Hey there! In this post, we will talk about learning Chinese. It’s been time, since the language −and China itself− took the world by storm.
All around the globe people enrol in Chinese courses, go to Asia for a time to learn it on-site, hire private teachers to study at home or put their kids in tailored courses.
Some want to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, some are interested in the culture at large, some are into theatre, karate or classical calligraphy. 🖌️
In truth, there are countless reasons for wanting to learn Chinese. The issue is that… it’s freaking hard: the language is, but most teaching methods complicate matters even further. 😒
But there is no room for hopelessness: it is certainly possible to learn Chinese, at a high level, starting as an adult, wherever you live.
As someone who have made all the mistakes there were to make, I presume I have a thing or two to say about learning Chinese, and as I am a professional blatherer, you’re going to find my tips below. 🗣️
So, in this brief post I’m about to mention:
- Why you should shut your inner critic up and start learning Chinese;
- a few tools to embark on this adventure, on your own, without getting suicidal;
- tidbits about the language. 🤓
All over this post, unless otherwise specified, I’m talking about Mandarin Chinese, i.e. the variety spoken in Beijing and taken as a standard for the whole population. If you walk the Chinese walk, you’ll learn there are several variants, many with a mind-boggling amount of native speakers.
Okay, enough. Let’s begin.
Learning Chinese: intro
Spoiler alert: Chinese is complex. (Who could tell, except everybody, huh? 👀).
Even if you’re a genius and you adopt the best tools and practices, you’re still left confronting one of the most intricated disciplines on earth (being the others: quantum physics and why do some respectable people love pineapple on their pizza). 🍍
You may have a long history of academic or linguistic successes like you got a PhD in biology and a C2 level in Arabic: oy vey, my friend, don’t be mistaken. Chinese is an uphill route that never reaches its final destination.
Do I mean to discourage you? Not at all, for there is no glory in stealing candy from a child: glory comes from slaying dragons 🐉.
Learning Chinese is something you can be proud of, earning you legitimate bragging rights for eternity. 🎉
Now, you have to be aware that language schools often have dubious marketing wizards on their payroll. The number of those proclaiming that learning Chinese is easy has been skyrocketing: that grammar is palaeolithic, neither declination nor genders are there, verbs are simple, bla bla. Chinese difficult? It’s a lie!
You may then wonder:
Why haven’t I chosen Chinese at college for some useless credits, then? If it’s so easy… I may have spared myself that bore of Sociology of cobalt miners in 1850’s southwest Kent.
In reality, if you were after studying as little as possible, you chose well.
Chinese is easy? What a load of BS:
- Mandarin Chinese has five tones (more on what a tone is later); 📉
- it has a pile of characters you can combine in countless ways to create innumerable words; AND each character (also called hanzi) can be pronounced one way or another, having −hehehe− different meanings;
- each character is made of strokes, which have to be produced in a strict sequence and with consistent writing style; 🖌️
- in Taiwan, Singapur and the worldwide Chinese diaspora, the characters used are those of Traditional Chinese, rather than Simplified Chinese (more on this later). Same for any text written before the 20th century;
- some phonemes are alien to our western languages.
If you have made it this far in the post, congrats!, you’ve made it to the good news:
- Chinese truly is one the language of the future;
- it’s extraordinary proof of how varied human language can be,
- it’s an example of the astonishing capabilities of the human brain; 🧠
- it’s captivating beyond measure;
- it’s possible to learn being a half-witted dude like myself, without having any Stephen Hawking-like brain. 🌌
What matters the most, when learning Chinese, is:
- Genuine passion;
- consistency over time; 📅
- the right tools and strategies.
But in case you’re only meekly motivated, allow me to enumerate some good reasons to choose to learn Chinese as your new favourite hobby.
10 Good reasons for learning Chinese
Some are not entirely serious, though most are dead serious.
#1 Leave your date speechless by ordering at the Chinese restaurant… in Chinese
To be honest, probably at such a restaurant the language spoken is not Mandarin Chinese, that is, the variant chosen as the standard.
Err, what? Don’t Chinese people speak Chinese? Ehm, it’s a long topic that would bring me off-topic. 🤔
However, briefly: all over the People Republic of China, Chinese is written the same way but spoken differently. There, the majority of the population knows Mandarin (written and spoken) plus one or more variants or dialects, according to their origin, family, education, etc.
But the majority means that not all Chinese master Mandarin, among them a fair share of those who leave their country to seek fortune elsewhere. It’s quite common in all migration phenomena. 🧳
Some of these variants are so divergent from Mandarin, that a native Chinese speaker from Beijing wouldn’t understand them. Well, you may ask at this point: how the heck am I then going to impress my date at the Chinese restaurant?
You still can, as simple phrases will certainly be known, like:
您好 nínhǎo, which is a formal way to say “Good day”
我们要 wǒmen yào, which is “we would like…”
对不起 duìbùqǐ, that is, “sorry” or “excuse me”
Such is the power of exotic languages: a little Chinese, even just to show off, is a huge trick 😉
#2 Learn one of mankind’ oldest languages
To learn Chinese you have to bust your guts, but it’s freaking interesting. 😻
Overall, learning a language is ALWAYS a multifaceted adventure:
- You acquire more insights about your mother tongue, 👅
- you explore the boundaries of this very human feature that is language,
- you gain first-hand experience of how a people’s belief system and collective personality flow into their mean of communication. 💜
If that is true for languages close to English, even more so for those as distant from ours as the Sino-Tibetans, but there is more than that: Chinese comes with a pack of quirks owing to its history.
In the aftermath of WW2, PRC’s great orthography reform simplified characters: some lost half their strokes, thus enhancing reading comprehension and simplifying writing. 🈸
Nonetheless, that came at a cost: the long line of meaning, going from the earliest manifestation of Chinese writing up to the current Simplified Chinese alphabet, has been pruned with such reform.
That was a controversial move, but I found critics often unfair: what would you have done? Maintaining the most pristine form of the language, at the risk of pampering literacy? We shouldn’t pass judgement easily. 🤨
Besides, that was not the first change in the Chinese writing system, though modern critics of the reform often forget it.
Having said this, there are still characters that hold their primordial meaning: primordial in the sense that, today, we can look at them and recognize what the first scribes of antiquity were chiselling on animal bones and tortoise shells. They laid the foundation of written Chinese.
When I say antiquity, how ancient is that? A lot. As far as I know, the first words ever written in any human language are Chinese. 😮
Years ago, in Henan, a team of archaeologists found turtle shells with primitive writings in twenty-four Neolithic tombs. According to radiocarbon dating, they could date back to 6600 B.C., therefore two thousand years before the first Mesopotamian tablet. 🤯
We are not talking about epic poetry or spring roll recipes: it’s about eleven symbols, some of which bearing resemblance to the early modern hanzis we would find in the Shang era, which is between 1700 and 1100 B.C.
Transformation after transformation, characters have come down to us as per the example above. See how cool? 🤩
#3 Chinese is the most spoken language on earth
Granted: most speakers are within the borders of the PRC, but they still are 1.4 billion people, equal to a fifth of the world’s population.
I am the honorary president of the Club for the Learning of Minority Languages (totally made up right now): I do support the learning of Manx, Occitan, Cornish, Breton, Basque, Aromanian… whatever language, no matter how narrow the speakership.
Buttttt that does not mean I take demography lightly. 🧍🧍🧍
Remember London has about 9 million dwellers? Well, add 1,391,000 dudes and you get our 1.4 billion native Chinese speakers.
#4 Chill with paper, ink, brushes: Chinese handwriting is soothing
Finding ways to calm down is my schtick, as I usually am so nervous that a squirrel on meth would look like a yoga teacher in comparison. 🐿️
When I started learning Chinese, I had no clue about Chinese calligraphy being a revered art form: in its own right, or as a component of all sorts of creative expressions.
Serendipity was about to give me another gracious gift: while practising Chinese writing, I noticed that character after character and sentence after sentence I was relaxing. 🕉️
I haven’t given much thought to it, at that moment: over time, however, I realized it was taking me less and less time to enter the flow, that sacred space in which there is no friction and every movement translates seamlessly through the medium. And peace became deeper, and silence stiller.
Then I read an interview in which Luca Toma, a terrific language learner and teacher, was expressing the same: while attending Chinese calligraphy lessons in Japan, he found out that it had unique unwinding effects. 🛀
Aha!, I thought, just as myself. From that moment on, the almost entirety of people I asked confirmed it: if you’re anxious, Chinese calligraphy is more effective than an Ayurveda massage.
Two myths need dispelling here:
- Ink and brush on rice paper is a full-blown joy, granted, but benefits are guaranteed even with ordinary notebook paper and ballpoint pens;
- relaxing and achieving a perfect style do not necessarily follow the same track, but as a general rule of thumb, quietly striving for improvement is the way to go for both ends. 🉐
#5 Learning Chinese fosters discipline
The world is unchained competition: to keep abreast of what the average earthling is accomplishing, we need discipline more than ever.
You may have stumbled across Jocko Willink’s videos about discipline, and by all means, put them on when you need a boost. 💉
However, building discipline takes more than watching an inspirational clip: the good thing is that Chinese may help in this regard. 😉
You can cheat in many areas of your life, but Chinese in no BS area: you have to grind, with consistency and organization. Learning math makes you analytical 360º, learning Chinese turns you into a willpower factory.
I have never achieved so much like when I was learning Chinese: it filled me with stamina on so many other endeavours, my pals were petrified. 🤯
OK, here below are a few suggestions about how to start learning Chinese and what materials to use.
Achieve an A1 level in Chinese
If you are:
- An absolute beginner,
- more with a general curiosity than a commitment to learning Chinese,
Then Teach Yourself is your point of departure.
1a – Go Teach Yourself for a chillaxed approach
Complete Mandarin Chinese, by Teach Yourself: if you’re thinking Hmmm let’s have a closer look at Chinese and see how it goes rather than Hell yeah, I can’t wait to start learning this awesome language!, then Teach Yourself is adequate.
It’s one of the best tools there are out there: that’s why it’s one of the most successful self-teaching titles of this publisher.
On the other hand, if you are:
- an absolute beginner,
- already passionate about Chinese and willing to burn the midnight oil,
Then allow me to introduce you to one of the, deservedly, bestselling works in the Chinese-learning realm.
1b – Go New Practical Chinese Reader if you’re merciless
New Practical Chinese Reader vol.1 – Textbook: published by the Beijing Language and Culture University Press, which is the holy of holies of Mandarin Chinese, this textbook boasts a longstanding heritage. Together with the workbook below, it’s one of the most adopted on earth.
New Practical Chinese Reader vol.1 – Workbook: awesome tome, although coming with a couple of inconveniences: if you self-teach Chinese, it’s more difficult to handle than Teach Yourself, as it is conceived for a classroom environment, but it can still be used for good profit.
Then, it does not address the issue of character memorization, but luckily, we can solve it with the texts below.
Whether you go for the New Practical Chinese Reader or the Teach Yourself Chinese tome, I encourage you to interiorize the principle expounded in Chineasy.
2 – Easy-peasy Chineasy
Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese, by ShaoLan Hsueh
Chineasy makes the daunting activity of learning Chinese clearer than ever: it breaks down the language and the most common characters, besides providing mnemonics to assimilate the abundant hanzis.
An example: the one character you see on the cover is 火, pronounced huǒ. Can you guess its meaning? It means fire: if you build imagery or short quirk stories in your mind, remembering a character is going to be easier.
Chineasy Everyday: The World of Chinese Characters, by ShaoLan Hsueh
Why do I recommend ShaoLan Hsueh’s approach? Because one of the tenets of old-school Chinese teaching is that writing a character a thousand times is key to learn it. Spoiler alert: it does not work. Not with adult westerners living outside China. 😐
The technique wasn’t invented by ShaoLan Hsueh herself, but she’s been doing an excellent job in popularising it. If you grasp it, it can be translated to other fields of life too.
Now, if you work well, these strategies will lead you to an A1 level. Keep in mind this path may take you anywhere between six months (intensive study) to a year and a half (laid-back study). What’s next? Well, the A2 level is there. 😉
Achieve an A2 level in Chinese
I can’t but keep on recommending what worked for me at previous stages:
New Practical Chinese Reader 2: Textbook (Beijing Language and Culture University Press)
New Practical Chinese Reader 2: Workbook (Beijing Language and Culture University Press)
And with this, it would be again anything between six months and a year and a half, making a rough estimation. Go as fast as you want but, by all means, don’t sacrifice accuracy for speed.
There would be A LOT more to it, but for starting learning Chinese now from scratch, I guess it’s enough. There will be time to talk about how to push oneself forward up to intermediate and advanced levels.
Now, let’s dig a bit into the second leg of your sinicization (that’s an actual word, I swear): Chinese history, philosophy, art, pop phenomena. In a word, culture. 🇨🇳
Learning about Chinese culture
A faithful day in 1978, the then secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, announced a major policy shift: as a consequence, over the subsequent decades China has become China as we know it. 🇨🇳
And as it always happens when something becomes hype, experts sprouts from the ground like mushrooms after the rain.
The books below are meant to navigate you through the onslaught of info available out there. 📚
China: A History, by John Keay, Harper Collins. It’s an informative reading about the last three millennia of history: Keay is stronger on wars and politics, especially in the later period. However, a recommendable first reading on the topic
The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957, by Frank Dikötter, Bloomsbury. I can only say this essay breaks the Chinese Revolution down for us, which is soooo needed to understand today’s China
FAQ about learning Chinese
Q: Why do language schools mislead students into believing Chinese is easy?
A: They have been using the same proclaims for ages and they might think they’re not working anymore. 📉
Stuff like: Chinese is interesting, it’s the language of a four thousand-year-old civilization, it offers unparalleled working opportunities… which is all true, but the number of students they get could be below their plans, hence the turn.
Marketing is a borderline art-science, often divorced from reality.
Q: Do you recommend hiring a private teacher from a beginner stage?
A: If you can afford it, why not? Make sure the teacher is aligned with your way of learning, otherwise you two won’t go anywhere.
Also, allow me to go as far as to say that a westerner who has learned the language as an adult is often a better teacher than a native, while you’re a beginner: they weren’t born at the final stop but rather they had to make a path themselves, the same path you have to walk on now. 🧭
A teacher weeds out mistakes and speeds up your learning process, though, mark my words, not having a teacher is not an excuse for a subpar commitment to learning Chinese: you can learn an awful lot on your own, with nobody’s help, at this stage.
B1, B2 and above are another matter.
Q: I have found an online school promising to teach me Chinese in six months. Should I trust them?
A: Please, don’t make me run around the block screaming in despair. 😭
Q: Do you think that people do not learn Chinese only because the approach used in language schools is wrong?
A: I think people have different preferences in life, and that Chinese is complex enough to scare many; but yes, I also think that the usual approach of teaching Chinese is as useful as a rain dance to end a drought.
I’ve seen it in several countries, schools, institutes: results are distressingly low.
Q: This is supercool, but how long it would take to reach a, say, C1 level?
A: I love you but hate the question. It’s impossible to say.
It is certainly possible to say that, if you’re a native English speaker with no background in any Sino-Tibetan language or Japanese, it would take certainly more. It would take years of dedication.
I know it’s not the answer you sook, but neither it’s a question I like. 🤪
Q: At what level I can start putting Chinese in my CV?
A: As of an A2, in my opinion. You won’t hold flawless conversations, but you can already implement Chinese in your daily job, little by little.
Take into account Chinese isn’t French or Italian, from a working perspective: Chinese language experts are so in-demand that you can often land a position in which Chinese is a requirement even with a B1 level. So insane is the need for personnel fluent in Chinese. 👔
Q: I have found several YouTubers who claimed to have learned Mandarin Chinese in three weeks. Should I sell my books and pick up pottery as a new hobby?
A: Sure as hell they didn’t in three weeks, but honest video titles get fewer clicks, hence the blatant lie.
Pick up pottery, why not? But keep working on your Chinese too. Who knows, in a few months you may put together the two things and open up a Neo-Ming school of ceramics. 🏺
What are you waiting for?
Learning Chinese is one of the best investments you can make, both at a personal and professional level.
Robust knowledge of the language guarantees you your brain won’t oxidize easily, it represents an insurance against unemployment and it’s the adventure of a lifetime. 🎒
Are you a complete novice in Chinese? Have you already acquired some notions? If yes, how did you set things in motion? Feel free to comment below.
You may know this, but just in case, be aware that:
- by learning Chinese, you’ll have a head start when tackling Japanese;
- adding a Chinese qualification to your CV, you’ll make your mobile burn from all the calls you’ll receive;
- you can proceed to your following milestone, which is an intermediate level of Chinese, bringing even more abundance to your life.
Now, I have to ask you a tiny favour. 🙏
Gathering this info, grind it into eatable bits and publish it here has been exhausting work. If you found this guide useful, would you please share it? For you, it’s a one-second act, but to me, it means the world. Thank you.
And thank you for the time taken to read this. See you soon, or 再见!
Your personal Sinologist,