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How to learn Chinese – Beginner level

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

This post is the first of three presenting my opinions about learning Chinese. My primary goal is to help people studying the language more efficiently, mainly through sharing my own experiences and thoughts. Each article is deliberately quite brief in length, and if there are articles delving deeper into an aspect of the learning process, a link will be provided. For a comprehensive overview of all these articles, kindly refer to the Learning Chinese main page. These are the three articles in this series:

Beginner (this article)

Introduction to beginner level

Chinese is a language which is, in many regards, completely different from most other languages, which makes it very hard at the outset. However, it’s surprisingly easy to get used to it once time and diligent studying have been able to work their wonders. The primary goal in the beginning is to establish routines and get to know your own abilities and limitations.

Organising your studies

One thing you should do as early as possible is to develop a system to keep track of what you learn. Some people use printed flashcards, others (me included) rely on software and electronic devices (see the tools page). Regardless of what you choose, you need to choose something. 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 you use Anki for this. If you are taking a course in Chinese, it sometimes isn’t required of you to actually remember what you did two months ago, but this is vital if you have any serious plans of learning the language! Attitude is important.

Start looking for extra-institutional sources

Your text book might be the best available and your teacher the coolest guy around, but you should start looking for secondary language sources almost 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 Chinesepod directly. Buying an extra textbook might also be a good idea, but remember that you don’t read that one to learn everything, just to see things from another angle. Of course, you don’t need to spend as much time on these extra sources as you do on your main one, but simply reading easy texts and listening to very basic conversations with explanations will help you get started quicker.


You’ve just set out on a journey of a thousand miles, so if you don’t need to get everything right the first lesson. You should not strive to have maximum points on all tests and so on, the important thing is that you’re moving and that your moving with a purpose and a goal. There is one exception to this and that’s pronunciation. Learning to pronounce Chinese correctly, especially the tones, is difficult for most people, but it becomes almost impossible if you have to relearn everything from scratch later because your foundation was bad. Apart from this, don’t stress it, everything will come naturally with time and practice.

Find friends for help and cooperation

To start with, allying yourself with somebody who seems reasonable in class is quite a good idea, but this is nothing specific for studying Chinese. Having somebody on the same ambition level as you 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 good). 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 is sometimes preferable, but to each his own.

Examine your goals and motivations

Why do you want to learn Chinese? What are you going to do once you have mastered the language? 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.

Enjoy yourself

This is not a clichĂ© ending 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 ever 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!

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