With its rich history, beautiful geography, and unique cultural identity, China is one of the world’s most compelling destinations. It’s also home to 1.357 billion people. So if you are going to learn a second language that a lot of people speak, Chinese is an excellent choice.
Defining the Chinese language is a bit of a challenge, however, since Chinese is arguably not just one language, but a family of languages. All Chinese regional languages (fāngyán) belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family. While each regional language or variety of Chinese is related, they are mutually unintelligible. Each variety has a variety of dialects and sub-dialects, adding to the complexity of Chinese.
Chinese is a Challenge!
With so many varieties and dialects and sub-dialects, Chinese is undeniably daunting to take on. You’ll have to pick a starting point, one of the regional languages. If you’re a westerner, the entire structure of the language may confuse you in the beginning because it is so different from the Romance languages you are likely more familiar with.
A surprising number of words we use in English come from Chinese.
Here are a few you doubtless recognize:
Kowtow, ketchup, ramen, wok.
Interestingly enough, there are a couple of popular English language phrases which are literal translations of Chinese phrases as well. A couple of these include:
“Long time no see.”
“No can do.”
What’s your excuse?
So what’s stopping you from learning Chinese? Here are some excuses that may sound familiar:
- I’m just not smart enough to do this. It’s too complicated a language to learn.
- I’m just not a linguist.
- I don’t have the time or the money.
- No one else thinks I can do it.
But seriously… this is just invalidating nonsense. Whatever you’ve been told, whatever bad experiences you may have had in school trying to learn a foreign language, leave them in the past!
The Chinese regional languages all offer you beautiful, rich linguistic worlds to explore. Along the way, you’ll learn more about the history and culture of China, and may even learn a few things about English. It’s an exciting journey to undertake, and if you are passionate about it, you will succeed. Learning a new language can change your life, and Chinese is one that may even open up career opportunities.
Why It’s Not As Hard As You Think
Here are a couple commonly cited reasons why Chinese is “the hardest language to learn.”
- There are thousands of characters to memorize.
- Chinese is a tonal language, where tones not only convey moods (as they do in English), but also different meanings.
Really, though, you do not need to know all those thousands of characters just to get by. You don’t need an entire comprehensive vocabulary to speak fluently. You don’t have to master a language completely to be a solid intermediate speaker or writer. As for those tones, remember, context counts, and it will help you convey and recognize meanings!
Yes, learning to speak and read Chinese well will probably take you years of study. But it is worth it. Not only will you learn an amazing language, but you’ll learn what you are capable of!
“But I was terrible at this stuff in school.”
It doesn’t matter. A lot of school systems teach languages ineffectually. They focus on memorizing vocabulary words you don’t need instead of drilling basic grammar. When you teach yourself, you get to focus on only what you really need to learn to speak and understand!
And guess what … with the internet, everything you need to learn Chinese right now is at your fingertips. It’s all free, and you never have to leave the comfort of your home. That means no expensive Chinese classes or textbooks. Learn at your own pace and pick the materials that help you based on your learning style.
How can you learn Chinese online? Here are our recommendations:
Use Free Websites, PDF Textbooks and Trials for Learning Chinese
Websites are an awesome resource for learning a foreign language like Chinese! There are tons of great sites where you can learn Chinese words and grammar, view character sets, take quizzes, find answers to commonly asked questions, and more.
Our own website – We offer a great starting point for you to learn basic Chinese phrases, character sets, and more. Read free lessons and take fun quizzes; we update our materials regularly!
ChinesePod – This website is a great destination for vocabulary. With a built-in player, you can check your pronunciation right away. The website also provides paid lessons, but for your purposes, the free lessons should be more than sufficient.
eChineseLearning – One of the few websites that provide ‘1-on-1’ online tutoring with a professional native Chinese speaker. By signing up for trial, you can get 1 free lesson and ebook for free. Otherwise, you need to pay for each additional lesson but the price is VERY reasonable.
Learn Chinese online with live Chinese teachers – Hanbridge Mandarin is an online language school with a large selection of courses that can be designed to fit your Chinese learning needs. It provides FREE trial 1-on-1 Chinese lesson. Their online virtual classroom features an integrated e-whiteboard, instant messaging, quality video and sound – all the benefits of being in a physical classroom.
BBC Chinese section – This is a great resource for building up knowledge of the Chinese language with useful phrases, audio recordings and interesting articles. Definitely worth checking out!
What’s cool about the internet is now you can download PDF versions of textbooks. PDF textbooks for learning Chinese can be very comprehensive, delving in-depth into the language. Once you download them to your e-reader, you no longer need an internet connection to read them. Take them with you wherever you go. Study while you’re riding the bus or metro or waiting for an appointment.
– This is by far one of the best Chinese Guides out there. It was constructed by LTL Mandarin School and the guide is written by 10 world famous Chinese language learners that share their secrets how to learn Mandarin Chinese. They will take through every language aspect to becoming fluent in Chinese.
Download: Click Here
– Use this guide to help you learn valuable shortcuts that will speed up your learning process with any language.
Download: Click here
– This is by far one of the best guides how to learn Chinese characters in just a few days. This ebook was written by Aaron Posehn. He will guide you through the process of easy learning with pictures and detailed descriptions of each symbol.
Download: Click here
There are a number of popular foreign language learning systems these days. Some of these take the form of online courses, while others include downloadable software packages. These courses are in-depth, designed for all levels (beginner thru advanced), and are expertly crafted to make linguistic learning easy.
Most have a price tag attached, but many offer free trials! That means you can test them out and enjoy a few free lessons. If you find one you like which you think will be worth the money, you can make a purchase.
- 30 minute audio trial
The focus of Pimsleur courses is to get you speaking Chinese right from day one. All lessons focus on providing you with a real-world context and a fluid, flexible vocabulary. This course is for Mandarin (Standard) Chinese.
- Free selected lessons
Free trial includes four hours of Premium lessons, the weekly Rocket Chinese Vocab Builder Series, instant eBook access, and occasional promotions and specials
Rocket Languages is one of the best-known providers of foreign language courses online. Rocket is designed specifically to help people with limited time to learn a foreign language quickly. The course not only teaches you the language, but explains how the language works. The emphasis on mechanics, real-world context, flexibility, and reinforcement really works!
Be sure to read our in-depth review of Rocket to learn more about how Rocket Languages courses work!
Watch Podcasts and Movies
One of the best developments to come out of YouTube is the abundance of free educational videos and tutorials which have been together by experts on various topics. That means you can now learn Chinese from native speakers, linguistic experts, and others who can provide you with their unique perspectives and learning approaches.
Interesting and entertaining YouTube videos made by a young man and a native Chinese woman. Their comprehensive videos cover just about everything under the sun, and they’re funny to boot!
Educational videos made by a native woman named Yangyang. She will take you through the basics and teach you how to pronounce everything correctly.
Another awesome way to learn Chinese is by watching Chinese-language films or TV shows! Watch familiar films/shows first, and then start watching movies you’ve never seen before. Use English subtitles first, and later, try Chinese subtitles. Focus on how words are pronounced, and take notes as you watch on words and phrases you don’t comprehend. This is an awesome way to learn the tonal intricacies of Chinese in context!
If you have problem finding Chinese subtitles then we recommend checking out www.opensubtitles.org! They provide large variety of subtitles for almost every movie and also for almost every language.
Listen to Chinese Audiobooks, Music and Audio Podcasts
Chinese audiobooks and music offer you more great ways to learn. Songs in particular are excellent, because the melody helps you to memorize the lyrics. This makes it easy to recall specific words and phrases. Both audiobooks and music are perfect for mastering pronunciation.
Loyalbooks is a great source for free Chinese audiobooks.
You’ll find there a great variety of interesting books worth listening on your journey to mastering the language.
What is special about audio podcasts is that you can have them always with you. Wherever you go you should always utilise your extra free time by listening and widening your language skills.
– Very sophisticated audio lessons focusing proper pronunciation, learning new vocabulary and topics of cultural interest. The full podcast consisting of 55 lessons is free and is an innovative and fun way of learning the Chinese language at your own comfort and pace.
Link on iTunes: Click here (Reminder: To get access to audio lessons, you need to install iTunes first.)
– Audio tracks that give you a taste Chinese. With short and catchy tracks you’ll be taken right to the action. (Reminder: To get access to audio lessons, you need to install iTunes first.)
Link on iTunes: Click here (Reminder: To get access to audio lessons, you need to install iTunes first.)
Chat or Speak With Native Chinese Speakers
There’s no better way to learn a foreign language fast than by regularly practicing with real conversation! Chat with native Chinese speakers and with Chinese learners via Skype, Google Hangouts, or even through email. Both verbal chat and text-based chat have different benefits, so you should do a combination of each. Not only do you get to practice Chinese in a real context, but you also get over your fear.
How do you find people to chat with? You can reach out to members of Facebook groups, or you can look for people through language forums or learning sites and programs like those we talked about above.
Is There a Best Way to Learn Chinese?
No, there is no single best way to learn any language, including Chinese. You have to figure out what is best for you, and the only way to do that is to dive in and try a variety of different resources and techniques. Once you start finding methods that are intuitive for you, you will be able to spend more and more time using those learning techniques which generate the best results.
Still, the guide below is a great way to get started.
|Pt. 1: Preparation
1.1 Decide on which Chinese you want to learn (most common – Mandarin)
1.2 Buy a Chinese-English dictionary
1.3 Become familiar with the language
Start reading about the Chinese language on websites. If you feel totally lost, just start right here on our website.
|Pt. 2: Mastering the Basics
2.1 Start Practicing the four basic Mandarin tones
As we mentioned above, Chinese is a tonal language that means different tones can change the meaning of a whole word. It is important to learn the tones if you want to speak Mandarin Chinese correctly.
2.2 Learn the basic vocabulary
The more words you know, the sooner you will master the language. Start with easy and basic words that will help you learn proper pronunciation. Remember, you should enlarge your vocabulary everyday and don’t forget that accuracy is very important. For instance, using a wrong tone can lead to a mistake like saying ‘’I want cake’’ instead of ‘’I want coke!’’
Tip! Just take a look at our Chinese vocabulary section or some of websites we have recommended.
2.3 Learn a few basic phrases
Once you have learned some vocabulary and the proper pronunciation, you can move onto learning some basic phrases which you will use in everyday speech.
2.4 Time to start with grammar
One might think that Chinese language doesn’t have grammar but this is a common misconception. On the other hand, the language itself differs a lot from European languages. Despite this, Chinese uses mostly the same word order as English.
Tip! For this step we recommend using trials and YouTube podcasts.
2.5 Learn to use Pinyin
Chinese characters can also be rewritten using the Roman alphabet; this is called Pinyin. Learning Pinyin will help you understand the language even if you can’t read original Chinese characters. But remember, although Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, the pronunciation of most letters is often different than it would be in English!
2.6 Start learning Chinese characters and practice reading
According to Wikipedia.org, there are more than 50,000 Chinese characters, but most of these are rarely used. A Chinese native who has graduated probably knows approximately 8,000 characters, although to read a newspaper you only need 2,000.
Tip! Check the PDF section, where you will find a Guide to Chinese characters.
|Pt. 3: Enhance your skills
3.1 Start speaking with other learners and natives
Connect to speakers through email, Skype, or Google Hangouts. Practice Chinese through live conversation at every opportunity!
Tip! Join Chinese groups on Facebook to find a partner.
3.2 Watch Chinese films and TV shows
3.3 Listen to Chinese radio or music