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The thought of learning Chinese may intrigue you, considering that it’s one of the hardest languages to learn in the world, with thousands of unique characters and four tones.
And it’s the most spoken language in the world.
As challenge as it is, learning Chinese comes with a big benefit.
In this article, I’m going to share my tips and tricks that I, as a young female American, used to become fluent in Chinese.
- About Me
- Why You Should Learn Chinese
- How Difficult is it?
- About the Chinese Language
- Chinese Language Courses
- Challenges of Learning Chinese
- How to Learn to Speak Chinese Quickly
- How to Learn to Read and Write
- Now, on to You
I have been studying Mandarin Chinese for over ten years. I have visited China twice, worked in Shanghai, China at an event management company for a summer, and I have made many Chinese friends in my local community. I love studying Chinese, and I hope to help you understand why you should be excited about learning Chinese as well.
Why You Should Learn Chinese
Learning Mandarin Chinese is an extremely useful skill to use both for your personal interests and for your career. Mandarin Chinese is one of the most spoken languages in the world with over 1 billion native speakers.
Any career, especially in business or political science, will be greatly enhanced by being able to communicate in Chinese, even if it’s only at an intermediate level. Many people end up moving to China to teach English, going to China on business trips, or traveling there for fun. Your time in China will be much more enjoyable if you can communicate with its citizens.
Studying a second (or third, or fourth) language not only expands your mind, but it helps you develop a stronger mastery of your primary language. Those who can speak multiple languages enjoy advanced cognitive abilities, an improved memory, and increased attention span.
Finally, learning Mandarin will impress your friends and family as well as yourself. Many people perceive Chinese as a difficult language, and therefore they are more impressed by someone learning Chinese than someone learning a Latin language.
You will also amaze yourself as you begin to have simple conversations and write sentences with Chinese characters.
How Difficult is it?
Chinese is famous for being a difficult language to learn. I won’t lie and pretend learning Chinese is a breeze, but once you understand how the language works, you will pick it up quickly. It is daunting to initially learn Chinese, especially when the grammar structure, tones, and writing are so different from your own language.
However, you will find that it is easy to start to build your vocabulary and communicate using simple sentences.
One of my favorite aspects of the Chinese language is that there are no conjugations. Gone are the days of French or Spanish class where you had to learn how to conjugate lists of verbs. In Chinese, the verb will always stay the same regardless of the pronoun. There are also no gender-specific nouns.
Chinese also does not have any tenses. Words will not change based on if it is a present, past, or future action.
Overall, learning Chinese will be a challenge, but it will not be as hard as you have been taught to believe!
About the Chinese Language
The Chinese language has multiple dialects, with Mandarin and Cantonese being the most popular. Mandarin is the official language of mainland China and Taiwan, with Cantonese being spoken more in Hong Kong and the province of Guangdong.
1.3 billion people in the world speak Mandarin Chinese, whereas about 66 million people speak Cantonese. Although the two dialects sound different, both use the same Chinese characters. When speaking about Chinese in this article, I am referring to Mandarin Chinese.
Chinese has over 40,000 characters, but you only need to know about 2,500 to be able to read most words in a newspaper.
Each character is composed of one or more radicals. A radical is a common component in Chinese characters. They are essentially “pictures” that mean a specific thing. When you put multiple of them together in a certain order, they form a Chinese character.
Basic Chinese Grammar Structure
Chinese is known as a tonal language. Mandarin Chinese has four tones plus one neutral tone. These for tones are imperative to speaking Chinese correctly. Using the incorrect tone can sometimes lead to miscommunication.
Each Chinese character is a single syllable, and the tone affects the vowel in the syllable. Let’s take for example the word “ma.” The first tone is a high and level tone that looks like this: mā. The second tone is má which has a moderate rise in pitch. The third tone, mǎ, falls and then rises again in pitch, and the fourth is mà which is a tone that starts out high but drops sharply, almost angrily.
To the untrained ear these may sound the same, but each of these tones do sound different and each represent a different word. For example, mā means mother whereas mǎ means horse.
If you mix up the tones it isn’t the end of the world; Chinese people can understand context and understand that you mean you bought a horse and not that you bought a mother. At other times though, using the incorrect tone can really add to confusion, so practicing speaking with the correct tones from the beginning is crucial.
Chinese’s basic sentence structure is Subject Verb Object. For example: I eat apples; We play a game. It’s pretty simple. When you add in time, it becomes Subject Time Verb Object. Because Chinese doesn’t have any tenses, it is often important to say when an action occurred because you can’t simply change the tense of the verb. For example: I yesterday go to school; You tomorrow buy food; He right now sew clothes. There are more sentence structures to learn, but these basic ones will take you far in communicating with others.
An important aspect of the Chinese language is particles. Special characters are added to the end of words and sentences to add additional meaning. The most popular particle is ma 吗 (neutral tone) that is put at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question. “You go to school ma? 你上学吗” turns a command telling someone to go to school into a question asking if they are going to school.
“This tastes good ma” turns, “This tastes good 好吃,” into, “Does this taste good? 好吃吗？” Other particles are added to the end of sentences to indicate surprise, to turn a demand into a suggestion, to add emphasis, and many more.
Radicals are the building blocks of Chinese characters. There are just over 200 Chinese radicals. These radicals are extremely useful to know because once you learn to recognize them, remembering how to write characters will become easier.
For example, 女 means female and can be found in words such as 姐(older sister), 妹(younger sister), and 妈 (mother). 饣means food and can be found in words such as 饭 (rice) and 饮 (drink).
Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK)
China has developed a standardized Chinese proficiency test. There are six levels to it, and it is designed to test the Chinese language speaking, listening, and reading proficiency of non-native speakers.
This test is most useful to foreign students studying in China as well as those hoping to work in China. However ,many people take the test simply to test themselves and to know how far along they are in their path to fluency.
The first test level, HSK 1, tests how well an individual can understand and use very simple Chinese phrases. The first HSK test expects test-takers to know 150 words.
Each subsequent test expects the test-taker to know more and more words. The highest test, HSK 6, covers 5,000 words, and passing the HSK 6 exam means the individual can easily comprehend written and spoken information in Chinese. There are official lists of what words are needed for each exam, and the exams can be taken in most parts of the world.
Although I think the HSK exams are a valuable tool in assessing your knowledge and helping you to reach concrete goals, I believe the list of HSK words should not be the only ones studied, and that passing HSK 6 does not mean a person has finished learning Chinese.
I mention the HSK exams because for the rest of this article I will bring up HSK exam preparation and HSK levels.
Chinese Language Courses
Okay, now that you’ve decided to learn Chinese, here is a list of Chinese language courses including websites, textbooks, and apps. I will list both paid courses and free courses.
Price: Subscriptions range from $8 to $47 a month; a free subscription includes a few lessons
ChineseClass101 offers thousands of lessons amongst four skill levels plus a bonus level. Unlike other websites, it does not divide up skill levels by HSK. Each lesson includes a PDF with supplementary information. The lessons include video and audio lessons spread out over modules.
Price: $29/month or $250 per year; limited number of free videos and content
ChinesePod is a video-based Chinese-learning website. Each of the video lessons is organized based on HSK level 1-6. One of the best reasons for signing up for ChinesePod is to take advantage of their “Say it Right” course.
In that multi-video course they speak with a Chinese linguistics scholar who outlines exactly how to pronounce tones. ChinesePod also has a set of free videos to watch on both their website and YouTube.
Price: $219 course bundle; individual bundles ranging from $29 to $64; some free content
Chinese Zero to Hero is a pay once and own it for life online Chinese learning website. They teach based on the HSK levels one to six structure, and they have textbooks that they ask you to buy to go along with the course. They have textbook lessons, a dictionary, reading tools, and much more to help you improve your Chinese and prepare you for an HSK exam if you choose to take one. They also have free videos on YouTube for anyone to watch.
Price: $8-$15 per private lesson
Mandarin Tutor is an online service that provides native Chinese tutors to give you Skype lessons. The tutors range from teaching beginners to advanced speakers, and some even teach Cantonese.
They have a list of all of their tutors and their credentials, what levels they teach, and their rates. Your first 30-minute Skype tutoring session is free.
Android and IOS Apps
If you want to learn Chinese then you need to download this app right now. Pleco is a free dictionary that every Chinese language learner I’ve ever met uses. You can look up characters by typing the pinyin (roman letters of the pronunciation), writing the character, using the microphone, or searching in English.
ChineseSkill is similar to Duolingo, but it is focused on learning Chinese only. It teaches vocabulary and grammar to an upper-intermediate level, and it is a fun app to use.
HelloChinese markets itself towards total beginners. Similar to Duolingo and ChineseSkill, it is game based. It teaches reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. They especially emphasize handwriting to make learning Chinese characters an easier and faster experience.
Price: Paid; Free Trial
Skritter’s focus is on learning to read and write Chinese characters. With a large dictionary of words to choose from, it’s played as a fast-paced game to see how quickly you can recognize and write new characters given to you.
It is a supplemental app to be used with other study material in order to improve your character recognition.
Quizlet is both a website and an app that allows you to create and take flashcard quizzes. You can also search for other quizzes that have already been created.
HelloTalk is an app that allows you to chat with native speakers around the world. You can sign up for free, create your profile, and then start matching with Chinese-speakers who are hoping to learn English (or whichever language you are speaking) in return.
As you message each other, you can correct each other’s grammar.
You can make friends and have a non-stressful text conversation with as many people as you’d like. As there are many Chinese people hoping to learn English, you will find that there will be no shortage of Chinese speakers to chat with.
The HSK Standard Course books range from HSK 1 to HSK 6. These books are just about as standard as you can get when it comes to learning HSK vocabulary. Each level contains only the words needed to be learned for that level’s exam.
The textbook comes with a CD, and there are also workbooks you can buy. The HSK Standard Course is the textbook required by Chinese Zero to Hero.
Integrated Chinese is one of the more widely-used textbooks. In addition to the textbook there is also a workbook and a character writing book where you can practice writing characters with the correct strokes. There are also digital files so you can listen to the audio of each textbook.
YouTube has an abundance of videos teaching beginner and intermediate students Chinese. Some of my favorite YouTube channels to learn Chinese are YoYo Chinese, Chinese Zero To Hero, ChinesePod, Everyday Chinese, Mandarin Corner, MYBY 孟言布语, and Panpan Xplore.
There are also audiobook narrations of some books. Kuo’s Audiobooks reads the Harry Potter books in Chinese.
Some TV shows and movies can also be found there. One of my favorite Taiwanese movies is called “The Secret” or “Bu Neng Shuo De Mi Mi”.
Viki is a free website that offers hundreds of Asian TV shows. You can sort them by language and have Chinese or English subtitles. Some TV shows offer a learning version and have both Chinese and English subtitles.
Watching Chinese TV will help with your comprehension, improve your reading skills (as you read the subtitles), teach you new vocabulary, and allow you to better understand Chinese culture.
My favorite TV show on Contiki is “Love Me if You Dare,” which is an excellent mix of romance and murder-mystery.
Challenges of Learning Chinese
One of the biggest challenges of learning Chinese are the tones. Tones are hard to get used to. It is a challenge that most other languages do not have to deal with, and it can be a big adjustment for new learners.
As you learn new words, practice saying the tones out loud. Watch videos or listen to audio of native speakers using the words you are learning.
Another challenge with learning Chinese is that many people choose to skip over learning to read and write. Although this is a good idea if you need to learn Chinese quickly, this is not the best idea in the long run.
When traveling in China, speaking Chinese will be extremely useful, but not being able to read will seriously hinder you while trying to order food at a restaurant or read signs. While visiting and later living in China I discovered that most foreigners living in China could not read or write Chinese.
Chinese citizens were pleasantly surprised to see that I, a young American woman, could not only speak Chinese, but could read as well. This made buying items, signing up for cell phone plans, and communicating with Chinese associates, landlords, and friends infinitely easier and faster. I highly recommend that each person who is learning Chinese learns to write at least 100 basic characters, and learns to recognize a few hundred more.
How to Learn to Speak Chinese Quickly
Some people need to learn to speak Chinese quickly for an impending move to China.
Here are the steps to learn to speak Chinese quickly:
Learn to Read Pinyin
Learn to read pinyin. Pinyin is the Romanized approximation of how Chinese words are pronounced. There are certain rules for pinyin.
For example: the letter “Q” makes a sound similar to “ch.” The letter “C” makes a “ts” sound. The pinyin for the characters to say “hello,” – 你好 – is Nĭ hăo. Learning how to read and pronounce pinyin will be crucial for the next step.
Get a Beginner’s Textbook
Either get a beginner’s textbook or make a list yourself of simple but important words to know. These words will include numbers, pronouns, transportation, months and days, time, occupations, food, conjunctions, verbs, etc. A good place to find these words will be HSK vocabulary lists.
Make a set of physical flashcards or digital ones on Quizlet. On one side write down the English word, and on the other side write the Chinese word in pinyin only (including tones). Watch videos and listen to audio to make sure you are pronouncing these words correctly, and then study these words in small groups over and over until you have them memorized.
Learn Grammar Structures
Once you have a good amount of words memorized, you will need to start learning basic grammar structures, learn how to use conjunctions in sentences, learn how to ask questions, and practice putting all of the words you have studied into sentences.
You need to find someone to practice having a conversation with. It will make no difference if you can speak 500 hundred words if you are unable to understand someone speaking Chinese.
Review and Learn New Words
Keep on reviewing old words, learning new words in small batches, practicing simple grammar patterns, and speaking with a native or near-fluent Chinese speaker.
As you follow this process and study very diligently and consistently, you will be able to converse within a matter of months.
This focuses mostly on a big vocabulary with only simple grammar patterns and no study at all of characters, and as such this should only be pursued when time is of the essence.
After the initial need to be able to speak quickly passes, you should go back and learn how to read and write some of the characters and begin learning more complex grammar patterns.
How to Learn to Read and Write
Finally I would like to share my method of learning to read and write. Of course this requires knowledge of vocabulary words. This is a process I have used for years to learn how to read and write hundreds of Chinese characters.
Before beginning to write, you need to learn the proper stroke order of writing characters.
Trying to write a Chinese character in the wrong order will be harder to write than if you follow the standardized method. Once you learn stroke order, you will be able to easily write any Chinese character you see without having to be shown how first. There are plenty of YouTube videos and textbooks that teach stroke order.
Once you have a basic understanding, then you can begin my method to learn to read and write:
- Get an iPad, writing tablet, or small whiteboard that you can easily write on and erase.
- Using your list of vocabulary words that you have already learned, divide them into groups of eight. Write each word in English on the left side of your whiteboard in a single column.
- To the right of each English word, carefully draw the Chinese character, being sure to use the correct stroke order and to draw it as neatly as possible. Write each one multiple times before moving on to the next character so that you can get used to writing it. Once you have written each character multiple times, erase each of the characters leaving only the English on the board.
- Attempt to write each character from memory to the right of the English word. Once you have written all of the characters, erase them and begin writing them again from memory. Keep on writing each one and then erasing over and over until you can write every character next to their English word in a row a few times without checking.
- Begin this same process over again with the next set of eight characters. Once you have those eight memorized then practice writing the first eight in addition to the newest eight all from memory. Do this until you have memorized anywhere from 16-40 words. Repeat the process the next day with new groups of words, and keep on reviewing old words. Eventually these will add up and you will soon have a good amount of characters memorized.
I have been doing this process for over ten years. When I first began, it took me close to an hour to memorize how to write eight characters.
Over time I got used to writing characters and soon it only took me 15 minutes to memorize each new batch of characters. This has added up to me being able to read and/or write well over 2,000 characters.
Now, on to You
Learning Chinese has been a rewarding experience for me, and I hope it will be for you as well. With these tips and resources I have laid out you can begin your journey of learning this beautiful language. Good luck! 祝你好运！