- You need a routine
- Is learning Pinyin Essential?
- Traditional Chinese vs Simplified Chinese
- Ditch the apps, get a good textbook
- Spaced repetition
- Get a Chinese tutor
- Get some good Chinese listening materials
- Reading in Chinese
- Written Chinese
- Shadowing in Chinese (Advanced)
During the pandemic, we all had to go through the phase of working from home. I spent a lot of time learning Chinese at home, but not because of the pandemic – I prefer studying languages by myself in a routine, structured way. Personally, I have found classes a motivating, but not effective method of learning. Here, I’m going to outline some ways you can start to learn Chinese in 2022. I fumbled through the learning process myself, so I’ll try and make it easier for you.
You need a routine
Do not compromise. You will need a solid routine and discipline to learn Chinese effectively. The rule goes, 10 minutes a day is better than one hour once a week (the maths checks out too). Your brain simply retains information much easier if it is constantly exposed to it. This doesn’t mean you need to spend x minutes doing y every day, you just need to do something. Review earlier lessons, listen to a dialogue, watch some YouTube, chat with a few Chinese-speaking friends. Tell yourself you need to spend 10 minutes doing something in the language every day and stick to it. If that is too much, go down to five minutes. Once you trick yourself into a routine, add more time when you feel ready.
Burnout is probably the most frequent problem most learners face. Stop forcing yourself to do too much, it isn’t a race. Learning Chinese is a long and slow process, so don’t try and force yourself in the beginning.
Is learning Pinyin Essential?
Yes, it is, no question about it. Once you have mastered pinyin, you should be able to read out any piece of Chinese content. Practice Pinyin like no tomorrow, it is crucial you understand the basic sounds of the language. This website offers a fantastic way to check your listening.
Pinyin can cripple you if you rely on it too much, so master the basics and then switch to characters as soon as possible.
Traditional Chinese vs Simplified Chinese
One question a lot of learners might ask themselves is: Should I learn traditional or simplified Chinese? There isn’t a clear-cut answer. It depends entirely on how you intend to use the language and where you plan to go. The short answer is: if you want to go to China, learn simplified. If you want to visit Taiwan, learn traditional. You will still encounter traditional characters in Hong Kong and Macau. Decide where you want to go, or which country interests you the most, and stick with that.
In time, you can learn both. Once you reach an upper-intermediate stage, you’ll find learning the other much easier to read. Even places in Taiwan occasionally use simplified characters in handwriting due to convenience, and traditional characters can still be seen occasionally in China.
Ditch the apps, get a good textbook
In the age of the smartphone, nothing is easier than simply installing an app and being greeted with ‘Learn x in y days!’. Beautifully designed user interfaces with fancy graphics, alluring sounds and notifications to remind you to log in once a day for extra coins.
A good textbook provides you with expertly designed dialogues designed to slowly introduce grammar, vocabulary and accompanied by explanations and/or example sentences. The audio for most of these books are included, allowing you to download and listen to them as much as you want. This includes slowing the audio down, cutting it up to include in flashcards, or just putting it on your phone to listen to on repeat.
You need to get used to seeing vocabulary and sentences in context. It needs to be understandable and at your level. All beginner textbooks provide this, whereas apps provide learning in isolation. Invest in a good textbook and learn it. You will progress much faster.
Spaced repetition might sound like a buzzword, but it is an effective way to trick your brain into remembering things better. The gist of it is, you will see information at different intervals to optimize your memory retention.
By far the most popular spaced repetition software is Anki. Anki is simply a flashcard program that you can use to create your own custom flashcard decks. You might be tempted to use it to download community-made decks, but I suggest creating your own. The act of making your own cards helps with memory formation, and you can personalize them to your taste.
You can put sentences, words, audio recordings and even writing prompts to help remind yourself. I suggest using cloze deletion with sentences you’ve already studied (remember, context is everything).
Get a Chinese tutor
A tutor can help guide you through the first steps.
Online tutors on platforms such as italki and Verbling allow you to take lessons with tutors from all around the world. It has never been more convenient to find someone to practice with. It might take time to find the right tutor for you, but a good tutor can help elevate your speaking and comprehension beyond what you can do by yourself or with language exchange partners.
Try to communicate beforehand exactly what you want to learn and provide as many materials yourself as possible. I worked through my beginner textbooks with my tutor, and she helped nail down pronunciation, solidified the grammar explanations and help expand on what I had already learnt.
A tutor is almost always more cost-effective and efficient than a class. A teacher needs to cater to different students, it is almost impossible for everyone to be at the same level and stronger students end up dominating the class, taking up more time. Learning Chinese at home lets you study at your own pace.
Get some good Chinese listening materials
Listening is a key part of learning Chinese, and it is easy to do at home. If you want to accelerate your Chinese listening, try to find materials that offer a transcript you can refer to when listening. Jumping right into native-level materials is a waste of time, you need to find content that matches your level, and you can work upon it first.
If you are a complete beginner, take the dialogues you have learnt from your textbook and listen to them on repeat. You can use software to keep track of how many times you listen to a track, I suggest a minimum of 10 times before moving on, just so you can get a feel for the language and sounds.
A website I use called Glossika offers a listening program that lets you listen to thousands of sentences, repeat them and transcribe them. I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners, but if you have some Chinese under your belt, it can be an effective way to learn and memorize commonly used phrases in Chinese. It isn’t the most engaging or interesting platform, but you will see results.
I would be lying if I said that discipline is all you need to learn a language. Motivation is a major factor that can help you just start to learn on those days when you want to put off the work. The mistake most learners make is relying too much on it.
A few motivating things to do is watch videos of other learners, share your journey on social media and connect to other learners on communities like Reddit, discord and shock – real life. Learning a language at home doesn’t mean you need to do it in isolation. I like watching these Youtubers for motivation.
When diving into Chinese, you’ll no doubt hear a lot of people suggest listening to Chinese podcasts as a wonderful way to learn. As a long-time Chinese language learner, I can tell you not all podcasts are created equal. Try to find podcasts that offer long form, uninterrupted Chinese content with explanations. Too many beginner podcasts are unnecessarily littered with 1 minute of Chinese and 9 minutes of English. The English to Chinese ratio should favour Chinese more.
I am a huge fan of Chinesepod. The dialogues are short and comprehensible, the hosts are interesting to listen to, and each lesson has a transcript. You can find a lot of old ones available free to download, or subscribing is probably worth it if you are serious. Though just a note, I prefer the older lessons. They seem to be structured much better, and this post goes into more detail as to why.
I also listen to LearnChineseWithStories and ChineseLearnOnline. these both offer an absolute ton of great Chinese audio and even come with explanations in Chinese—isn’t that cool? For motivation, I would highly recommend You Can Learn Chinese podcast by Jared Turner and John Pasden. They offer some helpful tips on how to learn Chinese, and guests often share their learning Chinese stories.
Reading in Chinese
It can be tempting to head down over to Amazon and buy Harry Potter in Chinese, but after one page, I guarantee you will lose all hope and motivation. The key to reading is to read at your level, or slightly above it. This is known as comprehensible input, and you should be reading this type of material.
I would recommend Lingq as a platform that offers a lot of already curated content in Chinese and offers audio to go along with it. Most of the content on Lingq is sourced from elsewhere, so with some googling, you can the original sources.
DuChinese offers a plethora of free Chinese stories each month, all are graded in difficulty and come with audio. I used this more than most other resources due to it being constantly updated, having a modern interface and more importantly, having a fantastic way to listen to audio.
For an entirely free resource, I have found this gem of a website. It offers hundreds of articles and stories written in Chinese with the aim to be comprehensible. The audio can seem a little outdated from time to time, but no doubt you’ll find some value here.
Another valuable free resource is SlowChinese. I would recommend it for the more intermediate learner, but it offers a lot of spoken content with a good variety of topics.
What? Didn’t I say avoid all apps?
Not all apps are created equal, there are a lot of great resources available on your phone. The most important app for a beginner will be Pleco. Pleco is a dictionary that even lets you scan Chinese and look up characters, you’ll use it constantly even as an intermediate learner.
HelloTalk and Tandem are great for connecting to native speakers and getting corrections. You can make friends using the language (which is motivating in itself) and offers a way for native speakers to correct you. Both apps are free, and I have used them extensively.
DuChinese is a great resource for free stories with audio. You can go with a paid subscription to access the full library, but free content is updated on a weekly basis.
Lastly, I would recommend keeping Anki on your phone. You can either download the app for free or use it in a browser. Having access to the flashcards you make can help you review anywhere.
I am an advocate of not learning to handwrite Chinese. Handwriting Chinese offers almost no benefit for beginner learners and slows down the learning process. Most native speakers already have a solid grasp of the language before they learn to write characters, and then they spend the next ten years writing them every single day. The time is better spent on a skill you can use straight away.
Now, I’m not a fan of handwriting, but typing in Chinese is much easier and helps you learn how to structure your writing. A great resource I have used is HelloTalk. I forced myself to write a journal entry every day and got corrections from native speakers.
Typing in Chinese requires some competency in Pinyin, so make sure you have mastered the basics.
Shadowing in Chinese (Advanced)
Shadowing is an advanced technique to improve your listening and speaking in a language. I think Alexander Arguelles explains it best, but it is essentially trying to speak and imitate audio as soon as you hear it. I have had a lot of success with it, especially when learning the tones. Chinese is a tonal language, you need to memorize how words flow and how things are spoken, I’ve found shadowing an immense help in this regard.
I could probably write another thousand words describing ways you can learn Chinese at home. I love to self-study and take charge of my learning. These are just a few ways I use to learn Chinese every day. I’d love to go more in-depth in another post in the future about exactly how I like to learn and study. If you have any thoughts, feel free to get in contact!