2018 Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning Chinese

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Have you been interested in starting to learn Mandarin Chinese, but have no idea where to start? Learning a second language is never easy and to be successful requires a good game plan from to start to finish.

So what’s the best way to start learning Mandarin Chinese?

The step-by-step guide below is for all beginners and those considering learning Mandarin Chinese but lost on how to get started. Read the guide below and go from lost on how to start to studying Chinse within minutes.


Step 1: Learn Pinyin

The first step you need to take is learning how to pronounce words in Chinese. I’m sure you’ve encountered many words like Xinjiang or Qin Shihuang and have no idea how they are pronounced.

The secret to pronouncing Chinese words – and reading Chinese characters for that matter – is to start by learning pinyin.

Pinyin is the most commonly used system for writing Chinese using roman letters. For example, 我是中国人 in pinyin is wǒ shì zhōngguó rén. Each character in Chinese represents one syllable and can be spelled out phonetically in pinyin.

Notice the little marks above each syllable? The marks represent the tones. There are four tones in Chinese and a neutral tone. They are represented by (¯ ´ ˇ ` ) above the letters.

One thing to be aware of when learning pinyin is that it is not pronounced exactly like we would read it in English. For example, ‘shi’ is NOT pronounced like ‘she’ and instead sounds like ‘sure’.

The good news is there are plenty of great apps to teach you pinyin for download on your smartphone or tablet. You can also have a look at this online pinyin table with audio (which you can download).


Step 2: Find Some Learning Materials

Have a look at my resources page for some of the best tools for learning Mandarin Chinese. Download some of the applications and try them free to get started. I also highly recommend taking a free Chinese class with certified instructors on TutorMandarin and eChineseLearning.


Step 3: Start listening to Chinese During Your Commute

It’s also important to start listening to Chinese as much as possible. We learned our native language through listening and you should apply the same strategy to learn Mandarin Chinese.

To start building listening comprehension, try ChinesePod, as they have over 400 lessons for newbies that you can download onto your phone and listen to on your way to school, work, or hanging out with friends.


Step 4: Get Your Head Around Tones

As Mandarin Chinese has significantly fewer sounds than English, tones are essential to convey different ideas with the same syllabic sound. Don’t listen to any learners who claim that tones do not matter. Having lived in China for five years, I can assure you that speaking in proper tones is essential!

Chinese people simply won’t understand you if you don’t learn tones or get them wrong too much while speaking Mandarin Chinese. Using the wrong tones in your spoken Chinese is similar to putting the emphasis on the wrong syllables in English.

Like all skills, speaking with tones comes with proper practice and listening carefully to native speakers and listening exercises.

TutorMandarin goes over tones pretty well in their trial class and will get you started in both understanding and practicing them. Skritter also has a great function built into their app to help you remember tones as you learn new characters.


Step 5: Don’t Immediately Dive into Chinese Characters

Forget about Chinese characters for now. I would suggest beginning to learn them once you are confident you have the basics like pinyin down or are about 1 or 2 months into studying. Don’t blow learning characters off too long though as eventually you can sink into the habit of reading everything in pinyin.

Once you start learning characters, start with the goal of understanding how Chinese characters work as a system rather than rote memorization.

Outlier-Linguistics has a fantastic dictionary that shows you the meaning part and sound part of each character. Through understanding each character you are better suited to recalling it in reading as well as writing.

Skritter is another great tool for learning Chinese characters. Not only can you study characters from vocab lists from the most popular textbooks available, but the algorithms Skritter uses allow you to learn new characters in less than a minute and remember 95% of what you learn.


Step 6: Mimic Native Speakers

When learning a language, you need to mimic the way native speakers and the way they speak.

A good technique for pronunciation and speaking practice is to play an individual recorded sentence and then try to repeat it yourself.

Try recording yourself with an application such as Audacity and compare yourself to native speakers. Don’t try to say things really fast as a beginner though! Try to repeat things that are recorded slowly.


Step 7: Practice every day

Start small with 30 minutes of studying Chinese per day. You want to study only as long as you are having fun and enjoying the process. The more you study, the faster you will improve. But the more you enjoy studying, the more you will study.

It is far better to do 30 minutes a day than to do 3 or 4 hours in a single sitting once a week and risking burnout. Do your best to make learning Chinese part of your daily ritual.

Check out my post on one-month challenges for how to make learning a language a habit as additional motivation for studying Chinese.


Final Thoughts | Learning Chinese

Last thing is to be consistent in how you learn. Once you find a method of learning, you want to stick to it. By sticking to a regular routine, you are more likely to remember what you have learned and be able to expand on your knowledge of Chinese with new content.

Now what are you waiting for? Stop procrastinating and start learning Chinese today!

Author: Dan

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