5 Things I wish I knew when starting Chinese.

Photo by Ben White

I started learning Chinese when I landed in Shanghai for my exchange year in China. At that time I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

For the first couple of months of studying Mandarin all I did was:

  • Look at HSK example sentences, write them down and use spaced repetition software to memorise these sentences.
  • Try some apps which would quiz you by giving you multiple choice questions.

I’m not saying these methods are bad when starting out, but doing it exclusively is a mistake.

Therefore, here are 5 things I wish I knew when I got off that plane.

1) Listen listen listen

Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma'aji

Listening to Mandarin as much as possible, especially at the start, is possibly the most effective thing you could do.

As a beginner, you need to get familiar with the sounds and rhythm of spoken Chinese. When starting out, Mandarin can often sound like a load of gibberish.

That’s why the first step needs to be getting accustomed to the unique sounds of the language, so that you can differentiate words from each other.

However, listening alone would be extremely hard, especially at this stage. So while listening, you should be reading whatever is being spoken using Pinyin or an equivalent phonetic writing system. (More on pinyin later.)

When listening to phrases or sentences, try to imitate the intonation, rather than the individual sounds. Getting a feel for the rhythm of the language will allow your word choice to become more fluent but also improve your tones.

Here are some listening resources I have found to be helpful:

  • The LingQ mini stories are good at they have a lot of repitition of high frequency verbs.
  • Watching Youtube can be a great way to improve listening as well as reading.
  • The app SuperChinese has videos that you can follow along which are great for beginners.

2) Focus on pinyin and tones early on


So as I said before, while you’re listening to Mandarin you should also be reading. But how can you be expected to read Chinese characters, since they don’t use the same character set as us English speakers?

The answer is Pinyin.

Pinyin uses the character set we are familiar with to express how to pronounce Mandarin.

This is extremely useful, especially at the start when you want to be learning how to speak/listen as much as possible. It can be overwhelming to try and learn the characters, especially if you don’t have more than an hour per day of free time for studying Mandarin.

However while learning Pinyin, I strongly advise you find a native speaker, who can help correct your pronunciation, as you try to speak using Pinyin. This is something I stumbled upon accidentally as I was in China when I started learning, so I got lucky!

Tones come hand in hand with Pinyin, but when I first started learning Chinese I didn’t quite realise how important they are.

Every time you learn a new word, you also need to memorise it’s tone. If not, you might end up calling someones mother a horse. (If you know, you know..)

What I like to do when using a spaced repetition system like Anki, is not only remember the word but also remember its tone. If I get the word correct but the tone incorrect then I only get half marks, not full marks.

3) Learn like a baby

Photo by Iana Dmytrenko

When I tried Chinese classes for a month, I found that learning things like grammar was really challenging. The teachers found it hard to even explain grammar as it’s so contextual.

Halfway through my exchange year in China, a video changed my entire perspective of learning languages.

Up until that point, I had always assumed learning languages required dedicated time to studying boring things, like grammar.

I really recommend watching the video, and am planning to make a separate post addressing the video with my experiences. But to summarise the key points:

  • Just because you’re an adult, doesn’t mean you can’t learn languages like a baby.
  • Learning grammar has been shown to be only effective for the best of language learners.

    • It’s much better to acquire grammar through reading.
  • When practicing/learning the language, you want to be using at least 90% in target language.
  • Get into the mindset of acquiring and getting familiar with the language rather than “learning” it.

Luckily, the grammar of Mandarin is rather simple. It doesn’t have genders, conjugations, complicated tenses etc that a lot of European languages have.

This means as you learn new words you will be able to use them almost immediately!

4) Read read read

Photo by Iana Dmytrenko

I have mixed feelings on when you should start learning to read in Mandarin. It mostly depends on your goals. If you wish to get conversational as quick as possible, then don’t immediately start reading, just practice a ton of listening and speaking.

However after a couple of months, learning to read can be extremely advantageous.

I started reading books and other things only after finishing my exchange year in China. But since I’ve started doing it, I’ve realised just how effective reading is for your fluency.

Not only can I learn new vocabulary and acquire grammar naturally, I’ve also seen an improvement in constructing sentences like a native.

It has also helped me transition to thinking in Chinese rather than having to translate each word in my head.

Regarding what to read, a good rule of thumb is that you read a wide range of material on subjects that you find interesting. This means you will learn vocabulary related to what you are interested in, allowing you to speak about these subjects more easily!

A good resource I have used is the Chinese Graded Readers from Mandarin Companion. These graded readers have different levels, so if you’re completely new to Chinese you will want to start at the breakthrough level.

The idea for these chinese graded readers is that research has shown you acquire vocabulary/grammar much easier when we are in a ‘comfort zone’. This means you understand approximately 98% of the words in the book, allowing you comfortably pick up the 2% that is unfamiliar.

These books are great as they ensure that new words are repeated throughout the text enough times to be truly learnt. I will admit they are quite pricy, but in my opinion it’s worth it!

Another thing I do for reading throughout the day is use the app DuShu. DuShu contains thousands of sentences divided by HSK level that you can read.

When I have 5 minutes spare, I will flick through some sentences, starring any sentences + individual words I don’t know or cant understand. Then after a couple of days, I’ll go through each starred sentence and words to see if I’ve learnt them since then. I will then rinse and repeat this.

This app is good for short bursts of free time, but since it’s not a story or anything I think it would be boring to exclusively use this to read.

5) Don’t be scared to make mistakes

Photo by Iana Dmytrenko

Picking up the tones, as well as some individual sounds of Mandarin require a serious amount of practice.

The fact is you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but that’s okay.

Make sure at every chance you get to practice with natives, rather than other learners of Mandarin. Unfortunately if you are mostly practicing with other learners, you can pick up bad habits that will be hard to fix later on.

Don’t second guess yourself when speaking to natives, just allow what you have learnt and practiced to flow out, even if that mostly consists of mistakes.

The simple fact that you are using the language means you are getting more accustomed to it, and your Mandarin will continue to improve.

So keep practicing.

Bonus Tip: Keep Consistent

The key I have found to learning Chinese is to enjoy the process of learning, while keeping consistent.

It’s better to do 15 minutes a day rather than one 2 hour session a week.

This not only ensures you don’t burn out from boredom, but constantly reminding yourself about Mandarin daily is going to allow you to remember things more easily.


Veterans of learning Chinese, what do you guys think?

Have I missed any major things that beginners should keep in mind when starting Chinese?

Let me know in the comments!

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