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beginnerSituation: You have just started learning Chinese or plan to do so in the near future. If you feel that you can already understand elementary Chinese and communicate on a basic level, I consider you to be an intermediate learner. I consider anything below CEFR B1 to be beginner level.

Goal: Be able to use Chinese to communicate with natives about school, work, life and leisure or other things which aren’t strictly personal, but still related to your world of experience.

Here are some questions we will look at:

  • I’m a beginner, how do I study Chinese?
  • What should I do first? What can wait a bit?
  • What indispensable tools and resources are there?

Before we look at the articles relevant for beginners, there are some very important things I would like to talk about first. Below, I have selected seven particularly important things that beginners should pay attention to.

1. Organise what you learn

One thing you should do as early as possible is to develop a system to keep track of what you learn. The best way of doing this is using what’s called spaced repetition software, which can be installed both on your computer and your phone. It might seem like a daunting task, but in order to learn Chinese, you not only have to learn new things all the time, you also have to remember what you have already studied. I suggest Anki (free) for this in general, but if you want a program specifically geared towards learning to write characters, I suggest Skritter. If you are taking a course in Chinese, it sometimes isn’t required of you to remember what you did two months ago, but this is vital if you have any serious plans of learning the language! Schools and teachers seldom test everything you need to know.

2. Avoid perfectionism

You’ve just set out on a journey of a thousand miles, so the important thing isn’t to make every step perfect, but to keep moving. Avoid aiming for 100%, 90% is usually enough (except for pronunciation), the important thing is that you’re moving with a purpose and a goal. The reason why perfectionism isn’t good for you is that you will end up spending huge amounts of time gaining those few last percentage points. You should instead spend this time learning other things and expanding your horizons. It’s more efficient to perfect something once your level is considerably higher than it is now.

3. Start looking for learning outside the classroom

Your textbook might be the best on the market and your teacher the coolest guy around, but you should start looking for secondary language sources from the very start. If possible, find native speakers, but there are also loads of computer software, radio shows, film clips on YouTube and so on, to help you get started. I suggest checking out a beginner-friendly podcast immediately (I used ChinesePod). Buying an extra textbook might also be a good idea, but remember that you shouldn’t read that one to learn everything, just to see things from another angle. Finally, you should start using Chinese to communicate immediately. Don’t isolate yourself in the classroom.

4. Find friends for help and cooperation

To start with, allying yourself with a fellow student is a good idea, but this isn’t specific for studying Chinese. Having somebody on the same ambition level as yourself can be an incredible boost to your learning speed. Furthermore, at some point you want to find native speakers to actually help you develop quicker. It’s very easy to find Chinese people online who want to learn English, so if you can’t find anything else, this might be a good idea (be careful, though, just because they are native speakers doesn’t mean their Chinese is perfect). The best way is of course to find native speakers who you can meet and make friends with in the usual manner. I’ve found that an explicit language-based relationship (language exchange) is sometimes preferable, but to each his own.

5. Embrace that which is distinctively Chinese

Regardless if you have studied other foreign languages before, Chinese presents some unique challenges (I even have a special category with articles about this). The most important thing of all is to understand that your attitude affects your learning. If you think Chinese is weird and stupid, you will start hating it, making it very unlikely that your learning will be either enjoyable or effective (these are intimately connected). You should instead open your mind and embrace the uniqueness of the Chinese language. Learning Chinese is definitely possible, but don’t make it harder than it already is by adopting the wrong attitude. Depending on how you look at it, Chinese is sometimes really easy!

6. Examine your goals and motivations

Why do you want to learn Chinese? Do you have any specific plans for how to use the language in the future? These are very, very important questions you should keep on asking yourself, because your learning strategy is intimately related to the answers to those questions. For instance, if your goal is to be able to travel in China and chat with Chinese people, learning to write five thousand characters by hand is a waste of time, but on the other hand, if you plan to teach Chinese, you probably have no choice. You have to know what you want in order to achieve it. You also have to know what you want in order to be able to evaluate if your studying method is working.

7. Enjoy yourself

This is not a cliche to make you feel good, but rather a serious word of warning. Make sure that you like what you are doing, regardless of whether it’s language exchange with a native speaker, listening to audio lessons or writing characters. If you don’t enjoy yourself, you will never master Chinese (or any other language for that matter). The project ahead of you requires an insane amount of time to accomplish and if you don’t enjoy it, you will never be able to invest the amount of time and energy required. So, try different ways, find whatever strategy seems to work best for you and go with it. Good luck!

The articles in this category

If you’ve only studied for while or haven’t even started yet, these articles are for you. In short, they will tell you things that I wished someone had told me when I was at this level, but no-one ever did and I only found out on my own much later. Many of these articles will be useful to intermediate students as well (scroll down to see all of them in a text-only list):


All articles
If you can only stay abroad for a short time, don’t go immediately
Chinese is fascinating and exciting, not weird and stupid
Learning Chinese is easy
The importance of knowing many words
Mental models and making mistakes
Learning Chinese through social media
The art of being corrected
Creating a powerful toolkit: Character components
The virtues of language exchanges
Spaced repetition software and why you should use it
Creating a powerful toolkit: Characters and words
Learning Chinese words really fast
Listening ability, a matter of practice?
Pros and cons with travelling to learn a language
Take responsibility for your own learning now
Anki, the best of spaced repetition software
A smart method to discover problems with tones
Learning Chinese pronunciation as a beginner
Why you should use more than one textbook
Diversified learning is smart learning
Goals and motivation, part 1 – Introduction
Goals and motivation, part 2 – Long-term goals
Goals and motivation, part 3 – Short-term goals
Goals and motivation, part 4 – Micro goals
You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad
Spaced repetition isn’t rote learning
Make sure listening isn’t a practical problem
Escaping the convenience trap
Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time
Dealing with tricky vocabulary: Killing leeches
Vocabulary in your pocket
Memory aids and mnemonics to enhance learning
Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis
Growing up in Chinese
How to find more time to practise listening
Learning the third tone in Chinese
Don’t be a tourist
Achieving the impossible by being inspired
Holistic language learning: Integrating knowledge
The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese
Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination
Timeboxing Chinese
About opening doors and the paths beyond
Playing word games to practise fluency
Tones are more important than you think
If you want to master Chinese, make long-term investments
Can you become fluent in Chinese in three months?
Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small
Learning efficiently vs. learning quickly
Learning simplified and traditional Chinese
Advancing in spite of praise
When perfectionism becomes an obstacle to progress
Use the benefits of teaching to boost your own learning
The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears
The importance of counting what counts
Defining Language Hacking: Lessons Learned From Hacking Chinese
Answer buttons and how to use SRS
Language question triage – General guidelines
Don’t try to improve everything at once, limit your focus
Listening strategies: An introduction
Listening strategies: Problem analysis
Listening strategies: Background listening
Practising sports to learn Chinese and make friends
Listening strategies: Passive listening
Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2: Playing computer games in Chinese
Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese
Listening strategies: Active listening
Language is communication, not only an abstract subject to study
Listening strategies: Improving listening speed
Improving writing ability: Common problems and how to tackle them
Listening strategies: Deliberate practice and i+2
Chinese Language Learner Interview Series – Olle Linge
Recording yourself to improve speaking ability
A language learner’s guide to reading comics in Chinese
31 Twitter feeds to help you learn Chinese
Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
Study according to your current productivity level
Kickstart your character learning with the 100 most common radicals
The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think
Extending mnemonics: Tones and pronunciation
12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say
Don’t just read about learning methods, actually try them as well
A guide to Pinyin traps and pitfalls
Vocalise more to learn more Chinese
Learning styles: Use with caution!
Chat your way to better Chinese
Learning Chinese in the shower with me
Is it necessary to learn to write Chinese characters by hand?
13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
Have fun learning Chinese or else…
Measurable progress is a double-edged sword
Why you really should use a Chinese notebook
You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote
Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
Remembering is a skill you can learn
Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
Don’t use mnemonics for everything
The Cthulhu bubble and studying Chinese
Horizontal vocabulary learning
21 essential dictionaries and corpora for learning Chinese
14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone
The question you have to ask about your Chinese teacher or course
Learning the right chengyu the right way
Immersion at home or: Why you don’t have to go abroad to learn Chinese
You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old
Adding tone marks (w/o Pinyin) above characters to practise tones
Using Audacity to learn Chinese (speaking and listening)
Learning how to learn Chinese through self-experimentation
If you think spaced repetition software is a panacea you are wrong
Boosting your character learning with Skritter
Role-playing as a way to expand your Chinese
The get-back-up-to-speed summer challenge
Studying Chinese when your grades matter
Do you really know how to count in Chinese?
Why you need goals to learn Chinese efficiently
Why manually adding and editing flashcards is good for you
Phonetic components, part 1: The key to 80% of all Chinese characters
Phonetic components, part 2: Hacking Chinese characters
Reading aloud in Chinese is really hard
5 websites to help answer your questions about Chinese
What’s your next step to master Chinese?
Your slumps affect your language learning more than your flows
Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps
Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese
Improving your spoken and written Chinese by focusing on the process
How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
Review: The Geography of Thought: How East Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why
Role-playing to learn more Chinese and avoid frustration
Chinese immersion with Carl Gene Fordham
Chinese reading challenge: Read more or die
Wuxia, a key to Chinese language and culture
Focusing on tone pairs to improve your Mandarin pronunciation
Habit hacking for language learners
Two reasons why pronunciation matters more than you think
Learning how to fish: Or, why it’s essential to know how to learn
Flashcard overflow: About card models and review directions
Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar
Sensible Chinese character learning revisited
Sensible Chinese character learning challenge 2014
Why good feedback matters and how to get it
Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #1
The Grand Listening Cycle: Improve your Chinese listening ability
Learn to read Chinese… with ease?
Handwriting Chinese characters: The minimum requirements
Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #2
How to Approach Chinese Grammar
How to find out how good your Chinese pronunciation really is
How and why to use television to learn Chinese
Sensible character learning challenge 2014: Milestone #3
A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 1
Launching Hacking Chinese Resources
How and why to watch the world cup in Chinese
How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days
Sensible character learning challenge 2014: The Big Finish
A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 2
Language learning with a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend
Improve your pronunciation with the Hacking Chinese pronunciation check
Focusing on radicals, character components and building blocks
Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?
How long have you studied Chinese?
7 ways of learning to write Chinese characters
Study more Chinese: Time boxing vs. micro goals
About cheating, spaced repetition and learning Chinese
How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!
250+ resources for learning Chinese
Change your attitude to enjoy life and learn more Chinese
Articles by me published elsewhere: August round-up
Focusing on communication to learn Chinese
Learning to write Chinese characters through communication
Launching Hacking Chinese Challenges
The 10 best free listening resource collections for learning Chinese
Learning how to ask for and receive directions in Chinese
The 10 best free reading resource collections for learning Chinese
How to find the time and motivation to read more Chinese
Hacking Chinese Pronunciation course now open for registration
Is Chinese difficult to learn?
5 tips to help you improve your Chinese writing ability
How knowing your best performance in Chinese can help you improve
My best advice on learning Chinese characters
Focus on initials and finals, not Pinyin spelling
How to find a suitable Chinese name
24 great resources for improving your Mandarin pronunciation
How learning some basic theory can improve your pronunciation
How focusing on intent can help you learn Chinese characters
Three steps to more and better Chinese listening practice
Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind


6 Responses to Beginner

  1. Scott says:

    Hi ~ Amazing piece of work your website is. God bless you for that. I live in Taiwan also and just started learning trad. chinese. Do you think I should continue learning BPMF? And if so, what benefits are there. Now that i’ve learned it, i really prefer it to pinyin. Do you see BPMF simply as a pronunciation helper? Thanks, Scott

    • Olle Linge says:

      I think it’s valuable to learn more than one phonetic system to understand pronunciation better, but it doesn’t really matter which one you use. I know both, but only use pinyin myself because I can type fifty times faster using pinyin. :) Good pronunciation requires a good teacher and a diligent student, it doesn’t really matter what phonetic system you use, I think.

  2. Kirsten says:

    Hi ^^ I am learning Chinese and Korean and I find your site and ideas on learning beneficial not only in Chinese but Korean as well ^^ thank you ~ and keep it up xD

  3. Robbie says:

    Wow.. this website helpful to learn Chinese as a rent car driver in jakarta airport my Client mostly Chinese which is some of them can’t speak English, I had been 3 years learn Chinese by self learning so far only able to make simple conversation And I always confuse in intonation write some simple pinyin try to remember the character so hopefully your website will help me to learn Chinese, thanks Olle Linge

  4. Joao says:

    Olle, thanks for your work. I just want to point that I can’t see the text only article list at the end of the article.

    • Olle Linge says:

      Hi! The article list was indeed gone and I have no idea why, but it should be back now. Can you please confirm that it’s working again? Thank you so much for pointing this out! :)