The following advice comes from a 2016 Yenching Scholar
If you are a Mandarin beginner or even intermediate learner, you have the rare opportunity to build your language base from scratch—or nearly from scratch—in China. Though it may not seem so, this is actually a wonderful thing. It means you can establish good tones, pronunciation, and other Mandarin habits in an environment that will help you to do it correctly. In my experience, the best Mandarin speakers tend to have learned the language in China rather than a foreign classroom. (Or they learn in another country but revise heavily in China.)
I have three major tips for you, which have emerged from twelve months of struggling with this language:
#1: Find a way to enjoy learning Chinese. This is the simplest but most profound advice I’ve received. If learning Chinese is a chore for you, you will never speak well. The road to fluency is too long and too bumpy not to enjoy the journey. If you enjoy learning characters, concentrate on learning characters. If you like speaking, learn speaking. Let your pleasure guide you.
#2: Focus on tones. Say them again. And again. And again. It is mind-numbing, but the rewards on the investment are high. Your vocabulary and grammar will correct themselves eventually, but your tones will not. You have a golden opportunity to establish good tones right now. Don’t mess it up. Practice your tones.
#3: Chinese is hard. There is no secret. No shortcut. No one easy trick to learn this language. You must spend time with it, soak in it, study it…if it helps, think of learning Chinese as burning hours. Lighting hours on fire, disappeared, with no consequence but a few dozen words learned. Hundreds and hundreds of hours, repeating audiotapes, deciphering characters, practicing pronunciation. Your improvement will be non-linear—some days you’ll improve a lot, some days you’ll seem to backslide. To have gotten to Yenching, you are very smart, and many things come easily to you. Chinese is not one of those things. You will appear to be uniquely bad at it. So are all of us.
In this section I’ll mention the resources most useful for beginner Mandarin learning. I will list them here in order of utility. In my experience, by far the most useful resource is Pimsleur.
Pimsleur (PAYWALL, but you might find the first three seasons elsewhere online)
Pimselur is a language-learning audiotape series based on sentence repetition, question-answer practice, and targeted pronunciation. This program is useful for beginner to intermediate speakers, especially for mastering tones and tricky pronunciations.
– There are 4 levels. Each level has 30 episodes. Each episode is 30 minutes long. For the math-challenged among us, that’s approximately 60 hours of Mandarin audiotapes. The program costs ~$400 for the entire set, but investing in the first one to two levels may be sufficient.
– Strengths: Very good for your pronunciation. Portable. Can be used while riding subway, walking around campus. Practices dialogues, which are the most useful.
– Weaknesses: No characters. Some of the phrasing is uncommon in Beijing (from the South) or overly polite. Just work around it.
Try to listen to one 30-minute episode twice a day. I finished the whole set last semester, and I can tell you it is the single greatest contribution to my (limited) Mandarin fluency thus far. If you already know some Mandarin, feel free to jump to a Pimsleur level that is appropriate for you. (That being said, I started from Level 1 and am glad I did!)
Anki (Publicly available online)
Anki is spaced-repetition flashcard software. Spaced-repetition means that flashcards appear as they are needed, i.e. if you know a card “well” it’ll appear in 10 days, if you know it “so-so” it’ll appear in 5 days, if you don’t know it at all, it’ll keep appearing until you remember it. Every flashcard allows you to choose how well you know it (easy, medium, hard). The algorithm will automatically show you flashcards at intervals based on your responses.
Anki is open-source, and highly customizable. You can make your own decks, or download pre-made decks. Here are the pre-made Mandarin decks. I recommend you look around yourself for what is most useful.
– Strengths: Spaced-repetition is all the rage right now in language learning. Hacking Chinese, itself a very useful Mandarin resource, is a big advocate. Anki is more of a medium than a message, however, so its quality will vary based on which deck you decide to study. UPDATE: Three years later, I’ve gotten really into the $25 mobile app hand-writing study set, it’s fantastic.
– Weaknesses: Interacting with flashcards is an inherently limited form of Mandarin study. It is less dynamic by its nature, and will not build oral fluency as quickly (or as effectively) as Pimsleur.
You should pay for the Pleco basic bundle. It’s $29.99. It comes with handwriting-recognition software (so you can draw characters to figure out what they are), OCR (hold up your phone’s camera to signs, it will translate them into English), stroke order diagrams, and most importantly, built-in flashcard functionality. It’s a bargain. I’ve learned most of my Chinese from Pleco.
My personal strategy with Pleco was simple. Every time I didn’t know a word, I looked it up on Pleco, added it to my Pleco flashcards, then memorized it. You’d be surprised how effective this strategy is. The most useful words are the ones you’ve already seen/heard, since you’re likely to hear them again. It’s brute-force, un-sexy stuff. But the foundation of language learning is, after all, vocabulary. Pleco will get you there.
Chinese Pod (Freemium)
Chinese Pod is a Mandarin-education podcast designed to teach conversational Chinese. Online and on iTunes is a large repository of Mandarin dialogues with native speakers, often centering around fun or useful topics like losing weight, applying for a visa, or breaking up with your significant other. There are Newbie, Beginner, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and Advanced levels. It’s a free-mium model. The lessons are free, but if you want to download audio or dialogues you’ll need to pay.
There are two ways to use these podcasts:
(1) The first is to listen to the dialogues, and slowly get accustomed to the rhythms and patterns of Mandarin speech. This has been my approach thus far.
(2) The more ambitious approach is to transcribe the dialogues to flashcards, then memorize them. I started doing this in February; it has been a tremendous help. I highly recommend this tactic.
Decipher (Publicly available online)
Decipher is a phone/tablet app used for reading comprehension. Every day, a native Mandarin speaker writes a short article, posts it on the app, then estimates its HSK level (1-6). If you don’t know a word, you can click the word to see its definition. If you think the word is useful, you can add it to a flashcard pack.
Decipher recently added a paywall, such that new articles become unreadable after two days. Since there is one new article a day, there are always at least two free articles. My strategy is again simple: every night, I read both articles. The “newer” article I read for the first time, clicking all words I don’t know. I enable Decipher’s “fade” feature so that if I don’t know a word, the Pinyin will disappear after I’ve read it. The “older” (1-day old) article I read for the second time (having read it the previous day as well). This time I keep the Pinyin “on”, so that all words I still don’t remember (despite having read it yesterday) remain with Pinyin hovering above them.
I then take a screenshot of the article, and keep it on my phone’s photoroll. When the article goes behind the paywall at midnight, I still have access to it in my phone’s camera roll. After a few weeks of this, there’s a store of 20 easy-ish Mandarin articles. I then review them every week or so to make sure the new words remain.
If this seems complicated, don’t worry about it. Download the app and it will make more sense.
Rosetta Stone is fine. It’s really expensive and not *that* good, so if you haven’t bought it already, don’t buy it. In my opinion, it’s bad with tones and it’s not very interesting. My university paid for my copy, and I only made it 2/3 of the way through the first of 5 levels. It doesn’t always work well with the Great Firewall either, so you may have trouble getting it to load. If you’ve already bought it, go ahead and use it. If you haven’t bought it, don’t bother.
PopUp Chinese (Freemium)
NYT’s China website (has dual English/Chinese)
Zhihu (great reading practice)
Youdao (Chinese-English dictionary, good sample sentences)
Linguee.com (searchable database of approved official translations)