Where To Start If You Want To Learn Mandarin Chinese

Learning Chinese

So you’ve decided to tackle the Chinese language and see for yourself if it’s as hard as people say it is. The only problem is you’re unsure where to begin. Should you sign up for a class? Learn on your own? What’s best?

First, let me congratulate you on taking up the challenge. Learning Chinese is fun, and though it may seem hard it’s not impossible. Also, the perception of something being hard or easy is subjective. It’s all about your mindset and how determined you are to learn. Many people have conquered Chinese much later in life, so if they can, so can you!

There isn’t a right way to learn Chinese, though there are faster ways. Everyone learns differently and for some, they may prefer learning in a classroom setting. Others may be more independent learners and prefer this route. Or do both—take a class and learn more on your own! Do what feels best for you.

Whether you take a class or learn on your own, this post will provide tips on where to start with learning Chinese.

Know why you want to learn Chinese

Before diving in, think about why you want to learn Chinese. Having a clear reason can help during times when you feel like giving up. Remind yourself of your purpose for studying Chinese and it can help you stay motivated.

If you enjoy learning languages, then great! That will keep you going even when it gets tough.

But what if you’re motivated to learn Chinese for other reasons? Maybe it’s to remain competitive in the job market or to enhance business opportunities. For these external types of motivation research shows they can be just as motivating. The key is to identify why a goal is personally important to you. Autonomy is also important to staying engaged in learning. That’s why making choices about what and how you learn can be a strategy for long-term success.

Define clear goals for learning Chinese

The second thing you’ll want to ask yourself is what are your goals? What outcomes do you want with learning Chinese? Make sure the goal is specific. To become fluent is not specific enough. Instead, a better goal is to have a half hour conversation with a native speaker in three month’s time.

Once you have a goal, write it down, then break down the goal, and make a plan. How are you going to achieve it? If you want to achieve the end goal, then breaking it down into mini goals will help you get there faster. What do you plan to do daily to get closer to this goal? What should you be able to do by the end of each week? How much should you have accomplished by the end of each month?

By creating an action plan, you’ll have a better idea of the time you need for studying Chinese. If the plan is not realistic, then determine what is and adjust the timeframes for reaching your goal.

Begin by learning the tones

Chinese is a tonal language and Mandarin has four tones (or five if counting the neutral tone.) Speaking with the wrong tones can produce different meanings because Mandarin contains many homophones.

Spend enough time on the tones so you can tell them apart. This is where a Chinese teacher or native speaker can help a great deal in this area.

You can also make flashcards on Anki, a spaced repetition software program, to train your ear. Create cards of random words and include the sound of the word. Then test yourself on the tones.

Tip: Install the Chinese Support add-on in Anki, which adds the sounds of the words for you. In Anki, go to the Tools menu > Add-ons > Browse & Install. Click the Browse button and search for “Chinese Support.” Look for the code to install the add-on.

Learn the Pinyin or Zhuyin phonetic system

Pinyin is the phonetic system used in China. It uses the roman alphabet to transcribe Chinese characters. Most learning materials will provide Pinyin so learners can read the text. Pinyin helps learners read Chinese before they are able to read characters.

Another phonetic system that’s less popular is Zhuyin Fuhao or better known as Bopomofo. In Taiwan, elementary students learn Zhuyin before they learn all the characters. I recommend learning Zhuyin before Pinyin for more accurate pronunciation of words.

Rather than using the Latin alphabet, Zhuyin consists of 37 phonetic symbols. This system avoids the common problem of associating English phonetics with Pinyin. For more about the Pinyin and Zhuyin systems, you can read my post here.

Listen, listen, listen

One of the most important things to do as a beginner is to get familiarized with the sounds of a foreign language. Doing a lot of listening is important in the early stages of learning. After all, how can you have a conversation with someone if you don’t understand what he or she is saying?

There are two types of listening you can do: active and passive. In active listening, you pay full attention to the dialogue and try your best to understand. You’ll likely have to repeat back what you heard or respond with an answer.

Active listening is where you want to spend most of your time because it’s where you will learn the most. Many learning programs, podcasts, and children’s learning videos use this method. Do a search for “Chinese learning podcasts” and you’ll find quite a few.

The other type of listening is passive and doesn’t need your full attention. In passive listening, you listen to music or news in Chinese while doing something else. This form of listening helps you get more accustomed to a language’s rhythm and sounds.

Practice speaking and repeating phrases

When learning new phrases, listen to it a few times and then try repeating back what you’ve heard. I recommend finding a teacher or native speaker to practice with so that you can get feedback.

You want to make sure that your tones and pronunciation are correct. Receiving immediate feedback is critical to building a solid foundation in your pronunciation. You can find teachers on italki.com or waichinese.com.

It’s also helpful to record yourself and review the audio. Sometimes you may not realize you’re pronouncing words wrong until you hear it afterwards. By recording yourself, you can verify that you’re saying the words in the correct manner.

Learn basic words and phrases

Beginning any conversation will involve basic greetings, so learning these phrases is a no-brainer. You can learn from a textbook, but a better approach is to think of your interests. Then think of the vocabulary that you’ll need to have a conversation with someone. This way, you’ll remember more of what you learn and likely use the words and phrases more often.

Afterwards, learn words based on themes or topics, such as travel, food, work, or family. Whatever you can think of that can be useful to you add to your lists. Usually conversations are topic-based. Learning relevant words and phrases will help get you talking sooner.

By taking an active approach, you’ll be more engaged in learning Chinese.

Be sure to use spaced repetition software like Anki to learn new words and phrases. You’ll save time studying and build your vocabulary faster using this method. For more on how to use Anki, read my post here.

Learn grammar

Chinese grammar is much simpler compared to English or other languages. There are no tenses, verb conjugations, plurals, articles, and gender.

Although it’s not necessary to jump into grammar right away, having a grammar book can be helpful. A good book to use as a reference is Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide.

When studying grammar concepts, create Anki cards for review. Look for a few examples and study them. Make sure you understand the concept. Then create your own sentences to apply what you’ve learned. Have a teacher or native speaker review your sentences to check your understanding.

Learn characters

Chinese characters can be the most intimidating aspect of learning the language. Some learners choose to delay learning them as a result. But, if you plan to read and write in Chinese, I recommend learning characters from the beginning. The simple reason is you’ll be able to recognize characters sooner.

Repeated exposure to characters you’ve learned will allow you to remember them better. It’s likely you will need to review characters many times before you’re able to remember them. Why not start learning them early?

There are ways to make learning characters a simpler task than writing them over and over. This is the traditional method of learning characters and a time-consuming one as well. A better method is using both Anki and mnemonics, which I’ve already written in a detailed post here.

Check your progress periodically

As you progress, test yourself often. Make sure you understand and remember what you’ve learned. One way of testing your recall is to review your Anki cards. Make sure to review them on a daily basis.

Another way of testing is to get a teacher or native speaker to test you on what you’ve learned during the week. This form of testing doesn’t need to be formal. It can just be a discussion of your understanding of the concepts. You can also give examples of how you would apply them.

Once you reach your goals, don’t forget to reward yourself for the accomplishment. Then set new goals to work towards and soon you’ll be past the beginner stage!

If you’d like to learn more tips, please check out the Free Resources page of this site. For those who have been learning Chinese for a while, what extra tips do you have? Please share in the comments below.

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