How to learn Chinese

This won’t make you fluent, but it should offer a great start as to how to begin learning Chinese.
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Bad news: it will take more than 5 minutes to learn the Chinese language.

Good news: The following is meant to help introduce you to Mandarin, and to not exactly make you fluent.

As an HSK 3 Chinese Speaker, I initially was overwhelmed with how to even begin to studying Chinese. But two years later and about seven hundred Chinese characters and words under my belt, I’ve learned quite a bit on the best (and definitely not the best) ways to learn Chinese.

Here’s how to most effectively go about learning Chinese…in 5 minutes.

How to learn Mandarin

There are two forms of written Chinese characters (simplified and traditional), both of which are very different from each other. In addition to the different written forms, various dialects can cause the same chinese words to be pronounced a bit differently.

So clearly Chinese is not an easy language to learn. But knowing how to start learning Chinese is often just as important as deciding to actually jump in and begin studying.

Think about why you are learning a new language

  • Do you want to learn to read or write?
  • Where will you be speaking the language?
  • Are you doing it for a job? That might not be the best idea …

While being fluent in Chinese can be a valuable job skill if it directly applies to a specific position, people who are hiring for Chinese companies are usually more interested in hiring someone with connections in the mainland. Speaking the language is nice, but connections (or 关系) are more important. 

Is there a difference between Mandarin and the Chinese language?

Yes. To “speak Chinese” technically means you speak one of the languages native to China, which could be Cantonese, Hakka, or Shanghainese as a few examples.

Mandarin is often referred to as Hanyu, which is the primary language of the “Han” (the predominant ethnicity of Chinese nationals). Mandarin is sometimes also called “Putonghua” which means “common language.”

China is has dozens of megacities, but it’s often overlooked how spread out and rural much of its population is. Mandarin is the dialect the Chinese government wants its population to learn to promote unification.

In short, if you’re learning Chinese in 2020, it almost certainly will be Mandarin. You will know if you’re learning a different dialect, as you will most likely need to go specifically looking for it.

Grammar actually is the easy (easier) part­

People love to tell you that Chinese grammar is actually very easy to learn—they’re not entirely wrong. If there is a similarity between Chinese and English, it’s that many of the grammar principles overlap or that Chinese sentence structure is farily basic.

  • Word order is very often the same compared to English
    • Subject >> Predicate >> Verb
  • There are no forms of gender
  • There really is no plural in Chinese

That said there are some stark differences between Chinese and English grammar and syntax:

  • The Chinese language overall uses fewer words when speaking, so context and pronunciation are even more important
  • Chinese doesn’t really have articles*

*The kicker is Chinese has dozens (exactly 46) of what are called measure words. Measure words are required for every noun. So in English, we might say “a pad of paper” or “five donuts.” But the Chinese language would require a measure word in addition to this. Each measure word pertains to a specific subject matter. For instance, pets, pencils, and people all have their own measure words pertaining to them.

What about taking a language class?

This largely depends on your goal in learning Chinese. Almost all Chinese classes take a conventional approach to teaching Chinese: Reading, writing, and speaking. You will likely use this as your textbook. ­­

Honestly, studying Chinese is a pretty specific interest, and meeting other people with a similar passion can be both motivating and a rewarding part of the process. One advantage of a classroom is it allows you to meet people you have something in common with.

There also is no substitute for the cultural introduction taking a Chinese class presents, as you’ll almost certainly have a teacher (or 老师) who is likely from China.

Practicing your pronunciation

­­Taking a Chinese class in your area is a good step in helping with this, but I also heavily recommend Itaki. Italki is a tutoring service where you can Skype with Chinese language tutors (or any tutor for that matter) from around the world.

Measuring your progress as a Chinese learner

The HSK Exam is administered by the Chinese government to test your understanding of Chinese.

HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi and translates directly to Chinese language level exam. There are 6 levels of the HSK test, with 1 being the easiest and 6 being that of a native speaker.

While it’s a fun exam to determine your level of Chinese in some respects, the HSK exam tests your reading AND writing ability, which might not fit the mission for all Chinese language learners.

The site where you sign up for the HSK exam is largely in Chinese, so be prepared for that.

Learn to say “thank you” in Chinese

xiè xie is the proper way to say thank you in Chinese, and more often than not, can be a tremendous indicator as to whether you have any (accurate) familiarity with the Chinese language.

Most foreigners find a way to pronounce thank you in Chinese incorrectly. The best way to mis-pronounce xie xie is by saying “Shay, Shay” and ignoring any vocal intonation while doing so. Not being able to pronounce thank you in Chinese is a surefire way to show that you have had very little, authentic interaction with the Chinese language.

Final Minute

Don’t be a 外國人 (waiguoren)…

Waiguoren translates directly to a foreigner in Chinese but connotes ignorance or narrow mindedness towards Chinese culture.

  • Familiarize yourself with Chinese culture.

One of the reasons I recommend Italki is that it gives you the opportunity to speak face to face with people in China. Chinese media is controlled by the government, not the people. One of the most authentic ways to understand what is going on in China, or to just better understand the society in general, is by talking with the people, not listening to the news.

  • Openly practice your Chinese pronunciation

Learning a language drastically different than your own (that’s Chinese) can be intimidating and make some of us feel vulnerable (raises hand). I don’t know how you can learn Chinese without overcoming this fear. Go for it. Don’t be scared. Be uncomfortable and try your best. That’s the best way to start learning.

Simply learning how to say thank you in Chinese is a good start, as it at least gives you the confidence to literally say one phrase correctly. Build your vocabulary from there, and most importantly, enjoy the challenge of doing something new that very people have the courage to undertake.

This article was written by:

Paul is the Founder & Editor of in5minutes.com. He is a Certified Salesforce Marketer, FAA Drone Pilot, HSK Chinese Speaker, Ham Radio Operator, NASM Personal Trainer, and Certified Canon operator amongst other things. He hosted and produced the first original programs for Hulu and Twitch and helped launch a pilot program for teaching soft skills to incarcerated students. He currently runs content marketing for an aerospace company in Los Angeles. If you'd like to request a consultation, contact Paul here.