February 19, 2019

A basic roadmap to learning Mandarin Chinese

Of the popular languages, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult ones for Westerners to learn and extremely difficult to reach a high level of proficiency in. Learning languages like Spanish is relatively easy for those of us who speak English because of how closely related the two languages are in terms of grammar, vocabulary and even within the cultures there are lots of similarities to be found. This means that English speakers learning Spanish for instance already have a significant head start. However, when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, the situation is different. The grammar, vocabulary, syntax or the logic of Mandarin is nothing like English. Many of the typical language learning strategies are often inapplicable with Mandarin, which is why even the most experienced language learners would find it a challenge.

I’m not saying I found the key to learning high-level Mandarin efficiently, but after almost 12 years of studies and having worked as a Mandarin interpreter for the past 4 years I believe that, by trial and error, I have devised general guidelines that will hopefully save you some time.

It would be difficult to explain in detail what it is that makes Mandarin so hard, but in short, the four pillars of Mandarin difficulty are:

  • Pronunciation
  • Vast and unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Sentence structure and sentence patterns
  • Different cultural norms

The basic order in which Mandarin (or any language in my opinion) should be learned is:

  1. Understand
  2. Speak
  3. Read/type (not very necessary in the first 2 years of the learning process)
  4. Handwrite (not very necessary in general)

All four skills are best to be worked on in conjunction with each other, but if you need to choose one over the other for some reason, you can follow the above sequence.

It might be a bit unintuitive, but the single most important factor influencing your Mandarin learning process isn’t talent, environment or resources but motivation. Correct and lasting motivation is arguably one of the most important factors in order to learn and achieve anything, but this is especially true when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese. It is because it takes a very long time in order to see not just good results, but any results and you cannot expect to achieve fluency in the language in a few months or even a few years. Learning how to speak effortless, correct and fluent Mandarin, as opposed to quick gibberish, will take a lot of patience and a lot of dedication and without correct and lasting motivation you will run out of steam quickly. Therefore it is a good idea have a healthy mix of reasons why you want to learn Mandarin to keep you motivated in the long run. It is also advisable to define your goals at the beginning and have expectations based on those and mentally prepare yourself for and learn to endure a very long way to proficiency and a much-longer-than average way to acceptable results.

Although in my opinion, there are very few good Mandarin Chinese textbooks or online lessons, if I should recommend one, it would be ChinesePod. I am not associated with ChinesePod in any way, I just used their website when I started learning Mandarin and it helped me a lot in learning how to understand the spoken language. On the Chinesepod website you can find a ton of listening material for different levels. A very important step, understanding the spoken language, could in my opinion be done through extensive and intensive listening, which is exactly what Chinesepod is good for. By beginning with absolute beginner material, analyze what is being said word by word in order to train your ear to be able to a) recognize the foreign sounds and b) comprehend the meaning behind them. Repeat and actively listen to one recording over and over again, until you can understand the recording perfectly, which is when you should move on to the next one and eventually move up in levels. It is a boring and repetitive task, but in my case, it’s proven to be more effective than switching to new material all the time.

A common pitfall that language learners face when learning Mandarin is visualizing tones in a form of a diagram, where teachers show students how the first tone is a straight line, the second tone is a rising line, etc. It might be unusual to say so, but in my opinion this is a mistake. In order to really understand how tones work, it is very important to approach them as sounds, not lines or images. The reason is, that learning tones as images will create a very burdensome detour in your brain between the brain's audio and visual parts and will lead to an information overload. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why foreigners fail to learn Mandarin Chinese in general or fail to learn it to a high level quickly and efficiently. I wrote an entire article about it in case you’re interested to read more (https://goo.gl/3UWEFs).

It is an unusual thing to say since virtually all Mandarin Chinese courses and teachers teach tones with the help of tone diagrams and if you’re not ready to change your approach just yet, feel free not to do so. However, keep this information at the back of your mind and if you feel overwhelmed by the language maybe give it a shot. Additionally, tones are important but they are not as important in the early stages of learning as others suggest. This again might sound unusual, but putting too much emphasis on tones at the very beginning is not only a waste of time but also self-detrimental and demotivating. Focusing on tones and constantly going back and correcting yourself while speaking interrupts the state of flow, which is the essence of fast learning. It also creates a very bad habit of constant pronunciation back-checking which literally pulverizes your chain of thoughts. For these reasons I feel, it would be advised that tones be sharpened in the later stages of learning. For those who argue that no one will understand you if you don't get your tones right or that tones are the essence of Mandarin, ask them if they understand a native speaker of Cantonese speaking Mandarin. The reason why I say this is that native speakers of Cantonese notoriously mispronounce Mandarin tones and even though they sound funny to our ears they are perfectly understandable. The reason is, that they use perfect Mandarin constructions and sentence patterns. Neglecting tones and focusing on sentence patterns is a tradeoff of course, but I think it's a good one, since as I mentioned, paying too much attention to tones will cause problems that will eventually lead to a total inability to learn the language in the long run.

When it comes to the structure of the language, although Chinese does not have verb conjugations and articles, like German or Italian, it has an extremely irregular syntax and ways of saying things which, for the lack of a better term, require empirical experience and a lot of practice to master. In other words, there is no book that will teach you how to speak Mandarin correctly, you have to learn it on your own by either physically experiencing every possible sentence or thing you want to say in the real world or learn it by doing a lot of speaking and a lot of extensive listening to native content.

A common misconception about Mandarin is that it is the characters that make the language difficult, however the only requirement for learning characters is time and dedication, where talent doesn’t really play a big role. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, learning characters is not on the table in the initial stages of the learning process, because memorizing the sound, tone, pinyin, and the character for every single syllable in Chinese is an information overload which will only hurt the learning process. If you are fascinated by Chinese characters, like so many of us, learning them will of course be a very welcome enrichment of your learning process, but if you do not feel like learning them, it is not a problem in my opinion, since as a learner, you can use Pinyin (a romanization system for Chinese). Actually, as a total beginner, I would even invite you to write down new words and phrases however you want to not get too confused by pinyin or Chinese characters and move on to these once you’re comfortable with the sounds of Chinese. This is however maybe another paradigm shift for another time. As for the question of whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters, the general rule is - when wanting to go to mainland China, it is enough to learn the simplified characters.

Finally, while practicing and learning the language it is extremely important to always stay curious and look at the results.


  1. With all due respect, I totally disagree with the basic order in which Mandarin should be learned. Not knowing how learn Chinese characters would mean not knowing Chinese language. Chinese characters is the key part of the language.

    1. Hello Yulia. I wrote about not learning Chinese characters as a beginner and intermediate student. Of course Chinese characters are important and I think they should be learned but not as a beginner and intermediate student. Spending too much time learning them when you can barely speak Chinese is very counterproductive.

      I read about 100 books in Chinese and my current reading speed is about 35 pages/hour with not knowing only 0.5 characters per page on average. I am a graduate of the Chinese department did a lot of research on Chinese character etymology, wrote a book about Chinese characters and translated the Art of War from Classical Chinese into Slovak. I'm not saying this to show off, I'm only trying to say that I indeed do think Chinese characters are very important and I have spent a lot of time learning them. I just think I would never have reached this level had I been heavily focusing on learning characters as a beginner or an intermediate student.

      My Mandarin level really started to improve after I stoped learning Chinese characters and many expert speakers of Mandarin like Mike Campbell for instance say the same thing.

  2. I agree that, as a general rule, it's best to start a new language with listening practice, and I think both ChinesePod and ChineseClass101 are good for this purpose. However, in Mandarin as in other languages that I've been learning, my greatest joy as a beginner is to talk to myself in the language, and be able to say a sentence today that I couldn't say yesterday and that I haven't heard anyone else say (that is, it's not a memorized sentence). In addition, I don't find Mandarin aesthetically pleasing to listen to, so the more I listen to it, the more demotivated I am to continue learning the language. (The same used to be true for German, but now I like the way German sounds. I suspect I will one day like the way Mandarin sounds, but not today.) For this reason, I focus on speaking first (which includes listening and repeating). I use audio courses like Michel Thomas and Pimsleur--and even Glossika. And I've tried multiple times to start with reading because I enjoy reading in other languages, but I keep burning out after 150-200 characters, so I'll follow the order: (1) speaking (but not conversation yet), (2) listening, (3) conversation, and (4) reading/writing/typing. In Japanese, I practice writing (stroke order) once in a while because it helps me to differentiate similar characters and because I sometimes use paper flashcards. As for my motivation, I want to be a multilingual tour guide in my city someday. When I visit tourist spots nearby, Mandarin is one of the languages I hear the most. I want to give tours in other languages, and I think I'd get the most opportunities if I spoke Mandarin.

  3. Thanks for this article. It's useful to me as someone who has been learning Mandarin on and off for 5-6 years. I've been very inconsistent in my learning journey and am now determined to once and for all adhere to a regular schedule of learning.

    I agree that focusing predominantly on listening and speaking is the best approach for the first year or so. It's a natural way to begin learning such a complex language. I've never struggled much with tones because I practiced tone pairs for hours on end through listening and repeating the recordings available through YoYo Chinese. But writing and reading Chinese has weighed me down a few times. I'm an advocate of Remembering Traditional Hanzi (vols 1 and 2) by Heisig & Richardson. But I now also think I would like to compound this approach with spaced repetition using flash cards and a Leitner box.

    Anyway, I've got enough experience with the language that I'm going to dedicate a fairly equal amount of time to all four language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) with also a bit of time set aside for grammar practise.

  4. Hello Vlad!
    I'm really interested in learning mandarin and i have been reading and watching a lot of contents about the process to learn mandarin. The most of them says that an approach based in sounds and tones in the beginning is the best way to start. But most of them too says that you must learn pinyin and memorize all of the list of sounds of mandarin, and when you can say and identify them by heart, then start to learn vocabulary and characters. I decide to follow this method to learn only the spoken language in the beginning, but what way is worth to do that? I would like to have a learning way more natural, and at the same time useful and not focused in memorize only sounds that i cannot be able to know what it is. What you think about that? Like find some good teacher or partner and learn the spoken language with him, with basics words and phrases in the beginning and improving more and more the vocabulary by conversations. Or like most of them do, memorize all of the sounds of the mandarin by heart a list of sounds with Anki--like this: https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-pinyin-chart.php --, and after memorize vocabulary, so then start to read in the language. I don't really know what is a genuinely effective way to follow. But what works for me is just the "natural method", just the Target Language and very effort, but in mandarin is just impossible to do this, don't have anything in common. I think that to be able to pronounce perfectly the tones is indispensable before be able to recognize these in the spoken language like i do with english and french, that i don't try to pronounce anything until i can recognize these words by my ears. But how can i learn mandarin from zero with a natural way or a sound approach? Like i can do with spanish, french and italian(i'm a portuguese speaker)?
    I have some examples of content that really allows to learn the language by context without any english(or portuguese), the book "Le Français par la méthode nature" is very good, you learn all the words by context without translate, with images and all, or the serie "French in Action" that is 100% in french and you can understand french by dialogues and situations.
    Le Français par la méthode nature: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzV94mhxBOCGTS1LWnVldHZhYWc/view?usp=sharing
    French in Action: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BwCgZadrouSuX2E5cG53aGYxNlE
    Thanks for your contents, i have read all your articles in just one day, and i watch all your videos too, and help me a lot with my english and french, 2 moths ago i cannot watch a video in youtube, now 2 months later i can understand 70-90% of videos in english, your method really works for me! All the best for you!

    1. Hi. I've been thinking about how to learn Mandarin well for the past 13 years and I still don't know:)

      Given what materials are available right now, I think the best thing to do 'right now', for a beginner, would be to find super easy authentic spoken Mandarin content (something like EasyGerman for Mandarin but a lot easier) with transcription into PinYin without characters and analyze and listen to it ad nauseam until you can understand it perfectly word by word and then move on to the next audio and repeat.

      I would definitely not learn to read or write (unless for pleasure) in the beginning (~1 year) and, although people will crucify me for this, I would not worry about the tones too much or at all in the beginning and correct them systematically later, once I'd learn all the necessary words and sentence patterns and would absolutely dominate them. Driving your attention to tones all the time will completely destroy your ability to focus on what is really important in Mandarin. This was my major mistake and the reason why even after 13 years I have loads of room to improve in Mandarin while in other languages, even similarly difficult ones, I think I was able to speak smoothly, correctly, without any friction and sound near native much much sooner.

      Thank you very much for the Le Français par la méthode nature. Is there anything like that for other languages as well? Is there any audio to it?

  5. Thank you for the feedback!
    So, this method have some other languages, i will give you a link with the other contents, but unfortunately don't have sounds because it was made too long ago. https://vivariumnovum.it/risorse-didattiche/propria-formazione/metodo-diretto-applicato-alle-lingue-moderne
    This is a incredible approach to learn languages, i discover this because i was searching contents like the "Lingva Latina per se illustrata", and i find these books.
    About the learning mandarin, i have learned some phrases and i try to say it to native speaker without see the tones, only by hear, and i really make this comprehensible. I think that i will learn some phrases and learn the tones without effort by the time. Do you think that memorize a list of sounds with pinyin is worth in the beggining? Without contents, just the sounds and spaced repetition? And when i memorize all the table i will can pronounce all the sounds. Or is better learn phrases genuinely by simple videos and phrases? For me to improve vocabulary is only by reading content, but i don't will learn the characters until i can have a nice conversation. There are some other way to learn vocabulary?
    Thanks a lot Vlad!

    1. I think it is better to learn sounds through sentences or maybe through poems or songs. Something that easily sticks in your mind to familiarize yourself with the sound.

      Best way to learn vocabulary in my opinion is intensive massive listening to content that is slightly above your current level, which is very hard to find when you are a total beginner.