Saturday, June 13, 2009

HowTo ... start learning Mandarin

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

Once you've decided to learn Chinese (and see my article on why I specifically chose Mandarin, as opposed to Cantonese), you actually have to begin somewhere. There are so many options out there (online courses, podcasts, books & CD programs, Skype tuition ...) so let's start with a finite (and very clear) set of steps.

By the way, I'm not writing about how others should start to learn Mandarin. I'm talking specifically to you.

In the beginning, Chinese is actually a very easy language to learn - no conjugation, tenses also don't change the verbs, nouns don't have genders, the same subject-verb-object structure as English, and simple sentence structures . Of course, it does get more complicated, but you should be able to learn survival Chinese very quickly.

If you're a very serious student, my assumption is that you're going to register at a school for regular classes, with an expectation of several hours a week of classes and homework. If so, your teacher will tell you what books you need, and what program to follow ... and this post is not for you.

This post is for people who will start off with self-study, and may choose to focus on free but effective materials available on the Net. In other words, this post is just for you.

Principles behind my recommendations
  • The sooner you begin, the better. Now seems like a perfect time.
  • Create a study habit. Don't study on & off, whenever you feel inspired. Create a study habit.
  • Learn regularly. It's better to do just 20 minutes a day (which is what I did), than 2 hours once a week.
  • Focus on relevant stuff. Learn material you will use often, in day-to-day situations. If you're more likely to use the word "dinner" than "ice-skating", then learn the word for dinner. Honestly.
  • Concentrate on spoken Mandarin first. You've got plenty of time to learn to read and write after you've got going. (Yes, I know this will be a controversial point, but I stand by it.)
  • Don't necessarily try learn the tones. Yet. And I only mean in the beginning (just the first 3 hours of audio material) - listen to the lessons over and over again, and the tones will start to happen naturally. Of course, you're welcome to try identify and memorise the tones, but if you're listening lots, it will to a large degree happen automatically. (Ditto the controversy comment.)
  • Stay focused on learning Chinese. People have complex ideas about learning languages, like trying to set you up with one-year-at-a-time study plans, building libraries for flashcard software, etc. You can waste time later. For now - keep it simple.
  • Don't overdo it in the beginning. If you're self-studying, then you need to be self-motivated. Attempting to memorise hundreds of words and phrases in the beginning might speed you along, but if it wears you out, then you might quit quite early on.
  • Be intelligent about the time you spend learning. When it comes down to memorising lots of words, use WordPacks, for example, to get more done more quickly - with best retention.

Summary (don't do these all at once!)
  • Do the "Teach yourself Mandarin" 3 hour audio program (it's free)
  • Read some articles about Mandarin, tones, Chinese culture, etc.
  • Subscribe to ongoing audio program (I prefer ChinesePod)
  • Learn to use an online dictionary
  • Start memorising vocab (and use WordPacks!)
  • Get a language partner

Method Description

Step 1. Cover the Basics.

Download the "Teach yourself Mandarin" series is available off the Times Online website
  • It contains about 3 hours of free material, with a booklet for downloading.
  • Get it on your music player, and listen to it often.
  • When I began, all I did was listen to Conversation 1 from Lesson 1 - over and over again. I didn't try to memorise it. I didn't try work out the tones. I just listened, and repeated. No effort. After about a dozen times, I realised that the phrases were just popping out of my mouth - no effort.
  • Then I moved to Conversation 2. Then Lesson 2. I kept returning the to beginning, going over those basics often.
  • If you have limited time and thus make no effort to memorise the material, but just listen repeatedly (while creating a daily learning habit) then it might take you a few months to internalise those 3 hours of material.
  • If you have more free time, and you take an active learning approach of studying and memorising (rather than just listening and listening), you can truly have taken in those lessons in a few weeks.
While you're working through this material, consider doing the following:
  • read Wikipedia's article on Mandarin Chinese
  • don't get carried away - focus on creating a daily learning habit, you can always increase the time later
  • subscribe to this blog - there's a button for your favourite RSS feed on the front page (or at the very least ... bookmark this site)
  • practise identifying the tones at this site
  • learn a bit more about China, its people, its culture, its history - read some books (fiction, non-fiction, or photographic), or perhaps watch some documentaries about China, or even a Chinese movie
Step 2. Subscribe to an ongoing audio program.

Once you've been through the above course, and you have a good study habit going, then you need to subscribe to a podcast that teaches Chinese.
  • I recommend ChinesePod, which is great for both teaching Mandarin as well as for maintaining my interest, but you might prefer Chinese Learn Online, or Popup Chinese, or some other program.
  • The reason for getting a subscription (which is generally free for beginners) is you need to keep getting fresh material. If it hadn't been for ChinesePod, I would have got bored right at the beginning, and never made it this far.
Also, learn how to use an online dictionary. My favourite is
  • For example, can you work out what the Chinese word is for "orange juice"? And what is it that I can do, if I say "Wo hui xie zhong wen"? And if you saw this word on a sign - 酒 - what does it mean?
Take a read through's intro page to Mandarin - you'll get some really good material there too.

Step 3. Learn vocabulary.

You're going to have to memorise vocab, so get over it. But be smart about how you do it.
  • Use WordPacks, so that you learn with maximum efficiency.
  • Choose phrases that you will use every day - like "Do you want something to drink?", "Dinner is ready", "Let's go", "Good morning everyone", "Where are my keys?" and of course "Kiss me again."
  • Try to learn 1-5 words a day. Make this a habit. Don't just read 1-5 new words a day, actually memorise them. And revise regularly. Don't get carried away with too many - just create the habit, and build up from there.
Subscribe to a "learn Mandarin" blog or two. (You should already be subscribed to Mandarin Segments!)

Buy yourself a small paper dictionary - and learn how to use it.

Step 4. Get a Language Partner.

In the beginning it might just be someone who can answer your simple questions. You might then progress to someone that you can have basic communications with (in pinyin) using email or instant messaging. Build up to having conversations with them.
  • If you live in China, then it should be easy enough to meet someone.
  • If not, are there any Chinese people you work with, who would be happy to meet up with you and talk Chinese?
  • And if you want to widen your net, there are plenty of sites where Chinese people make themselves available as language study partners (they help you with Chinese, you help them with English) - like Hello China, China Club or ForeignCN.

Warning: the dangers to look out for
  • Don't do too much too soon. There is a concept called "gym blues" - where people go to gym for the first time, work out too hard, get really sore, and end up not going back. Don't do this here - start off slowly, establish a study habit, and then build up from there.
  • Don't get too theoretical. You might not understand why saying sorry in Mandarin is basically the phrase "bad meaning" - get over it. Learn the phrase, use the phrase. Later, try work out why. With Chinese it's so easy to get caught up in the etymology of a single word, where in the same time you could have learned a dozen words.
  • And don't spend too much postulating - time talking about learning, setting up study schedules, planning where you'd like to be when, choosing optimal strategies for learning ... just learn.

Just follow the above steps, and let me know how you're doing.


  1. Great post Greg.

    I would add, try to practice speaking every day, even if just 5 or 10 minutes. I am convinced the 'mouth' muscle is the most important to learn a new language.

    The best is to practice with native Chinese around you... but if you do not have easy access to Chinese, then you can try and have short lessons for quite cheap ($1 gives you 7 minutes).

    If you are interested to learn how to write (and remember how to write) Chinese characters, I highly recommend (and it is a low monthly fee, about $10).

    Finally, is a great online dictionary, and it is free!


  2. Nicolas, thanks for your input. I agree that speaking practice is really important. I know from my point of view, I felt no confidence whatsoever to say anything to a Chinese person, because my tones were terrible, I only knew 20 words, and it wasn't going to be a conversation.

    But speaking out aloud while listening to a podcast - definitely a great idea!

  3. Very educational post. I find some advice could be applied to new English learners. Keep up the good posts.

  4. Ty, you make a good point. I guess there are certain fundamental truisms about learning languages - and they should apply to all languages. Of course, Chinese for a Westerner offers a somewhat unique challenge when you have to learn the reading & writing - but the spoken language itself is the same.

    I smiled at your comment in your blog profile that you will "never get used to writing in these 26 letters, nor using knives and forks". I feel the same way sometimes about hanzi (although I'm good with kuaizi :-) !

  5. Hi, I can't download the times course :(, is it possible you could tell me why. I cannot find anything on the page you listed on how to download. I know this is old but, hopefully, you will be able to answer.

  6. Hi the link to the times online Teach yourself Mandarin goes to a page with the dialogue (written) but no way of downloading it. Please help.

  7. Jordan

    I just checked, and agree that they appear to have taken down the MP3s. I'm travelling at the moment so can't check what I am about to advise you (so good luck!): but I originally downloaded it from iTunes, and only later found it on the TYM website. So maybe try directly on iTunes ...

  8. Jordan, they appear to be gone! I tried going through iTunes, and found one called "Teach Yourself Mandarin Conversation", which is about 3 hours long. I can't confirm that it's the same one (it seems to be), but at £8.95 it can't be a bad investment.

  9. I'm starting to get really frustrated trying to learn this language. I know that I want to learn it all RIGHT NOW and I know that I can't but I really need something to LOOK at and listen to everyday and I'm bored with what I have. I feel like I need some workbooks or something. Some lessons that will help me repeat things over and over without feeling like I'm repeating them. Does that make any sense? Any ideas?

  10. Greg, I really love this post. After I finished reading, I couldn't help but say "Wow!" This is the most comprehensive guide I've ever read about how to start learning Mandarin. I've started learning Mandarin by doing self-study and taking advantage of free materials on the internet. There's a lot of effective resources out there. Back then in college, I wanted to enroll in a Mandarin course for one semester at the university 'cause I was serious about learning it but then I dropped the course. I figured it will be better to start off with self-study, and I totally agree with you on this one. I'm now motivated to diligently study 20 minutes a day.

    By the way, I'm Karen from L-Lingo, which is a language learning online application with tons of lessons you can access for free. I love materials that are free and I'm personally using this to learn Mandarin. We are relatively new and would love to have people to try out our lessons and give feedback. We are determined to give users a great learning experience but we also believe we've got a long way to go. We do have downloadable flashcards, textbooks, and mp3 files aside from the interactive lessons but we lack some things such as grammar and speaking exercises, but we are working on these. It would be great if you can try out our free lessons and quizzes. We appreciate feedback from users since it's our way of improving our application. You can get your free lessons at

    If you have any questions, feel free to email me at

  11. Hi Temujin. The good news is you seem to know exactly what you need - so I encourage you to follow your instinct.

    If you need workbooks, then go for it. The upside of Chinese being such a difficult language, is that there are so many facets to it, that if you get frustrated in one area, move to another. Plenty to learn!

    I used this book quite early on, but search for others that better suit your needs if necessary.

    Have you looked in more detail at ChinesePod for example? Not only are there the audio lessons, but as a paid member you can enter discussions about the lessons, listen to other audio with other sentences using the same key vocab, etc.

    Hope this is helpful - good luck. There is so much great material out there, you won't have problems getting around the frustrations! (Links are affiliated)

  12. Karen, thanks for your comment. I've followed the link, and there seems to be a lot of material on the site - which means I'm going to have to come back for a more detailed read, thanks.

    I'm sure we all as students appreciate the free resources that are available, so thanks for getting involved!

  13. Hi, i just read this blog, and it really is helping me.:)
    im trying to learn chinese just to communicate with some chinese friends, so this is fine for me.
    but in your Method Description, Step 1 says to download "Teach Yourself Mandarin"and im trying to but , it says i have to register first , and so i am but they are charging me money , I dont mind paying $2 , but im scared that after i pay , it still wont work ,
    So please tell me if i will be able to download after i register!
    i wanna learn so badly!!:)