Beginning learners are often intimidated when they start to learn Mandarin Chinese. You don’t need to let this stop you. This guide will teach you everything you need to know and do to learn Mandarin. We’ve also linked to the best resources we can find on each topic. Have a look.
About Mandarin Chinese
People frequently ask if Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese. They wonder which dialect they should study. Put simply, Mandarin is the dominant Chinese dialect and has more native speakers than any other language. It is also the second most useful language for business. The language has 1700 distinct syllables.
Part of what makes learning Chinese daunting is how different the language is from English and other western languages. Other languages at least have a similar alphabet. The number of Chinese characters is also daunting. We’re going to explain some of the difficulties.
Chinese is a Tonal Language
Chinese has four tones. There’s an unofficial fifth or neutral tone. This is one of the more challenging areas of learning Chinese, but with time and effort, it is possible. Let’s start with the basics. The tones are numbered one through four. The “fifth tone” is called the neutral tone.
Here is how each tone sounds:
- The first tone is flat, steady and high.
- The second tone starts lower and rises in the same waythat we ask questions in English.
- The third tone starts lower, drops and then goes back up to the starting point.
- The fourth starts high and drops in a way that makes the speaker sound angry.
- The fifth or neutral tone is much like an unstressed syllable in English.
If you’d like more details on this, please check out our free pronunciation course here.
Tip: Your Chinese teacher might understand you if you use the wrong word. This is only because he or she spends a lot of time listening to people get the tones wrong and then using the context to understand what is being spoken. For the average Chinese person, different tones mean different words. If you miss the tone once or twice in a sentence, they might understand you. If you miss most of the tones, they will not understand you. We will teach you how to master the tones later in the resource article.
Start with Pronunciation
The best way to learn Chinese pronunciation is with Pinyin, which is a way to write Chinese words with western letters. There are many types of pinyin, but after a while, you will learn to read them all with very little effort. Children in China learn Pinyin in school. Tip: If someone doesn’t understand you, writing out the word in Pinyin may solve the problem. China currently uses the Hanyu Pinyin system.
As you learn Chinese, you will notice that words are typically one syllable and have a starting and an ending sound. More complex words are created by combining smaller words into a short phrase. A great example of what this might look like in English is ballpoint pen, which is three short words combined together to create a new meaning. Incidentally, the Chinese word for ball point men is yuan (round) zi (point) bi (pen).
Want to learn more? Click here to take our free Chinese pronunciation course.
Chinese characters are intimidating. When we teach someone basic Chinese, we don’t initially include characters. We want people to start speaking and develop a love for the language before starting to write.
The bad news is there are over 50,000 Chinese characters. That is intimidating.
There is a lot of good news:
- If you only want to speak basic Chinese, you don’t need to learn to write Chinese characters at all.
- There are only 10 different strokes that make up the various parts of each character.
- The characters are built with basic parts called radicals.
- There is a pattern that you follow when writing characters. Left to right and outside in.
- You really only need to learn between two & three thousand to read a newspaper.
- The average Chinese person knows about 8,000 characters.
- Learning characters is not hard. It takes time and persistent practice.
There are two writing systems: Simplified & Traditional Chinese.
Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong. This is the written language that is 3,300 years old (click here for the history.)
Simplified Chinese is used in mainland China. China started using simplified versions of the characters in the 1950s. There have been estimates that 6500 characters were simplified. There has been a great deal of debate about how the language should move forward.
How to Learn Mandarin Chinese
Organizing your studies is one of the key differences between people who learn Chinese and those who give up. When you hear about immersion programs, you might be deceived into thinking that you must study for hours every day to master Chinese. The truth is that we’ve watched students make significant progress by studying 15 to 30 minutes a day. You just have to be organized.
Language Study Strategies
First, understand a few basic ideas:
- You might not need an immersion program, but read below before you start one.
- Speaking a language starts with understanding what you are hearing.
- Mastering a language comes with practice over time.
Immersion programs are both fantastic and oversold as your solution to learn Chinese. When I lived in Taiwan, there were other expats, who despite constant exposure to Chinese, couldn’t use more than a few phrases. They just didn’t take the time to study. While reading this guide will probably help, learning Chinese will be more challenging early on. You just have to get used to the language. We recommend that if you want to participate in an immersion program, be sure that you have a solid start before you go to China. Take a short course before you go for best results.
Studies show that you must understand what you are hearing to make progress. For this reason, I suggest that you always start each lesson by memorizing the vocabulary. When you understand what the instructor is saying, your brain will solve the puzzle much faster. Memorize the word and the tone. If you aren’t memorizing the tones, you will understand what you are hearing, but no one will understand you!
We’ve watched students make fantastic progress by attending class for an hour a week and then studying for 15 minutes a day. With the right program, this level of effort should move faster than a typical college course. To make this work, you must study 6 or 7 days each week rather than studying once a week for 2 hours. For even faster practice, use a technique called spaced repetition. See below for more details.
Creating a Plan to Learn Mandarin Chinese
Your language plan should start with your goals. Do you want to master Chinese and speak like a native? Do you need to master the basics for business travel? Would you like to read & write Chinese? When do you need to complete the goal? While your goals might change, you will make more progress with a goal and a plan.
The next step is to plan out study time that fits both the goal & the timeline. For example, if you want to read the newspaper, you need to set goals and schedule time around learning characters. If you want to read the news paper in one year, you will need to learn just over 8 characters a day on average. Each person learns differently. You should expect to spend more time and learn fewer characters early on. This same logic holds true with grammar and spoken vocabulary.
Don’t stop with goals. Be sure that you schedule out times to study. To make the most progress study daily and review regularly. See below for more details about how to study. If you are pressed for time, develop a plan to study Chinese anywhere. This may take extra organization, but you will soon see progress.
Becoming fluent in Chinese (or any language) is about mastering a skill. To become truly proficient, you will need to invest time and practice regularly over a number of years. At times, the language will come easily, but there will also be challenges. Language learners struggle during some of the grammar that is very different from their native tongue. If you want to succeed, you have to stay motivated.
You can learn a language on your own, and in fact, taking a class won’t help if you don’t study outside of class. Taking a class with an engaging teacher will help you stay motivated in the long run. If you take a group class, you have a built in support system in the other students and the accountability of going to a weekly class. A trained and experienced instructor can explain grammar in a way that will be easy for you to understand.
For tips on making studying Chinese a new habit – click here.
Effective Ways to Study Chinese
You won’t learn Chinese if you don’t practice. Both how you practice and how often you practice will determine how quickly you learn Chinese. Mastering a language means gaining both knowledge (vocabulary/grammar rules) and the skill of using that knowledge without thinking. While you must start by learning both vocabulary and grammar, you can’t stop there. You must also practice using the language until it becomes second nature. Spaced Repetition Learning can help you learn and should inform how you practice.
Before we delve into spaced repetition, let’s discuss how to practice. Do you remember reading over spelling words and definitions in school? I remember two different ways to study the words. First, I would stare at the paper while quietly reading and then spelling the word repeatedly trying to memorize the the word by brute force. Second, I would have a friend quiz me or use flashcards. While the first method was easier while sitting in class just before the test, the second method was more effective.
Here are my thoughts on why: by reading over the word repeatedly you are practicing saying and spelling the word. When you quiz yourself, you are practicing remembering. The information is already in your brain and you are practicing finding that information and thus strengthening those neural pathways.
Spaced Repetition Systems for Language Learning
Spaced repetition is a great tool to learn vocabulary, but it is also important for learning grammar and eventually speaking. Forget the learning curve. It is all about how quickly you forget something. In fact, without review you forget 60% of the information in 20 minutes. See the full article for more details.
Quiz yourself at regular but longer intervals to ensure that you never forget the information. Since we know that you lose information, quiz yourself regularly for 15 to 20 minutes. Put the material away and study it again the next day. Pull the material out and review it again 2 days after that and then again 4 days after that. Increase the time between reviews to a week and then several weeks out.
For vocabulary, there are software applications like Anki that will help you study. This makes studying vocabulary easy. You whip out your phone and review. The app will review your
How to Organize a Chinese Language Study Session
We recommend that you spend 15 to 30 minutes a day studying Mandarin. That time can be broken up into smaller pieces or done all at once. Ideally, study earlier in the day when you are well rested and more likely to retain what you study.
Start with the vocabulary. As you work through material, you should focus on learning the vocabulary first. If you don’t know the vocabulary, mastering the grammar won’t help. Don’t forget to memorize the tone and practice saying the word in the correct tone. Be sure that you are using a spaced repetition system when memorizing vocabulary.
Practice the grammar. You should initially work to understand the rules. Then, begin drilling yourself. Practice each phrase with a new vocabulary word from step one.
Don’t forget the tones. Be sure you practice saying phrases with the correct tones. If you are working on a longer sentence, break the sentence down into shorter phrases for tone practice.
Review old material. At the end of each study session, try to take a few minutes to go back and study older grammar.