Do you want to learn Mandarin Chinese? Here is how!
If you are just starting your journey to learn Chinese language you have come to the right place.
This website has a lot of FREE learning resources, advice, and tips how to go about learning Mandarin Chinese. It is geared towards self-learners who want to tailor their lessons according to their needs and on their own terms. My aim is to present the tools and techniques available to learn Mandarin in order for you to experience a meaningful progress.
To navigate this page, please refer to the table of contents below.
There has never been a better time to learn Mandarin.
In the past few decades China has opened up to the world. As a result of its booming domestic market and soaring foreign trade it has become the world’s second biggest economy. Consequently, the mobility of the people and knowledge between West and East is on the rise. The NEED to overcome the language and cultural barriers has become a major issue for many Westerns and vice versa; that is Chinese people learning English.
Competent bilingual English-Mandarin speakers are in high demand.
Knowing what your language goals are and be excited about the learning path you charted out should give you a good head start.
My hope is that this website will provide you a thorough overview of what’s available out there and enable you to choose the right tools for the task.
So here is how you do it!
1.How to begin?
There has been a veritable explosion in Chinese language courses compared to a few years ago. That’s great news!
However, the shear number of available courses and apps present a challenge for beginning learners too choose the right one.
Not only that, but even more so because every course can only take you so far. The reason being, that each course always has to take an angle on a particular topic for the sake of organization of learning material.
To thoroughly understand a certain topic you will find yourself returning to it by studying from a number of sources.
There are different paths up the same mountain and ultimately it is your responsibility to find your own.
Your ability to communicate effectively in Mandarin won’t reflect directly the quality of the course but rather how well you connect different pieces of Mandarin puzzle and APPLY THEM to your interaction with other Mandarin speakers.
If you want to invest in a solid course here is an extensive list of online Mandarin courses and tools available today.
There is also an important question that needs to be answered before you delve into learning.
2.Why learn Mandarin?
Whether you are planning a trip to China, want to speak Chinese fluently for your professional or study needs, or you’re just passionate about Chinese language and culture, take time and read my reflections on how to set your Mandarin language learning goals. It is essential to be clear on that.
First thing you need to know before you start a journey is to be clear on where you’re heading because a journey to learn Mandarin will undoubtedly be a long one.
If you start down the path that’s not right for your circumstances, you might miss the ultimate goal all together. Not by learning the wrong things, but rather trying to absorb too much or too little for your level and start to stagnate or worse, giving up. Thus, finding what DRIVES YOU to learn Mandarin should be your first step to learn the Pǔtōnghuà (普通话 Simplified, 普通話 Traditional; lit. “common language”).
Just learning for the sake of learning and hoping you’ll get there at one point is not enough. Find what feels rewarding for you when you use Mandarin and do it as much as possible. There are many road-blocks that can kill your motivation. Assume a problem solving mentality and keep your eyes on the prize!
Ask yourself what makes you WANT to learn Mandarin?
By identifying your core desires that stirred the interest in the first place you set your creative mind in motion and focus on what is important for YOUR SITUATION.
Why is this so essential?
Creative mind helps you make connections and associations that give a tremendous boost to your learning abilities. And when you NEED something, you become creative about getting it.
It is true that by mastering a few words and phrases you can navigate around fairly easily on a trip to China. I have a whole page dedicated to survival Mandarin phrases along with correct pronunciation. With some ingenuity and basic social skills on your part, these phrases should help you make a trip to China a fulfilling and enjoyable experience.
So, whatever it is that got you hooked on Mandarin, let it open the doors for you into even more fascinating territories. China and Chinese culture has plenty to offer. Let this be your drive to learn more each and every day weather it be a new phrase, a few new characters or some grammar.
The answer to this question will ultimately determine how far you’ll get with Mandarin.
3.What does it take to become fluent in Mandarin?
In addition to the above becoming fluent in daily life takes some serious effort and dedication on your side. It is a whole new ball game.
After all, the motto of this website is “A journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step!” attributed to ancient Chinese sage Laozi.
Becoming fluent in Mandarin is a long journey. I want to help you make it an exciting one. It is well worth it once you get things in motion.
Fluency is mostly associated with your ability to make a meaningful conversation. Also, from my experience most people want to get their conversational skill to a decent level first.
If you feel that’s your definition of fluency, then learning Mandarin tones first along with pinyin, learning vocabulary and grammar as you go, should take you pretty far as long as you use what you have learned on DAILY BASIS.
Remember to identify your language NEEDS! For example, don’t start learning odd characters if you are going on a student exchange to China next month. Think about what or who you might encounter and try to imagine what you would like to say. The RIGHT focus is paramount.
I believe if you approach learning a language with lively curiosity and maintain it you’ve already won half the battle.
Based on your particular needs you should turn this excitement into correct organization of your lessons and study materials by choosing the course that best suits your needs, organize your notes, setting aside time to listen to podcasts, connect with other learners, find a language learning partner etc.
If you want to stick with the above definition of fluency, that’s fine. However, most language teachers would agree that being fluent in any language encompasses speaking, reading and writing with ease. In other words being comfortable and capable using each of these skills.
Let’s have a look at each topic the way you will most likely encounter them as you learn.
-Mandarin is a tonal language
-Tone of a syllable determines it’s meaning
-There are 4 tones + a toneless (neutral) tone
You have probably heard that Mandarin uses tones to convey the meaning. This concept might seem foreign at first and indeed it can present a major hurdle for English speakers.
Right of the bet I also cringed at the concept that variations in pitch totally change the meaning since my musical ear is mediocre at best. How will I be able to tell the difference?
It turned out it is not as hard as it seems but it takes practice.
I have discussed Mandarin tones in depth here. They are definitely the first thing you should familiarize yourself with and go hand in hand with our second topic on the list which is pinyin romanization.
-Pinyin is a standard way to transcribe Chinese characters into Roman alphabet
-Helps you pronounce the characters correctly
-Doesn’t tell anything about the meaning of a given character
Pinyin helps you pronounce any given character (syllable) with a correct tone and consequently correct meaning. However, you can not figure the meaning by pinyin alone.
Learning tones along with correct pronunciation and pinyin is where you should start your Mandarin studies. Invest a solid amount of time to master them. They are the most important foundation to build upon. It will pay off big-time down the road.
In fact, if you only glance over tones and pinyin thinking “I get the concept” it will be hard or even impossible for you to progress.
-Many people find Mandarin grammar simpler than its European counterparts
-Basic sentence formula consists of a subject + verb + object
-The Golden Rule: Subject + When/Where/How + Action
There is much debate about weather to learn grammar as you go, dedicate time to address it separately or not at all by just immersing yourself in the language.
There are people who succeeded learning Mandarin without ever opening a grammar book as well as people who would swear it is essential to get a solid foundation in Mandarin grammar first.
Anyhow, it is prudent to get some idea about Mandarin sentence structure and other grammatical aspects. It is useful to understand the logical backbone of a language.
Refer to this article to find out more about Mandarin grammar.
-Standard Mandarin is based on Beijing dialect
-There are almost 1 billion Mandarin speakers
-Standard Mandarin Chinese is to the East what English is to the West
Unless you are a scholar who wants to study ancient Chinese texts, speaking Mandarin as it is spoken today is probably YOUR TOP priority.
I believe that most of us are driven to learn a language to connect with other people and speaking with native speakers is the best way to do so.
On a more general note, interacting with other people is what enable us to grow on many different levels of our being. This is a reward in and of itself and the reason why I find learning Mandarin so exciting. It opens the doors to connect with 1/7 of the World population. Isn’t that just great?
Most courses today will follow a logical structure of social interaction development from simple greetings and introductions to more complex conversations every person encounters in their daily life.
Chances are, you might want to focus solely on your speaking ability which is great since a lot of courses primarily focus on this.
The most important thing I want to emphasize here is to speak from the very beginning. You have to hear and get used to your voice in Mandarin from the get-go. If you know ten words and 5 phrases USE them! If you know a few more even better.
If you are not around Mandarin speakers make up an imaginary situation and USE the words you know. Repeat the words and phrases aloud every time you have a chance. That’s how pronunciation of the tones or “thinking in tones” will become a second nature to you much faster.
Get used to your voice pronouncing Mandarin phrases. Corrections from a qualified Mandarin teacher are of great help at this point. However, with a reasonable self-assessment you can get it right on your own.
Don’t be nervous about making mistakes. It is true that correct pronunciation is very important especially when it comes to Mandarin. What I want to say is to loosen up a bit, relax and allow yourself to use your current skill level without beating your head against the wall for every mistake you make.
-China has many languages, dialects and accents
Listening skill is often neglected in beginning Mandarin courses and for a good reason. It’s hard. Often it comes as a disappointment for beginners who start to get a feeling that they are finally getting somewhere with their speaking skill, only to find that they can’t continue the conversation because they don’t get what’s being said.
One thing is listening to your typical lesson, reading along the characters and pinyin but the reality is much more complex. When you get in contact with Mandarin speaking environment, you’ll be facing many challenges like: regional dialect, individual voices, speed of talking etc.
Listening is a real challenge and where being realistic and persisting makes a huge difference.
-3000 characters are used 99.5% of the time
-Simplified characters (used in Mainland China) vs. traditional characters (used in Taiwan)
This is where the real adventure in Chinese language begins. As you might know there are thousands of characters and learning them seems like an impossible task.
The question here is how to turn an impossible task into a possible one?
Again, first you need to find out what exactly do you NEED and work from there. It turns out there are 3000 characters that are used 99.5 % of the time. These are the characters you will encounter in text messages, emails, menus, on the streets, newspapers etc. Also, they can be grouped together by different characteristics which makes gargantuan task of learning them somehow easier.
There is also one important thing you should be aware of and that is the difference between simplified and traditional characters. In short, simplified characters are used in mainland China and Singapore, whereas traditional characters can be found in Taiwan.
Traditional and simplified script overlap 2/3 of the time. That means that two pieces of text, one written in traditional and the other in simplified script with the same wording will share over 60% of the characters.
Over the years I have used different tools and techniques to memorize them. I have written about most of them in the past. If you want to find out more about these techniques start with my article about how to learn Chinese characters.
It might seem that just memorizing the shape and meaning of the character is a good way to learn how to read. As for myself, I found that it’s much easier to remember them if I learn how to write them.