"A fixed method is not a method" - Chinese Proverb.
Nothing is static. Especially when it comes to learning languages. There are plenty of different types of learning methods.
If you want to learn to speak Chinese on your own, you’ll need to be motivated and choose the method that will work best for you. Learning a foreign language is never easy and you’ll always need to willing to step outside your comfort zone.
Since the Chinese alphabet and Chinese pronunciation are completely different to how they are in English, learning Chinese is often seen as an impossible task. Is it all Greek to you? Don’t worry! There are plenty of falsehoods about learning Chinese that we’re going to debunk over the course of this article.
In fact, when done right, learning Chinese is no more difficult than learning Arabic, Portuguese, or Russian. All languages are difficult in their own ways, after all. You just have to avoid hitting the Great Wall.
Whether you’re taking tutorials with a native tutor or learning on your own, it’s imperative that you learn about Chinese-speaking culture and history. You can even get a free Chinese course if you’re learning on your own.
China, Taiwan, and Singapore all have a variety of official Chinese languages: Simplified Chinese characters are used in China while Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan and different dialects (and languages) such as Cantonese, Min, Wu, and Gan are spoken in different regions.
With over 1.3 billion people speaking a form of Chinese as their first language, there are plenty of people and resources you can start learning the language from.
Here are some of Superprof’s best tips and tricks for learning Chinese by yourself.
Is It Difficult to Learn Chinese on Your Own?
Before you start learning Chinese, you need to know that it’s going to be a long process. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the Great Wall. Learning any foreign language, especially Chinese, can be frustrating at the start.
While everyone should be able to get the basics down without too many difficulties, there are a number of things that may have you wanting to give up altogether.
The Time It Takes to Learn the Basics
Ying Cai, a tutor at Gicfo, reckons that a student needs between 80 and 100 hours of Chinese tuition in order to learn the basics of Chinese. They also have to be motivated, disciplined and study every day, too.
We’re not even talking about speaking Chinese fluently, just getting to grips with some of the simplest elements of the language. This means that you’ll need about 100 hours of intensive study in order to be ready to speak, read, and write in Chinese. Learning on your own can take longer as you won’t have the feedback from a dedicated tutor.
Mandarin Chinese Grammar and Conjugations: Easy
At first glance, Mandarin Chinese might seem complex. When you look at the writing system, you’ll probably not understand anything. They look more like calligraphy than they do words and phrases, don't they?
Is it a difficult language? Yes and no. A lot of English speakers think that Chinese is one of the hardest to learn.
We have some good news for you: Chinese grammar and conjugations are quite simple. You don’t have genders (like in languages like French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese), singular or plural nouns, or conjugations!
A basic Chinese sentence can be put together as: subject + verb + object. You don’t need to add auxiliary verbs to adjectives in Chinese, either. In fact, verbs are understood in context unlike “being well” and “doing well” in English.
Chinese is also simpler since you needn’t conjugate verbs. You just need to change the subject:
- 我很好 (Wo hěn hao): I’m good.
- 你很好 (Ni hěn hao): You’re good.
- 他很好 (Tā hěn hao): He’s good.
Tone and Pronunciation in Chinese
Chinese is a monosyllabic tonal language. This can be difficult for most Europeans since our languages don’t have “tones” like Chinese does. This means a word can have four different meanings based on how it’s pronounced.
For example, the word ma can mean:
- “Mother” in the first tone.
- “To bother” in the second.
- “Horse” in the third.
- “To scold” in the fourth.
These different “tones” can be annoying at first but you’ll get used to them.
Discover how to have fun while learning Chinese!
A lot of people arrive in China without speaking a word of the language. However, they often find friendly and welcoming locals who are happy to teach them a few words (though they’ll probably pronounce them wrong at first). After a few weeks, you’ll probably be able to make yourself understood in a few shops but most people still won’t fully understand you. With so few people speaking English in some places, you’ll probably have to resort to non-verbal communication. This can be really frustrating for anyone desperate to learn the language!
The best way to get around these frustrations is to spend between 15 and 30 minutes per day working on your pronunciation.
While it’s almost impossible to become bilingual by teaching yourself, you can teach yourself a few basics like how to say “hello” and “I would like...”, for example.
3 Steps to Learning Chinese from Home
Signing up to learn Chinese can often be done at language centres or directly via local councils.
What can you do if there are no spaces left on any of these programmes? What are your options?
You shouldn't let anything stop you on your mission to learn Chinese! There’s more than one way to learn the basics of Chinese, after all!
Studying Chinese can be complicated. However, it’s not impossible! Here’s some quick advice to make learning Chinese easier.
1. Focus on Your Goals
Why are you learning Chinese? Is it just to learn a new language, for your studies, or to travel to China, Singapore, or Taiwan?
Clearly defining your objectives is a great way to stay motivated given that starting to learn a language can sometimes be the most difficult part. If you want to stay motivated, you need to know why you’re doing it.
Those who want to travel should start by learning useful expressions for travellers. Make sure you learn all the important Chinese vocabulary. Start simple and work your way up.
However, if you want to work in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, or Hainan, you’re going to need a high level of Chinese.
2. Train Your Ear
The key to learning a language is getting your brain used to hearing the ways the language is different to your own. Immersion can help you distinguish whether somebody is speaking Mandarin Chinese or not. This is similar to how you can tell the difference between different English accents. You need to get used to how Chinese sounds.
You can also have fun with learning Chinese by playing pronunciation games. These are a great way to improve your speaking and listening.
If you’re watching a video on YouTube, you can always check if there are Chinese subtitles. Consider doing this every day!
Look for television channels. While it can be more difficult to find Chinese channels, there are a number of Taiwanese channels you can watch to help you train your ear to the tonality of Chinese. This will also help you learn new words and improve your listening comprehension.
Try out these easy ways to learn Chinese...
3. Focus on how Chinese Words are Pronounced
You need to remember that you’re going to have to learn what Chinese characters mean. However, beginners don’t need to learn them all off by heart.
Even the smartest people in the world don’t know all the characters in Chinese. You can use the Pinyin romanisation method is a way to phonetically write out Chinese characters using the Latin alphabet.
Let's start with four characters. The Mandarin Chinese word for capital 京 is “jing”, north is 北 (bei), the middle is 中 (zhong), and south is 南 (nan).
Using these four characters and the character 台 (Tai), you can now write five of the best known cities.
- Beijing or Bei + Jing (Capital of the North): 北京
- Nankin or Nan + Jing, (Capital of the South): 南京
- Taipei (in Northern Taiwan) or Tai + Bei: 台北
- Taichung (in Central Taiwan) or Tai + Zhong: 台中
- Tainan (in Southern Taiwan) or Tai + Nan: 台京
You’ll also see some of these Chinese ideograms in the street.
Thank you is 谢谢 or xièxiè when using pinyin romanisation. It’s sort of pronounced like syeh-syeh.
Hello is “ni hao” or 你好. If you want to ask for something you can say “wo yao” or 我要 which literally means “I want”.
There are plenty of sites to help you learn more Chinese vocabulary as well as the pronunciation. Once you know these, you can move onto the next step.
Take a Chinese course online here.
Learn the Numbers from 1 to 10
If you want to better understand Mandarin Chinese, you need to learn more words than just “hello” and “thank you” and you won’t get very far just knowing the names of 5 cities, either.
Here are some numbers in Chinese with their approximate pronunciation:
- 1: yi (一), like the letter “e”.
- 2: èr (二) “are”
- 3: sān (三)
- 4: sì (四), “suh”
- 5: wû (五), “whoa”
- 6: liù (六), “lay-oh”
- 7: qī (七) “t-chee”
- 8 : bā (八)
- 9: jiû (九) “gee-oh”
- 10: shí (十) “shee”
You should consider making vocabulary lists and flashcards and then hang them on walls. Make sure you write the Chinese character, the Pinyin, and the what it means in English.
This is a useful way to learn new words and how to read them. There are also a lot of websites where you can download and print flashcards in Chinese.
Learn also the quickest ways to learn Chinese...
Learning Chinese: Essential Expressions
Let’s have a look at the words anyone going to China should learn before they head off. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going there on holiday, moving there, or planning on working there, you should have a few of the basics mastered before you get on the plane. Just a few simple expressions to make sure that you’re not completely lost.
Here are some of the most important expressions to get you started in Chinese:
Xiè xiè nín
Bú kè qì
Dùi bù qǐ
Zǎo chén hǎo
Expressions in Chinese for meetings and encounters:
Do you speak English?
您 会 讲 英语 吗
Nín hùi jiǎng yīng yǔ ma
Is there somebody who speaks English here?
这里 有人 会 讲 英语 吗
Zhè lǐ yǒu rén hùi jiǎng yīng yǔ ma
I only speak a little Chinese
我 只会 讲 一点 中文
Wǒ zhǐ huì jiǎng yì diǎn zhōng wén
What’s your name?
您 叫 什么 名字
Nín jiaò shén me míng zì
My name is Luo Lun Si
我 叫 罗 论 丝
Wǒ jiaò lúo lún sī
How are you?
I’m good. Thank you.
我 很好 谢谢 您
Xiè xiè nín
Nice to meet you.
很 高兴 认识 您
Hěn gāo xìng rèn shí nín.
I don’t understand.
我 不 明白
Wǒ bú míng bái
Practice Chinese Every Day
Like running, you need to practice regularly. It’s much easier to run for 20 minutes three times a week than to do an hour once a week. The same is true for learning Chinese in class: You’ll improve much more quickly without becoming demotivated. The same goes for teaching yourself Chinese.
To learn the new phonetics and distinguish the four “tones”, you’ll need to listen again and again to the language. By practising these regularly, you’ll soon be able to get the most out of the language’s different “tones”.
Learn more about how to learn Chinese...
4 Tools for Learning Chinese Quickly
In the age of Web 2.0, learning Chinese online is a great way to get ready for a trip to China or Taiwan, for example.
While Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese, China favours Simplified Chinese. There are many different ways to learn Chinese depending on where you’re going to speak it! However, when you study Chinese before going to a Chinese-speaking country, you'll see that most online courses focus on Simplified Chinese.
There are several ways to learn Chinese and here are a few worth looking at.
1. Chinese HSK App
The free Chinese HSK app is aimed at students wanting to pass the Chinese “Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi” test levels 1 to 4. Developed by Around Pixels, these four applications offer the word lists and expressions you need to know to pass the exams, games for practising, and statistics on your progress in order to help you revise and improve.
It should be noted that the HSK uses Simplified Chinese characters. There are also Chinese-English dictionaries offered for just a few pounds.
2. Hello Chinese
There are obviously tonnes of different apps for learning Chinese on your smartphone. However, they don’t all offer ways to learn Chinese while having fun! That’s why a lot of students choose the Hello Chinese app. You learn a lot more quickly when you’re having fun, after all.
The app includes:
Vocal recognition for working on your accent
Writing Chinese characters
Lessons based on the HSK tests
3. Learn Chinese with Anki
Anki is a programme that uses flashcards and comes highly recommended for learning Chinese characters.
You can also synchronise all your flashcards across different apps so that you can practice them wherever and whenever you like. You can very quickly start creating your own flashcards to help you learn the thousands of Chinese characters.
It’s also very useful for learning other languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet like:
The Chinese writing system is one of the hardest things to master. For example, “Hello” is written as “Ni Hao” in pinyin but is written as 你好 in Hànzì. This is why flashcards will come in really handy. You can repeat the ones you’re struggling with more frequently than those you’ve mastered.
4. Pleco, A Chinese Dictionary in Your Pocket
Pleco is one of the most popular apps for looking up Chinese words and a detailed explanation of their definition. It’s also very popular amongst those getting ready to travel to China or Taiwan.
Pleco doesn’t just offer a dictionary. There’s also visual and audio recognition for Chinese characters and words. By learning the phonetics, you’ll be able to move on to learning Chinese writing.
In addition to a translation for each word, there are also examples of the words being used, how they’re used, and a pronunciation guide. It’s a well-rounded application for any level of Chinese.
Free versions available
6 complete apps
The cost of buying all 6 apps
Audio recorded by native speakers
Dictionary and smartphone App
An invaluable tool for anyone travelling
Great for your memory
Immersion in a Chinese-speaking Country
Rather than studying Chinese in your room, why not go to Taiwan or China and learn the language there?
Let’s take Taipei, for example. This is the most populated city on the island of Taiwan.
Going to Taiwan is a great way to learn the language directly from the mouths of native speakers and one of the most effective ways to learn a language. Learning this way can help you learn Chinese as quickly as you would any other language.
Many people arrive in Taiwan with a limited knowledge of the language and only know how to say things like “hello” and “thank you”. They order food by gesturing but soon have to start speaking Chinese and learning a few important expressions.
Living in China or Taiwan could do wonders for your Chinese. You’ll soon surprise yourself with how much you’ve learnt. Our advice is to study the basics and tones before you go anywhere. Don’t forget to bring your Pleco dictionary with you, too!
Staying with a host family is also a good way to practice every day. With a bit of luck, you might even find a Chinese-speaking roommate to help you practise as much as possible. Are you worried about getting lost? Make sure you do your research before setting off!
While English translations are common, they’re not often very good. Make sure you have something to help you write out characters phonetically and learn some basic expressions to help you in case you do get lost when venturing outside of bigger cities.
Try to speak Chinese as soon as you land!
More Resources for Learning Chinese on Your Own
Thank to the Internet, you can learn Chinese wherever you are in the world.
Can’t afford to go to Asia? No problem! There are plenty of free quality learning materials and courses on the Internet. You can create your own immersion environment by watching YouTube, using smartphone apps, and listening to Chinese podcasts! Learning Chinese needn’t cost you an arm and a leg.
There are also tutorials online for learning Chinese for everyone from beginners to experts. It doesn’t matter if you speak at an A1 or a C2 level, you can get free tutorials from the comfort of your own home whenever you want them.
As we said, there are also tonnes of mobile apps on Google Play Store or on iTunes for you to download and study Chinese. Hello Chinese is one of our personal favourites. Using an app means you can learn at your own pace every day and start getting better.
Whether you’re in the car (not driving, though!), going to work, on the bus, about to go to bed, or on your lunch break, you can learn Chinese anywhere! Use your free time to learn new language skills.
Apps use a variety of different approaches when it comes to learning a language and you can use them to learn how to pronounce Chinese words, memorise characters, learn to read, write, and speak, or to study grammar and vocabulary.
There are also language-learning packs you can buy that come with study guides, grammar books, CDs, DVDs, etc. However, you do have to pay for them and very few of them are cheap.
Are you sick of using apps? Starting to lose motivation? You can always turn to podcasts in Chinese on topics that you’re interested in. Whatever you like, there’s probably a podcast you can listen to in order to learn more about it and the Chinese language.
What’s better than becoming bilingual by listening to the radio? You can use online radio to find Chinese-language radio stations.
Superprof wishes you luck in your Chinese-learning endeavours! Learning Chinese and travelling to Chinese-speaking countries is worth it! Don't give up!
Find a Mandarin tutor on Superprof:
- Learn Mandarin London
- Learn Mandarin Glasgow
- Learn Mandarin Leeds