How to Learn Mandarin – A Beginners Guide Written by the Expert
LTL’s founder and owner Andreas, toiled with Chinese for years and got nowhere fast. Years later he found the way… and wanted to share it (hence the birth of LTL). Here are some of those tips in a nutshell to get you started on how to learn Mandarin.
I almost wasn’t able to graduate from high school because of my low English marks.
When I did, I had already been kicked out of Italian for poor performance.
A few years later my Chinese University wouldn’t give me a graduation certificate for my language course because my exam scores were too low.
Some people are talented language learners; unfortunately I was never one of them.
Yet today I can read a Chinese newspaper, understand Chinese movies, and Mandarin is my daily working language.
Some people just naturally recognise tones and some remember characters by just looking at them. I never did, and it took me a long time to figure out how to learn Mandarin.
Once I did, I was finally able to master the language. However, I could have learned it much faster if someone had just told me how I should have done it when I started.
Everyone is different – however here are some key tips I wish someone had given me when I started learning Mandarin in China.
While studying at my Chinese university, I tried practicing my language skills with the school secretary every day, and once she heard that I was not given a graduation certificate, she was so outraged that she simply went into the office, printed one out, stamped it and gave it to me.
There is always a way in China.
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #1 – Tones
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #2 – Live with Locals
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #3 – Understand Characters
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #4 – Speak From Day 1
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #5 – Change Your Phone to Mandarin
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #6 – Chat with People on the Internet
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #7 – Messages in Mandarin
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #8 – Chinese Content Comes First
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #9 – Speak Chinese with Chinese
How to Learn Mandarin Tip #10 – Enjoy It
And a BONUS, we give you four reasons why Mandarin is actually not tat hard to learn!
Reason #1 – Numbers Are Used Effectively
Reason #2 – He, She and It? All The Same
Reason #3 – Characters are Building Blocks
Reason #4 – Chinese Characters Represent Meaning
1. Learn Tones Properly at the START
Characters, vocabulary, grammar etc. simply get better over time.
Tones however do not.
Once you learn them wrong, they will simply stay wrong.
2. Live with Chinese People who Want to be Friends
This one I kind of knew when I started, but it took me six months to finally find such a flatmate – and compared with most of my classmates I did pretty well.
In China most people see sharing a flat as a rent sharing agreement and not much more.
Most see no reason to consider yourself friends with someone just because you live in the same flat, or even have any kind of communication.
It took me moving apartment five times and a long time of unsuccessfully trying to invite my flatmates for dinner before I found two guys from Anhui who did not want to practice their English with me, but were still willing to develop a friendship.
3. Try to Understand Characters
Just like how an image of a character takes up more memory space on a computer than a word document describing that same character, I found it much easier to remember a character once I turned it into a story.
Start learning radicals from the beginning, so you know the building blocks that characters are made up of.
Then make yourself stories for each character that helps you to remember it. If it is not obvious make up your own story.
For me, the more stupid the story, the better it worked. Use stories you can remember and don’t worry too much if they are linguistically correct.
4. Speak Mandarin From Day 1
Like most people learning Chinese, I really wanted to practice my Mandarin.
However, when I started I quickly realized that many people did not understand what I said, and when I listened to Chinese people talking I understood almost nothing.
My conclusion was that I needed to first learn more Mandarin before I could start speaking it. That was wrong!
Speak and listen from day one.
Once you learn 厕所 (cèsuŏ – toilet), ask in every restaurant where the loo is – regardless if you have to go or not.
When Chinese people speak, do not tune off, but listen. Try to recognize words you know in the conversation.
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5. Change Your Phone to Mandarin
It might sound scary, however you will be surprised how well you can navigate your phone by just looking at the symbols.
You will never forget the characters for 电话 (diànhuà – phone), 信息 (xìnxī – sms) again.
Once you’ve mastered that, do the same with your computer.
Online Immersion is genuinely a thing.
6. Chat with People on the Internet
Use the friend finding options on QQ and WeChat to chat with whoever is around in Chinese.
Chatting is a great way to practice your characters, and it gives you the time to look up characters you don’t know and memorize them.
It can also be quite fun.
7. Messages in Mandarin only
If the person you are sending the message to does not speak Mandarin, too bad for them.
We are in China and in China we speak Chinese – let them use translation software to figure it out.
If they care about you they will. If they won’t, then they probably weren’t worth talking to in the first place.
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8. Chinese Content Comes First
Switch to Chinese Social Media, websites and newspapers.
The New York Times and BBC both have Chinese language websites (you need a VPN) which will give you all the information you need in Mandarin.
It might take you half a day to read an article, but it is worth it.
The key is to absorb as much content in Chinese as possible.
Think if you combine this with your phone language in Chinese, watching the news in Chinese, listening to music in Chinese – the progress can be faster than you ever thought!
9. Do NOT Speak English with Chinese People
If a Chinese person really speaks such good English that you cannot convince him to switch to Mandarin, then either wear him/her down over time, or find another friend.
10. Have Fun, Love China
Know that everyone else struggled just as much.
I have never met a single fluent learner of Mandarin who did not at least once (in most cases many) times want to give up.
It’s human nature – it’s not meant to be easy but the rewards are oh so great at the end of the road!
It is part of the game and as long as you keep speaking, listening and learning you will learn Mandarin.
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So let’s go into detail on why Mandarin is NOT hard to learn…!
Reason #1 – Numbers Used Effectively
So in English, French, German etc we learn the numbers, then the months and the days of the week.
Well in Chinese once you’ve learned the numbers without even realising you will know the months and days as well.
That’s because the structure for the months of the year is:
number + 月 ( yuè )
So once you’ve memorised the word yuè, and you know the numbers, you automatically know the months! Simple as that.
Likewise with the days:
星期 ( xīngqī ) + number or 周 ( zhōu ) + number
Both xīngqī and zhōu suffice, followed by the number from 1 to 7 (1 being Monday, 5 Friday) and you have the days nailed.
Monday (星期一 – xīng qī yī)
Wednesday (星期三 – xīng qī sān)
Thursday (星期四 – xīng qī sì)
Note Sunday doesn’t follow suit in this case and are simply completed by the Chinese word for Day which can either be tiān or rì
Sunday (星期天 – xīng qī tiān); 星期日 – xīng qī rì)
Reason #2 – He, She and It? All The Same
It may seem bizarre to mention. It’s not difficult to remember two words, right?
Well Chinese natives quite often get him and her mixed up and this is worth noting if you speak to a Chinese national with a basic/intermediate level of English.
They may well refer to your female friend as he, don’t be embarrassed, this is incredibly common.
However, on the flip side that makes our job a much easier one. One word for both him and her, both also follow the same tone.
It’s worth noting they have marginally different symbols as you’ll see above. When moving into plural territory such as them you simply add on “men” to make 他们 – tāmen.
Reason #3 – Chinese Vocabulary Is Like Building Blocks
As we said before the Mandarin Language is super logical and there are hundreds of examples we could point towards but let’s focus on Electric.
The word for Electric is 电 which is pronounced Diàn.
Now you know this you can start to piece a number of words together.
For example, the word for Computer literally translates to Electric Brain and the word for Movie literally translates to Electric Shadow.
Although the direct translations sound bizarre, this makes learning Chinese so much easier.
Just think, if you see the 电 symbol you can be confident you are reading something related to Electric.
It also gives you great opportunities to remember things.
If something has slipped your mind you can break it down. What is a lamp? It’s a light and it’s powered by electric.
A shrewd way of building a language we think and it makes our lives much less complex and much more logical.
Reason #4 – Chinese CharactersRepresent Meaning
Staring blankly at a sheet of paper full of Chinese Characters, we’ve all been there.
Rather than toss the sheet of paper away, let’s take a step back and break it down a little.
Although some characters do appear and look incredibly complex, every character is actually broken down into a number of more simple characters.
There are also many that actually appear to look just like their actual meaning.
Let’s give some examples using the Chineasy illustrations:
Fire – One of our favourites is the symbol for fire which, in pinyin is spelt – huǒ. The symbol looks very much like someone running with their arms in the air as if on fire -火. This also leads us onto our next symbol which is the same but without the flailing arms!
Person – So person is a simple two stroke character that effectively mimics someone walking. This symbol should not be confused with the similar looking.
人 – rén (person)
入 – rù (to enter)
Everyone has their own preferred methods of learning Chinese and there is no right or wrong answer but visual aids are a very popular way to learn and this is something most other languages around the world do no possess.
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Follow the tips above, and do what works for you.
Some of the ideas above might not work for you, but some will, for sure.
If you have your own successful methods, stick to them and the most important thing out of everything…
What are your favourite ways to learn Mandarin? Tell us below which tip from above is your favourite?
NEVER GIVE UP
How to Learn Mandarin – FAQ’s
Can you Learn Chinese outside of China?
Absolutely, this is possible but then your challenge is motivation and routine. Can you fit Chinese into your daily life enough? You might make slower progress, but it’s possible without any doubt.
Follow our tips for Online immersion and how to learn Chinese online.
Is Immersion the best way to learn Mandarin?
Yes, there is no better way to learn Mandarin than being immersed in a 100% Chinese environment.
Where can you do that?
Should I study individually?
There’s no doubt anyone who learns anything 1 to 1 makes faster progress but actually as a beginner it’s also advised to mix group classes and individual.
Learning from classmates mistakes and see the habits you all get into is useful to oversee and correct.
Are Chinese apps a good way to learn Chinese?
For sure you should download a portfolio of Chinese apps.
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