Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin


How to learn Chinese as a 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. On this page, I discuss how to learn Chinese as a beginner.

Goal: Be able to use Chinese to communicate with natives about yourself, your life, 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, I’d like to recommend my free crash course for learning Chinese. It will gradually summarise and introduce to the most important things:

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Below, I have selected seven particularly important things that beginners should pay attention to. After that follows a list of all beginner articles on Hacking Chinese.

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!

Unlocking Chinese

If you think all of this is/looks helpful, but want a more comprehensive and structure approach, I offer a course aimed at beginners, called Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners. You can find more information about the course here:

Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

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.