This is a method that can be used by anyone who wants to teach themself Mandarin. It is not easy and it is not fast, but it works. Naturally, you should go to China if you want to learn Mandarin, but not everyone can do that so you’re left with what you can make do on your own on the internet and this is a guide to do exactly that. This article and its resources will use simplified Chinese characters, not the traditional ones. Keep in mind that the approach of this method is probably very different than what you’re used to, as it is very technical, in-depth and covers all bases. It’s not for everyone.
Teaching yourself Mandarin Chinese can be done in 5 steps and the requirements are time, power of will, resourcefulness and a Chinese friend to help you along the way with conversation. This guide will give you the method and some resources. You CANNOT skip any step, you have to do it in the following order:
- Grammar and conversation
This is the first step and also the most important one, given how complex Mandarin pronunciation is. Pinyin is the romanization of Mandarin Chinese, i.e. writing Mandarin with the roman alphabet. Ever seen those unpronounceable Chinese names like Qiao ZhenXun? That’s Pinyin, i.e. Mandarin written with our alphabet. Keep in mind Pinyin only applies to Mandarin, as other Chinese languages like Cantonese have a whole different system.
The pronunciation system of Mandarin works in a very distinct way compared to that of western languages. Mandarin has a limited amount of possible sounds, those are the Pinyin syllables and there are about 400 of them (not including tones) and if you learn to pronounce every single Pinyin syllable, you will be able to reproduce the pronunciation of any character in Mandarin. This is crucial and has to be mastered before you learn any other part of the language. You must master Pinyin before you dive into Chinese characters and grammar, if your goal is to able to speak Mandarin, that is. As a side note, “Pinyin” itself is the Pinyin form of the word 拼音 which is written and pronounced… pinyin and it means “spelling sound”.
By using this website as a guide to Pinyin, you can get to know all the syllables used in Mandarin as well as their tones. That chart will reproduce to you each syllable, but it is up to you to find on your own how to actually pronounce them (this is when your Chinese friends chimes in), as many of these sounds don’t exist in English (and most likely not in your native language either). You can find videos on Youtube that focus on specific syllables or ask a Chinese friend to help you, as it would be too big of a task to explain through a blog post. Another good resource is Yoyo Chinese’s Pinyin Series. Also, when asking for help from a Chinese friend, make sure you ask them to help you pronounce the syllables as per Putonghua (普通话), i.e. neutral Mandarin without influence from dialects, as some Chinese dialects might pronounce some syllables in a different way and that will do you more harm than good.
After mastering Pinyin (might take days or weeks, your mileage may vary), you won’t be able to read this “我会说中文” but you will be able to read this “Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén”, which is the same thing as “我会说中文”, but written with the roman alphabet.
If you have a teacher or a Chinese friend and a study schedule, pinyin really shouldn’t take you longer than a month to grasp. If you can’t read pinyin and get the tones exactly right, do not move to the next step.
Chinese characters are made of radicals (you will learn about them in the next step), but radicals themselves are not the lowest common denominator in characters, you have something that comes before them: the strokes that make them come about.
Looking at the character 心, you have the stroke plus three (it’s one, there’s two in order to show they can have two directions) and if you arrange them in a certain way, you get 心. The interesting thing is that strokes repeat themselves all the time throughout Chinese characters. is a very common stroke to come by, for example in 几 that is formed of three individual strokes (though it would be only two when you write it): + + .
A good example is the character 永 that is composed of many single strokes:
Memorizing the strokes of a character is comparable to learning the letters of a word, but way more complicated. It helps you remember the character itself and write it correctly.
After you have a very good idea on how strokes work, you can move on to radicals. To a beginner, Chinese characters might look like random drawings, but they are far from random. After you master pinyin and strokes, you should study the components of Chinese characters, a.k.a. radicals. The best way to learn Chinese radicals is by using the Kangxi radical list (sort the list by frequency). Due to the fact that not all radicals are used as often as others, it is difficult to say how long you should study them for. There are 214 radicals, if you learn the 100 most common radicals, you could then start learning characters. It’s very difficult to estimate, as some radicals are rarely seen. You should aim for being able to single radicals out from characters. Be aware, this stage of learning Mandarin can really make you demotivated, so take it easy. Do it the way you think you should until you can single out (and recognize) the radicals/components like so (zoom into the characters with your browser if you have to):
- 好 = 女 + 子
- 努 = 女 + 又 + 力
- 翻 = 采 + 田 + 羽
- 架 = 力 + 口 + 木
- 强 = 弓 + 口 + 虫
- 类 = 米 + 大
- 哥 = 可 + 可
- 次 = 冫+ ⺈ + 人
- 望 = 亡 + 月 + 王
- 碟 = 石 + 世 + 木
- 薇 = 艹 + 彳+ 山 + 一 + 几 + 攵
- 林 = 木 + 木
- 森 = 木 + 木 + 木
- 过 = 辶 + 寸
- 激 = 氵+ 白 + 方 + 攵
- 摄 = 扌+ 耳 + 又 + 又
- 醒 = 酉 + 日 + 生
- 赢 = 亡 + 口 + 月 + 贝 + 凡
- 尋 = 彐 + 工 + 口 + 寸
There’s a problem, though. In some characters, you won’t be able to single out the radicals and will have to single out the strokes (reason to which you should have a good foundation on strokes). For example, 巴 is a very common radical to come by, but then you have the character 色 which is basically 巴 plus ⺈, a combination of strokes that can commonly be found in other characters as well (角 (用 + ⺈), 你 (亻+ ⺈ + 小), 负 (⺈ + 贝) etc). The problem is that ⺈ is not a character in and of itself, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just an agglomerate of strokes. The point is that when you are dissecting characters, aside from the radicals themselves, you also have to be on the look out for combinations of strokes and for a beginner this will be a pain and you have to be made aware of this. Some examples of characters with minor stroke-level differences:
The characters on the left column have a completely different meaning and pronunciation compared to the ones on the right column, but all you have to be able to them apart is a stroke that is added or is modified. Have this in mind.
Another good example is the character 正, which can be deconstructed as:
- 正 minus the 一 at the top equals 止
- 止 minus the 丨 to its left equals 上
- 上 therefore is the basis of the previous two iterations
And both 止 and 上 are actual characters that have their own meanings, pronunciations and usages. 正 can be found as a component of a handful of characters:
So, to summarize, you should aim for being able to deconstruct characters both at a radical and a stroke level. It’s a lot to know, yeah, but take it slow.
Another thing you should know in this section is that Chinese characters will commonly have inside of themselves entire characters, not just individual radicals. For example, 努 up above could actually be pieced out together as 奴 + 力 (奴 is itself a character), 翻 actually as 番 + 羽 (so is 番). Which takes us to the next step:
This step is the one that is going to take you the longest, but it’s not as bad as you think. Even with a solid grasp on radicals, learning Characters will take you a long time. All the way from months to years to take you to a conversational level, depending on how immersed you are (actually it will never end because you’ll always be encountering new characters here and there).
The truth is, the more Chinese characters you know, the easier it becomes to learn more characters, because you’ll often find entire characters you already know being used as components inside of other characters (as exemplified in the previous step). For example, one of first characters you’ll learn is 有 (the verb “to have”), but the character 有 becomes a component in the character 随 (阝+ 迶 or 阝+ 辶 + 有). So the more characters you learn, the easier it will be to learn new characters, because characters you already know you’ll often see being used as components, thus facilitating the remembering of them. The difficult part of learning Chinese characters is the beginning, because you know zero characters and it’s difficult and slow to get started because you don’t have any other characters to compare them against. The learning curve for Chinese characters is very much so exponential. It is not a straight line! I.e. in the beginning progress will be turtle slow, then when you reach the 700 character line (my own estimate), it will shoot up exponentially and you will be learning characters much more quickly.
You have to persevere and stick to it because it will get easier with time, guaranteed. You will start seeing patterns everywhere between radicals and pronunciations. For example, many characters that have the radical 巴 in them are pronounced with the syllable “ba” (把, 吧, 爸, 芭, 粑), characters that have the character 相 as a component inside of them are often pronounced with the syllable “xiang” (想, 箱, 湘, 厢) and characters that have the radical 米 in them are often pronounced “mi” (迷, 谜, 咪, 糜) and so on. Which means you will be able even to guess the pronunciation of characters with some degree of accuracy. Another example is 库 which is pronounced with the pinyin syllable “ku”, but it becomes a component in the character 裤 (which is also pronounced with the pinyin syllable “ku”) and forms the word 裤子 which is the word for “pants”. The point is that, the character 裤 might look very complex and intimidating to a beginner, but learning it becomes way easier if you happen to know the character 库 beforehand (and 库 is 广 + 车, 车 being a very common character also). This is why the more characters you know, the easier it will be to learn new characters: it’s a snowball effect and the beginning is the stage during which you’ll have to put most effort, after which it becomes easier.
A good example of this “snowball effect” is the character 夸 (pinyin: kuā – Components: 大 + 亏 – Meaning: to boast, to exaggerate) that is a component that can be found inside of five other characters and all of them are pronounced with the syllable “kua”, but with varying tones and meanings. The point is that when you learn 夸, learning the five below will be much more easy.
- 跨 = ⻊+ 夸 – pinyin: kuà – Meaning: to step across
- 垮 = 土 + 夸 – pinyin: kuǎ – Meaning: to collapse
- 挎 = 扌+ 夸 – pinyin: kuà – Meaning: to carry
- 胯 = 月 + 夸 – pinyin: kuà – Meaning: groin, hip
- 侉 = 亻+ 夸 – pinyin: kuǎ – Meaning: foreign accent
A good resource of characters is the HSK lists. HSK (“Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì”, i.e. “Chinese Proficiency Test” ) is a standardized test for Mandarin Chinese proficiency used all over China to assess a foreigner’s level of Chinese (like TOEFL or IELTS). You can go all the way from HSK1 to HSK6. Each HSK module consists of a number of Chinese characters you must learn (if you want to take the test, but you should use them for the purpose of learning characters only). All the HSK character modules are easily found online. HSK1, the one you should study after mastering radicals completely or satisfactorily, can be found here. After learning all HSK1 characters, jump to HSK2 and so forth.
Having said all this, one difficulty that you will take along your entire life is that of compound Chinese words. As I said in the first step, Chinese has a limited amount of possible sounds (the pinyin syllables). Each single pinyin syllable can represent from only one individual Chinese character (the pinyin syllable rì only has one character, 日) to several dozens (the pinyin syllable yì is the one that carries most characters in the entire language, probably over one hundred of them). Therefore, knowing that each individual pinyin syllable can potentially signify dozens of individual Chinese characters, it would be unwise and extremely impractical to attempt to communicate in Chinese by speaking individual Chinese characters. This is why words in Chinese come mostly in couples of two (or more) characters.
Therefore, trying to learn as many Chinese characters as possible isn’t very smart if you look at it, because knowing a lot of characters only really matters if you also know all the other characters with which the characters you know couple with to form words. Knowing the character 安 and knowing what it means is great and all, but if you don’t know the meaning of the words in which 安 is featured, it’s pretty much a useless character for all intents and purposes. Nobody is going to just speak out 安 by itself, it’s always going to come coupled with another character, as in these words: 安全, 安慰, 安静, 平安, 早安 and 晚安.
And this means trouble. Now not only you have to learn as many Chinese characters as you can, but you also have to learn their combinations from which the words you will use are born. This is the reason why you will eventually find yourself looking at a Chinese sentence one day, completely able to identify and pronounce every single character in that sentence but also completely unable to draw its meaning: you recognize the characters, though not the words. This is why you gotta have someone to practice Chinese, get these combinations sorted from the onset.
After learning HSK1 characters (and ONLY after HSK1), you should then start learning basic grammar (A1) and this is an excellent resource.
Important considerations concerning Mandarin Chinese grammar:
You have probably heard before that Mandarin Chinese grammar is “very easy” and this is only half true and not very easy to analyze. The following is going to be my opinion, don’t take what I’m about to write as absolute facts. As it happens, the grammar can’t exactly be considered “easy”, but “simple” and this is not exactly a good thing either. If you are a native speaker of an Indo-European language, I want you to think about the complexity of the conjugation system of the verbs of your language. You probably have indicative and subjunctive moods, multiple tenses and (maybe) aspects that allow you to express your thoughts with a high degree of specificity. For example, compare “I hadn’t had”, “I haven’t had” and “I didn’t have”, they have different meanings and aren’t exactly that easy to explain to someone studying English. Same goes for “I will have” and “I will have had”.
The problem with Chinese Mandarin grammar is that not only it is simple, it is too simple. Those “grammatical tools” you have in your native language that allow you to reach high degrees of specificity lack altogether in Mandarin Chinese grammar. You do have some tools and you have to make do with them, the particles (了, 到, 完, 过, 着, among others). These tools govern something called “aspect” that will allow you to reach the degrees of specificity you are used to in your native language, but the problem is that these particles comprehend not very easy concepts to wrap your head around and, unsurprisingly, can mean different things in different contexts. Mandarin also barely has plural forms for nouns (们 can be used to form the plural form, but mostly for “human” nouns, like “scientist”, “specialist”, and so on), nouns, adjectives and verbs can sometimes be the same word (瘫痪 can mean “to paralyze”, “to be paralyzed”, “paralysis” and also “paralyzed”, making comprehension more challenging and context much more important), there is no definite or indefinite articles and no conjugation. To summarize it all, you have to signify a lot of meaning with not so many tools, which in and of itself is difficult. This is why “simple/easy grammar” is not necessarily a good thing in my opinion. The more difficult the grammar of a language is, the steeper the learning curve will be, sure, but the easier it will be to express yourself once you have the grammar down.
Another problem is that Chinese takes the concept of “context” to a whole new level. Thoughts can be expressed in Chinese (all Chinese languages) in very weird ways you very likely are not used to. What might happen one day is that you will see a paragraph in Mandarin you will be able to recognize and understand all the characters of, but you won’t be able to understand the meaning of the paragraph, no matter how many times you read it.
Ultimately, and this applies to all existing languages, the most difficult part of learning Mandarin will be thinking and forming phrases like a Chinese person would. In the beginning, you will very often arrange words in sentences in very weird ways (despite Mandarin having strict word order), which is why having a Chinese friend to help you is so important and this also goes beyond word order, this includes word selection and nuances (which are especially important in a contextual language like Mandarin). The earlier into your studies you tackle this issue, the better off you will be in the long run. Have a Chinese friend! There are almost 1 billion speakers of Mandarin in the world, find one. This is of utmost and incalculable importance.
Basic communication in Mandarin knowing all the A1 grammar points linked above, HSK1 and HSK2 (300 characters in total) and Pinyin should really not be a big challenge. Chinese grammar does have difficult points, but you shouldn’t worry about them yet too soon into your studies. This is the objective of the guide, to take you to a level of basic communication, after which you will be able to climb on your own to higher levels because you have all the tools to do so. If you got this far, you should just keep practicing it with natives, there’s nothing else you can do but learn more characters and advanced grammar topics. Practice with someone who can speak Putonghua with you and that’s it, you’ve made it.
Some useful resources (not necessarily in order of usefulness):
- ZhongWen Extension – Gives the definition to characters when you hover over them. (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) (alternative if it doesn’t work)
- NJStar Extension – Allows you to convert all Chinese characters on a page to simplified or traditional. (though you should only use it to convert from traditional to simplified, because the other way around doesn’t work very well in practice)
- Pleco App – Probably the best offline dictionary, also comes with configurable flashcards.
- Yoyo Chinese – Pinyin Series and Yoyo Chinese – Tone Series
- HiNative App – Very useful app for getting corrections and asking questions.
- HelloTalk App – Great language exchange app to find Chinese peeps.
- Hanzicraft’s list or Textuploader list – 5000 most used characters in order.
- Baidu Translator, LINEdict and MDBG – Good dictionaries/translators.
- Hanzicraft – Tool that can separate a Chinese character into its radicals/components (Decomposition), show what other characters it couples up with in order to form words (Example Words) and what characters use the character you searched for as a component of themselves (Appears In).
- CharacterPop – Breaks down characters, similar do Hanzicraft.
- New York Times China Parallel Texts – Choose an article, click “中英双语” at the top to get the same article written in English. Good for reading practice.
- Zdic.net – Use this page to find characters from their radicals. You input a character, click 查询 and it will display other characters that use the character your inputted as radical/component.
- Hunan Television Youtube Channel – Most content subtitled in Chinese
- Shanghai Television Youtube Channel – Most content subtitled in Chinese
- Zhejiang Television Youtube Channel – Most content subtitled in Chinese
- China Central Television Youtube Livestream – Their content often has subtitles in Chinese (Full of commie propaganda though)
- Hanzigrids – Hanzi Grids lets you create custom Chinese character worksheets and grid paper templates that you can download and print out for handwriting practice.
- Wordreference Forums – A good place to ask questions if you have them, use the search function before making a new thread.
- Memrise – Good if you’re into flashcards as a learning method.
- Forvo – Chinese characters and words pronounced by natives. Just search for something and click the play button. If it doesn’t exist, make an account, add the word/character and wait.
- u17.com and ac.qq.com– Manga for intermediary students.
- ChineseFor.Us! – HSK1 Preparation Video Series. Covers HSK1 characters as well as radicals. Very good.
- ChinesePod101– Very good, some free resources but mostly paid.
- Chinese Grammar Wiki – Great grammar resource.
- Duolingo – Duolingo’s Chinese course is by no means enough by itself, but it can be useful for vocabulary.
- 中英交流 Chinese-English Exchange Invite – Popular Discord server for people studying Chinese.
- Mandarin Corner – Videos in Chinese with Pinyin, translation and characters on screen.
- Mandarin Monkey Chinglish Podcast – A couple’s podcast where they switch back and forth between Chinese and English
- A whole lot of links
- Chinese Language Subreddit – Good place to have your questions answered
- Slow & Clear Chinese
- PenpalsNow! – Find someone to talk to through email, search by country. Notice there is China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to choose from.
- Chinese: An Essential Grammar Book
- Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar Book – Very thorough and very technical.
- Harry Potter’s First Book – Simp Chinese and English (for comparison)
- Aspect in Mandarin Chinese – A book entirely dedicated on aspects from the perspective of Mandarin
- Happy Chinese Series – Something like a Chinese TV series. Link takes you to episode 1, but it has over 100 in the playlist and it comes with English and Chinese subtitles. Not very beginner-friendly.
- 中餐厅 – Chinese TV Series – Chinese full-length series on Youtube with Chinese subtitles.
- Shows with subtitles in simplified
- Growing up with Chinese – 100 15-minute video lessons
- Rutgers – Listening exercises
- Chinese-Forums.com – Discussion forum for students of Chinese.
- Chinesereadingpractice.com – Simple children stories for beginners (still hard if you don’t have HSK1/2 and A1 grammar).
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