Chinese, or Mandarin, is the world’s most spoken language and there are many ways you can learn it. But what is the best way to learn Chinese?
Well, in my experience the best way doesn’t necessarily mean the quickest. Rather, the best way is the one that is most conducive to ‘sinking in’.
This will depend on the individual. After all, we all have different learning needs.
Your personal circumstances will have an impact on the best way for you to learn Chinese.
For example, things like your budget, the way you like to study, how much time you can put in, and even where you live, can all play a part in your language-learning journey.
So without further ado, here are five of the best ways to learn Chinese.
METHOD 1 – FLASHCARDS
Is anybody old enough to remember cardboard flashcards? When I started studying Chinese for the first time, I found that these were really helpful.
The world has moved on a lot since then, and there are now plenty of digital offerings for learning Mandarin (which I’ll talk about later).
But because the writing system for Chinese is so different to most other languages, flashcards – albeit digital ones – are still one of the best ways to learn Chinese.
An online flashcard system developed by Rememberit helps busy people master Chinese on the web.
Remembr.it's system is a comprehensive way to learn Chinese characters.
It’s responsive on all devices (mobile, tablet and desktop) and there’s also an iPad app available. Apps for iPhone and Android are being released later this year.
I’ve used this system before and can personally vouch for it.
What I like about it is that it recognizes that Chinese is a unique language in that it involves a lot of memory work, particularly when it comes to learning how to write the characters.
There’s also a choice between learning simplified characters (for mainland China) and traditional characters (for Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan).
What I did
I learned Chinese using flashcards in conjunction with in-person Chinese classes. This really worked for me.
I set a limit of five new flashcards a day for optimum character retention. It also meant I could juggle the other work and study commitments I had at the time.
Another handy thing about the Remember.it system is there is an optimized learning schedule which means you learn new words at the same time as revising words you’ve previously learned.
Once you’ve learned a new word it is automatically scheduled for revision and testing to make sure you don’t forget it.
With a flashcard system like Remembr.it you can choose to study simplified or traditional characters.
If you’re an auditory learner, you’ll be pleased to know that you can hear how each of the characters and words are pronounced, with example usages provided.
Studies show that with a working vocabulary of 2,000 words you can understand 95% of spoken conversation. That’s why each of Remembr.it’s courses have been built around the 2,000 most common words in Chinese.
To see if online flashcards work for you, Remembr.it offers a free, 100-flashcard trial. Simply provide a few basic contact details and you can start straight away.
(Please note that the external links in this blog post are to help you make an informed decision about the best way for you to learn Chinese; they are not paid affiliate links.)
Using flashcards alongside another method of learning, like formal classes, will help boost your level of Chinese, particularly your reading and writing. It’s affordable, you can learn at your own pace, but you must have discipline!
Plus, if you're teaching English in China the character study complements what you'll be learning in day-to-day situations.
METHOD 2 – LIVE INSTRUCTION OVER THE INTERNET
You can learn Chinese from native speakers without having to step outside the comfort of your own home. As long as you’ve got a good internet connection, and a few dollars to spare, you’re good to go.
The benefit of learning Chinese live over the internet, on a platform like Skype, is that you get to speak with native Chinese people who are qualified and experienced at teaching foreigners.
An advantage of learning Chinese live on the internet means you don't need to leave your home.
While the chats are casual and conversational, they’re still run as structured lessons so there will be things like drills, exercises and games. And because instruction is one-on-one, the pace of learning is adjusted based on the individual.
Live online lessons are a booming area in the education industry. There are plenty of providers out there and the quality of instruction can vary greatly, so do your homework before you sign up.
eChineseLearning is the world’s biggest online Chinese school that provides one-on-one live Chinese lessons. They’re open 24/7 and teach thousands of students from over 100 countries.
One of my favourite things about eChineseLearning is they offer tailored lessons to those studying Mandarin at school and university.
So if you need to brush up on your Chinese before you sit your exams, the native staff at eChineseLearning can help you with not just speaking and listening, but reading and writing too.
It’s a really clever way to get top marks!
eChineseLearning promotional video.
To see if this is the best way of learning Chinese for you, eChineseLearning offers a no-obligation, free trial lesson for every new student.
Why not give it a go? You’ve got nothing to lose.
What I did
I took a free trial and loved it! I must admit, however, that I didn’t continue as my work commitments suddenly increased and unfortunately I had to put my hobbies on hold.
Looking back, I should have kept going as the teacher was fantastic and my work commitments eventually died down. And I really enjoyed learning Chinese in my pyjamas!
Live learning over the internet is the next best thing to being in China itself.
Find a teacher that you enjoy learning with and practice what you’ve learnt between sessions to get the most out of it.
METHOD 3 – REAL-LIFE PRACTICE IN CHINA
If you’re lucky enough to go to China for an extended period, whether it’s to teach English or do another expat job, you’ve thrown yourself in the deep end of language learning. This is a good thing!
Every single day, you get to engage in real-life conversations with native Chinese-speaking people.
From catching a taxi to ordering food in a restaurant and asking for directions – you’ll effectively be forced to open your mouth and start speaking Mandarin. You can’t get this kind of practice from a textbook.
If you don’t try, then you may find it hard to get by. Feeling overwhelmed is normal. After all, it’s not just a new language you’re learning about but a totally different country, culture and customs.
The key is not to be too hard on yourself and keep in mind that becoming fluent in Chinese can take a long time.
Having real-life practice in China is one of the best ways to learn Mandarin.
What I did
Each time I came across something I didn’t understand, wanted to know more about, or simply remember, I wrote it in a notebook (in Chinese and English). I alphabetized the notebook for easy reference and revision later on.
You could do the same thing on a cell phone (activating your Mandarin keyboard is a good idea) – whatever works best for you.
Whilst learning Chinese in China is one of the best things you can do, it’s important to point out that real-life practice in China can be hampered by a few things.
Don't let these things hamper you
Firstly, you could spend all your time with other native English speakers, eat at English-speaking restaurants and drink at trendy English-speaking bars.
I’ve personally witnessed a lot of foreigners doing this in China. I find it quite sad actually.
Secondly, you could fall victim to your new Chinese friends who want to practice their English with you 100 percent of the time. This happens all the time in China.
Of course it’s ok some of the time, but if you want to get better at speaking Chinese then you’ll need to set some boundaries with your friends. Perhaps one of them could agree to be your language exchange partner.
Your Chinese friends will want to practice their English with you.
Thirdly, there may be some days where you find it hard to leave your apartment and practice your Chinese. You might just want to spend all day on the internet watching Hollywood movies.
I myself had days like this. I think it’s important to acknowledge that some days will be harder than others. Even a quick trip to the convenience store is better than not leaving your apartment at all.
While you’re in China, you’ll have plenty of questions about the language you’re learning every day. I recommend doing Chinese lessons at least once, or even twice a week.
That way you can ask your Chinese teacher whatever you need to, as well as learn proper grammatical structures which may not be immediately evident from the ‘street language’ you’re picking up.
If you decide to teach in China with Hello Teacher! you’ll be pleased to know that most schools provide Chinese lessons as part of the contract.
Learning Chinese in China is the ultimate – you get to practice every day in real-life situations. Just be aware of some of the blockers that may get in the way of effective learning.
Complementing real-life practice with structured lessons will give you the best of both worlds.
METHOD 4 – IN-PERSON CLASSES
Surely one of the best ways to learn a language is by attending classes, where you can interact with fellow students, right?
In my opinion, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’.
Over the years I’ve been to countless language classes, from French, Japanese and recently Spanish right through to Finnish. And Chinese of course!
It’s always great getting to learn alongside people in the same boat as you. You have similar objectives and a passion for – or at least an interest in – learning a new language. You can practise together and make mistakes together.
The key is to choose a course that has a fair bit of ‘meat on the bone’. In other words, avoid really short courses or those aimed at particular groups like travellers. Look for a comprehensive, term-long course that offers classes that run for at least a couple of hours each week.
Not only that, but choose a course where you have the option of continuing on to other levels. That way, you can keep going if you love it.
Gone are the days where French was one of the most sought-after languages to acquire (after English) – Chinese is now one of the world’s premiere languages.
With the development of China’s economy and its role on the international stage, the global demand for learning Chinese has dramatically increased.
As China keeps developing, demand for Chinese language skills rises.
As such, in most cities there are numerous courses you can attend face-to-face.
Classes near you
A high quality and reputable Chinese course provider that I can personally vouch for is the Confucius Institute. I studied at the Melbourne campus for a couple of years.
Named after the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, the Confucius Institute is a non-profit organization affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education. Its aim is to promote Chinese language and culture around the world.
Since the Confucius Institute was established in 2004, more than 7 million students have been trained worldwide and over 2 million are currently studying, the China Daily has reported.
The Confucius Institute has a presence around the world, including at leading universities like The University of Melbourne.
While there has been some criticism of Confucius Institutes with regard to things like academic freedom, from my experience the course content was always objective and never politicised.
Classes were engaging, fun, student-centric and affordable. Best of all, they were run by great teachers who were passionate about the language.
I had to stop my classes at the Confucius Institute in Melbourne, Australia due to work commitments. But I wouldn’t hesitate to go back (in fact, I can’t wait!).
Classes in China
If there aren’t any good Chinese schools near you, and you have the time and money to do it, you could consider attending classes in China itself.
From what I’ve heard, the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) is one of the best.
Located in the beautiful southern city of Guilin and officially affiliated with Guangxi Normal University, CLI offers a unique immersion program.
Unlike mass-enrolment language programs at other language schools, the immersion program consists of four hours of one-on-one instruction each weekday with three different CLI teachers. That’s pretty incredible.
You can learn Chinese in Guilin not far from this beautiful backdrop.
Your 20 weekly hours of Mandarin instruction is divided according to your individual learning needs, with one teacher focusing primarily on your reading and writing, another on your listening and speaking, and your third, comprehensive teacher will tie all of these components together with in-depth lessons and review.
This very thorough and individualized program is the perfect way to advance your Chinese language skills quickly.
The added advantage of doing classes in China is that you can practise what you’ve learnt after class and on weekends.
The only drawback to the immersion program at CLI is the cost. For a six-week course you’ll have to fork out US$3,390, while for a six-month stint you’re looking at more than US$12,000.
While accommodation in a private room is included, food isn’t. Luckily food in China is cheap!
Maybe one day I’ll get to do a course at CLI. It’s definitely on my bucket list.
Completing a Chinese course face-to-face is a great way to learn the language with other students, and gives structure to what you’re doing.
In-person classes are great in your own country, but even better in China as you can practise what you’ve learnt every day.
METHOD 5 – APPS AND VIDEO SERVICES
Using apps on your smartphone or tablet is a great way to learn Chinese. Online videos, either on a website or in an app, can also help you learn Chinese.
Tens of millions of people around the world are using the award-winning app Memrise to learn a foreign language such as Chinese.
Memrise specialises in combining cutting-edge learning tech and entertaining content in order to make language learning fun, effective and accessible for everyone.
Memrise promotional video.
Memrise prides itself on the science behind the app.
In fact, the boffins at Memrise give your brain just the right workout. And they remind you of what you’ve learned at scientifically optimized times so your memories are always growing stronger.
Teachers in China love it
Many ESL teachers in China swear by Memrise. Take teacher Tim Robinson, for example, who teaches English in Shenzhen.
“Becoming conversant (in Mandarin) is quite hard unless you’re disciplined enough to study before or after work and seek opportunities to practise what you’ve learnt.
“Memrise has been a great find. It’s so easy to learn new vocabulary along with the characters and tones.
“Then it’s just a question of throwing words together until you’ve expressed yourself, to the delight or amusement of your Chinese friends,” Tim says.
What’s great about Memrise is that you can continue learning without Wi-Fi, with an offline mode to keep going in those hard-to-reach places.
Memrise is free but there’s also a pro version with more features. The cost for the pro version starts at US$4.90 per month.
Other popular apps to learn Mandarin include HelloChinese and Pleco Chinese Dictionary.
If you're already in China, Google Translate is a life-saver! It's one of the most popular apps foreigners use in China.
While there’s a plethora of other apps available, it’s not the purpose of this blog to mention them all.
What you can do, however, is go to your app store and download some of the free ones and see which ones work best for you. Pay attention to the star ratings which can give you an indicator of how good they are.
There are plenty of free apps to learn Chinese.
The pitfall with some apps is they can be one-dimensional, so they’re best used in conjunction with other learning methods.
And unless you’re the kind of person who can concentrate looking at their phone for long periods, learning by apps might be restricted to short periods of downtime.
Online video services
Online video services are also a useful way of learning Chinese. One that I’ve tried is called Yabla.
It uses authentic content and a unique video player to improve your listening comprehension, vocabulary and spelling.
For a small monthly fee, you get access to a library of over 1,350 short videos. The videos feature native speakers in everyday situations, like going shopping and talking about Chinese holidays and festivals.
For each video, you can do things like control the playback, turn subtitles on and off, slow down the audio, and even click on a word to see a definition and save to your flashcard list. This is much better than any YouTube video you will find on learning Chinese.
Yabla promotional video.
It’s important to note, however, that Yabla is not a linear course. Rather, it involves self-directed study and you don’t graduate from one level to another.
You simply slot yourself in to the most appropriate level, from newbie to advanced, and use your own judgement as to when you’re ready to move to the next level.
What I did
I must admit I didn’t continue my subscription with Yabla as it didn’t really suit my personal learning style. I need a bit more discipline and structure when I learn a foreign language.
However, the reason I’ve included this method as a good way of learning Chinese is because I appreciate that video does work for many students.
Take Yabla’s customer reviews on independent review site Trustpilot, for example, where it scores a solid four out of five. Over 1,000 reviews have been completed.
Video services also work well in formal classroom settings. Yabla states that more than 1,000 high schools, language institutions and universities (including Harvard) around the world use its platform.
The classroom teacher can easily assign activities, set goals and monitor performance. This makes it a handy teacher tool.
Great for studying on the go, apps and video services are an effective way of learning Chinese. They’re most beneficial when used as a complement to other study rather than in isolation.
So there you have it – five great ways to learn Chinese.
The method that works best for you might be different for the next person. But that’s ok – we each like to learn in different ways.
For me personally, there’s no better way than learning a language in the country, backed up by some structured face-to-face lessons.
No matter which methods you use, the key is active interaction. Language learning should not be one-dimensional – it’s a two-way street.
Do you have a different opinion? In your experience, what is the best way to learn Chinese? Please share your thoughts below.