What’s the Best Way to Start Learning Chinese?
Step 1: Determine if Learning Mandarin Chinese is Right for You
Let’s face it, learning Chinese is not for everybody and it requires investing lots of precious time to become good at it.
With these free classes, you will get a first hand look at what to expect when learning Mandarin Chinese under the instruction of a native speaker.
Step 2: Find Some Chinese Learning Materials
Fulfilling your personal goals in learning Chinese will require much more than taking a course in Chinese. That’s why I have compiled a list of my favorite resources, textbooks, and tools for you to check out here.
I’ve included resources to help you develop your listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Most of them you can try free and I’ve even managed to negotiate a discount for you on others.
Step 3: Learn Pinyin
After arming yourself with some essential resources, learn to pronounce words properly in Chinese. I’m sure you’ve encountered many words and names like Xi’an or Qin Shihuang and have no idea how they are pronounced.
The secret to pronouncing Chinese words, and reading Chinese characters for that matter, is to start by learning pinyin.
Pinyin is the most commonly used system for writing Chinese using roman letters. For example, 我是中国人 in pinyin is wŏ shì zhōngguó rén. Each character in Chinese represents one syllable and can be spelled out phonetically in pinyin.
One thing to be aware of when learning pinyin is that it is not pronounced exactly like we would read it in English. For example, ‘shi’ is NOT pronounced like ‘she’ and instead sounds like ‘sure’.
The good news is there are plenty of videos on YouTube along with great apps to teach you pinyin. You can also have a look at this online pinyin table with audio (which you can download).
Step 4: Start Speaking in Chinese
To help you nail down pinyin and proper pronunciation in Mandarin, try speaking with a native speaker. Native speakers will ensure you are pronouncing words correctly and help you transition from saying simple words and phrases to having basic conversations.
That is why I always encourage folks wanting to learn Chinese to sign-up for a class. Look into what Chinese courses are available in your nearby area or consider one-on-one classes with a personal Chinese tutor online.
Step 5: Start listening to Chinese During Your Commute
It’s also important to start listening to Chinese as much as possible. We learned our native language through listening and you should apply the same strategy to learn Mandarin Chinese.
Improving your listening is a skill that won’t happen overnight and takes considerable time. Luckily it is something we can do both actively and passively.
To start building listening comprehension, try ChinesePod, as they have over 400 lessons for newbies that you can download onto your phone and listen to on your way to school, work, or hang out with friends.
Step 6: Get Your Head Around Chinese Tones
You may have heard that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. As Mandarin has significantly fewer sounds than English, tones are essential to convey different ideas with the same syllabic sound. Don’t listen to any learners who claim that tones do not matter. Having lived in China for five years, I can assure you that speaking in proper tones is essential!
Chinese people simply won’t understand you if you don’t learn tones or get them wrong too much while speaking Mandarin Chinese. Using the wrong tones in your spoken Chinese is similar to putting the emphasis on the wrong syllables in English.
Like all skills, speaking with tones comes with proper practice and listening carefully to native speakers and listening exercises. To get started on learning Chinese tones, check out my beginners guide to tones here.
Step 7: Start learning Chinese Characters
I suggest beginning to learn characters once you are confident you have Chinese basics like pinyin down.
Once you start learning characters, start with the goal of understanding how Chinese characters work as a system rather than rote memorization. Check out my guide to learning characters and Chinese vocabulary as a starting point.
Once you have a good system of learning Chinese characters in place, you will want to start reading to solidify words you have learned and further expand your vocabulary.
Step 8: Mimic Native Chinese Speakers
When learning a language, you need to mimic the way native speakers and the way they speak.
A good technique for pronunciation and speaking practice is to play an individual recorded sentence and then try to repeat it yourself.
Try recording yourself on your phone and compare how you sound to native speakers. Don’t try to say things really fast as a beginner though! Try to repeat things that are recorded slowly.
Step 9: Practice Chinese Every Day
Start small with 30 minutes of studying Chinese per day. You want to study only as long as you are having fun and enjoying the process. The more you study, the faster you will improve. But the more you enjoy studying, the more you will study.
It is far better to do 30 minutes a day than to do 3 or 4 hours in a single sitting once a week and risking burnout. Do your best to make learning Chinese part of your daily ritual.
Check out my post on doing a one-month Chinese challenge, a great way to make learning a language a habit as additional motivation for studying Chinese.
Final Thoughts: Learning Chinese
The last thing is to be consistent in how you learn. Once you find a method of learning, stick to it. By sticking to a regular routine, you are more likely to remember what you have learned and can expand your knowledge of Chinese with new content.
If you’re looking for even more tips on learning Chinese, why don’t you add your email to the exclusive Chinese-Breeze newsletter? I only send out emails about 1-2 times per month and you’ll get access to some great travel deals you won’t find elsewhere.
Finally, for more resources on getting started, check out the language section of our resources page.