Learning Chinese can seem like an intimidating undertaking for many beginners. With a vastly different writing system, complex tonal system, and unique grammar structures, Chinese presents some unique challenges compared to other popular languages like Spanish or French.
However, don’t let that scare you off! With the right mindset and learning approach, anyone can start picking up Chinese, regardless of their background.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to start learning Chinese effectively as a complete beginner, including:
- Understanding the Different Chinese Languages
- Setting Realistic Goals and Expectations
- Choosing the Right Learning Materials
- Incorporating Active Immersion
- Finding a Tutor or Class
- Using Spaced Repetition Software
- Developing Good Study Habits
- Staying Motivated Long-Term
Understanding the Different Chinese Languages
The first thing to understand when beginning Chinese is that “Chinese” is an umbrella term for a group of related but distinct languages and dialects. Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most widely spoken Chinese languages.
Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, with over 918 million native speakers. It has four tones and uses simplified Chinese characters. If you want to learn Chinese to communicate widely or do business in China, Mandarin is typically the best choice.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong province, and many overseas Chinese communities. It has six tones and uses traditional Chinese characters. Cantonese is a good option if you want to specifically communicate in Hong Kong or Guangdong.
There are many other Chinese languages like Wu, Min, Hakka, and Gan, but Mandarin and Cantonese have the most learning resources available.
Setting Realistic Goals and Expectations
As with any new language, it’s important to set realistic goals and expectations when starting to learn Chinese. Here are some beginner guidelines:
- Aim for consistent study – Try to study a little bit every day, even if it’s just 15-30 minutes. This is much more effective than studying for hours once a week.
- Have specific goals – Give yourself concrete goals like learning Pinyin and basic phrases within a month. This helps keep you on track.
- Don’t expect fluency quickly – Chinese takes time and consistent practice. Set goals in manageable chunks instead of getting frustrated trying to be fluent right away.
- Be patient with characters – Learning to read and write Chinese characters will be challenging. Take it slowly and celebrate small milestones like learning to read 100 characters.
The most important mindset as a beginner is consistency and celebrating small victories. With regular practice over time, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your Chinese skills develop.
Choosing the Right Learning Materials
Having the right learning materials as a beginner is crucial to study efficiently. Here are some recommendations for Chinese learning resources in different formats:
Apps and Online Courses
- Pimsleur – Audio-based app with conversational Mandarin lessons focused on speaking and listening
- ChineseSkill – Free app with interactive lessons covering reading, writing, listening, and speaking
- ChineseFor.Us – Online course with engaging lessons for all skills from Hanban teachers
Textbooks and Workbooks
- Integrated Chinese (Cheng & Tsui) – Gold standard college textbook series with traditional methodology
- New Practical Chinese Reader (Beijing Language and Culture University Press) – Textbook series focused on practical conversational Chinese
- Elementary Mandarin Chinese Workbook (Tuttle Publishing) – Workbook covering Pinyin, characters, and basic grammar
- A Primer for Advanced Beginners of Chinese (University of Oregon) – Textbook for expanding beginner skills
Videos and Podcasts
- The Chairman’s Bao – News articles and audio with quizzes for learning Chinese vocabulary
- Fresh Chinese – YouTube lessons on essential phrases, grammar, and vocabulary
- Slow Chinese – Podcast with transcripts for improving listening comprehension
- iTalki – Online tutors for conversational practice and lessons via video chat
- Verbling – Platform to find online Chinese tutors for interactive lessons
- Preply – Website connecting students with tutors experienced in teaching Chinese
This covers some of the best beginner resources, but don’t be afraid to try different methods to see what works for you. Over time, using a blended approach with textbooks, apps, videos, tutors and more can help boost your learning.
Incorporating Active Immersion
Immersing yourself in Chinese language content is key for building fluency as a beginner. Here are some ways to start incorporating active immersion into your studying:
- Listen to Chinese music – Pay attention to the tones and see if you can pick out any words you know. Look up lyrics online to read along.
- Watch Chinese shows – Dramas, movies, and cartoons with simple dialogue are very helpful. Use Chinese subtitles if possible.
- Read simple books – Children’s books and graded readers use limited vocabulary and grammar suitable for beginners.
- Follow Chinese social media accounts – Accounts that post with Chinese captions or simple language are great for exposure.
- Use language apps – Apps like HelloChinese and Duolingo have mini-stories and audio clips for practice.
- Practice with native speakers – Sites like Tandem let you text, voice chat, and video chat with Chinese speakers learning English.
- Travel or study in China – Full immersion by surrounding yourself with Chinese is extremely beneficial as a beginner.
Start with just 15-30 minutes per day of active immersion. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you pick up vocabulary and grammar patterns through consistent exposure.
Finding a Tutor or Class
Taking a Chinese class or working with a private tutor can provide essential speaking practice and feedback as a beginner. Here are some options to consider:
- Community college courses – Many local community colleges offer affordable beginner Chinese courses. This provides classroom practice and instructor guidance.
- University summer intensive programs – Some universities have condensed 3-8 week summer Chinese programs for beginners to develop basic skills rapidly.
- Private tutoring – iTalki, Verbling and other sites make it easy to find 1-on-1 online Chinese tutors for customized lessons based on your needs.
- Language schools abroad – Studying abroad at a Chinese language school in China or Taiwan allows for full immersion plus classroom learning.
- Meetup groups – Seek out Chinese language Meetup groups in your city for in-person practice and language exchanges.
Instruction from a native speaker helps correct mistakes early and develop proper pronunciation. Try to incorporate some form of interactive practice as part of your overall Chinese learning.
Using Spaced Repetition Software
Spaced repetition systems are a game-changer when learning Chinese characters as a beginner. Apps like Anki, Pleco, and Skritter use SRS to optimize memorization of vocabulary and characters by systematically quizzing you over time.
Here are some tips for using SRS effectively as a beginner:
- Create your own flashcard decks to focus on vocab/characters from your textbooks or classes.
- Limit new daily cards to 10-20 to avoid overload. Gradually increase the number as the words stick.
- Review cards daily and re-queue cards you struggle with more frequently.
- Use pinyin, English meaning, an example sentence, and audio for the optimal flashcard format.
- Concentrate your reviews in one session for efficiency or break them up throughout the day.
SRS takes the guesswork out of memorization by optimizing reviews for long-term retention. This is especially helpful for memorizing thousands of Chinese characters needed to achieve literacy.
Developing Good Study Habits
Success in learning Chinese depends more on developing good study habits rather than intelligence or language aptitude. Here are some effective study methods to incorporate from the start:
- Review previous material before learning something new to strengthen connections in your brain.
- Study Chinese characters by breaking them into components and learning component meanings.
- Read out loud to practice proper pronunciation and tones.
- Take notes by hand to engage more parts of your brain during study.
- Create your own examples to make new vocabulary and grammar concepts more memorable.
- Make associations and visualizations when learning new words to make them stick better.
- Limit distractions and stay focused during study sessions by putting away your phone.
- Review frequently using spaced repetition to prevent forgetting vocabulary and characters.
Start implementing these habits when you begin learning and they’ll serve you well in mastering Chinese long-term.
Staying Motivated Long-Term
The initial excitement of learning Chinese will inevitably fade after the first few weeks or months. Here are some tips to stay motivated for the long, gradual journey to fluency:
- Set small, achievable goals to give yourself mini accomplishments along the way.
- Find a study partner to add accountability and make learning Chinese more social.
- Join a Chinese language Meetup to practice with native speakers who can appreciate your progress.
- Make a vision board with pictures symbolizing your motivations for learning Chinese to remind yourself during dips.
- Take a short study break if you are burning out, but get back to it before long to prevent total disengagement.
- Reward yourself after reaching milestones by watching a Chinese drama or going to a Chinese restaurant.
- Consume Chinese pop culture you enjoy so immersion time feels like entertainment.
Learning any language is a marathon, not a sprint. By staying patient and motivated, your skills will improve with consistent practice over time.
Learning Chinese can be an incredibly rewarding, life-changing experience. With the right mindset and learning approach, anyone can start picking up the language and make progress as a beginner.
Focus on achievable goals, diversified learning materials, active immersion, good study habits, and staying motivated. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to Chinese fluency and the amazing opportunities it unlocks.
加油 (jiāyóu)! Let’s start your Chinese language journey today.