How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Fast – 20 Learning Strategies + Tips
Whether you’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a few months or you’re thinking about starting soon, there are tips and tricks to make that journey smoother and faster. Be it your pronunciation or general skills that you are trying to improve, or you just need ideas to freshen up your schedule, we’ve got something for you.
If you’re after some strategies and tips to learn Mandarin Chinese fast, keep reading!
How to Learn Mandarin Chinese – Overview
Mandarin Chinese is listed by the USA’s Foreign Service Institute as one of the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, with an estimated 2,200 hours of study required to get to a native level of proficiency. Chinese also has tones, characters, and grammar that, while mostly straightforward, are very unlike English.
However, Chinese is an incredibly useful language to know. With over one billion native speakers of Chinese in the world, the odds are you’ll get to use it at some point, even if you live somewhere it isn’t generally spoken.
As with any language, the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese fast is to start using it from day one. Make sure to work on your pronunciation (tones are vital) and if you’re worried about learning to speak, then record yourself before finding a language partner.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on where you’re heading. You don’t need a rigid plan but some idea of where you want to end up will help you decide which of our tips would be useful to you right now and which can be saved for later.
5 Key Concepts to Learn Mandarin Chinese (Fast)
1. Pronunciation is Key
It’s best to start with pronunciation when learning a language, but that is even more true for Mandarin. Mandarin Chinese has tones, so the way you say a word can affect its meaning, which can lead to confusion or misunderstandings. A good class tackles this at the start, but it’s key to keep practicing your pronunciation so that you’re understood and understand others.
On the plus side, while Mandarin Chinese has tones, it also has a much more limited number of consonant and vowel sounds in comparison to English!
Shadowing – One of the best ways to improve your pronunciation is through shadowing. This is a method where you listen to something and try to repeat it. You can do this at any stage in your language learning journey, as you don’t necessarily need to understand what is being said; it’s all about getting your mouth used to making the right sounds.
Working with minimal pairs (two words that only vary by a single sound, like ‘bot’ and ‘pot’ in English) can be very useful both for understanding and producing correct Mandarin. Have a go at singing along to songs. However, this may not be useful for practicing tones, as they are often sacrificed for the lyrics to fit the melody.
2. Speak Mandarin from Day One
Start simple. start today – If you want to learn Mandarin Chinese fast, odds are you’ll want to start speaking it soon. The best way to do this is by speaking the language from the first day you start learning it. Sure, you probably won’t be able to say much more than ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’, but practice is important.
An easy way to go about this is to get yourself a language partner or tutor. Make sure you let them know ahead of time if you’re just getting started. Here are a few things you can try if you’re worried about what to say:
- A self-introduction. Especially useful for beginners, greet your partner/tutor, say your name, and ask them how they are. Language textbooks and language courses usually cover this material in the first lesson.
- Read aloud. Try reading something with your partner/tutor, although with Chinese it’ll be easier if it’s a text you’ve already covered. Dialogues from courses work well because you can get other people involved.
- Talk about something that interests you. Look up vocabulary beforehand; eventually, you’ll learn all the words to describe your life and interests.
3. Learning Mandarin Chinese Vocabulary
In theory, a language is made up of three things: grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Although grammar can be difficult, Mandarin Chinese vocabulary is the thing you’ll find yourself working on constantly. After all, think about how many times you’ve come across new words, even as an adult, in your native language.
Motivation – When learning Mandarin Chinese, the first thing you should think about is what you are learning it for. That’s because you may decide to put off learning to write Chinese characters, as they can be very time-consuming. However, you can still come a long way if you focus exclusively on speaking and listening at first.
Whichever way you find your vocabulary, there are some good learning methods you can try. Using a spaced repetition system like Memrise, Anki, or SuperMemo will show you unfamiliar words at spaced intervals, with those intervals extending as you learn them.
Alternatively, you could try learning Mandarin vocabulary with mnemonics or image association, so that you’re not constantly translating from your native language into Mandarin Chinese. You might find you get the best results by combining all these methods.
4. Take Part in a Class or Find a Tutor
Learning Mandarin Chinese may be difficult, but learning it alone is even harder. Luckily, the internet brings a wealth of resources to our fingertips, with plenty of online, oftentimes free courses that can help you learn Chinese. Platforms like Coursera and Udemy offer many courses, with rating systems to assist you in shortlisting the right class.
Finding a tutor is also straightforward. Two big platforms for finding online language tutors are Preply and iTalki, where you can filter tutors by their native language and the country they’re from, which can be useful for a language as widely spoken as Mandarin.
With courses, you’ll have to be self-motivated, but there are often forums where you can chat with other Mandarin Chinese students. Some even give you access to a Mandarin Chinese language coach or tutor. Find the best Mandarin Chinese classes here.
If taking lessons, identify what you want to get out of them. Recording (with your tutor’s consent) and reviewing the lesson can be helpful, and we recommend taking note of any new words or corrections that crop up. Remember, this is not like school, so let your tutor know what you’d like to learn, and they’ll customize the lessons to meet your needs.
5. Train your Ears
Listening can be a daunting skill to train, but it’s easier if you work on it from day one. At that level, it’s best to listen repeatedly to the audio you’re working with. Conversations in Mandarin Chinese are helpful too, as you’ll be doing more listening than speaking.
As you progress, there are many ways to improve your listening. You can find a multitude of podcasts, YouTube videos, and TED talks to work with. Make sure you find audio that is fairly comprehensible, as you’d benefit from the challenge of not understanding everything. If you can’t even get the main gist, move on to something easier for now.
Once you’ve got your audio and had a listen, there are several things you can do with it:
- Summarize or paraphrase what you’ve heard either orally or in a few sentences. The point of this exercise is to make sure you’ve understood the main thrust of what was said. Run your text by a native speaker if you can, or tell them about it, to make sure what you’ve understood is accurate.
- Transcribe what you’re hearing, which can be tricky in any language, let alone Mandarin, as you’re trying to pick up every word. For bonus points, work with a native speaker and get them to check your transcription once you’re done.
- Play around with audio speed. How often do you have real-life conversations in a quiet room? Most of the audio you’ll hear as a student will be clear and moderately paced. However, challenge yourself with free programs like Audacity, which let you change the speed and add noise that makes it harder to hear.
Tips to Learn Mandarin Chinese Fast
6. Make a Language Learning Plan
Before you start learning, or even if you’re a few months or years in, it’s worth having a plan and concrete goals to work toward. Why do you want to learn Mandarin Chinese and what steps do you need to take to achieve your goal? Break these down and get to work!
7. Write Short Texts (and get them corrected!)
Writing brief texts as often as you can is a great way to increase your Mandarin vocabulary and improve your Chinese grammar. It can even boost your speaking skills because you’ll have more words and phrases to draw from. Try to get these corrected by a native speaker — a language partner or tutor is great, but you can also use online forums.
8. Record Short Audio
Not working with a tutor or language partner? This tip lacks the spontaneity of real-life conversations, but recording yourself speaking is a great way to get used to it, while also working on your pronunciation and vocabulary. Again, get the audio checked by a native speaker to really level up.
9. Use Graded Readers
Learning to read in Mandarin Chinese can be difficult because the characters force you to learn lots of words individually. Graded readers help you get started by incorporating the most frequently used characters and splitting text into levels that match how many of them you know. You’ll also often find comprehension and vocabulary exercises, and a glossary.
10. Find a Local Meet-up
No matter where you are in the world, there’s likely to be a local meet-up of Chinese speakers nearby. If not, there might be multilingual ones and there is a good chance you’ll get to practice your Mandarin Chinese there. Even if you don’t, you might make some new language-learning friends!
11. Watch TV
There are hundreds of great Chinese TV shows available on various streaming sites, like Viki. Start by watching with subtitles in your native language, then switch to Chinese subtitles, before turning them off altogether. Add-ons like Language Reactor can help if you’re using Netflix or YouTube, as it lets you run two sets of subtitles side by side.
12. Learn Filler Words
A little-known trick that can be helpful for any language you are learning is to spend some time learning filler words such as ‘well’, ‘erm’, ‘like’, and ‘actually’. Not only will you sound more like a native speaker when you sprinkle them into conversation, but they’ll also give you time to think if you get stuck!
13. Start with High-Frequency Vocabulary
If you have no idea where to begin, then take a look at the most frequently used words in Chinese. Supposedly, the top 1,000 words of a language make up over 80% of speech. It is best to learn the most common words in Mandarin Chinese first, and then work on finding lower-frequency words and phrases you specifically need.
14. Find a Language Partner
A language partner will usually help you with their language in exchange for you helping them with yours. These don’t have to be native languages either, so you can trade your knowledge of any language you speak. This can be helpful for casual conversation and text corrections, and you might just end up with a friend for life.
15. Learn How to Pronounce Tricky Chinese Words
Found a word you just can’t pronounce? Try sites like Forvo or RhinoSpike to work on your pronunciation. Drilling these words in will help your overall accent and prevent you from tripping up on them in the future.
If you can, a trip to a Chinese-speaking country is the best way to improve your Mandarin, as you’ll be forced to use the language while you’re there. Can’t travel? See if there’s an area close to you that has a lot of Chinese speakers and take a shorter trip there.
17. Make Mistakes
Making mistakes is part of how we learn, so you’ll have to embrace it. Lean into feeling embarrassed (no one minds so long as you’re trying) and, if it helps, set yourself a target of how many mistakes you’d like to make in a day so you know you’re progressing.
Learn Mandarin Chinese in an Online Class
Rocket Languages (visit website) focuses on vocabulary, pronunciation, and listening. They split their courses into three levels, from beginner to advanced. This is a great choice if you’re planning to visit China, as they have a feature called ‘Play the Part’, which teaches you about daily Chinese life and gives you cultural tips.
StoryLearning (visit website) gives you access to stories and audio in Mandarin, as well as to videos where a native Chinese teacher goes through a story to highlight grammar points and explain them to you. This course uses Olly Richards’ Story Method and is great to learn Mandarin Chinese fast and in context.
Chinese Zero to Hero
Chinese Zero to Hero features courses that start with the basics and go all the way up to the material needed for the new HSK 7-9 exams. You can explore add-on expansions and learn about different topics in Chinese. The tutorials are regularly updated and added to.
Even More Practical Tips
Start with the Basics of Chinese Grammar
The good news is that, in a lot of ways, Mandarin grammar is easier than you probably think. However, the bad news is that you still have to learn it and some parts will be completely new for you if you have no experience with Sinitic languages.
So, start with the basics. One area that Chinese learners, no matter their level, have trouble with is measuring words. Basically, when you’re counting in Chinese, there is a little word that comes between the number and the noun being counted. For example, three cups of tea would be 三杯茶 (sān bēi chá; ‘three’, ‘cups’, ‘tea’).
There are a lot of different measure words and it can be hard to get them right. A simple thing to do if you don’t know which one to use is to use the word 个 (gè). This is a general measure word and most people will understand what you mean when you say it to them.
You can apply this principle across grammatical features. Once you’ve learned the basics, don’t be afraid to fall back on them when needed. Whoever you are speaking to will be very forgiving and probably help you out if you ask.
Don’t Bother with Handwriting
Well, you can if you want to, but, as is the case in the rest of the world, manual handwriting in China is on the decline. If you are aiming for an advanced level, want to learn Chinese calligraphy, or like writing things down, it can be useful, but, otherwise, it might not be vital.
Even if you’re planning on taking the HSK, handwriting is no longer a major component. You now can take the exam online, so all you need to know how to do is type characters. This involves typing the pinyin and then selecting the correct character from a list, so you’ll still need to be able to recognize them.
Of course, handwriting characters can be useful when it comes to learning them.
Learn Mandarin Chinese Characters
Irrespective of whether you’re solely interested in speaking and listening at first, you’ll have to learn to read and write at some point, at least a little. Of course, characters are trickier to learn than an alphabet, but there are some things you can try to make things easier:
- Focus on radicals. At first glance, Chinese characters are small, complicated-looking images. However, most characters consist of building blocks called radicals, which may affect the meaning or pronunciation of a compound character. While it’s not advisable to learn them in isolation, they might be worth looking into if you see one.
- Use spaced repetition systems, as they can be useful for learning Mandarin Chinese characters, much like vocabulary. Combine characters with images and audio to help it stick.
- Create visualizations. You can use those radicals for this (how do they affect the meaning or pronunciation of a character?) or come up with something that makes sense to you. What’s important is to get the pinyin or pronunciation in with the visualization so that you remember both the word’s meaning and sound.
- Play games. Memory games can be useful, just make sure you’re pronouncing the character aloud. In addition, try something like sudoku, where you can replace the numbers with (preferably similar-looking) characters. If you’re learning Mandarin with friends, play Go Fish or another card game where you, again, replace the numbers.
- Write. While handwriting characters over and over can be boring, it will give you the muscle memory you’ll need to re-produce them easily in the future. Nevertheless, even if you’re just typing characters out on a computer or phone, the more you write/type them, the more you’ll recognize and remember them.
How To Learn Mandarin Chinese Fast – Summary
Summarizing our guide on how to learn Mandarin Chinese fast. The best thing to do is take a step back and see if what you are doing right now will get you to where you want to be. Get a plan in place, making it as detailed as you need it to be and you’ll be able to see which of our tips you should incorporate now and which might be better saved for later.
Never forget to have fun with the language! Several of our tips will help you combine that fun with your learning and, hopefully, will help keep you on this journey to improving your Chinese for years to come. Good luck and enjoy learning Mandarin!
Resources to Learn Mandarin Chinese Fast
- How To Learn Mandarin Chinese – Andy + Sarah Mandarin – YouTube – View
- Everyday Mandarin Chinese – YouTube – View
- Learn Mandarin Chinese with Grace – YouTube – View
What is your learning experience? Have you got any additional practical tips on how to learn Mandarin Chinese fast?´ Please let us know or contact us via email if you have questions.
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