Over 1.2 billion people around the world speak Chinese. Why not make it one more? We have all kinds of tips for people who want to learn Chinese. If you’re at the beginning of your Chinese-learning journey, we’ll give you our best advice for starting this long and exciting adventure. Why, how, and how long—we’ll cover it all!
Inside This Article
No, Mandarin Chinese is not a notoriously easy language to learn… It’s actually quite a challenge for most Westerners. But it’s a challenge that’s interesting and rewarding in many ways! Learning Chinese is a natural choice for anyone who likes to push themselves to achieve extraordinary feats. But if you aren’t ambitious for ambition’s sake, there are other great reasons to take it on. For instance…
More than 1.2 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese today. It’s the most-spoken and most-used language in the world. That right there is a good reason to learn it: 1.2 billion more people to talk to! In fact, there are 24 dialects spoken across China’s provinces, but the majority of people speak Mandarin. It is the primary official language in the People’s Republic of China. To clarify, we’re talking about Mandarin Chinese, but we could also use the terms “Mandarin” or “Standard Chinese” (these all refer to the same language!).
China is a major player in the global economy. And between its predominance in international markets and the huge number of speakers around the world, it’s becoming a valuable asset. Mandarin skills (spoken and/or written) will give any CV a boost, particularly in fields like international commerce, tourism, business. There’s also a level exam—the HSK—which is recognized (and sought out) by professionals. It could be a great goal to take this test in order to unlock employment opportunities.
But do be careful—if you’re learning Chinese just to be able to put “Chinese fluency” on your resume, you might not have the motivation and discipline necessary to master it. If you want to learn Chinese, it’s important to find a valid reason that will help keep your motivation strong throughout the learning process. Working in China, doing business with Asian companies, living in that part of the world, working in tourism in the US with a specialization in the Chinese market… these are good reasons! Learning a language just to put it on your resume isn’t a powerful enough reason.
The Chinese language is rich and many find it very fascinating. The language, just like the culture, can become a real passion. Learning Chinese can help you better understand the culture, access film and other media produced in Mandarin, but also to better immerse yourself in other aspects of the culture: its cuisine, traditional medicine, philosophy, work ethic, religions, or even martial arts. If you have an interest or hobby, then you’ll find the motivation to learn. Again, having a good reason will help push you through the long journey toward fluency.
Like many other languages, there are phrases and expressions that reflect Chinese culture in general. It’s always fascinating to approach these aspects of a culture through its literature.
There are many tools out there to help you learn a language on your own, and there are some great ones for Mandarin. There are a few resources that we recommend from our own site, and several others that are good tools for learning many languages.
Mobile apps have many advantages when it comes to learning a language. Because all you need is your phone, they are a great tool if you’re wondering how to learn Chinese fast. Apps can be used anywhere (on public transit, in grocery store lines, at the gym, etc.). Good apps even send you friendly reminders when it’s time to practice, so you can stay consistent with your learning. In short, they’re practical, easy to use, and effective.
- Mosalingua’s Mandarin app will help you learn words and phrases, from A1 (beginner) all the way up to C1 (fluent). It includes more than 2,000 vocabulary flashcards with the most commonly used words and expressions. A major advantage of our Learn Chinese app (aside from our highly effective method) is that it facilitates learning both vocabulary and pronunciation. Practicing these two skills together will help you quickly advance to a level at which you can communicate.
- You may have already heard of the app Pleco, which is also a great tool. In a way, it’s like a multifunctional dictionary. You can search a character or word in pinyin (phonetic transcription), and the app will give you the character, its meaning, its pronunciation, its strokes, etc.
- Of course, it’s important to choose an app that you feel comfortable with. An app that helps you make progress, while also keeping your own goals (communication, writing, travel, employment, etc.) in sight. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different apps, learning methods, and content. Mosalingua offers a free version of our app for exactly that reason, so give it a try. You have nothing to lose!
All kinds of teachers and self-taught speakers have created Chinese YouTube channels to help the most motivated learners through video. There are many reasons to learn Chinese via video (quantity of content, free, personalized learning), but the biggest advantage is that it targets listening comprehension skills! On YouTube, you’re sure to learn a Mandarin that you can apply directly to communicating with native speakers. If your goal is communication, then that’s exactly what you want.
In addition to pronunciation and speaking, there are some videos and channels that might offer other subjects that you find interesting, like vocabulary, conjugation, etc. We recommend these channels in particular to help beginners:
- Harbin Mandarin
- Elementary Chinese
- Everyday Chinese
- Feel free to look for other channels that you find interesting or adapted to your goals. You can start as simply as typing “learn Chinese” in the YouTube search bar.
In addition to the YouTube channels we just mentioned, there are also other video platforms that we recommend for the same reasons. For instance, you can find all sorts of video resources on sites like Youku and Tudou.
There are also many other websites to help with language learning, or to connect you with useful tools. Vocabulary, grammar, conjugation, writing systems, tones, and other lessons… You can find pretty much anything you need to learn Chinese online. The problem is that it’s difficult to learn using only one method, and supervision or feedback is sometimes necessary when learning difficult languages. That said, the number of resources available online makes the internet an amazing learning tool.
As we’ve said, the internet is a great tool for teaching yourself a language these days. But for those who are in need of a little more structure, or someone to help guide them through the language-learning process, you can certainly learn Chinese with the help of an instructor. This might be through an online class, in a small group, or individual sessions. This is probably the best option if you think you need more structure in order to learn. Websites like Preply or Verbling are a great resource for personalized, instructor-led courses online (at a reasonable price). You can learn at your own pace, and also have the benefit of feedback and advice from professional instructors. This method isn’t free, but it is effective.
I’d say the method that works best for you will often depend upon your goals. If you want to learn vocabulary at your own pace in order to prepare for a vacation next year, you can start by teaching yourself through an app and online tools. If you need to learn quickly for a particular project, and speak clearly with a high level of proficiency, then an instructor-led course would be a good investment. In any case, when you learn Chinese, just like any other language, it can be helpful to use a variety of tools and methods. That way you can take the most important aspects from each one and develop a well-rounded mastery of the Chinese language and culture.
This is the million-dollar question. Reaching fluency or mastery of Mandarin’s tones, pronunciations, and vocabulary… takes a long time. And between you and me, it’s not an easy road for us English speakers. Learning Spanish might seem like a walk in the park in comparison!
That said, learning to communicate in Mandarin Chinese on a basic or even intermediate level isn’t so hard—anyone can do it if they’re motivated, determined, and have the right tools. If you’re wondering how to learn Chinese, it really isn’t that different from learning any other language. It all depends upon the learner’s determination, the resources and methods they use, and how consistently they practice. Put these three elements together, and you’ll start to see good progress. Exactly how long will it take? Check out this article for a rough idea. In short, it depends upon your goals, the time you’re able to commit to learning, and your determination. No, you won’t be able to learn Chinese in 5 minutes, but you can certainly add a few words to your vocabulary in that time!
Why learn Chinese? To communicate, right? For this reason, when learning Chinese (or any other language), it’s important to focus on speaking. But do be warned, Mandarin pronunciation is known for being difficult to learn because of its four tones. But, as we discussed earlier, there’s no reason you can’t do it with a combination of strong motivation and the right tools and methods.
What are these “tones” we’ve been talking about? Well, a single word in Chinese can have four different meanings if pronounced in different ways.
The best example is mā (= Mom), má (= hemp), mǎ (= horse) and mà (= to insult). Two letters, four different tones, four different words.
For this reason: 1.) yes, learning Chinese can be a daunting goal, and 2.) it’s important to be aware of the correct pronunciation, or rather, the correct tonality. This is essential for communicating in Chinese.
Tonality is certainly crucial, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Context is also very important. I mentioned Spanish earlier, and in fact, Spanish and Mandarin are (kind of) similar in this way. In Spanish, personal subject pronouns are usually omitted—you won’t say “I eat, you eat, she eats…” Instead, you’ll say “eat, eat, eats…” You have to rely on context (and the verb ending) to understand who’s being talked about. It’s kind of the same thing in Chinese—you have to use context to understand many different parts of a sentence. If you don’t know if the “ma” you heard is in reference to a horse or a mom, use context to try and figure it out. In the same way, if you haven’t yet mastered Mandarin tones, context will help others understand what you’re talking about.
There are lots of different tools to help you work on your pronunciation, tones, and spoken communication. Even if you’re starting out learning on your own.
- There’s a website called Forvo that gathers and organizes audio recordings that you can use to listen to correct pronunciations and tonalities. All you have to do in type a word in pinyin (phonetic transcription in Latin characters) or in Chinese characters to listen to recordings by native speakers.
- Our Learn Chinese app gives you vocabulary words with pronunciation recorded by a native speaker. This means you can listen to each word with the right pronunciation and tone as soon as you learn it.
- In addition to individual instructors, there are also opportunities for you to find discussion partners online. For example, there are native speakers who want to learn English, and you can speak to each other in both Mandarin and English. Conversation partners are a great way to work on your speaking skills in a new language. Be sure to check out our article on finding a Chinese conversation partner.
You often hear that Chinese is easier because there isn’t any conjugation, declension, or other such complications. It’s true, but be careful—the language certainly has its share of complexities. First of all, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t really have an alphabet. Each word is formed by one or more characters called Hanzi (which we might consider in our culture as a kind of ideogram). So, there’s no need to learn an alphabet, but you definitely have to learn many characters. Luckily, there are lots of resources to help you work on this aspect of the language, whether you’re learning on you own or in a class.
Just like vocabulary, there are apps out there to help you learn Chinese characters and get used to this different style of written expression. Because at first, these characters can seem complicated. Even kind of scary. What’s more, you have to learn not only their meaning, but also their pronunciation, how to recognize and read them, and how to write them yourself. It’s not an easy task!
But here are a couple of good tools to help you on your way:
- The app Skritter has been recommended to us several times. Like MosaLingua, it’s an app that uses spaced repetition to help you learn and recognize characters and also pronounce and write them.
- Chineasy is another app that relates Hanzi with images to help you learn Chinese characters using your visual memory.
There are lots of others you can explore. Try searching the App Store or Google Play store for “Chinese writing” or “write in Chinese” and try out a few of the top results.
Once again, the site Chine culture has a ton of tools and exercises to help you learn Mandarin, including several lessons on writing. There are many other similar sites designed to help people learn and practice Chinese writing.
- For example, the site Chinese-Tools offers different pages (for free!) with explanations for various characters and examples of how to use them correctly.
But do be careful; even though learning to write in Chinese is important and rewarding, you shouldn’t limit yourself to only practicing this one skill. It bears repeating: speaking is the most important skill for communication for most learners.
So don’t spend all of your time and efforts on writing. Instead, try to find a good balance between written and spoken practice.
So, is Mandarin Chinese the right language for you? If you decide to embark on the wonderful adventure of learning this complex and rewarding language, check out our page of resources for learning Chinese. Keep an eye out on the blog for other articles about learning various aspects of Chinese. And don’t hesitate to leave us a comment if you have any questions!
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