Definitive guide to learning Chinese

The one thing I would say is absolutely VITAL to life in China, is getting a grip on the language.  Everything else aside, the Chinese language is probably one of the most off-putting of them all.  It looks like this – 我想跟你说,你生活在中国的话你必须学汉语 – and sounds like this – – so for most people it’s not at the top of their list of things to study..

I want to tell you that it most certainly is possible to master every-day spoken Chinese in less than a year!  I know, because I did it!  Well, I did have 2 hour classes 5 days a week, so that helped a lot!  When I first came to China, I didn’t even know how to say hello or goodbye, but after a year of perseverance, I was having conversations with local taxi drivers! – That’s a sign you’ve made it.  You really need to let yourself go and immerse yourself in the culture.

There are two main kinds of Chinese language, they are Mandarin and Cantonese.  Cantonese is spoken mostly in the very southern region of China including Hong Kong.  I’d suggest to anyone starting to learn Chinese now, learn Mandarin Chinese.  This is the official language of China and is slowly being enforced all over the country.  If you’re going to put in the time to learn a language, you might as well learn one that is going to be accepted and relevant by the time you’ve mastered it!

Of course, there are MANY ways you can learn and everyone has their own different way that suits them.  The way I learned was by enrolling in Chinese classes and learning with a Chinese teacher.  In my opinion, this is by far the most efficient way to learn because there are less distractions, you will not only learn new words but also methods to learn and also you can make new friends.  I made so many friends during my time having classes – the sad thing is, most of them are no longer in China after so long.

The book series I used is called “Short-term Spoken Chinese” and it was SO SO useful!  This book covers all the basics and is written in a very casual way so it doesn’t seem as rigid and fake as other books I’ve seen here.  The first book teaches from zero and then moves on to the next levels.  I have included images and links to each of the first few levels so you can have a little look. (click image for more information)


Another way to learn the language, which I recommend in addition to having classes, is to watch Chinese TV.  Now, I am not a fan of Chinese TV programmes but they definitely do help with language learning and also to understand the culture behind the language.  I feel that some of the words and phrases I learned while studying, started to make so much more sense when I heard them being spoken in the real world or on the television.  When learning a language, there are times when you just can’t remember which word comes first and which one should always be followed by ‘what?’ but never followed by ‘what?’ – watching TV helps you hear these phrases over and over again without feeling awkward listening in to real-world conversations.  Chinese TV series can be found on the mega-websites YouKu and iQiyi (works best in mainland China)

TV and movies are at the top of my list because they take away any awkwardness you might feel in the early days when you are unsure of your pronunciation etc.  After a while, when you feel you have the courage, you should definitely have a go at buying something in the shop, or asking a question in a cafe.  Ask someone the time, or for directions, even if you know the answer.  This is just a way to reaffirm what you’ve already learned and get the confidence to use your language skills in the real world.  Seeing the actions and hearing the words used in context is also a great way to get you to start to think in Chinese too.  Believe me, you will need to start thinking in Chinese or you’ll be stuck at beginners’ level!

On your phone, I’d definitely recommend downloading the mobile dictionary Pleco:

This dictionary works without the need for an internet connection and is very up to date!  I believe every single ‘foreigner’ I’ve met living here in China has this dictionary installed on their phone or tablet.  It’s just that good!

Once you’ve finished the first couple books, you might even be ready to test your knowledge and sit the HSK exam.  The HSK exam is the official testing system for Chinese language learners to grade their Chinese.  It’s standardised certificate accepted by companies on job applications and also for entry into some university courses.  The levels are from 1-6 which is basically beginner to advanced.  I’ll talk more about this testing system in a later post!

I hope this has been useful!  Let me know which method works best for you!  Leave me a comment if you have any questions or need any help.


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