Home » How to Learn Chinese: My Top 6 Tips

How to Learn Chinese: My Top 6 Tips

by Zain Ali
0 comment

Looking back, I realize there were six key strategies that helped me learn Chinese more effectively than my peers. Here are my top tips that you can use to boost your own Chinese language learning journey:

Focus on Listening in the Beginning

For the first month or two, concentrate solely on listening to Mandarin. The goal is to become familiar with the sounds of the language. While listening, read along using a phonetic writing system like Pinyin. This helps you understand the pronunciation better. Although you will eventually need to learn Chinese characters, it’s okay to start without them. This approach allows you to build momentum and get a feel for the language first.

Why Prioritize Listening?

Learning Chinese characters right away can be overwhelming if you haven’t developed an ear for the language yet. Initially, Mandarin might sound like a stream of undistinguished sounds. Your first step is to get used to these sounds, learn to distinguish individual words, and have a few basic words and phrases echoing in your mind.

My Experience with Mandarin

When I started learning Mandarin, I used a resource called “Chinese Dialogues,” which was an intermediate text that used the Yale Romanization system instead of characters. Nowadays, Pinyin, developed in China, is the standard for romanizing Mandarin. In “Chinese Dialogues,” the narrator spoke incredibly fast, which I found challenging at first. It felt like he was torturing us with the speed. However, after about a month, I got used to it and began to grasp the rhythm and flow of the language.

Practical Tips

  • Find Audio Resources: Use language learning apps, podcasts, or YouTube videos that provide spoken Mandarin.
  • Use Pinyin: Follow along with Pinyin to match the sounds with the written form.
  • Repeat and Mimic: Try to mimic the sounds and phrases you hear to improve your pronunciation.
  • Language Tutor: Consider hiring a Chinese language tutor who can provide personalized guidance and feedback, helping you to correct your pronunciation and improve your listening skills.
  • Be Patient: Understand that it takes time to get used to a new language. Stay persistent, and don’t rush the process.
  • By focusing on listening and getting accustomed to the sounds of Mandarin, you’ll lay a strong foundation for further learning.

Embrace the Long-term Journey

Learning Mandarin Chinese is a long-term commitment that connects you to the language and culture of over 20% of the world’s population and a significant historical influence. Therefore, if you’re serious about learning Mandarin, it’s essential to also learn Chinese characters.

Daily Practice is Key

Once you decide to learn Chinese characters, make it a daily habit. Dedicate 30 minutes to an hour each day exclusively to studying characters. Choose any method that suits you, but consistency is crucial. Why every day? Because you’ll find that you often forget characters as quickly as you learn them, so daily practice helps reinforce your memory. Tools like Anki or other spaced repetition systems can be very effective.

My Personal Method

I created a personal spaced repetition system using 1,000 small cardboard flashcards, each featuring one of the most common characters. I also used sheets of squared paper to practice writing them. Here’s how I did it:

  • Flashcards: Pick a card and write the character ten times in one column on the paper.
  • Annotations: Write the meaning or pronunciation a few columns over.
  • Repetition: Move to the next flashcard and repeat. When you encounter the previous character again, rewrite it a few times to reinforce memory before you forget it completely.
  • I followed this routine for the first 1,000 characters. After that, I continued learning by reading, discovering new characters, and randomly practicing writing them by hand.

The Role of Radicals

As you progress, learning new characters becomes easier because many elements repeat within them. Chinese characters have “radicals,” which hint at the character’s meaning, and components that suggest pronunciation. Initially, these radicals may not make much sense, and too much explanation can be overwhelming. In my experience, the efforts of teachers to explain radicals at the early stages were not very helpful. Only after sufficient exposure did I start to recognize these components, which then accelerated my learning.

Practical Tips

  • Use Modern Tools: Anki and other spaced repetition systems can help you retain characters more effectively.
  • Practice Writing: Regularly write characters by hand to reinforce memory and improve recall.
  • Incremental Learning: Focus on the most frequent characters first, then gradually expand your vocabulary.
  • Recognize Patterns: Over time, pay attention to recurring radicals and components to understand the structure and meaning of new characters.

Focus on Patterns

When learning Mandarin, prioritize understanding patterns over memorizing complicated grammar rules. Patterns provide a practical framework for building sentences and communicating effectively. During my studies, I used a book called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni. Each lesson introduced new patterns, which helped me grasp how the language worked. These patterns acted like building blocks, enabling me to construct my own sentences.

Learn by Patterns, Not Grammar Rules

I don’t focus on grammar terms or rules, yet I’ve achieved fluency in Mandarin. Books that introduce specialized grammar terms for Chinese can be unnecessary. Instead, it’s more beneficial to familiarize yourself with the patterns used in Chinese to convey meanings that we express in English with different structures.

The Simplicity of Chinese Grammar

One of the advantages of learning Chinese is its relatively simple grammar. Unlike many European languages, Chinese lacks declensions, conjugations, genders, verb aspects, and complicated tenses. This simplicity can make learning the language more straightforward and less confusing.

Practical Tips

  • Use Pattern-Based Learning Materials: Find resources that emphasize sentence patterns rather than complex grammar rules. For instance, textbooks like Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese introduce patterns in a contextual manner.
  • Practice Pattern Recognition: When studying sentences, identify recurring patterns and try to use them in your own speech or writing.
  • Build Sentences with Patterns: Focus on how sentences are structured around these patterns, and practice creating similar sentences.
  • Ignore Unnecessary Grammar Terms: Don’t get bogged down by technical grammar terms. Instead, pay attention to how native speakers construct sentences and imitate those patterns.

By concentrating on patterns, you’ll find it easier to understand and use Mandarin naturally. This approach will help you communicate more effectively without getting overwhelmed by grammar rules.

Read Extensively

If I learned Mandarin faster than my peers 50 years ago, it was because I read voraciously. I didn’t limit myself to special texts for learners but explored a wide range of materials on topics that interested me. The Yale-in-China program offered a series of readers with glossaries for each chapter, which was incredibly helpful. We began with learner-friendly materials like Chinese Dialogues and then moved on to a graded history text called 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture.

Benefit from Diverse Reading Materials

20 Lectures on Chinese Culture was a fantastic way to learn about Chinese history and culture while simultaneously learning the language. The book contained only texts and a glossary—no complicated explanations or quizzes. Modern textbooks often include tedious content about fictional scenarios, accompanied by drills and explanations, which might not engage everyone.

After 20 Lectures, I moved on to Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese from Cornell University, which featured authentic texts from modern Chinese politics and history. Each lesson introduced useful patterns with minimal drills and explanations, which I often ignored.

Utilize Resources with Glossaries

Yale offered a wide array of readers on politics, history, and literature, each with word lists for every chapter. This feature allowed me to build my vocabulary without constantly consulting a dictionary, which was cumbersome before electronic and online dictionaries became available. Relying on word lists was much more efficient, as looking up words in a traditional dictionary often led to quickly forgetting them—a considerable waste of time.

Reading Novels

By extensively using readers with glossaries, I eventually reached a point where I could tackle books without such aids, simply ignoring characters and words I didn’t know. After seven or eight months, I read my first novel, Rickshaw Boy (骆驼祥子), a famous work by Lao She about life in Beijing during the turbulent first half of the 20th century.

Practical Tips

  • Read Widely: Engage with a broad spectrum of materials beyond learner-specific texts. Choose topics that interest you to maintain motivation.
  • Use Glossaries: Select resources with word lists to enhance vocabulary acquisition without constant dictionary use.
  • Minimize Drills: Focus on materials that introduce language patterns naturally and avoid over-reliance on drills and explanations.
  • Progress Gradually: Start with graded readers and gradually move to more challenging texts, eventually attempting novels and other literature.
  • Ignore Unfamiliar Words: When reading more complex texts, don’t get bogged down by unknown characters. Understand the context and move on.

Emphasize Listening

To truly connect with Mandarin and prepare for speaking, focus on listening. While reading helps you expand your vocabulary, listening is crucial for understanding the language’s flow and rhythm, which are essential for conversation.

Mastering Tones through Listening

One of the biggest challenges in Mandarin is mastering the tones. You learn the tone of each character as you build your vocabulary, but remembering these tones while speaking can be tricky. The key is to internalize the tones within phrases, and listening helps with this. The intonation and rhythm of Mandarin—or any language—can only be grasped by listening to native speakers. You can’t learn it through theoretical study alone.

Practical Listening Strategies

I found that listening to traditional Chinese comic dialogues, Xiang Sheng (相声), was particularly helpful. These performers exaggerate intonation, which makes it easier to pick up on the rhythm and tones of the language. Today, you can find Xiang Sheng online, complete with transcripts, and even import them into language learning systems like LingQ. This kind of resource wasn’t available to me 50 years ago.

Take Advantage of Modern Resources

Nowadays, there is an abundance of listening material available on virtually any subject. You can download content from the internet, buy CDs in China, or convert various media into downloadable audio files for your MP3 player or smartphone. Constant listening, even for just five or ten minutes while you’re waiting somewhere, can significantly increase your exposure to the language.

My Experience Then vs. Now

When I was learning Mandarin, I had to sit in front of an open-reel tape recorder with earphones, searching bookstores for audio content. The situation has dramatically improved since then. Today, there’s no limit to the material you can find online, and you can listen anytime, anywhere.

Speak a Lot and Don’t Second Guess Yourself

Mandarin’s individual sounds are not particularly challenging for English speakers, but the tones can be tricky. To master them, you need a lot of practice, both speaking to yourself and conversing with others. Try imitating the phrases you hear. Find texts with accompanying audio, listen to a phrase or sentence, and then imitate the intonation. Don’t worry too much about getting each sound perfect—focus on the overall rhythm and tone. Recording yourself and comparing it to the original audio can be helpful.

Embrace the Rhythm

If you can get “infected” with the rhythm of the language, not only will your control of tones improve, but your choice of words will also start to sound more natural. The more you practice speaking and imitating native speakers, the more intuitive and automatic your speech will become.

Speak Without Hesitation

When you speak, don’t second guess yourself about tones or any other aspect of the language. Let the words and phrases you’ve practiced flow naturally, mistakes and all. Every time you use the language, you’re getting better at it. Enjoy the process of interacting in Chinese, getting into the flow, and feeling the rhythm. This enjoyment will propel your progress.

Don’t Worry About Perfection

At the beginning, don’t stress about perfect pronunciation. We can’t accurately produce sounds or intonation that we haven’t yet internalized. To develop this ability, listen to hundreds or even thousands of hours of Mandarin. Allow your brain to get accustomed to the new language. This process can’t be rushed—trust that you will gradually and naturally improve.


Learning Mandarin is a rewarding but challenging journey that requires dedication and the right strategies. By focusing on listening, you can get accustomed to the sounds and tones of the language. Consistent daily practice with characters helps reinforce your memory and understanding. Emphasizing patterns over complicated grammar rules simplifies your learning process. Reading extensively expands your vocabulary and cultural knowledge, while constant speaking practice, without worrying about mistakes, builds your confidence and fluency.

Utilize modern tools and resources to make the most of your study time. Ultimately, trust in the process and enjoy each step of your language-learning adventure. With patience and persistence, you will achieve fluency in Mandarin.

You may also like

Leave a Comment