Recent thoughts on learning Chinese

Over the last few days, I've been getting a lot of questions again about what I've found works and doesn't work with learning Chinese.

Here are a summary of things I've tried and thoughts on them:

1. Local classes

My wife and I attended some local classes in the first year I tried to learn. That was only about 2 hours per week and while it was interesting, it's way too little to be very meaningful.

2. ChinesePod

This is a great podcast. They concentrate on spoken Chinese and much of it is good fun. I really liked the older material with Ken and Jenny but the new hosts are getting there. They have different levels. Newcomers might find much of the Newbies level quite challenging at first, but it's important to persist with it. The step up to Elementary is substantial but not too scary. The step up to Intermediate though, is really too big a jump. I now find Elementary too easy but Intermediate is often too hard. I can't comment on higher levels.

The accents on ChinesePod are pretty clean but some people complain that it's a bit too Shanghai-ish. It seems pretty good but it's not as clean as material that I've used from Beijing. You can really tell the difference.

ChinesePod also have lessons that you can do daily or weekly with teachers. These are not inexpensive but I think they'd be good value for those that want to progress quickly. Having someone to talk to for 20 mins a day, 5 days a week should help enormously, and allows for the teacher to provide one-on-one help in your weaker areas. I've done a demo session and I might take this up soon.

3. Rosetta Stone

This is probably the best known of the traditional language learning systems. For most languages, there are 3 levels. For Chinese, there are 5 levels. Each level consists of 4 units. I'm currently half a unit from completing the 5 levels. My inlaws (Chinese) say I've learned an enormous amount by doing this material. I'm sure that's true but I have to say I've found it very, very frustrating at times.

A surprise for most people is that all spoken and written words in the course are in your target language. Read that last statement carefully. They argue that children learn by seeing. While this concept mostly works, I could not have learned using Rosetta Stone without having Google Translate and Pleco open the whole time. There were way too many subtleties that I could not have picked up from the pictures alone. I have had many moments of "how the @#$@#$@ could I have known that???" when working with Rosetta Stone.

When I signed up, they also had a Studio product that gave you online access for about $60 each six months. That was amazing value and one of the main reasons that I used it. It let you book into online classes that were conducted directly from Beijing. There was no limit to the number of classes you could book into. Clearly this was a problem for them so about a year ago, they dramatically changed the rules to where the Studio product was no longer worthwhile in my opinion, for many, many reasons. That was a real pity as it was the best part of the product and they broke it.

4. Pleco

This is by far the best app I've found for using on my iPad. It helps me translate Chinese to/from English in many useful ways. I use it every day. One of the reasons that I can't move to a Windows Phone is that it's not available on that platform and I wouldn't want to live without Pleco.

5. Serge Melnyk's Podcast

This is an odd one. Serge is a Russian (yes you read that correctly) that has a podcast on learning Chinese. I've come to really like Serge and have signed up to his site so that I could download all the content. If you have travelling time when you can listen to podcasts, it's well worthwhile, although the accent is quite bizarre.

6. HSK Review

This is a great app for learning the Chinese characters that are required for the HSK exams. I hope to do at least HSK 1 and HSK 2 exams this year, perhaps HSK 3 if I'm lucky.

7. AnkiApp

This is in many ways an even better app for learning HSK based characters. It keeps track of what you are getting right and wrong, and how hard you find each character. It works out what you need to work on and provides great review drills for you based on that feedback. It also then assesses what level it thinks you are at for each of the levels.

8. Google Translate

This is invaluable and much superior translation-wise to the Bing Translator (sorry Microsoft). The pinyin input editor doesn't work on IE11 (sorry again Microsoft) but no surprise, works like a charm on Chrome. Many of the translations are "interesting" so I'm glad I have a bunch of patient Chinese speaking buddies on Facebook that help me out where I just can't work out what something really means.

9. PeraPera Chinese Popup Dictionary

This is an add-on for Chrome (and for Firefox) that has quickly become one of my favourite things. You just click a button in the top right of the browser when you want to use it, and you just point at words or phrases in Chinese that you don't understand and it tells you about them. Awesome idea.

10. FluentU

This is another excellent service that I've signed up to. It's about $19 a month when I signed up and it produces a bunch of content each month. I particularly like the way that different levels are supported, the way that the content is often quite current, is presented in a natural way, with characters, pinyin, and English all shown.


1. PinYin

I made the mistake of spending too long with pinyin visible when I was first learning. It can become a crutch for you, and eventually you need to learn to read Chinese characters. In Rosetta Stone, you can choose what's displayed. For the last year or so, I changed to only having Chinese characters displayed. It was VERY painful at first but I'm so glad I persevered with it. I now only turn on the pinyin display (in addition to the characters) when I don't understand something. It's important to force yourself to read.

Learning to pronounce pinyin correctly is also a challenge. There is no simple story here. You just need to learn the basic rules on how words sound, and after a while you will see "xin" but "shin" will come out of your mouth.

Focus a lot on listening. Some sounds take a while to get used to. Good examples are the difference between the "u" in "qu" and "zhu" or the sounds that we really don't have in English like "nv" (The v is really a u with an umlaut). Other challenges are getting used to "c" sounding more like "ts" in words like "cai", etc. So, listen a lot.

2. Movies and Video

Watching movies is obviously good but it's a real challenge. At first, I struggled to find many Chinese movies that weren't endless martial arts of medieval warriors.

My Spanish friends told me they learned English by watching movies in English but with English subtitles. This is important because you don't want to know what something means, when learning you want to also know what they actually said. The problem with Chinese is that you have the added problem of not being able to read the characters, and certainly not at the speed that they are displayed at. (And I might be getting old, but they are really small too).

I'm told that Karaoke is good for learning. I haven't tried it. Many people swear by learning languages by singing songs in the target language.

There is a world of good content on YouTube. I really like many of the game shows. You might as well find something entertaining while you're learning.

3. Growing up with Chinese

CCTV has a series called "Growing up with Chinese" that is targeted at teenagers wanting to learn. There are 100 episodes that are available for download. I watch those while trying to get some exercise on a treadmill. They start out very basic but I think they move a little too fast into more complex topics. However, the host Charlotte is adorable, and the more of these things you learn from the better.


The biggest hint though is just to get out there and try to talk to native speakers. They will correct you much more quickly than you'll ever work out yourself. I see this every day. For example, we were at my in-laws for lunch. I said to my mother-in-law "我很高兴我不需要药", and she look puzzled then said "我很高兴我不需要吃药". Note that I'd left a word out that helped a lot with what I meant. Only natives can do this for you.

With all the formal types of courses too, you'll quickly find that what they teach really is quite formal and you'll come to a sad reality (at some point) where you find that's just not what people say. That's why it's so important to get to common spoken language pretty quickly. For example, people often learn "ni hao" as the first phrase for "hello". After a while, you'll realise that it's not common for people to say that. "nin hao" which is more formal is pretty common in some situations though. A better example is to ask yourself how often you'd say a phrase like "good morning" or "good day". Most Australians would be more likely to say just "morning" rather than "good morning". Similarly, while you'll learn "zao shang hao", you'll often hear people just say "zao". For "bus" the courses will teach "gong gong qi che" but as an example, my brother in law says "gong che". There is no answer to this apart from talking to natives.

One source of natives that I've found useful is local meetup groups. There are lots of Chinese who want to learn English and are happy to chat to you back/forth with both languages, plus native speakers who are just happy to help because they get to meet new people.

Anyway, that's it for now. If I think of more, I'll add them later. Good luck!

8 thoughts on “Recent thoughts on learning Chinese”

  1. Very helpful – thanks Greg! I picked up the Living Language Platinum course plus some flash cards and the apps you list above. Looking forward to getting stuck in.

  2. Thanks for the mention, Greg. I'm one of the programmers for AnkiApp. We want to make AnkiApp the best app to learn Chinese, so if you have any suggestions please let us know (you can contact us within the app from Profile>Contact Support).

  3. Hey Greg. I'm not learning Chinese, but I grew up in France and had to learn English as a second language. I think the bottom line is that it's all about immersion. When you start learning a language, you constantly need to go back to your native tongue for comparison and translation. But at some point you reach a level of understanding that allows you to get explanations in the second language, which is when total immersion is possible and should be sought. Read a book in Chinese. Don't understand that word, sentence, or idiom? Google it. But google it in Chinese. Outside of regular classroom hours, what really helped me getting fluent was reading books in English and watching movies with English subtitles, or none. The great bit about those is that they also teach you to unlearn some of the too-perfect grammar you learnt at school (e.g. How are things?, instead of how's things, ain't, aren't I…) in the interest of sounding more like a native. Then finally, as you mentioned, the very best way to learn is just to talk to the natives. You will learn a lot very fast and also make an ass of yourself every so often. When I moved to the US for a one-year internship 10 years ago, I went to a burger king on my second night because we don't have those back home. I looked at the board, decided I wanted a whopper, and for some reason came to the conclusion it was most likely pronounced like "whole", so I asked the girl for a hopper, which she made me repeat about 10 times. In the end I just asked for number 6. I also sussed out a bit later on that the most important thing to make yourself understood is to put the right emphasis on the right syllable. Next time you hear a French guy speaking English, notice how they always stress the second or third syllable when they should really be doing that on the first one 90% of the time. In my case, because I try hard to get it right in English, I often go back home to be told by my friends that I have an accent when I speak French. The first week is usually a pretty embarrassing experience because I interject in English, and have to translate answers from English to French in my head when people ask me something, which takes time and makes me look foolish.
    On a completely separate note, in the past 10 years, second language acquisition (which is different for kids and adults) has been the target of much research in a variety of fields such as psychology, neurology, and especially cognitive sciences. There are studies showing that people knowing 2 or more languages develop split personalities. Not to say they suffer from dissociative identity disorder, of course, more than according to what language one is currently using, their behavior will be affected because that language is associated with a culture and a bunch of life experiences. Others show that knowing a second language helps at decision making, or that it tends to retard senility. Fascinating stuff, that's for sure.
    Sorry about the long post, I waffled on, as usual 🙂

  4. Hi Greg,
    Paul pointed me in the direction of this article; very useful info and interesting comments that reflects my Chinese Learning experience so far as well.  I can completely relate to the formal vs native day-to-day difference and my Wife picks me up on that all the time 🙂  I'm still very much a novice, but hoping to improve that this year and your resource list is a great help.

  5. Very helpful.I stay in china for 3 years, but communication is still a big problem. My Chinese friends tell me to attend some online mandarin course,For example: Hnabrige Mandarin school, chinesehour, speakmandarin etc…Because I need systematicness chinese mandarin study. So anyone have good recommendation?

  6. Hi John, yes, my recommendation (after having tried a few) is Best contact is Amy. If you mention me, I get some free time and you do too but the main reason that I mention them is that I've had such good outcomes from them. I've written details on how much they helped me with my HSK training here:
    Another useful app if you have an iPad is Skritter. ( I"m finding it useful for learning to manually write characters.

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