Learning Chinese: FAQ and tips


After yesterday’s list of must-read China books, here are some tips for beginner Mandarin learners. I originally put this FAQ together for my old Chinese tutor’s blog, and it got me thinking about the motley methods I’ve used since beginning to learn the language in 2008 – including which ones weren’t worth it. Sorry to bore those of you with good Chinese, narrative posts will resume next week, and do post your own thoughts below.


First things first. How long will it take me to learn Chinese?

If you are living in China, two years part-time is enough to get decent conversational Chinese, and basic reading and writing. If you can study full-time, after two years you will be able to have a good conversation about pretty much any non-specialist topic, as well as write and read simple texts, and send emails – i.e. you can operate in Chinese. If you’re learning outside of China, double that to get the same results. Being immersed in the language environment is a huge boon.

One year, I’m sorry, just isn’t enough, even full-time in China. You’ll end the year with a half-formed feel for the grammar, big vocabulary gaps, and frustrated. If you’ve already committed to one year of study, be patient and make it two, or at least three years outside China.

Should I learn Chinese characters (hanzi), or just pinyin?

Some new students choose not to learn to recognise and write hanzi. It’s very time-consuming, and depending on what use you plan to make of your Chinese, you might only need to be able to speak and understand. That frees up a whole lot of study time – but be prepared to get frustrated when you can’t read a simple road sign or menu. Here are are three arguments for learning hanzi:

  • The process of studying characters helps you understand the nature and grammar of Chinese, where every syllable is a concept
  • It vastly opens up your horizons for interaction, from sending and receiving texts, to going on Weibo or ordering stuff from Taobao
  • Chinese characters are beautiful, and it’s hugely edifying to have cracked the mystery of them

But do I really have to remember how to write them as well as recognise them?

That’s a good point. It’s much easier to learn to recognise a character than to remember how to write it. Plus, if you can recognise a character and know its pinyin spelling then you can type the character on a computer or your phone. That’s how Chinese do it, and many of them have forgotten how to hand-write lots of characters. So don’t kill yourself learning to write characters from memory – just focus on recognising them and getting the tone right.

Of course, it helps you to recognise characters if you’re written them over and over yourself. Chinese say that once you have remembered how to write a character seven times, you will never forget it. But cramming characters for hours a day is not the right way to go.

So what is the right way to do it? And how many do I need to learn?

You need to know about 2000 characters to have decent intermediate Chinese, of which only 400 or so are used really frequently. That’s plenty to cover almost all situations, and if you want to go the extra mile, 3000 is the number generally cited as enough to read a Chinese newspaper.

There is no quick or easy way to do it, and remember that Chinese schoolkids take years to learn hanzi themselves. Again, don’t cram. The best way is to use flashcards. You can make your own, or buy a book of 2000 detachable HSK flashcards from BLCU. This way, you can test yourself a little bit every day, which is how long term memory forms. Don’t neglect to remember the tone with each character! And it’s important that you’re not only learning characters and vocabulary, but how to use them in sentences. Otherwise it’s no use, and far too soul-crushing.

How do I master pronunciation and tones?

Now we’re really getting into it. Tones, and the difficult pronunciation of some sounds in Chinese, is the other big hurdle to overcome. But unlike characters, this will come to you naturally. If you speak and listen to Chinese every day – with your teacher, with language partners, with strangers on the street – you will find that your pronunciation gets better on its own, as if by magic. It’s the same way a child learns the sounds of a language, by listening and imitating.

So don’t fret when you realise how terrible your pronunciation and tones are to begin with. Just keep on memorising vocabulary and the tone for each character, while learning how to use them in sentences. Talk loudly and confidently without worrying about your mistakes, listen closely when native speakers talk, and monkey their pronunciation quietly to yourself. Slowly, your Chinese will begin to sound more like theirs.

Will I be understood if I get my tones wrong?

Yes. Chinese will understand what you are saying from the context, although try to get the tone right when using single vocabulary items, such as place names, menu items, and above all when asking for a pen. Even advanced Chinese students still guess at tones, and it’s fine to blag or use neutral tone for ones you’re not sure of. In a way, what’s more important is to get a feel for natural intonation and rhythm. No one wants to sound like a robot, pausing to think about the tone between each syllable.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put effort into getting your tones right, of course, as it’s what makes the difference between being intelligible and seeming intelligent. One helpful way to get a grip on the tones, to begin with at least, is to think of them as the equivalent intonation in English. First tone approximates shocked disbelief. Second tone is like asking a question. Third tone is as if doubting something someone said (“really?”). Fourth tone is like you’re scolding someone.

What do I need to know about regional dialects?

Ah, dialects. There’s an awful lot of them in China, and some of them sound absolutely nothing like standard Mandarin (putonghua). The good news is, unless you’re living or plan to live in a particular region, it’s best just to ignore them. Honestly. If you’re talking to someone with a strong accent, meh, you’ll figure out what they mean somehow – or if you can’t, there’s a good chance a Chinese couldn’t understand them either. If you’re in Beijing, though, do learn about Beijing dialect (er hua, because of that piratic arr sound tacked on the end of many words), it isn’t complex.

You haven’t mentioned grammar yet. Is it because it’s crazy tricky?

Errrm, yes and no. The obvious but really important thing to remember about Chinese is that it’s a completely different system to Western languages. Don’t try to translate an English sentence word for word into Chinese in your head, learn how to build it from scratch in Chinese. There is no verb declension, and no different endings for past and future tense. The word order is different, but can be flexible. And there are some entirely new grammar concepts to grasp, such as how to use particles like 了 (le) to indicate completed action and 的 (de) to indicate possession.

The best way to grasp these grammar rules, as in any language, is to be naturally mindful of them as you construct and understand actual sentences. Learning about the rule is only the beginning – you didn’t grasp your native grammar in terms of rules, after all. Keep coming up with new examples to use adjectives, adverbs, tense and all the rest of it, and slowly you will develop what Chinese call “language feel” (yugan) – a natural feel for what word goes where, without having to think it through.

So, how do I go about getting this “language feel”?

Through patience and focus. When you speak Chinese, talk confidently, without worrying about getting it all right. Then go back and try to understand what you got wrong. Then say it again. When you listen to Chinese, concentrate and ask for a repeat if necessary, so you can break down a sentence and really understand how it works. Then repeat it yourself, or try to use those patterns with your own examples. At the same time, you’ll be learning useful everyday phrases.

Is there any software that can help me learn quicker?

Yes, lots. If you have a smart phone, download Pleco immediately. It's a dictionary app and so much more. Once you've got it, I recommend purchasing the NWP dictionary add-on (which has good examples of new vocabulary within sentences), the flashcard add-on (indispensable for testing yourself on characters while on the subway), and the document reader add-on for more advanced learners, which makes reading Chinese texts easy with hover-over definitions. If you're at intermediate level, get the ABC dictionary add-on for more depth.

Plus: Mandaread is a very handy tool for saving longer Chinese texts to read later. Popup Chinese has far and away the best dialogues to learn authentic spoken Chinese. And Argue in Chinese is a fun phone app for when you progress to the level of insulting people.

Can you, like, sum up the most useful advice in five bullet points?

God, you’re so demanding. OK, here are a few tips and maxims to remember:

  • Learning Chinese is riding a bicycle not taking a bus. Take it slow, but don’t stop and start.
  • Don’t cram characters in long sessions. Instead, test yourself on them in idle moments.
  • When listening to native speakers, repeat their formations and intonation quietly to yourself.
  • Each syllable you speak in Chinese is a distinct, rounded shape. Don’t slur them together.
  • Get in the habit of looking up and reading out phrases and words that you see on the street.

Any final words?

It will seem that the horizon of good Chinese will never arrive. Like any horizon, it never does. There’s always something to improve. Give yourself manageable goals. Keep plugging at it every day, push yourself to speak faster, and listen to faster dialogue. I know it's hard, don't be a wimp. Before you know it, you will sit up and realise you can speak Chinese. Which, let's face it, is pretty badass.