Last Updated on June 8, 2015
The question to how to get started learning Mandarin Chinese is a question that I have been asked in different variations over the last few years. I suppose the answer to the question would be similar to the answer to how to get started learning any language. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to learning Chinese. We are not yet at a point where you can just put a computer chip into your brain and instantly learn Chinese. Chinese is unique in that you have to learn the characters as well as learn how to listen and speak, so you need to give yourself enough time to learn it. That being said, I believe that the following methods are great ways to get started learning Chinese.
Immerse Yourself in China
Probably the best and fastest way to learn Mandarin Chinese is to totally immerse yourself in the language ideally by being in a country where it is spoken as the main language (likely either Mainland China or Taiwan). This could involve getting a job in China, becoming a student in China, or maybe just going on a long holiday in China. I recommend at least several months with this step, not just doing a “touristy” trip, but nevertheless, a short trip can be very beneficial.
Unfortunately, that being said, just being in China won’t magically allow you to learn and absorb Chinese. You have to work at learning the language. But, being in China allows you be constantly bombarded by Chinese language and culture. And, I think when you are forced to speak Chinese for your own survival, you will pick it up much faster. If you have to speak Chinese in order to get food, take a bus, or do almost anything, that will force you to get better. And with this, try your very best not to always be around foreigners in China because then you might never learn Chinese.
Enroll in a Chinese Course in Mainland China or Taiwan at a College or University
I believe the benefits of this should be obvious. Studying the language in a country where it is spoken is almost certainly better than studying the language in a country where the language is not widely spoken. I really think that people who study Chinese full time for at least one semester in China can massively improve their Chinese language abilities. In China, university courses are usually much cheaper than a similar course in a Western country, often significantly cheaper depending on where in China you take the course. In fact, if you include the cost of living in China, the tuition cost for one semester or one year, and the cost of a dormitory room, studying in China or Taiwan can be quite a bargain.
Enroll in a Chinese course in a non-Chinese speaking country at a College or University
Although I have stated it is better to actually study in China, enrolling in a Chinese course in a non-Chinese speaking country can be greatly beneficial. You can start building the foundations of your Chinese learning before you actually go to China. In addition, there are free universities online with Chinese courses like EdX.org and MIT which I talk about here.
Get a Chinese Boyfriend or Girlfriend
I have heard from several different people that the next best way to learn a language is to get a boyfriend or girlfriend whose native language is that which you want to study. Do your absolute best to speak to your boyfriend/girlfriend in their language. One great thing about this is that your boyfriend/girlfriend or future husband/wife is likely to forgive mistakes, and will encourage you to do better. But, if you just speak your own language with your boyfriend or girlfriend, or eventual husband or wife and your goal was to learn that language by having a mate whose native language is that language, then I suppose this step is kind of pointless. But, nevertheless, if you fall in love, maybe it was worth it. Note that most Chinese people in China generally date with the intention of marriage, usually not just for fun, so this may be a major step. Use your own judgement with this step.
Make Friends With Chinese People
The next best way is to make friends with native speakers, and do your best to force yourself to speak that language with them. Han Chinese people have spread to nearly every place on Earth, and are by far the largest ethnic group in the world, so you can find Chinese people nearly everywhere. There are also Chinatowns in many large cities in the world. A simple Google search for Chinese groups in your area can help.
Consume Chinese media: Watch Chinese TV, Watch Chinese Movies, Listen to Chinese Music and Chinese Radio, Listen To Chinese Podcasts etc
With this method, I recommend you start slowly. You may want to start this a bit after you start learning Chinese, but at the same time, it may give you great motivation to continue your studies if you do it from the beginning of your studies. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it will get easier over time. Watching cool kung fu movies, or listening to Chinese pop music in the original language gives you a truly authentic Chinese cultural experience. Youtube has a vast repository of videos in Chinese. Youtube has videos for all levels of Mandarin Chinese, and you can just search beginning Chinese videos or intermediate Mandarin Chinese videos, or whatever you want.
I sometimes listen to Chinese music, watch Chinese TV shows etc on Youtube. Tudou.com and Youku.com are the top video sites in Mainland China, both similar to Youtube. Watching random videos on those sites can certainly help improve your Chinese. I recommend that you watch videos initially with subtitles only in your own native language. After your ability improves, I recommend you watch videos with double subtitles (subtitles in your own native language and in Chinese) to help you understand what is going on.
Use A Chinese Textbook And Self-Teach Yourself Chinese
This method can be great if you have enough self-discipline to do the work. If you don’t have enough motivation or self-discipline, I recommend you try some of the other methods above. There are many great Chinese language textbooks out there from beginner to advanced, and many have great audio and video portions to accompany them.
What do you think about this article? Your comments are welcome below.