Learning Mandarin Chinese: 7 Things you Need to Know

Learn what it really means
image from Transparent Language 
So, you've decided to learn Mandarin Chinese. From a Western perspective, this is not a walk in the park. You are up against endless challenges from learning to read non-phonetic characters, to mastering the tone system, to a huge number of cultural differences that separate the English language from Mandarin. Spoiler alert: learning Mandarin takes time, concentration, and hard work, EVERY DAY. That is to say you aren't one of those language freaks who travels to a place and just becomes fluent listening to people speak on the train.

I've personally been studying Mandarin for almost 3 years now, with 1 intensive year spent in Mandarin language school in Taiwan. The rest of that time I've been embarrassing myself praticing with other native speaking friends, co-workers, and 7-11 employees in Taiwan. I also spent a brief few months studying with a Beijing teacher in NYC. I'm considered the low-end of intermediate. Only sweat and tears has gotten me this far. Here is what I have learned about learning Mandarin.

1) Learn the Basics
I've witnessed plenty of wide-eyed foreigners shrivel and crack in the first month of Mandarin language school. Learning Mandarin is overwhelming. Every time you learn one word you need to learn 5 aspects: 1) pronunciation 2) tone 3) the Chinese written form 4) the written Pinyin and/or Zhuyin Bopomofo form and finally 5) the word meaning(s), which may or may not have an equivalent in English. Let's not even put pressure on usage, and your ability to recognize the spoken word.

Spending a month or 3 memorizing the pinyin system (most common) or Zhuyin Bopomofo (commonly used in Taiwan), and pronunciation will take the edge off. Even better is to start familiarizing yourself with Chinese character writing stroke order.

I personally studied the entry level textbook 4 times over a year and a half before words even sunk-in, I'm a little slow.

MLC in Taipei Taiwan

2) Go to School
Signing up for a class is the first step to a life of fluent Mandarin. The main benefit is pressure. Pressure to show up every day/week and keep with it. The next benefit is, of course, practicing the 4 language skills, reading, writing, listening, and speaking. No matter how great a self-starter you are, you need someone to tell you over, and over, and over what mistakes you are making to learn.

Because there is so much to learn with every word, you may find teaching styles vary from person-person, country-country. I have never, ever had a teacher teach me to write. It was always a given a vocabulary list. I would go home and practice, a be tested later. I have also had very few teachers teach me ANYTHING. It is extremely common for teachers to use rote memorization form of teaching. For example, a quarter at language skill may go like this: you read a section in your textbook at home, in class your teacher reads that section out loud, asks you to repeat, and answers questions, repeat, repeat as time allows, test.

I most often spent time online googling grammar patterns and pronunciation tables to really get these things in my brain. Although I have been lucky to have a few great teachers who were able to teach me the principals of Mandarin with clever games, and great explanations.

image by Valery Kenski

3) Back up with Conversation Practice
No matter how great your teacher is, or how relevant your Mandarin text book is, you need to practice the everyday skill of speaking and listening. It is important to find a conversation partner who will help you do this. A tutor, language exchange partner, or a language-savvy friend are good to have and worth investing in.

A regular friend will not do. You need someone who understands your language level, and how to correct you. Up until completing 9-12 months of Mandarin language school, I could not begin to understand daily conversations with native speakers. I was lost. You need to find a person who can help you practice what you know, and guide you.

The other benefit of a conversation partners learning more regional phrases, slang, expressions, and, generally, the most commonly spoken words. Surprise, surprise the most common words may not be the ones in your text book, will be more formal than daily language. Learning formal and casual language skills, at the same time, helps you recognize when to use each one.

image by Liz Henry
4) Flex your Memory
Chinese is efficient. Mandarin words have more meanings, and more specific meanings, than English words. The grammar is simple, too. Your biggest learning hurdle is going to be reading. Your best tool will be to memorize. First, you can learn to memorize the most common 100 Chinese radicals. Many Chinese characters are pictograms, based on stories and even short aphorisms.

Memorizing the basic radicals will tell you the general meaning of a word, e.g. Chinese characters with the 口 kou radical (literally depicts a mouth) usually relate to people. characters with the 言 yan radical (literally depicts a tongue moving out of a mouth, see the kou radical in that one?) relate to language terms.

This is just one little technique I'm just dropping here as an example. You will need to memorize a ton, everyday, for months, until it just becomes second nature. Even then you are probably will still be checking a dictionary.

Ultimately, I find the answer is flash cards. I live by them. Many people like Pleco software and phone apps, but I'm obsessed with my Trainchinese dictionary and cards.

image by James Turner
5) Write
I know what you are thinking. Why learn to write? It is a pain, and its very secondary in a digital world. First of all, Chinese characters are beautiful, and taking the time to slow down and write them is very meditative. You will feel personally closer to the language if you learn to write. You will also have a much easier time reading and remembering character meanings. It is a time consuming process, with less and less modern practical use, but it helps! Its baller, so just do it.

6) Don't Give Up
To really get Mandarin in your brain you need patience. Great patience. You also need the humility to fail over and over, and sound really horrible speaking with the wrong accent, and often be told so. There are plenty of weeks when work wants to take over every minute of my day, but you have to learn to fit that Mandarin in. If you learn that balancing skill, you probably can achieve anything. On the brighter side, as a Western person, I find Taiwanese people/most native speakers VERY VERY supportive. I never stop being grateful to all the daily people who take time from their day to correct my poor tones.

image by textbookace
7) Review Everything, Always
It is commonly said that it takes 2 years to speak Mandarin fluently. I'm going to guess that its 2 years if you are living in an immersed environment, longer if not. All along the way in learning to speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters you are going to have to review. It isn't enough to read a chapter and move on, you need to regularly look back at chapters and notes. You will forget, and or your brain will distort meanings of words. It sets my mind at ease to know that even native Mandarin speakers forget some characters. There are 80,000 charcters, even if 3,500 are in modern use.

So 加油(jia1you2) , which is an encouraging way to say get to it, go, and you can do it in Mandarin.

Here are some learning resources to get you on your way:
MDBG English/Chinese dictionary
Yellow Bridge character dicitionary
Pinyin pronunciation table
Chinese Grammar
Chinese Character Stroke Order 
Chinese Flashcard app for Android phones


  1. Nice advice! Thanks for this. How's the studying going? 好好学习天天向上


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