is possible to learn both at the same time if you are prepared to put in the effort. It’s slightly easier to go from recognising traditional characters to simplified characters than the other way round.

If you really want to learn both, I would advise you to just learn to read and recognise both and not to try to write both simplified and traditional Chinese, because writing characters is much more difficult than recognising them.

What type of Chinese should I be learning, Mandarin or Cantonese?

Mandarin is understood, spoken and taught in all schools across mainland China and also in Taiwan. Therefore, if your place of interest is mainland China or Taiwan, then learning Mandarin would be the best choice. It’s also widely spoken by Chinese communities in Malaysia and Singapore.

Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, in Guangdong province in South China (in addition to Mandarin) and by some Chinese communities abroad. Therefore, if Hong Kong is your place of interest, then you should learn Cantonese.

If you are likely to be living or doing business in Guangdong province, I would still advise learning Mandarin first, and maybe complement it with a bit of Cantonese, which is sure to go down well!

The written Chinese language is essentially the same in all Chinese-speaking areas, and it’s based on Mandarin.

Does everybody in China speak Mandarin? Will they speak it where I’m going?

Simple answer is yes, almost everybody in China does speak Mandarin, except in Hong Kong and Macao, where Cantonese is used as the primary language/dialect.

While people should be able to understand you fine across the country if you speak standard Mandarin, you’ll find that there is quite a wide variety of accents and dialects across the country.

It can take time to get used to a particular local accent, and many people, while they may understand Mandarin without a problem, might have a strong local accent when they speak. This is one of the challenges you have to deal with.

Mandarin is the standard language across the country. It has to be used in all schools and universities, and almost all the TV and radio stations are in Mandarin only.

The few people in China who don’t speak Mandarin are mostly elderly people, people in very remote countryside areas and people who didn’t get through school. They are a very small minority, so it’s not something you need to worry about.

Don’t you have to write Chinese with a brush / ink?

No, you don’t have to.

Traditionally, Chinese characters were written with a brush and ink, but nowadays most people use a pen or pencil or a computer, except when practising calligraphy as an art form.

Isn’t Chinese written backwards / from top to bottom / from right to left?

Chinese used to always be written from top to bottom in columns, starting from the right hand side of the page, so you would start reading a book from the back page, reading from right to left and turning the pages towards the front of the book.

This is still standard practice with books from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

However, in mainland China you’ll hardly ever see it; 99% of printed materials are printed in the Western format, in horizontal lines going down the page from left to right (what a speaker of a European language would consider ‘the normal way’).

When people write by hand, they usually also write the same way, from left to right, down the page.

Does Chinese actually have grammar?

A lot of people think that Chinese doesn’t have ‘grammar’ because it is written using individual characters that never change their form.

It is true that Chinese has no singular and plural like English, and it doesn’t have tenses in the Western language sense. It also has no genders (masculine, feminine or neuter) and nouns and verbs never change, there are no changing endings.

However, Chinese does have grammar. Single characters often have to be joined together to make words, and word order is particularly important.

Chinese also has a number of grammatical particles. Although they may not correspond exactly to Western tenses or grammatical ideas, they are still aspects of grammar.

So, basically, yes Chinese does have grammar, but it doesn’t work in the same way as Western languages.

How do you type / send text messages in Chinese, do you need a special keyboard?

No you don’t need a special keyboard.

To type Chinese on a computer or phone, most people use a Pinyin system. You just have to enter the sounds of the characters in the Roman alphabet according to the Pinyin system, then the software will present the possible characters to you on the screen, then just simply select the right word or character by typing a number or tapping it with your finger. That’s it.

What this means is that to be able to type Chinese, you just need to be able to recognise the characters and know how are they are pronounced. You don’t even need to know how to write them yourself.

That’s why learning to write the characters from memory and the correct stroke order is very much optional if you’re just going to be typing the language.

I don’t live in China, and I don’t have Chinese friends, how can I learn the language?

Of course, having contact with native speakers or being in a country where the language is spoken helps a lot, but it is possible to learn or at least get a good foundation wherever you are. And….. If you want, I can teach you.

In fact, not studying the language in-country at the beginning also has some advantages, because you will be learning from very standard pronunciation, and you won’t be influenced by non-standard local accents. It will also give to time to ‘build a foundation’ and gain confidence,

With audio and video courses you can start learning and practising on your own first. It’s also much easier than you think to find native speakers to practise with online, through sites such as iTalki, Verbling and apps like HelloTalk.

I’m too old to learn Chinese, and my memory isn’t as good as it used to be…

It is possible to learn to speak Chinese at any age, even if you’re an older learner and the words don’t stick in your head so easily.

In fact, I have a number of learners studying on my course who are in their 60s, who are really enjoying getting into Chinese, not to mention many learners in their 40s and 50s.

So you’re never too old to get started, and with enough exposure and practice, you can go a long way!

I’m really busy with work / study / kids / life. How could I learn Chinese?

I hear you. It can definitely be difficult trying to fit extra things into your day, but the thing about learning a language is you don’t have to find huge blocks of time and study in long chunks.

In fact, you might actually make faster progress if you study for just 20-30 minutes at a time, and more frequently, rather than in long sessions. You can also make sure of ‘down time’, by listening to some Chinese while you’re on the way to work, or going over some flashcards while you’re waiting for the bus..

It’s really a question of whether you are able to make time, or whether you’re willing to do so..

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