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How To Start Learning Chinese On Your Own

By Natasha Cohen15/02/2024 Chinese Language, Learn Chinese

Wondering how to start learning Chinese on your own, and not sure of the best way to go about it? The good news is that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and any start is a good start.

However, there are a few tips you can follow to make sure you’re starting on the right track – it’s easy to pick up bad habits if you’re not careful, which can take more time to correct later.

Here are four ‘dos’ and one ‘don’t’ to help you get started on your Mandarin learning adventure.

DO: Learn pinyin first

Pinyin is a formal romanisation technique used to spell Mandarin words with Latin (Roman) letters. In fact, its full name ‘hànyǔ pīnyīn’ (汉语拼音) literally means ‘Han (Chinese) language spelled sounds’.

Some letters in pinyin combinations might not sound as you’d expect, for example ‘shi’ and ‘xi’. So it’s important that you learn pinyin with the help of an audio guide. Yabla has a handy pinyin chart that includes audio examples, including tones.

DO: Get used to the four tones

In Chinese Mandarin there are four tones when speaking: the first tone (level/flat), the second tone (rising), the third tone (falling then rising), and the fourth tone (falling). There’s also a ‘neutral’ tone, but it’s not counted as a separate fifth tone – simply as no tone.

Here’s an example of one ‘sound’ that becomes different words with the four different tones:

妈 (mā) – mother

麻 (má) – numb

马 (mǎ) – horse

骂 (mà) – to scold

An example of the neutral tone is 吗 ‘ma’, which is the question particle used at the end of yes/no questions.

DO: Speak out loud

Learning the technicalities like vocabulary and grammar and listening are only part of the long journey to becoming conversational – speaking often and for a long time is the best way to make it feel more natural.

Not only does it train the brain to stop struggling to convert English grammar into Chinese and start automatically thinking in Chinese, but it also boosts muscle memory for your mouth itself. Try recording yourself too, so that you can check on your four tones.

DO: Make the most of free resources

There are lots of great websites and apps that can help you learn Mandarin for free. The days of having to learn in a classroom or from a dry textbook are long gone – thanks to today’s technology, you can learn with your computer or from anywhere with your phone.

Some apps like Duolingo gamify the experience too, for example giving you challenges, points and trophies as you progress, making the learning process even more fun.

YouTube is also a great place to learn common words and to check pronunciation. And to learn with music by discovering the world of C-pop, too – search for Jolin Tsai, Jay Chou and G.E.M. (three super popular Mandopop artists).

DON’T: Don’t shy away from Chinese characters

Although learning Chinese characters may seem difficult to learners used to the Latin alphabet, it’s an essential hack for having a deeper understanding of the language. And, of course, it’ll be super helpful to be able to read a little if you’d like to travel to China.

For example, saying ‘ qùle zhōngguó’ tells you that someone – or something – went to China. But writing 去了中国, 去了中国 and 去了中国 all respectively tell you that he, she, and it went to China. All are pronounced ‘tā’, but when written down it’s clearer who or what the subject is.

And when you’re learning grammar complements, particularly the sometimes tricky three ‘de’s (的 de, 得 dé, and 地 de), it’s easier to see at a glance which one is being used while you get used to the contexts in which each are used.

Want to take your Mandarin learning adventure to the next level?

Once you learn the ropes by yourself, the best way to develop your skills even further is to learn with the help of a pro. Better yet – while staying where the language is spoken natively for full immersion, too.

Our homestay courses let you stay in the home of a professional Chinese language teacher in China and Taiwan. Check out our Services page to see how you can customise your course to suit your needs, and don’t forget to check out our ever-growing list of locations and teachers. And don’t worry – learners of all levels are welcome.

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