How To Learn Chinese – 10 Expert Language Tips
Updated October 11, 2022
Are you wondering how to learn Chinese quickly and easily? This article will show you how to learn Mandarin Chinese using 10 simple and effective tips.
Before we begin, remember that your safest bet to learn Mandarin Chinese quickly is to download and use the Fluent Forever app. You can also sign up for our Live Coaching program to really supercharge your journey to fluency.
Download the app and sign up for Coaching here.
If you’re ready for the best tips on how to learn Chinese, jump straight to the section here.
Why should you learn Chinese?
Every language comes with its own set of perks. Mandarin Chinese is no different.
When thinking about how to learn Chinese, keeping these benefits in mind is a great way to stay motivated and eager to study Mandarin.
Global relevance – Around 1.3 billion people speak Chinese, which amounts to 16% of the world’s population. This number accounts for the 7 regional dialectic groups that make up Chinese: The Northern Dialect, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, Min, Xiang, and Gan.
Mandarin, which we will focus on in this guide, stems from the Northern dialect and is spoken by 889 million people. Besides China, Singapore and Taiwan have Mandarin as their official language.
Business – Almost all large corporations do business – or part of it – in China or with Chinese firms and nationals. For this reason, employers value Chinese as a foreign language in prospective employees.
In sectors like tourism, for example, hotels are eager to hire people who are able to connect with the growing Chinese middle class traveling abroad. Some of the sectors that have a high demand for Chinese speakers include education, tourism and retail, international trade, and supply chain management.
Culture – Spanning roughly 5,000 years, Chinese history has influenced and awed Western societies for centuries. Learning Chinese will allow you to appreciate Chinese literature, cuisine, history, art, and society in its original and unconstrained language.
Is Chinese hard to learn?
In short, yes, Chinese is relatively hard to learn for native English speakers.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the agency responsible for training US diplomats, ranks Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese as Category IV languages. It describes the languages in this category as “Super-hard languages – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.”
That being said, some of Mandarin’s reputation is arguably unwarranted. Here are some common misconceptions about the Chinese language’s difficulty.
Typing in Chinese is out of the question
Considering the Chinese alphabet has more than 50,000 characters, typing in Chinese would require a rather long keyboard. That’s why Pinyin was created!
Pinyin is the romanization system of Chinese characters that are used to type on a QWERTY keyboard. In short, Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to spell out how Chinese characters are pronounced in Mandarin. But more on that later.
Here’s an example. If you want to write the word for “mountain range,” or 山脉 (Shānmài), on a computer, you would simply type its pronunciation in Pinyin: Shānmài.
You can learn more about how to type in your computer with Chinese characters using Pinyin here.
Memorizing Chinese characters is impossible
As with any language, Chinese does require a degree of memorization. And with the complexity of Chinese characters, this may seem like an undoable task. However, it isn’t as difficult as you may think.
Every Chinese character is made up of one or several of 214 basic characters known as Chinese radicals. In short, radicals are core characters used to build other words.
For example, 木 (mù) is a radical that means “wood.” On the other hand, 森林 (sēn lín) is a more complex character that means “forest.”
In this particular case, 木 constructs a word related to its meaning, “wood,” which is usually the case. However, sometimes the relationship between radicals and the vocabulary they create isn’t as cut and dry.
Knowing these smaller components makes it easier to memorize other characters as you’re able to identify their core parts. For instance, let’s take a look at the character for “hello” in Mandarin: 你好 (nǐhǎo).
If you know the Chinese radicals, you can easily identify two of them – 你好 consists of 你, which means “you,” and 好, meaning “good.” At the same time, 好 is made up of two pieces – 女 and 子, which mean “woman” and “child.” 女 is a little compressed, but it’s still 女.
Learn more about Traditional and Simplified Chinese, radicals, and how to learn characters effectively here.
Chinese is too different from other languages
Although somewhat true, there are also many similarities between Chinese and other Western languages. For instance, English and Chinese sentence structure can look rather familiar.
The Subject Verb Object (SVO) sentence structure of English can be used in simple Chinese sentences. For example, 我去海边 (Wǒ qù hǎibiān), meaning “I go to the beach,” follows this familiar sentence sequence.
我 (Wǒ) – I
去 (qù) – go to
海边 (hǎibiān) – the beach
Lastly, some Chinese grammar rules are rather simple. For instance, characters stay the same whether they are singular or plural. In other words, there aren’t any variations to remember!
How long does it take to learn Chinese?
The FSI states that a person can reach a working proficiency level in Mandarin or Cantonese within 88 weeks – or 2,200 hours – of rigorous studying. That said, factors that can speed things up – like motivation, fluency goals, quality of resources, and degree of immersion – aren’t considered.
As with any skill, the amount of effort and dedication you put into learning the language will greatly affect how fast (or slowly) you progress. If you make a significant effort, you can expect to learn enough Mandarin Chinese to reach basic conversational proficiency.
Where can you learn Chinese?
Especially in the case of Mandarin Chinese, the offer of online and offline learning resources has exploded over the past decades. Regardless of where you are, you’ll find several study options available.
Learn Chinese offline
Textbooks: Although language books have a reputation for being boring and tedious, Chinese textbooks can offer comprehensive, error-free, and trustworthy sources. They are especially useful if you’re interested in learning to write Chinese.
Find native speakers: Native speakers of Mandarin Chinese can help you acquire correct pronunciation as well as new vocabulary. Luckily, the Chinese diaspora is one of the biggest in the world. Finding local native speakers in your community to practice should be easy enough.
Online platforms for learning Chinese
Podcasts: The biggest benefit of these tools is their practicality – you can listen to Chinese podcasts on your way to work, while you wait for the bus, or when chilling on your couch. The offer of subjects and styles is vast, so you can surely find something you enjoy.
Here’s a list of 30 great language podcasts for learning Mandarin.
YouTube channels: Similar to podcasts, Chinese YouTube creators offer native-level pronunciation and a wide array of styles and subjects. So, next time you feel like falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, consider doing it with these Mandarin YouTube channels.
Chinese movies and series: The Chinese film and series industries have gained huge popularity in the last decades. You can start watching with Chinese subtitles and turn them off as you get better.
Fortunately, streaming platforms continue to include Chinese films and series in their rosters. You can check Netflix’s options here.
How to learn Chinese quickly with these 10 pro tips
Most of these next tips offer the most effective tools, strategies, and methods to learn Mandarin Chinese. While not every Chinese person speaks Mandarin – around 70% of Chinese nationals do – it is the most widely spoken form of Chinese.
Because of Mandarin’s widespread use and global relevance, the learning resources available for this language are significantly more numerous than for other dialect groups.
So, without further ado, here are our top tips to guide you on how to learn Mandarin quickly.
Learn Mandarin pronunciation first
1. Start with Mandarin’s tones
Mandarin is a tonal language, so the meaning of a word can change depending on the tones and inflections used to pronounce it. Mandarin has 4 main tones:
- A high and flat tone – lē
- A tone that rises slightly – lé
- A tone that falls, then rises – lě
- High to low – lè
It’s important to understand and master each tone for a couple of reasons. First, native speakers will often misunderstand you if you strike the wrong tone of a word.
Second, as we already mentioned, a character’s meaning can change depending on the tones used. Embarrassing mistakes can occur by mispronouncing a single character.
For example, the character for “mom” is 妈 (mā), which uses the first tone. On the other hand, “horse” looks and sounds like this: 马 (mǎ), which uses the third tone. The last thing you want to do is call someone’s mom a horse!
When you’re starting out, try listening to Mandarin as much as possible. Work on proper pronunciation, and train your ears and mouth to master the language’s sounds.
Lastly, a more practical approach would be to download and use the Fluent Forever app. Through effective listening tests and personalized performance-based review sessions, the app will train your ears for Mandarin’s pronunciation in a matter of weeks.
2. Get your head around Pinyin
Pinyin is the official phonetic system that transcribes Mandarin’s pronunciations using the Latin alphabet. Just like Romaji for the Japanese alphabets, Pinyin “romanizes” Chinese characters, making it easier to type out its vast number of characters.
Beginners can use Pinyin to learn how to pronounce Chinese characters and tones. For example, 我是墨西哥人, or “I am Mexican” can be typed as Wǒ shì mòxīgē rén in Pinyin. Someone just starting out with Mandarin can then begin to understand how to pronounce otherwise unpronounceable characters.
This BBC Pinyin guide is a good place to start with Pinyin. Next, you can try Pinyin Practice, which should help with Mandarin’s tones. Pinyin Practice also has great resources for Finals – also known as vowels and rare final consonants – and Initials, also known as consonants at the beginning of a word.
To convert Pinyin to Chinese characters and back, you can use Chinese Tools. Typing in Chinese is generally easy: set up your computer so that you can type in Pinyin and it’s then converted into characters.
Reading and writing skills
3. Tackle Chinese characters head-on
Despite the pronunciation differences between the 7 main dialect groups in Chinese, all of them use the same writing system based on Chinese characters. However, there are two types of Chinese character systems: Traditional and Simplified. The latter represents characters from the former with fewer strokes, and was created by the Chinese State as a way to standardize the language and increase literacy.
Traditional vs Simplified Chinese
Regardless of the Chinese dialect, Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, while Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China and Singapore. Mandarin, then, is written and taught in either Traditional or Simplified Chinese depending on the country or region.
For instance, Taiwan, China, and Singapore have Mandarin as their official language. However, the latter two use Simplified characters, while the first uses the Traditional system.
Another key difference has to do with the 214 Chinese radicals talked about before. Some of them change depending on which of the two systems you’re using.
So, should you learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
Well, it depends on a few things. For example, having fewer strokes, Simplified is easier to write, while Traditional characters are widely used in daily life in some countries and regions..
Furthermore, if you’re planning to move to or work in Mainland China, you might be better off learning Simplified characters. On the other hand, you should focus on Traditional Chinese if your sights are set on Taiwan or Hong Kong.
Lastly, if you’re hoping to learn Japanese at some point, Traditional is basically the same as the Kanji alphabet.
Whether you opt for Traditional or Simplified Chinese (or both), flashcards are the most effective learning tools you can use to learn Chinese characters. By combining these with a spaced repetition system (SRS) that creates review sessions based on your past performance, you can learn Chinese characters faster and retain them for longer.
The Fluent Forever app automates the flashcard creation process to teach you Chinese characters with images. Through its integrated SRS algorithm, you can quickly pick up and learn the essential Chinese characters. Get the app here.
4. Organize words in thematic groups
Are you wondering how to learn Chinese vocabulary efficiently? Well, learning from random word lists on the internet is definitely not the best approach!
Instead, learn the most frequently used Chinese words and sort them into thematic groups.
For starters, grouping words in themes, as opposed to categories, helps speed up memorization. This happens because it’s easier to create associations between the words per theme. The more connections between words, the longer you’ll remember them!
At the same time, tackling the most common words first helps you to learn and speak the language faster. Additionally, you’ll be able to understand bigger chunks of texts and conversations!
You can start with our 625 Chinese Frequency List, available in Mandarin and Cantonese. The list groups 625 common words in memorable little stories that make learning and remembering them quick and easy.
To memorize these words efficiently, get the Fluent Forever app. It incorporates and teaches you this vocabulary through personalized flashcards with images. As we’ve seen, these tools are the most effective way to learn and retain new words.
5. Focus on vocabulary and learn grammar intuitively
You’ll recall that we said that some Chinese grammar rules are rather simple. Characters stay the same whether they’re singular or plural, nouns are genderless, and the structure of simple sentences can be the same as English’s SVO structure.
Instead of obsessing over grammar, focus on accumulating as much vocabulary as you can and picking up grammar as you go. If you’re interested in diving into Chinese grammar, we recommend the Integrated Chinese textbook.
This site is also a fairly comprehensive wiki for Mandarin Chinese grammar.
Surround yourself with the language
6. Go to a Mandarin-speaking country
Full immersion is the best way to learn Mandarin, or any language for that matter. In language learning, immersion refers to surrounding yourself with your target language as much as possible.
This is an incredibly effective method to learn Chinese. After all, immersion is how Chinese babies eventually become fluent native speakers.
If you can, travel to China or a country where people speak Mandarin. Stay there for as long as you can so that you’re fully exposed to the language. If this is out of the realm of possibilities, there are other ways to mimic full immersion. Remember, the goal is to speak, hear, and read Mandarin at all times. Here are a few ideas you could try:
- Change the language settings of your electronic devices
- Do everyday activities like following a cooking recipe in Mandarin
- Meet up and have conversations with native speakers (more on this in the below subsection)
- Volunteer or work at places frequented by native speakers
- Follow Chinese influencers and accounts on social media
7. Practice with native speakers
Native speakers offer an invaluable resource for language learners. When you engage with a native Mandarin speaker, you can get immediate feedback, learn new vocabulary, and perfect your pronunciation in the language.
Even better, work with a language tutor! They are usually native speakers who are, as a bonus, certified in language teaching.
Fluent Forever’s Live Coaching can pair you up with a native Mandarin speaker who’s trained in our teaching methodology. Besides creating personalized online sessions based on your fluency goals and interests, our language coaches will motivate you to continue learning Mandarin while they track your progress.
Sign up for Live Coaching here.
8. Consume Chinese media
With some basic Chinese under your belt, you should start consuming as much Chinese media as you can. Luckily, most Chinese movies, songs, podcasts, and books are available in Mandarin.
Specifically, movies and series offer a great visual way to learn Mandarin. For starters, they offer a lot of context for vocabulary and phrases. Secondly, subtitles can be of great help for beginner learners.
As you progress, try to move away from subtitles and use audio by itself. That being said, with or without subtitles, movies and series offer a constant source of proper pronunciation, idioms, and new vocabulary.
Here’s a list of the 100 most popular Mandarin Chinese movies to get you started.
9. Sign up for a course
Some learners prefer a more structured approach when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese. A language course can offer a guided and comprehensive route with trustworthy resources. If it involves a teacher, you get the added benefit of working with someone knowledgeable in the language.
There are thousands of online and offline courses out there, so you’ll want to choose one that actually works. Here are some things to consider when enrolling:
Comprehensive – Your course should cover every aspect of Mandarin: pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and speaking skills. Make sure it’s comprehensive and that it shows you every element needed to learn the language.
Practice opportunities – One of the best things about courses is that they usually include lots of practice. Be it written or conversation exercises, your course should allow you to actually use Mandarin.
Effective – Lastly, make sure that you get results from the course. There should be a way for you to track your progress and check if you’re moving forward. For example, most courses have periodical quizzes or tests that let you know if you’re getting your money’s worth.
Although not a course per se, our Live Coaching program ticks all of the above boxes. Besides being native Mandarin speakers, our language coaches will cover all of Mandarin’s bases, give you tons of opportunities to speak in Mandarin, and base their sessions on our proven teaching method.
You can read more about how and why we incorporate language coaches in this section.
10. Use a language learning app
Similar to courses, language apps have become ubiquitous. But tons of them promise you fluency in unrealistic amounts of times and through ineffective methods to boot.
So, can a language app teach you Mandarin? It depends. For example, apps that use rote memorization and translations to teach you vocabulary, like Duolingo, often yield slow results.
Plus, some apps give you an incomplete package when it comes to Mandarin. For instance, while they do teach you vocabulary, they fail to address pronunciation or speaking practice.
When choosing an app, get something that actually works. Now, if only there was a reliable, effective, and proven language app that could teach you Mandarin…
You guessed it! The Fluent Forever app uniquely combines Mandarin pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar to help you master the language with our tried-and-tested proprietary method.
Don’t believe us? Check out this honest review and see for yourself!
Best resources to learn Chinese
The Routledge Frequency Dictionary series is excellent, with example uses and everything. Get this at the beginning to direct your vocabulary work!
There are some online frequency lists that aren’t half bad. This site contains the characters needed for the HSK Chinese proficiency tests levels 1 to 4, which should be enough to get you started.
Remembering Traditional/Simplified Hanzi by James W. Heisig breaks the characters down into their constituent parts and provides mnemonics for remembering them.
You can read anything that you enjoy. The Harry Potter series in translation is particularly easy to find in most languages, including Mandarin.
The Assimil series is a special language learning resource that we discuss in this blog post. It doesn’t quite fit into any of the categories above, and we think it works best as a sort of supplementary source of Chinese input. Here’s the beginner Chinese version with CDs.
Reviewers have indicated that the Chinese edition isn’t quite as good as some of the other editions, but that the Chinese texts are still good, if a bit basic. Given the difficulty of the language, we’re still going to endorse it since more, thoughtfully designed input is still going to help.
Dictionarist provides translations, example sentences, conjugations, and synonyms for a number of languages, including Chinese. Check it out!
How to learn Chinese fast
Set short- and long-term goals
Start by setting a personal, overarching goal for yourself. Ask yourself: Why do I want to learn Mandarin? There’s no wrong answer here. Do you want to live in China? Impress your native speaking friends? Chat it up with your mother-in-law?
Whatever the goal, make sure it’s personal and something you want. That will motivate you to keep learning and let you know when you’ve reached the finish line!
In addition, you should set smaller, deadline-bound objectives to reach throughout your journey. By having smaller milestones to achieve, you’ll be able to keep track of your progress and make sure the methods you’ve chosen are actually effective.
It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. For example, you can aim to learn 10 Chinese characters a week or be able to watch sub-less movies within 2 months.
When it comes to learning a new language, motivation is key. Without it, studying becomes a chore and progress slows down.
Besides having an end goal in mind, find ways to stay motivated while you learn. For instance, you can encourage yourself to study Mandarin by rewarding yourself with a dessert each time you learn 10 new characters. Sounds sweet!
Alternatively, you can find an exchange partner or language buddy to keep you motivated and accountable.
Create a schedule and stick to it
Learning Mandarin takes time, but you can speed things up by being consistent with your study schedule.
Plan for study sessions and stick to the work hours you set for yourself. Remember, there’s no wrong way to go about this. Some people can manage 4 hours a day, while others can only do 20 minutes of Mandarin during their lunch break. It’s all good!
What matters most is that you commit to your practice time and avoid wasting your precious Mandarin minutes. Here’s a short but sweet list of time management tools every language learner should know about.
Use the Fluent Forever app + Live Coaching combo
Together, the Fluent Forever app and Live Coaching program give you a proven 4-Step Method to learn Mandarin:
Step 1 – The app trains your ears to identify Mandarin’s sounds with listening tests.
Step 2 – Through personalized and automated flashcards, the app teaches you the Mandarin alphabet and essential vocabulary. Using our SRS algorithm, the app creates performance-based review sessions that accelerate your learning process and increase word retention.
Step 3 – Using relevant phrases and vocabulary you’ve already learned, the app teaches you grammar with the same flashcards you already know. Plus, you can choose what sentences you want to learn with, allowing you to pick the phrases you’re actually interested in learning.
Step 4 – Lastly, our language coaches will get you to speak Mandarin in no time. Our coaches are 100% native speakers and certified in our teaching method. Also, your sessions are based on your fluency goals, creating engaging and relevant lessons for you.
So, are you ready to learn Mandarin? Download the Fluent Forever app, join the Live Coaching program, and reach fluency fast! Do both here![shareaholic app="share_buttons" id="28313910"]