PART I: OPENING Q&A AND GENERAL MYTH-BUSTING
“Learning Mandarin is really hard. It's a category 5 language for English speakers. It's impossible!”
Learning Mandarin is not hard at all. All those various difficulty discussions are really saying is that Mandarin takes a while to learn. Per the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), an easier language like Spanish takes ≈23-24 weeks (or 575-600 hours) for basic fluency whereas Mandarin takes ≈88 weeks (or 2200 hours) for basic fluency. So about 4x longer to learn Mandarin than Spanish or say, Afrikaans. Whatever language you choose, learning a language is like eating a large elephant one bite at a time. If the Mandarin elephant is 4 times bigger, you just have to take significant, but livable bites out of the the Mandarin elephant for that many more days.
“I don't live in China. How can I possibly learn Mandarin?”
You are exactly who this guide was written for. If you are concerned about finding a speaking partner, just keep in mind that there are 1.1 billion fluent Mandarin speakers. So you will have little or no trouble finding an enthusiastic Mandarin speaker who wants to talk with you. This is the digital age. There are dozens of apps, websites and other tools to connect with native Chinese speakers.
“Are 'Chinese language' and 'Mandarin language' the same thing?”
No. Mandarin is the official language used by the government and by most speakers. There are other Chinese dialects besides Mandarin such as Wu and Cantonese. The particulars of these dialects is beyond the scope of this guide. The best way to think of Mandarin, then, is that it is the lingua franca, or bridge language shared by the various regions and subcultures of the Chinese people. Due to China's education reforms, only elderly folks 60+ years old (this guide was started in 2022) in certain parts of China will have trouble understanding Mandarin. This guide will use the two terms Mandarin and Chinese interchangeably.
PART II: MINDSET
There can be many mental and emotional barriers to learning Mandarin. Some are fairly extreme and beyond the scope of this guide, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia. However, the ones that get most people in trouble are very simple, and are generally not that hard to overcome once they are recognized.
The most important aspect is not the specifics of which resources you use or the details of a learning plan (though those are obviously important), but how you look at the situation. I don't mean in the sense that your mind is more powerful than rote practice, although you'll need to have some self-discipline and commitment for obvious reasons. The main problem is that most people look at language learning in a warped, incorrect way. That's why they flunk, not because it has to be so hard in and of itself. What I mean is that you can't look at learning languages as a short-term ordeal that ends at some point when you are sufficiently fluent and accurate. They must be seen as long-term lifestyle changes. That sounds kind of scary, but is actually not a big deal when you think about it, and once you start seeing results you will be motivated to continue.
Consider this: when people start studying, they are often extremists about it. They try to learn 3 hours a day, 7 days a week, or go thru some crazy program where they torture themselves to become fluent in 3 weeks. They burn themselves out or get sick or just hate life generally, and they fail. Then they get discouraged and settle back into only using the language they are already familiar with.
Was that a failure of willpower? Sort of, but the main problem is that the whole approach is wrong. You don't learn by killing yourself. You learn, and more importantly keep learning, by accumulating significant, but livable, improvements to your lifestyle over time, and building on that. Not by going through some horrible ordeal requiring Olympian willpower.
Learning Mandarin just has to become something you do everyday. Language practice has to become a habitual thing you do every day or two, like mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. If you do just a little better all the time, but really stick to it, you can accumulate big gains very fast, and improve upon them over the long term. Once you start seeing improvements without having to kill yourself, it becomes very easy to keep on improving. You don't have to stick to the following 100% of the time; but every little bit you slip up detracts from your overall results. The amount of time and effort you put into developing and maintaining your language is directly proportional to what you will get out of it and the magnitude of the results you will see. If you follow this advice only some of the time, you will only get some of the results. In the end, the wrong thing done consistently often times nets more results than the right thing done sparingly.
You can easily learn about 10-50 words per week. That's at least 520 words a year and, if you have great internal/external life-balance, basic fluency in a year. In a year you'll be able to go to China and have little trouble with all basic listening, speaking, reading, and in three you'll be pretty exceptional, even being able to read/speak about Marxist topics at a university level, assuming you are consistent and motivated. We know how the the mind learns, we know what can be done, and we know how long it takes. Do not look for the easy-out, the miracle, or the learning secret someone wants to sell you. You want results, not false promises - stick to a routine and have fun and see it through. In otherwords, be persistent and be patient.
Another thing to consider is that many people find it hard to get into Mandarin because they have bad habits, especially when it comes to learning. Some of these are obvious, but many of them are not. Education in a bourgeois society is very spotty and uneven, and the media (and especially the internet) often report nonsense that just adds to the confusion. Part of the purpose of this guide is to educate you enough to be able to teach yourself any skill, not just Mandarin, but pedagogy or learning how to learn. Habits are hard to start, but the rewards for good habits are immense and long-lasting. After a short while, you won't feel any stress from studying. You'll start to feel anxious if you miss a day of Mandarin. You'll think "How did I live like this? Why did I spend those years putting off learning this language? This is so easy!" It is. Just read on.
PART III: RESOURCES
The backbone of this entire program, How to Remember Anything Forever-ish. Read it. Then read it again. This Leitner schedule will guide you through the rest. Much of this guide is just using different spaced repetition tools to learn the language. It doesn't particularly matter which spaced repetition software (SRS) tools you use. The most popular platform of time of writing is Anki. Which is available on all phone systems and desktop systems.
Sequence of reading
- Discord Servers
- 中英交流 Chinese-English Language Exchange
- Speaking Apps
- Reading Apps
- Du Chinese (the web browser site is better than the phone version)
- Writing Apps
- HelloChinese (for getting started with grammar)
A full list of speaking, listening, reading and writing resources, sorted by level, is available here:
PART IV: LEARNING MANDARIN
Normally its OK to jump around a guide as your whims take you. DO NOT DO THAT HERE UNTIL YOU LEARN PINYIN. Do not bother with strokes and so on until you know your pinyin fairly well.
To get the most out of this guide, practice Mandarin everyday. Even if you only have 15 minutes of spare time. Doing 15 minutes of practice everyday will give better results than a half-hour every other day. This is an evidence-based approach, using scientific memory research, based off the work and theories of Hermann Ebbinghaus.
Pinyin was invented by a group of Chinese linguists in the 1950s under Mao. Pinyin is an anglicized version of Chinese that uses the Roman alphabet to represent Chinese characters. It is the first and foundational step in learning Mandarin and is the first thing Chinese children learn in school when learning to read and write. By learning Pinyin, you will understand how to pronounce the Chinese language sounds as well as produce the 4 tones of the language.
Using previously mentioned spaced repetition system, take the phone/computer app Anki, or AnkiDroid as your flashcard system and pair it with the Yoyo Chinese YouTube Channel to fill out your spaced repetition cards.
Once you have basic competence with Pinyin, meaning both good pronunciation and correctly writing pinyin from listening to audio, you are ready to move on to learning strokes, radicals and characters. This should take less than 1-2 months. A few weeks if you really work at it. You should be able to pronounce each sound in this pinyin chart from memory before moving on.
It is OK if you struggle with the pinyin that are related to 'xi'. This sound does not exist in English and unlike other tricky pinyin, like shi, ri and zhi, does not have any close sounds to it in the English language.
A very rough way to pronounce the various pinyin using the xi sound:
- Feel your tongue when making the sh sound like in the word 'shoes'. Your tongue is touching the back of your teeth.
- To make the xi sound your tongue must be in almost the same position, with your tongue not quite touching the back of the teeth. Visualize this. Try to imagine your tongue not quite touching the back of your teeth when you speak.
Mandarin has 214 radicals. By and large Chinese is a compound language. That means many words are at least a pair of smaller words, similar to English words like nonetheless, firetruck, lifesaver, superhuman and so on. Indeed, most nouns and many verbs in mandarin are two-word compounds. Each word is usually made up of a pair of characters which are themselves composed of radicals. Radicals are the smallest component pieces of Mandarin. Similar to an alphabet. Unlike the alphabet, a number of radicals are rarely used. Some you will never see unless working in a specific field of science or art. Hence, radicals are typically studied from most to least frequent. A good starting goal with radicals is the 100 most common radicals.
Use the Skritter App
https://apps.apple.com/cn/app/skritter-write-chinese/id1370892114 to get started learning radicals.
Skritter has a number of different practice decks covering different parts of the language. A good place to start is with the deck "Chinese Stroke Order" to learn the principle rules (there are 8) of how a character is written. Top to down, left to right, left-sloping before right-sloping and so on. The "100 Common Radicals" deck covers the above-mentioned most common ones. At this point you can either learn the remaining radicals, or continue on to characters. Learning additional radicals beyond the first 100 suffers from diminishing returns, meaning that as you get to 150-180 radicals learned, the additional value of learning more radicals drops significantly. Learn at least 100 radicals before moving on.
With about 500 characters you will be able to begin reading and speaking. Start by use the word list from the 2021 updated HSK 1 exam. These can be learned thru the Skritter app or thru Anki flashcards. Once you have a basic grasp of all the HSK 1 words, you can begin reading HSK 1 graded readers.
Personalize your learning! A common way to study is focus on a subject you fancy. Fashion affecianados may want to focus on learning the various clothing words. Transportation geeks may want to study the words for truck, bus, train, ambulance and so on. China is the most technologically advanced country in the world. Why not focus some of your learning on the words for headphones, laptop, apps, electric bike and all the rest?
At about 3,500 characters you will be able to begin reading novels, books and so on.
Grammar and conversation
Mandarin uses the same basic word-order, the same subject-verb-object grammar structure as English. The various modifier words that tell the when, where, how, who and so on are ordered quite differently from English. In English, these various modifiers can be placed anywhere in a sentence. Whereas in Mandarin nearly all these words go between the subject-verb part of the sentence. They also follow a pattern of vague and general to direct and specific. Thus the structure of a mandarin sentence looks something like,
Subject - When - How - Where - What - Target - Verb - Time duration - Object
So a Chinese-structured sentence might look something like I (Subject) at 6:15am (When) sleepily (How) - at the school gym (where) - using the treadmill (What) - for my health (Target), - ran for (Verb) - 45 minutes of (Time duration) - exercise (Object). Another example: He (Subject) - in the afternoon (When) - for his sister (Target), - bought (verb) vegetables (object).
It is common in spoken English to drop the Subject part of a sentence. That is, the subject is not spoken, but implied from context. This is just a true in spoken AND written Chinese.
The HelloChinese app is an excellent resource to get started studying grammar. Once you have the basics, just learning how to form and understand sentences will passively teach you the grammar structures. Only certain unusual grammar elements like 了 -- a character with no English grammar equivalent -- are worth taking the time to specifically study and investigate.
A list of grammar books:
PART V: MEASURING PROGRESS
Keep a word diary
Whether written by hand or computerized, maintain a list of every radical, character, and grammar point you have learned. Conscientious use of a word diary will give you a place to: describe your learning goals, bring together all the language you've learned from the various apps and other learning material you've used and track your progress to see how far you've progressed. Another use for a word diary is a space to try experimenting with mandarin thru creative writing. This could be as simple as writing down today's weather or describing a video or audio that you watched or listen to.
Never use the F-Word
No, not that F-word. The claim of being 'fluent' in Chinese. Here are 3 Key Milestones to know when you're nearly there.
Recognizing understatement as a hallmark of Chinese character, why would anyone ever choose to use the F-word and bring upon themselves the no-win glare of the spotlight, inviting everyone to scrutinize their language skills? It's a sure-fire way to forfeit the respect of all the Chinese who would otherwise have had huge respect for you. How will you know you're getting good? Let's talk about when you should claim (inner) victory, go out and celebrate.
Yǔ gǎn 语感 is an instinctive feel for a language. It’s the bomb. There are standardized tests like the HSK which provide an objective assessment of your skill level, but what we're talking about here is that Zen moment, that inner awareness of personal progress, worthy of a surreptitious fist bump.
- Milestone 1 – Thinking in Chinese
The first milestone is a realization that you're thinking in Chinese as you prepare to speak and as you listen. This yields massive benefits in selecting the right expressions and communicating subtleties. You no longer ping-pong between Chinese and your native language, a habit which causes common mistakes and slows everything down. In other words, you've achieved full brain-immersion
- Milestone 2 – Being Mistaken for Native Chinese
The second milestone many foreigners strive towards is becoming indistinguishable from native Chinese speakers on the phone. Are you able to follow a complex phone conversation with no visual cues or body language? Can you then take it up a notch so that the first time a person you've only spoken to on the phone shows up and is shocked to discover "you're a foreigner?!?" In that moment, you know you rock. And most likely you'll need to dodge a compliment.
- Milestone 3 – Picking Up A Dialect
The third milestone is learning a dialect. Many foreigners with excellent Chinese – and typically, Chinese spouses – can follow what's being said in another dialect by listening and drawing upon solid foundations in Mandarin. But those taking it to the next level, able to converse in multiple dialects are truly beyond the F-word. They are almost the C-word: Chinese.
PART VI: MORE QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
“What is the reading speed of a native speaker?”
About 255 ± 29 characters per minute.
PART VII: THANKS
Thanks to Nicky Case for her invaluable research into pedagogy. And to 4chan for its many excellent crowd-sourcing projects, such as the /int/ wiki. This guide would not exist without their incredible thought and work.
- Susanne Trauzettel-Klosinski; Klaus Dietz; the IReST Study Group (2012). Standardized Assessment of Reading Performance: The New International Reading Speed Texts IReST, vol. 53 Issue 9. IOVS.
- “This guide is a compendium of wisdom from /int/ and, more specifically, /lang/. We encourage all members to contribute what they can to this wiki for the benefit of future /lang/uage learners. The purpose of this wiki is to provide resources and insights into learning specific languages in an effort to make such a task more approachable.”
4chan Community. "Mandarin Chinese" /int/'s How to Learn A Foreign Language Guide. Retrieved 2023/06/23.