7 Best Resources For Learning Chinese
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This post has been updated 3 years after it was written at the start of my Chinese studies. I stopped studying after reaching intermediate level language proficiency and passing the HSK Level 4 language test (level 6 being the most advanced) 1.5 years after the start of my studies.
About a month and a half ago, I started on what I plan on being a year-long journey in intensive Chinese studies. I currently have class 2 hours a day, five days a week, and spend a good chunk of my time outside of class studying. It is intense, challenging, and time-consuming, but also rather enjoyable, and certainly rewarding.
Since studying Chinese has essentially become my life, for the time being, I decided to write an article about my experience starting my journey into Mandarin, and share the resources that have helped me get started delving into what is touted as one of the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn.
Studying Chinese Culture
Upon hearing of our upcoming move to China, Justin and I both saw this as an opportunity to learn a new and fascinating language. We wanted to prepare ourselves for China, and, to us, a big part of that was learning as much as we could about the language and culture prior to the move. We did our research and invested in many books on Chinese culture and philosophy, as well as language textbooks and audio programs.
I can not stress enough how much of an asset learning about the culture of the country you are visiting can be. In a lot of ways, if you are visiting a new country on a short time frame, learning about a population’s cultural norms can be even more helpful in easing your travels than trying to take a crash course in a foreign language.
For example, it was helpful for us to know that in China, most restaurants are seat yourself, and the waiters/waitresses don’t automatically come take your order or check on you like they do in the US. Instead, you are responsible for flagging them down when you need something.
This may seem like a just little difference, but these are the kinds of cultural norms that, if you know ahead of time, will make your stay in a foreign country much less stressful and, consequently, your lack of or limited knowledge of the language less important. However, since we were moving to China for a long period of time, it was important to us to be able to communicate with the local people.
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Language Learning Inspiration
A huge inspiration to my Chinese studies has been Scott Young, whose website attempts to answer the question, “what is the best way to learn”. One of Scott’s projects he completed was The Year Without English where he and a friend traveled the world learning four different languages in one year.
After living and studying full time in China for 3 months using as little English as possible during his stay, Scott passed the HSK 4 test (Chinese language proficiency exam – there are 6 levels). Scott did a lot of research before starting this project, and now that he has finished, shared with us a breakdown of his studies, both before moving to a country and during his stay, that has been extremely helpful in starting my own study of Chinese.
Now that I’ve completed my Chinese language journey, here are the 7 resources that helped me achieve intermediate level Chinese language skills in just 1.5 years.
1) MIT Chinese Courses
One of the best self-study textbooks we found is MIT Chinese 1 and Chinese 2. These can be downloaded as e-books through MIT’s open courseware program. There are many different MIT courses you can choose from on open courseware that are all offered for free on their website. Not all courses have available lectures, but you get full access to previous years’ syllabi and textbooks, as well as assignments and sample tests. If you are interested in learning something new, this a great, credible, and free resource to start from!
Another great program, while a little bit expensive, is the audio program Pimsleur. Pimsleur has a three-unit program for learning Mandarin, and each unit consists of 30 half-hour long lessons, with the intent that you complete one lesson per day.
Justin and I both completed Unit 1 before visiting China on our house hunting trip in October, 2014. Comparing our initial visit in May, 2014 where we came with no language or culture preparation, I felt much more comfortable going out on my own in China after completing just one month of Pimsleur.
The program taught us useful phrases such as asking how much something costs, understanding numbers, asking for a bathroom, telling time, and so forth. It certainly lessened the massive confusion that is China during our trip.
3) CCTV’s Growing Up With Chinese
CCTV (a Chinese news station) also broadcasts multiple free online TV shows grouped by skill level (beginner – advanced) to help foreigners learn Chinese. The one I have found useful as a beginner is “Growing Up With Chinese” which is hosted by an American woman who grew up in the US, but has lived the majority of her life in China.
Each show is 15 minutes long and covers a specific topic. You listen to a couple dialogs and the host goes through and explains new vocab words and phrases as well as gives a cultural lesson on the topic at hand. Their website has multiple different shows aimed at helping foreigners learn about Chinese language and culture.
The most recent audio program I have discovered that has been extremely helpful in improving my listening comprehension has been ChinesePod. Their website allows you to sign up for free and receive 100 free audio lessons. Their lessons are broken down by level ranging from newbie to advanced and almost all of the free lessons available are newbie lessons.
There are multiple packages you can buy which give you access to all levels of the podcasts (there are 1000’s of lessons) as well as a certain amount of tutoring time with a Chinese teacher. The dialog you listen to on ChinesePod is relatively short and they replay it 3 times before going through the translation and explaining any interesting grammar points, or words, and when and how to use them.
The total podcast is anywhere from between 10-15 minutes long. As a beginner, I love the brevity of the dialogs as they actually allow me to process what is being said, and understand the conversation, instead of getting lost in what sounds like a jumble of words. ChinesePod also provides you with exercises and examples using the words, and or grammar points covered in each lesson.
As with the show “Growing Up With Chinese” all the podcasts on ChinesePod have a specific topic, so you can pick and choose which topics you want to learn about, therefore customizing your Mandarin studies. Listening comprehension is extremely difficult, and often very frustrating when you are first starting to learn Chinese, so I would certainly recommend listening to as much of the language as possible and focus on grasping the gist of what is being said. ChinesePod will help you the rest of the way in explaining any words or phrases you didn’t understand on your own.
A must-have tool when studying Chinese, and especially when living or traveling in China is Pleco. Pleco is a free app available on your smartphone that is a Chinese dictionary/translator. It is specifically made for Chinese and will translate words from both English to Mandarin and vice versa.
When translating from Chinese to English the app allows you to either type the word in pinyin (the phonetic version of Chinese using the Roman alphabet) or draw the characters. Pleco not only gives you dictionary definitions and translations, but it also provides you with sample words and sentences using the word you looked up.
It is by far the easiest, most useful method of translating and looking up words in Chinese and a super handy tool for getting around in China.
6) The Chairman’s Bao
The Chairman’s Bao is an online Chinese language learning newspaper. It’s great for reading practice and getting all those Chinese characters memorized. The articles on the site are organized by HSK level, the Chinese language proficiency test.
The Chairman’s Bao has articles for every reading level, from just 3 sentence beginner readers to short essays for advanced learners. Students have access to a limited amount of articles for free before moving on to the paid version where you get access to all the Chairman’s Bao’s reading material. Every article includes a vocabulary list, grammar notes, and a quiz for you to test your new vocab.
7) Chinese Teacher
All the above methods have been fabulous in helping me learn Chinese, and I would certainly recommend learning from a variety of sources, but there really and truly is no substitute for having a Chinese teacher/tutor. My Chinese teacher has been invaluable in helping me with my pronunciation, character writing, grammar, and just being a fabulous reference for all things Chinese, outside of strictly language.
If you cannot have a teacher in person, there are websites such as eChinese Learning that can provide you with a teacher online via skype. If you really want to become fluent in a language, having a teacher, for at least the beginning stages of language learning, is a must. If you don’t have a good base, you will never really be able to progress in your skills.
What I am finding, now that I have a good beginning basis in Chinese, is that I really need to force myself to go out and just talk to people and listen to real conversations. It is easy to zone out when the world around you is full of people talking in a language you barely understand, but once you have a little bit of a base it is time to start really listening. It’s easy for me to get frustrated at the fact that there are still so many words, phrases, and sentence structures that I don’t know, and that will only change with more studying, but I know enough now that if I really concentrate I can figure out the gist of a conversation.
An easy way I have found to start speaking more is to go shopping at the local market. When I see a fruit or vegetable that I don’t recognize, I’ll ask what it is. This has been a good way for me to have short little conversations with people, as well as practice my listening and pronunciation by repeating back the name of the unknown food item I asked about.
It’s such an awesome feeling to be able to not only communicate but also learn something new in the process (now whether I remember that new word is a different story). I have certainly learned to concentrate on these little victories instead of focusing on becoming fluent, as this goal can seem near impossible at the beginning.
Getting outside of the classroom or apartment can be scary, and, if you’re like me, you will feel bad when you don’t understand something that was said, or can’t communicate something that you really want to say, but the more you go out and find people to talk to or listen to, the less scary it becomes and the more confident you will be with the language. Learning Mandarin is sure to be a long and time-consuming goal, but I hope to be writing about this topic again after having conquered the next hurdle in my quest for fluency: passing the HSK3.
P.S. A Current Status Update
I passed HSK 3 after 6 months of daily Chinese classes, then proceeded to severely slack off and wait another year to take HSK 4. I have not written about learning Chinese since and am most definitely no longer on the quest for fluency.
The honest truth is that I’m perfectly happy having basic fluff level conversations with my oh so happy vegetable lady at the market. I discovered that I’d rather spend my time exploring China and traveling the world. Priorities change, and I think that’s ok.
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Hey Cara, thanks for your resourceful post. My husband and I are bikers. We are planning to visit China for biking. But we actually faced two problems. One we don’t know the Chinese language as we heard they hate to talk in English! Number to we actually don’t know what is the perfect time to visit there. Note that we are the mountain biker. Please give us some advice. Advanced thanks!
Hi Julia, not knowing the language shouldn’t be a problem. It is true that not many people speak English, but you can use translation tools like Pleco and Google Translate to communicate as well as just your body language to point at things you want. We’ve met many people traveling in China who don’t speak Chinese and have had a great time traveling around the country. China is a big country so the best time to visit depends on where you want to go. Generally spring and autumn are really good times to travel in China. Also, you should look into Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces for mountain biking. They all have really beautiful mountain scenery. Hope this helps!
I recommend https://www.penpaland.com its a language exchange-based website.