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How to learn Chinese

Chinese is not easy, but mostly success depends on:

  • Active study: Putting in the time and effort to master basic sounds, basic vocabulary and sentence structures
  • Practice: Listening and speaking with native speakers. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or you’ll never practice, and never get better; don’t fall back to English unless absolutely necessary)
  • Drilling vocabulary: Using flashcards to drill new vocabulary

Getting practice

Living in China

Consider coming to China for a couple of months, after you’ve learnt the basics. You’ll improve much more if you make the effort to hang out with Chinese people in the evenings, after spending the day studying or working with a teacher.

Language exchange over Skype:

Check out to find language partners and/or language tutors in China

Audio courses

These can be good as a supplement to book learning and practice. They’re not a substitute. I found audio-only courses helpful when I started learning Chinese, as I could listen to them when on public transport or when driving. I have a friend who spent >10 years in China, and he would always listen to ChinesePod when commuting, even after he’d been through each lesson >10 times. His Chinese is better than mine.

CD sets

These are both good for the early stages:

Online audio courses

  • (really good subscription-based service, with a free trial)
  • Pop up Chinese (similar to Chinesepod, but I’ve not tried it)
  • Yoyo Chinese (similar to Chinesepod, but I’ve not tried it)

Learning to write

There are three main reasons for a foreigner to learn to write Chinese:

  • Because you expect writing by hand to be useful in daily life (not applicable to most people, even most Chinese people)
  • Because writing Chinese characters helps to recognise written characters, especially to distinguish between characters that look similar
  • Because it’s fun/interesting/cool/authentic/whatever

You don’t need to be able to write by hand if you just want to be able to type in Chinese. You can use a Pinyin (romanised) input method on your laptop/phone/tablet.

If you want to learn characters, you can use a book and copy out the characters repeatedly. But if you want to maximise efficiency, then Skritter is worth a look. I used it years ago, using a Wacom tablet. But I think they have phone/tablet versions now. It uses spaced-repetition, and very clever hinting. It’s surprisingly engaging and useful.

Dictionary / Flashcards (essential)

Pleco for iPhone or Android

The free version is good. There are in-app purchases for additional dictionaries and flashcard functionality. Using flashcards within Pleco (vs. a standalone flashcard app) is great: whenever you look up a word in the dictionary, you can add it to your flashcard queue with a single tap.

Other flash card programs:

  • Memrise (iPhone or Android)
  • AnkiDroid (free for Android)
  • Anki (free for desktop, but paid for iPhone/iPad).


The basics of pronouncing tones, You really need to get your pinyin and tone pronunciation down. Just search google for ‘learning pinyin’ and you will find lots of free resources. BUT you need a native Chinese speaker to listen/correct you once you think you’ve got it. If you live in a big city, go to to find a Chinese language learners/exchange meetup.

Books that are worth considering