Learn Chinese and Crush it: 2021 Complete Guide

Have you always wished you could learn Chinese but felt intimidated by how hard it seems? Or maybe you’ve tried to study Chinese in the past but ended up giving up. Have you ever felt envious of others who seem to have a gift for language learning?

What if someone could give you the roadmap that could guarantee your success to go from zero to advanced in Chinese? And what if someone told you that you don’t need any special powers or gifts to accomplish this?

Continue reading this article and you’ll find out the precise roadmap to bring you to the Chinese fluency you’ve always dreamed of. And reading this article, you’ll find out that you already have what it takes to succeed.


A little background on Makoto

I’m a language teacher and a language coach who was born and raised in America. I love language learning and have studied different languages over the years. My first language learning experience was with Japanese. My parents spoke to me in Japanese and I even attended Saturday Japanese school but still grew up with my Japanese being not very good. I simply thought I wasn’t very gifted in language learning.

How to Learn Chinese
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My second language learning experience started a few years ago with Chinese. I studied Mandarin Chinese as an adult and had a totally different experience. I found out that I did have the ability to learn another language. Since that time I’ve learned Chinese to an advanced level (ACTFL Advanced-High or CEFR C1). I live and work in China and use my Chinese ability all the time. Although my job involves teaching English, I regularly interact with my coworkers in Chinese and even hold meetings in Chinese.

In this article, I hope to share with you the things I’ve learned in my own journey. I’ll share with you the different strategies and methods I used to get to an advanced level. But I’ll also share with you the right mindset and motivation you need to get on the right track for success.


Why Many Aspire But So Many Fail to Learn Chinese

Many people set out to learn a foreign language. Some set a New Year’s Resolution to learn a new language over the course of a year. But like others who set a goal to eat healthier or exercise regularly, by mid-February they find themselves failing and abandoning their goal. According to U.S. News & World Report, failure rates for New Year’s Resolutions are around 80%.

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If you want to be one of the few people who actually achieve their goals, we need to first talk a little bit about psychology before we can talk about learning techniques or strategies. We see the same problem in those who resolve to exercise at the gym regularly. The problem isn’t about lacking exercise tools or methods. The gym is there anytime they want to go exercise. But even with access to all the equipment, without the right mindset and motivation success is not guaranteed.

Therefore the first half of this article is a discussion about mindset and motivation. Something I feel is crucial for success and discuss deeply in my book: The Thoughtful Language Learner.


Why Right Thinking is So Important When You’re Learning Chinese

When I was a teenager, I was really into J-pop. I would buy popular music CDs from the Japanese market. Often these CDs would include karaoke tracks without any vocals. I enjoyed singing in my bedroom to these tracks. One day my mom walked in while I was trying to sing and said, “Makoto, you’re talented in so many different things. It’s okay if singing isn’t one of them.” I was devastated. Apparently, I was 音痴 (onchi), or tone-deaf. And so I avoided singing from that day on.

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This rings true for so many things such as singing, dancing, math, and also language learning. And it’s unfortunate if you’ve been told in the past by a teacher or parent that you’re just not gifted in a particular subject. It’s unfortunate because like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the stories we tell ourselves can often become artificial limits to our abilities.

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It wasn’t until years later that I tried singing again. I was teaching myself guitar and learning to play some songs. Since I was learning to play along with different songs, I thought it couldn’t hurt to try singing. I realized that with a little bit of music theory and watching different YouTube tutorials, I could actually sing decently. I found out that my singing wasn’t necessarily hopeless.

When it comes to language learning, what are the stories you tell about yourself? Is it more positive or more negative? Do you believe the myth that only some people have the gifting to learn a second language? Or the myth that once you’re an adult, your brain can’t pick up another language?

I can refer you to various research articles showing you that these are myths. But ultimately it’s not my job to persuade you. It’s your job. If you’re still reading this article, let me encourage you to choose to believe that you can succeed in learning Chinese. Many people have done it in the past, and you can too!


Why Do I Really Want to Learn Chinese?

Along with mindset, motivation is another critical factor to consider. Why do you want to learn Chinese? Is it for career development? Or maybe it’s for being able to communicate with your significant other? Being crystal clear on your purpose is very important for reaching your goals.

If you didn’t know already, let me tell you that language learning is very hard. There will be many moments in which you’ll feel like giving up. There will be many days where you will be tempted to skip practicing. Many people face similar challenges in working out. A tiny minority actually enjoys exercising but most people hate it. They don’t enjoy the process. However, they do enjoy the benefits. Most people exercise for better health or longer lifespan. And they believe the short-term discomfort is worth the long-term reward.

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It’s okay to have different reasons for wanting to study Chinese. What’s important is that you are clear about your own reasons. What do you gain from becoming fluent in Chinese? Or maybe ask yourself what you miss out on if you don’t make the effort to learn Chinese. If you don’t know why you want this, you won’t have the motivation to carry you through the tough times.

I’ve found it helpful to write down my purpose for different goals I set in my life. On the days I feel tempted to skip the hard work, I open my journal and remind myself of my purpose. This often helps me to continue making meaningful progress.


How to Fight Against Procrastination When Learning Chinese

We’ve all been guilty of procrastination. We prefer to spend time doing easy things and avoid doing hard things. But we all know that the only way to grow and make progress is by doing hard things. And learning Chinese is one of those hard things.

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But there are some strategies that we can use to remove some of the friction in doing hard things. For example, one reason for studying a foreign language might be hard is because we’re not sure what we should be doing with our time. Just like if you arrive at the gym and see all those exercise machines but aren’t sure what to spend time working on.

We can fight procrastination by setting a consistent daily routine. For language learning, that means setting aside time each day to study. But it also means planning what to do with that time in advance. For example, schedule in time in your calendar to study (e.g. 30 minutes each morning before work). And then also decide what you will do with that time. Don’t wait until you start the clock to decide what you will study. These days there is an abundance of Chinese learning resources (e.g. textbooks, apps, podcasts, online courses, etc.). Too many choices can lead to analysis paralysis.

Choose one or two resources to commit to each day. In the beginning, an app like ChineseSkill is an excellent choice. It will not only give you relevant practice that you need but it will also keep track of your time and progress.


Reality Check of What’s Really Involved in Learning Chinese

So you want to become fluent in Chinese but still have questions about what it really involves. How long will it actually take me? How can I know what the best learning resources are for me?

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First, let’s be clear about the timeframe. You are not going to master Chinese in 90 days. In fact, you might not reach an advanced level even after 2 years of regular study. If you’re a native English speaker, according to the U.S. State Department, on average it takes 2,200 class hours to reach a “professional working proficiency”.

This language learning book quotes a similar number that it takes about 1,500 to 2,000 hours of intense listening practice to get to a fluent level.

Let’s assume that 2,000 hours of study gets you to your goal. If you could treat studying Chinese like a full-time job and study 8 hours each day, you might reach your goal in 1 year. But if you could only commit to 4 hours each week, the process might be stretched to 10 years. These estimates aren’t meant to discourage you but to give you a realistic idea of what to expect.

The reality is that there are no shortcuts in language learning. But it is also true that if you put in the work, you’ll eventually arrive at your goal.


Taking Classes to Learn Chinese or Doing Self-Study

You might be wondering if you should attend some formal classes or plan to just learn on your own. When I began studying Chinese, I attended a language school for 2 years (in China). I would say that I benefited from having classes, but I still invested a lot of time doing self-study. In fact, I feel most of the effective work was done at home by myself.

So here’s my advice: If you are thinking about attending a class or having a teacher, wait until you are at a later phase of study. If you’re motivated and disciplined, I believe that you don’t really need a teacher or tutor until the end of Phase 2.

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The reason for this is that it makes more sense to have a teacher to practice conversation only after you’ve built up enough vocabulary and listening skills. It doesn’t make much sense to pay for beginner lessons when there are plenty of free online resources.

But 2 caveats I will mention:

  1. Paying for classes or a teacher can be a strong motivator. Once you’ve paid for lessons, you’ll probably be more inclined to do the work compared to those who are doing self-study.
  2. Having a teacher is helpful if you find yourself struggling with mastering tones or mastering pronunciation. I believe you can learn to pronounce Chinese correctly through self-study, but it can be helpful to have a native speaker give you feedback.

If you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably more inclined to do it by yourself. Let this article be your roadmap for personal success.


How to Learn Chinese: Phase 1 – Zero to Novice

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Welcome to Phase 1 of the roadmap to learning Chinese (Phase 1 roughly corresponds to mastering HSK 1 and 2). The outcomes for this phase are:

  • Becoming proficient in hearing and producing tones
  • Becoming proficient in Pinyin
  • Becoming proficient in pronunciation of all Chinese speech sounds
  • Recognizing a few hundred Chinese characters
  • Mastering basic Chinese grammar

Mastering Tones

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. Tones are very important. Unfortunately, I’ve met too many learners who didn’t spend the time mastering tones right from the beginning. Not being able to hear tones and produce tones correctly can lead to a lot of problems later.

There are plenty of great resources for learning and practicing the different tones in Chinese. Some of them are linked at the end of this article.


Pinyin and Pronunciation

Pinyin is the Latin script that is used to romanize Chinese characters. There are many great resources (listed below) to teach you Pinyin. But let me first share two key points about Pinyin.

  1. Pinyin does not follow the same pronunciation rules as English. Be very conscious of this that your knowledge of English words does not influence your pronunciation of Pinyin.
  2. Pinyin is a good tool to help you in the beginning, but do not let it become a crutch. As you progress past Phase 1, the goal is to move fully into Chinese characters.

You may find some good resources linked at the end of this article.

In addition to practicing Pinyin, it’s a good idea to understand the range of sounds that exist in Chinese. All languages, including Chinese, have a specific set of possible sounds that make up each syllable. Take for example some simple words in English: at, cat, tea. These are all one-syllable words. A syllable might start with a vowel or a consonant. A syllable might end with a vowel or consonant. These are known as initials and finals.

Starting to Learn Hanzi

English words are made up of different combinations of 26 letters. But Chinese words are made up of thousands of unique characters. Learning all these Chinese characters, or Hanzi, might seem daunting at first, but don’t let it intimidate you.

Let me share a few tips for learning Hanzi:

  1. Every Chinese character has a specific stroke order. Most textbooks will recommend you to memorize the stroke order, something I also encourage.
  2. I believe the practice of physically writing out each character is very helpful. So don’t skip it. This might be especially important if you’re more of a kinesthetic learner.
  3. Always make it a point to learn the tone and pronunciation of a character when you’re learning new Hanzi.
  4. Some may find using mnemonics helpful in memorizing Hanzi. There are books like Remembering Hanzi that gives memorable stories to help you associate with each Chinese character.
  5. (Optional) I personally found it helpful to take the time to memorize the most common Chinese radicals. Radicals can give you big clues about either the meaning or pronunciation of a character. Hacking Chinese has a great article.

For beginners, there are many great resources to get you started in learning Hanzi. Some recommendations are linked at the end of this article.


Building Confidence with the Basic Sentences

Building confidence in this early stage of language learning is so critical. Resources like ChineseSkill are a great resource to help you learn not only vocabulary but also some basic grammar and basic phrases. Fortunately basic Chinese grammar is quite simple. There are no verb tenses or verb conjugations like other languages.

With your small vocabulary and a few grammar rules, you’ll be able to start creating simple phrases and sentences. You’ll also find out how simple it is to create questions in Chinese. Even at this beginner level, you’ll be surprised at all the different things you’re able to say to express yourself.

You’ll begin to see that Chinese is not as difficult as you first thought. Little by little you are getting closer to mastering Chinese. This boost in confidence is what you need to continue to carry you forward from Phase 1 into Phase 2.


How to Learn Chinese: Phase 2 – Novice to Intermediate

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Welcome to Phase 2 of the roadmap to learning Chinese.

If you aim at HSK 3, 4, and half of 5. The outcomes for this phase are:

  • Continuing to learn Hanzi and building up a vocabulary around 1,500 ~ 2,000 words
  • Reading through graded readers at different levels
  • Listening to audio resources at different levels
  • Beginning to hold simple conversations in Chinese

Once you have a good grasp of tones, pinyin, and some basic Hanzi, it’s time to move towards deeper study. There are plenty of awesome learning resources to help you during this phase. But before you start jumping from one resource to the next, let me give you my top strategy.

My best advice for you is to focus first on building a large vocabulary. Then focus on listening and reading skills.


Building Vocabulary

There are a few reasons why I think this is the best use of your time:

  1. I tend to agree with Steve Kaufmann (a popular polyglot) that at the novice stage, it’s better to expose yourself to a wide range of words than to drill deeply on specific things like grammar.
  2. Building your vocabulary is one of the biggest tasks in language learning. The average native English speaker has a vocabulary size of at least 20,000 words. You probably won’t be learning 20,000 Chinese words, but you should aim to learn at least a few thousand. This is going to take a lot of time and commitment.

The best way to learn vocabulary is to utilize a Spaced Repetition System (SRS).

Many flashcard apps utilize SRS to vary the frequency in which you review words. This makes language learning far more efficient. It makes no sense to manually review every single word you have learned in the past. Some words are easier to remember and require less frequent review while other words that you’ve struggled with should be reviewed more frequently. A flashcard app with SRS automatically takes care of all this for you.

When I was building up my Chinese vocabulary, I relied heavily on Skritter. By committing to 30 minutes of flashcards each day, I was able to learn over 2,000 characters and 4,000 words in one year. And that’s not to boast, but to show the power of SRS and consistent practice.

You may find some vocabulary apps with SRS linked at the end of this article.


Building Reading and Listening Skills

As you begin developing a large vocabulary, it’s also time to build up your reading and listening skills. Flashcards are an efficient way to study individual words but the next step is seeing these words used in the context of sentences. Reading and listening to the different words you are learning is the best way to consolidate your vocabulary.

So what should you read or listen to? Use graded readers and level appropriate listening material.

Finding material that is appropriate for your level is very important. Psychologists have studied successful performance and have found that there is a sweet-spot in which flow, or a sense of deep work, takes place.

If you choose something that is too challenging, you’ll experience anxiety and probably give up quickly. If you choose something too easy, you’ll probably find it boring and waste your practice time. You want to study material that is challenging but not too challenging.

Graded readers are books and stories that use a limited range of vocabulary that are appropriate for your proficiency level. Some are based on HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) levels while others are based on general vocabulary size (e.g. 300, 500, 750, etc.). In a similar way, you want to find listening material that is appropriate for your level. There are a number of online resources that offer material ranging from beginner to advanced. You may find some great resources linked at the end of this article.

Let me give you a tip about managing your study routine at this point. Once you have developed a large enough vocabulary (~1,500 to 2,000), you should start spending more time each day doing reading and listening practice and less time doing flashcard practice. Towards the end of this phase, start transitioning to do more reading and listening practice for your daily routine.


What About Speaking and Advanced Grammar?

Up to this point, I haven’t really mentioned the skill of speaking. And there’s a good reason for this. Although some may disagree with me, I believe the benefits of speaking come only after you’ve developed a sizable vocabulary and good listening skills. I agree with Steve Kaufmann again that developing listening comprehension is the fundamental skill in language.

The reason for this is that, being able to have a conversation with somebody requires enough vocabulary and listening comprehension to follow the dialogue. It might not be necessary if you’re asking simple questions (e.g. Where is the bathroom?) or even making a simple presentation. But if you desire real-life conversations in Chinese, vocabulary and listening skills are crucial.

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Towards the end of Phase 2 is when you can really start benefiting from holding conversations in Chinese. If you’re interested, it might be a good time to consider hiring a teacher or tutor. If you don’t have access to a teacher, you might consider finding one online. For example, italki.com is a great website to find a language teacher or tutor.

You’ll also notice that I haven’t focused too much on advanced grammar. Most textbooks or resources will give you a good foundation in basic Chinese grammar. It is definitely important to learn the basics. However, there are some things to consider when learning more advanced grammar.

Researchers argue for two different approaches to learning grammar: a deductive approach or an inductive approach. So some teachers argue that grammar rules should be taught explicitly and that learners should memorize each and every rule. Other teachers argue that grammar rules should be discovered and learned naturally through observation.

I believe that both approaches for learning grammar can work just fine. What is most important is discerning which approach you prefer. Don’t let learning grammar confuse you or get you discouraged. I personally got frustrated doing grammar drills and disliked the deductive method. I preferred discovering rules on my own.

If you want to take the more deductive approach, make sure you use a resource or textbook that can give you a good explanation for different grammar points. If you prefer to take the more inductive approach, just focus on exposing yourself to a lot of example sentences through reading and listening. Some grammar resources are linked at the end of the article.


How to Learn Chinese: Phase 3 – Intermediate to Advanced

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Welcome to Phase 3 of the roadmap to learning Chinese (Phase 3 roughly corresponds to mastering HSK 5, 6, and beyond). The outcomes for this phase are:

  • Continuing to learn Hanzi and building up a vocabulary around 4,000 ~ 5,000 words
  • Transitioning to reading native material (e.g. young adult books)
  • Transitioning to listening to (or watching) native material (e.g. TV shows)
  • Becoming more comfortable in various types of conversations

Congratulations on making it this far. Many have aspired to reach even this point in learning Chinese, so good for you.  By this point, you have been reading different graded readers and listening to different podcasts. Your vocabulary size is now around 2,000+ words. But it’s time again to make a shift in study routines.

My best advice for this phase is to focus on extensive reading and extensive listening.


Why Extensive Reading and Extensive Listening is Crucial

This is the major task for Phase 3. But before I explain what this is, let me first explain why this practice is so crucial if you want to learn Chinese.

I mentioned in the introduction to be prepared to spend around 2,000 hours of study to get to an advanced level or higher. Most of these hours are not going to come from classroom hours (e.g. Even if you had 10 hours of class each week, that would take 4 years). Furthermore, each hour of class is actually not a continuous hour of listening to the teacher talk in Chinese or having the chance to converse in Chinese. There might be other students asking questions or the teacher explaining something in English. Therefore the most effective practice you can do at this phase is to read or listen to get continuous input of the language.

Extensive reading and extensive listening are learning methods that involve reading and listening to large amounts of comprehensible text/audio. The crucial term is “comprehensible”. Researchers define this as any resource in which you understand about 95 ~ 98% of the content. So if you were to pick up a Chinese book and open it to a random page, there should only be about 5 words / every 100 words that you don’t recognize. If there are significantly more words that you don’t know, then the book is probably too hard for you.

Depending on your vocabulary size, you might not quite be ready for native material. For reading resources, once you’ve finished reading different graded readers, you can try reading children’s books or young adult books. The goal is to find a book or article that is the appropriate difficulty and then spend extensive time reading it.

Here’s one store that sells young adult books, both Chinese authors and Western authors. It can give you an idea of books you might try reading.

Similarly for listening practice, continue listening to a lot of resources that are appropriate for your level. Make sure to check different podcasts and shows, especially those that offer episodes for more advanced learners. Some examples are linked at the end of this article.


Making the Leap to Native Material

Towards the end of Phase 3, you’ll be ready to dive into native material. This is one of the most exciting parts of the language learning journey. You can begin to consume material that native Chinese people consume.

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You’ll find some language learners complain about the lack of learning resources at this advanced level. While it’s true that most language learning companies don’t produce as much content for advanced learners, there is now much more content available to you since you can begin to consume native material. You can also begin to pursue language material that lines up with your passions or interests. For example, if you’re into basketball, try watching a NBA game with Chinese commentary. Or maybe if you love cooking, try out a Chinese recipe book.

Now is the time to start diving into native content that you’re most interested in (e.g. sports, travel, food, TV shows, movies, etc.). You can start off with suggestions linked at the end of this article.

Being a Life-long Learner

So what now? Are you now “fluent” in Chinese? Unfortunately some people get hung-up over this definition of becoming “fluent” and conflate the idea with becoming like a native speaker. I prefer to focus less on these definitions and focus instead on what I’m able to do with the language.

Again, it would be good to return to your “Why”. Why did you decide to learn Chinese in the first place? Was it to be able to communicate with your spouse or spouse’s family? Was it to be able to watch Chinese television dramas? Whatever your goal was, if you’re now able to do them, then congratulate yourself and consider it a victory. You have reaped the fruits of your labor. And you’re also free to set new learning goals and continue growing in the language.


Understanding Culture to Learn Chinese

There’s one final piece of advice I want to leave you with. In my own language learning journey, there’s one area of study that I’ve often felt gets glossed over by textbooks and learning apps: learning about the culture.

Most resources spend some effort explaining things like Chinese New Year or Beijing Opera. But I have yet to see a language learning resource that goes really deep about Chinese culture.

I believe that language and culture are closely intertwined and that you really shouldn’t learn one without learning the other. I’ve also personally found that in deeper levels of conversations, I sometimes face difficulty understanding not because of language but because of lack of cultural understanding.

So my final advice I leave you with is to make the effort to learn Chinese culture. If you are investing time and energy to learn the language, make sure to invest some of that into learning about culture and history. There are many great resources, and you may find the links to some of them below.

How to Learn Chinese: Resources

Besides ChineseSkill, here are some other resources I recommend:

Mastering Tones Hacking Chinese guide for learning tones
WordSwing Tone Training Course
Allset Learning Tone Pair Drills
Pinyin and Pronunciation Yoyo Chinese Pinyin YouTube Series
Fluent Forever Chinese Pronunciation Trainer
Starting to Learn Hanzi Skritter
Noodle Chinese
Duolingo (although it doesn’t have handwriting practice)
Remembering Hanzi (Hanzi mnemonics)
Hacking Chinese article on Hanzi radicals (optional)
Basic Sentences ChineseSkill 
Building Vocabulary Skritter
Pleco (which is the best Chinese dictionary has a flashcard add-on)
Anki (a SRS flashcard app that can used to study Mandarin)
LingoDeer Plus
Building Reading Skills Mandarin Companion
Chinese Breeze Graded Readers
Friends Chinese Graded Readers
Rainbow Bridge Graded Chinese Readers also available to read on Pleco
Building Listening Skills ChinesePod
Pop-up Chinese
Slow Chinese
Speaking italki.com
Advanced Grammar Chinese grammar wiki
Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar
Example Sentences Clozemaster
PHASE 3: INTERMEDIATE TO ADVANCED Extensive Reading China Sprout Bookstore: Chinese authors and Western authors
Extensive Listening iMandarinPod
Learning Chinese Through Stories
Making the Leap to Native Material: Reading Chinese Text Sampler (giving you a sampling from both classical and modern literature)
Chinese-forums.com has some great threads about what other learners are currently reading and other book lists.
Making the Leap to Native Material: Listening 故事FM (sort of like a Chinese version of This American Life)
逻辑思维 (different philosophical lectures)
喜马拉雅 (One of the biggest podcast/audio content sites in China)
BEING A LIFELONG LEARNER Understanding Chinese Culture Sinica Podcast (a great show about news, politics, and culture)

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