This is a method that can be used by anyone who wants to teach themselves Chinese Mandarin (henceforth “Chinese”). It is not easy and it is not fast, but it works. Naturally, you should go to China if you want to learn Chinese, 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 instead of 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. Though this article should suffice for those who are simply looking into understanding what Chinese is like and what to expect.
Teaching yourself Chinese can be done in 5 steps and the requirements are time, power of will, resourcefulness and, at some point, an individual who knows Chinese 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 Chinese pronunciation is. Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese, i.e. writing Chinese with the roman alphabet. Ever seen those unpronounceable Chinese names like Zheng QiuXun? That’s pinyin, in other words, Chinese written with the roman alphabet (hence “romanization”). Keep in mind pinyin applies exclusively to Mandarin Chinese, as other Chinese languages such as Cantonese, Hokkien and Sichuanese have a whole different system.
The pronunciation system of Chinese works in a very distinct way compared to that of western languages. Chinese has a limited amount of possible sounds, those are the pinyin syllables and there are about 400 of them. Each of these unique syllables can be pronounced with 4 different tones. This means that if you learn to pronounce every single pinyin syllable, you will be able to reproduce the pronunciation of any character in Chinese. 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.
By using this website as a guide to pinyin, you can get find out what all the syllables used in Chinese are 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 friend 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 Chinese 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.
As I mentioned above, you’ll eventually have to deal with tones. Chinese is a tonal language. This means that every time you pronounce any given character, you will have to pronounce it with its respective tone. Many people overestimate tones’ difficulty and basically say that Chinese is difficult because of the tones. This is only half true.
Yes, pronouncing tones with every syllable will indeed pose some difficulty and will require some getting used to. But this is not by a long shot the biggest hassle you’ll encounter in Chinese (you’ll find out what it is as you move on along the text).
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. In other words, it was romanized.
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, which are also known as radicals. The best way to learn Chinese radicals is by using the Kangxi radical list, however, 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 Chinese can really make lose your motivation, 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).
What fearmongers of Chinese won’t tell you is that 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 of other characters, 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! In the beginning progress will be turtle slow, but by the time you have learned a few hundred characters, 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. 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 (kuā) 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 – to step across
- 垮 = 土 + 夸 – pinyin: kuǎ – to collapse
- 挎 = 扌+ 夸 – pinyin: kuà – to carry
- 胯 = 月 + 夸 – pinyin: kuà – groin, hip
- 侉 = 亻+ 夸 – pinyin: kuǎ – foreign accent
A good resource for 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 and ach HSK module consists of a number of Chinese words you must learn (if you want to take the test, but you should use them for the purpose of learning). All the HSK modules are easily found online. HSK1, the one you should study after mastering radicals to a good extent, can be found here. After learning all HSK1 characters, jump to HSK2 and so forth.
Having said all this and calling back to what I said earlier in the beginning about what is the most difficult thing in Chinese, one difficulty that you will take along your entire life is that of compound words.
As I said in the first step, Chinese has a limited amount of possible sounds (the pinyin syllables). Each single pinyin syllable (together with its tone) 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 only speaking individual Chinese characters. This is why words in Chinese come mostly in couples of two (or more) characters. In other words, a spoken pinyin syllable by itself has a very large range of possible characters it can signify. When you couple it with another character, the given word can then be associated with two sounds instead of only one, hence making it easier to know what one is speaking. With two sounds, the range of possible words is greatly reduced. It is mathematical.
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 up with to form words. Knowing the character 安 and knowing what it means is good, 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 不安.
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 out 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.
The only way to solve this problem is to read and to speak as much as possible to learn the pairs that words couple up into. Learning them by themselves from a list can work, but you can’t account for context if they’re on vocabulary list because Chinese is a contextual language. Also, one important thing you have to understand is that there are very well defined patterns for compound words in Chinese. They aren’t just arbitrary couples composed by characters X and Y. There are rules to these couples which in turn make it easier to learn them.
For example, one of the most common patterns for compound words in Chinese is the “mini-sentence”. These are words (the definition of “word” in Chinese is very elastic) composed of two characters in which the first character functions as a verb and the second character as its direct object. In this case, you’re not looking at a word composed of two arbitrary and randomly selected characters, but at an actual sentence composed of two characters with a very clear relation between each other.
In some cases, the compound word will be composed of two characters that individually have the exact same meaning. Sometimes, the individual characters will have opposite meanings. On other times, the first character will be a verb and the second will function as an adverb modifying the first character. These are all patterns you’ll see forming words all the time. So, even though we are talking about several thousands of compound words, they aren’t random or arbitrary, but rather logical.
I recommend you read this article if you want to understand the logic behind the compound words.
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 Chinese grammar
You have probably heard before that 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 and multiple tenses 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 their differences to someone studying English.
The problem with Chinese grammar is that not only is it 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 Chinese. 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.
Chinese 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, but the easier it will be to express yourself once you have the grammar down.
Ultimately, and this applies to all existing languages, the most difficult part of learning Chinese 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 Chinese 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 Chinese). 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 Chinese in the world, find one. This is of utmost and incalculable importance.
Some other things
You might want to at some point write Chinese on your computer or phone so you can communicate with people using characters. This can be easily achieved by changing the language of your keyboard in your operating system’s settings. Choose the link below that best suits your case.
Also I’d like to clarify why Chinese characters have both simplified and traditional variants. Simplified characters weren’t a thing up until the 50s when Mao ZeDong came up with them with the intention of improving literacy in China.
As far as you’re concerned, you shouldn’t overthink it, just learn simplified characters. They are by far the most used variant all over China. Traditional characters remain in usage chiefly in Chinese-speaking regions outside of the mainland, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore and Malaysia. Simplified characters are indeed easier to learn because they really simplify things and that’s good as far as you’re concerned. You can later into your studies start learning the traditional ones, but you should by all means just stick to the simplified ones as most of the Chinese-language content you’ll find will likely be in simplified Chinese.
Basic communication in Chinese knowing all the A1 grammar points linked above, HSK1 and HSK2 (300 words 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 keep improving your Chinese.
Now some useful resources. I try my best to make sure there are no dead links down on the list, but it’s hard to keep track.
- ZhongWen (Chrome) or ZhongWen (Firefox) – 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
- Arc Chinese – Practice your tone comprehension syllable by syllable
- 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.
- Google Translator does a great dictionary.
- 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.
- Grace Mandarin Chinese – One of the better Chinese teaching Youtube channels
- 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 CCP 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.
- Learning Chinese Through Stories – Stories with narration
- 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
- 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)
- 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.
- Viki.com – Asian TV series streaming platform
- 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).