Absolute Beginners Guide to learning Chinese


China is an absolutely fascinating country and one that will have you hooked from the first taste because of its vibrant and diverse culture, economy and people. However, if you’re serious about engaging with China, you’ll want to learn Chinese. Despite the increasing amount of Chinese proficient in English, unfortunately, the reality is that at least a basic command of the language is basically a necessity for those wishing to engage with the country in any meaningful way.

Getting your Mandarin to a high level is hard, but definitely achievable. Doing so may also be one of the smartest choices in terms of your employability due to the huge importance of Australia’s bilateral ties with China in just about every industry. Mandarin Chinese is also enormously important for Australia politically and culturally, as the Chinese population is one of the fastest growing minority groups within our borders.

But Chinese is too hard! If you’re interested in learning Chinese, I’m sure you’ve heard people claim that it is the hardest language you can learn.

And yet, I could go on for days about how logical and simple Chinese really is once you get your head around it. Chinese is only harder than, say, Spanish, because it is so much more different, in that it has nearly 0% shared vocabulary with English (while I have seen estimates that Spanish shares almost 30% common vocabulary with English). Chinese is harder at the beginning than most languages, but it the long run it makes a lot of sense once you get the basics down. Even characters, which are infuriatingly difficult to learn in the beginning, slowly become easier and easier to commit to memory.

For example, these things that actually make Chinese easier than most languages:

  • Rather than having completely separate words for related concepts, one character in Chinese will represent a ‘concept’ that will manifest itself in a huge number of multi-syllable words, ie:
工 (gōng) – representing the idea of ‘work’, present in other words such as 工作 (to work), 工厂(factory/plant), 工地 (workplace), 工人 (worker), 工力 (craftsmanship), 工业 (industry), the list goes on.
  • No conjugations. No tenses. No cases. No plurals. No gender.
Therefore, no memorising ‘je peux, tu peux, il peut, nous pouvons’.
  • No long words – say goodbye to ‘anticonstitutionnellement’, ‘Unkameradschaftlichkeit’ and ‘electroencefalografistas’.


The Absolute Beginners Guide to learning Chinese
 (a step-by-step guide)

  • Learn Pinyin. Unfortunately, before you sink your teeth into the good stuff, you will need to spend a couple of hours laying down the groundwork. Pinyin is the most commonly used system of writing out Chinese using Roman characters (at least in the mainland). For example, 我是中国人 = wǒ shì zhōngguó rén. Each character in Chinese represents one syllable. Notice the little marks above each syllable? They 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 pronounced not exactly as we would read it in English. For example, zao is pronounced kind of like ‘dsao’. Good news is, if you have an iPad, there is a great free app for learning Pinyin. Check it out! You can also have a look at this online Pinyin table with audio (which you can download).
  • Find some learning materials. It’s a good idea to find some sort of beginner textbook to get you started. After that, though, you can probably get almost all of what you need online, for free. Don’t get sucked into buying expensive software such as Rosetta Stone. The reality is you can get much better things for free, or at least substantially cheaper. Don’t worry too much about grammar, it will fall into place over time. Some things are really hard to translate between different languages, but as long as you understand the meaning, then you’re all good. Recordings of short beginner conversations with accompanying transcripts are necessary, too. If you’ve got funds, ChinesePod is by far your best bet (I am addicted). You can get free dialogues from LingQ, but I personally prefer ChinesePod due to the consistently high quality of materials. ChinesePod and a good beginner textbook are all you need really, and if you’re using it regularly, the price quickly becomes negligible. There are also some free sample lessons if you’re sceptical.
  • Get your head around tones. Chinese is a tonal language. Once you’ve got your textbook and some dialogues to work through, do some listening and see for yourself how the tones work. Listen along to the audio while reading the Pinyin and focus on the tone marks. Learning them is really important. Chinese people simply won’t understand you if you don’t learn them, or if you get them wrong too much. Using the wrong tones is kind of like putting the emphasis on the wrong syllables in English. I’m not trying to scare you, though. At the start, it will seem unnatural and your tones will be very inaccurate, but your brain will get used to it and it will become normal. Listening, a LOT, is especially important in Chinese. Once you get to an intermediate stage, however, you won’t be thinking about individual tones as much, rather, you will become aware of the ‘rhythm’ of the language.
  • Characters. Forget about them, for now. At the very beginning, it is only necessary that you be aware of them, in that you know they exist. They constitute a challenge that you will need to face eventually, though, but never fear: they are quite fun to learn. I would suggest beginning to learn them once you are confident you have the basics down, or about 1 or 2 months into studying, for most people. Characters typically consist of a ‘meaning’ part and a pronunciation part. The ‘meaning’ parts are known as ‘radicals’. It’s worth learning them (see this page) as they will help you figure out the meaning of unknown characters. Read about mnemonics (memory techniques) for learning characters. Olle from Hacking Chinese has a good explanation about what they are and how to use them here.
  • Find a study technique/method that works for you. As an absolute beginner, you can start simply and just try to memorise the words in the context they are used. Eventually, though, you will probably want to implement some more sophisticated study systems. Consider getting an SRS (Spaced-Repetition Software) such as Anki, which is free. They are basically flashcards, but work using an algorithm that determines which card will be shown at what time. It maximises learning efficiency by presenting a particular card when your brain needs to see it in order for it to be remembered, usually right before you forget it. Another comprehensive method for learning a foreign language is Luca’s translation method (which you can hear all about in his YouTube video). When I have time, I follow a method similar to the one Luca outlines. His method is particularly efficient at the intermediate stage and beyond. Most importantly, I never do grammar drills – I am not convinced they work. Even if they do work for some people, they suck! They are boring. You can’t force me to do them! I spend approximately 80% of the time I spend ‘studying’ doing nothing but listening. I do this, firstly, because I am a busy person, I’m currently studying Law and don’t have time to sit down for hours on end, and secondly, because you don’t really need to do much more ‘active’ study than that. ‘Passive’ activities such as reading and listening should take up most of your study time, with the rest being devoted to ‘active’ tasks such as writing, translating, shadowing etc.
  • Listening. I can’t stress the importance of listening enough. It really is the most important aspect of learning any language. Despite this, for some reason, most people who learn languages in school and University do little to zero listening. The result is that they finally get to talk with a native speaker after years of studying their grammar books, and can’t understand a thing that is said to them. Listening builds the foundation for your accent, rhythm, pronunciation, tones, everything! Take ChinesePod, for example. Each lesson contains a conversation that is typically 1 minute long. There is a podcast of about 15 minutes that breaks down the conversation and explains the key parts in a fun and interesting way. I will listen to this once. Listen to it as much as you feel you need to, though. I then listen to the conversation typically 10-20 times, but sometimes as many as 40 times – i.e. as many as needed until you understand it. This level of repetition is generally only needed at the beginner level.
  • Mimic. When learning a language, you need to be a copycat. You need to mimic 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. If possible, record yourself with an application such as Audacity and compare your pronunciation and tones to that of native speakers. Don’t try to say things really fast as a beginner though! Try to repeat things that are recorded slowly.
  • Every day. Start small, say with 15 or 30 minutes per day. Just do it for as long as you are enjoying it, then stop. You don’t want to burn out. The more you do it, the more you will improve. But the more you enjoy it, the more you will do it. It is far better to do 30 minutes a day than to do 3 or 4 hours in a single sitting, once a week. Make it part of your daily ritual! See this post on ‘one-month challenges‘ for how to make learning a language a daily habit. Sure, you will miss days when you are busy. That’s life. Try to make up for the times you missed in the days that follow.

Language learning is an integral part of engaging with the Asian region – and indeed any other region in the world. You can go a long way without learning the language of the country you’re interested in, but actually committing yourself to learn it will benefit you greatly.

This article is part of an upcoming series on language learning.

A version of this article was originally published by Dan Poole on his Chinese language learning blog, Chinese-Breeze.

If you want to hear Dan explaining (in Chinese with subtitles!) his own personal language learning method, you can click here.

Looking for a scholarship to study in China? Check out the China Options Scholarships section to get started!


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Dan is a student and entrepreneur, currently studying double-degrees in Arts and Law at Monash University. He has a strong involvement in the Australia-China space and speaks Mandarin, as well as French and Spanish. He also runs a social enterprise and Australia's first non-profit crêpe van in Melbourne, Crêpes for Change.

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