Roadmap to Chinese
- First weeks
- first months
- and beyond
Skill to Develop
- Basic Orientation
- Build confidence speaking
- Get a speaking partner
- Learn basic pinyin
- Learn foundation skills (basic communication, typing, dictionary usage, getting a name etc...)
- Start acquiring more practical language for communication
Skill to Develop
- Basic listening course to tune ear and build spoken repetoire
- Flesh out vocabulary with HSK lists (HSK1+2)
- Learn how the Chinese written system works and start to systematically learn the characters (stroke order, strokes rules, character decomposition, how to learn and memorize characters, mnemonics, spaced-repetition...)
Skill to Develop
- Listening via continued and steadily increasing in difficult audio immersion
- Listening skill via graded difficulty video
Below is a long list of recommended resources to complement different skills and levels of study.
These are all resources I personally use or have used so I’m confident vouching for their usefulness.
Simply the best Chinese dictionary out there. Using paper-based dictionaries to look up characters is a pain. Electronic dictionaries make looking up characters much easier and Pleco is the best of the bunch. If there’s one thing you take away from this page let it be Pleco.
Both PeraPera and Zhongwen are browser add-ons that give you access to a hover-over Chinese dictionary. Simply hover over a Chinese character or word on a website and the dictionary entry will pop up. Essential for navigating Chinese pages. Both are free so try them both out and see which you prefer.
I now recommend Zhongwen over PeraPera because it now has AllSet’s amazing grammar wiki integrated into it.
Computer/Phone Chinese Input
Getting your computer and phone set up for Chinese input can be a pain. Here are some useful guides:
Benny Lewis’ blog and Fluent in 3 Months Book of the same name are mainly about the mindset of learning languages. From a standing start of speaking only English Benny set off around the world to become a polyglot. Whatever you think of his claims and his methods (and some people get overly upset about Benny’s mission) his writings about the “mindset” of learning and the importance of “talking from day one” are key. In short you need to make mistakes to learn so get out of the classroom and start making a fool of yourself with native speakers ASAP!
Benny also has a totally free email based course called Speak in a Week . His basic ideas are well covered in this course. There’s also a Chinese specific guide and a premium package that contains everything Benny has done. Check out the free stuff first and if you dig his ideas then have a look at the other books/courses and see if they are right for you.
We’ve prepared a super simple script to help you get talking on the very first day of learning Chinese. This script will help you introduce yourself and tell your Chinese friends that you are learning Chinese. We’ve included audio recordings and simplified pronunciation guides to help you talk immediately.
This article inspired Hanzi WallChart’s very existence and I feel should be read by anyone learning a language or indeed embarking on any meaningful endevour. It’s about focusing exactly on what you need to “learn” a language and filtering out the fluff. Our Hanzi WallChart is directly inspired from this – analyzing the most frequently used characters and words and focusing on learning these for maximum effectiveness.
There’s a sister article here about deconstruction languages and exposing the core “stuff” that needs to be learned. Generally it’s not that much! Once the core material is known it’s a matter of practicing (a la Fluent in 3 Months) by trying to use it and making mistakes.
I’ve begun to distill the “core” of Chinese in my Chinese Language Learning Pack and well as the Memrise course Hacking Chinese (no relation to the excellent Chinese blog of the same name – just following Memrise naming convention!)
This is a series of articles on Sensible Chinese focusing on beginner’s topics. Starting out in Chinese can be very confusing so I wrote these articles to help you navigate the early stages of learning.
A solid introduction to what pinyin is, why it is important and some useful links to get started.
To help people through the early stages of Pinyin I put together this short course on pinyin. It’s totally free and comes with native recordings and quizzes. If you work your way through the course you’ll have a very solid foundation in Chinese pinyin and pronunciation.
I’m a bit biased here but you can find my own printable A4 Pinyin Chart at this link.
This is my favourite online pinyin chart. Free resource worth bookmarking.
A lovely little app to help learn Pinyin. Comes with a pinyin chart which is more portable that a browser-based chart. The basic app is free and if you want the guided content there’s a small upgrade cost.
We put together a totally free course using Memrise’s “language hacking” template. It contains all the basic vocabulary to get you start with basic conversations in Chinese – great if you are planning a trip. Memrise is free to use both on your computer or phone and is a great resource.
iTalki for professional 1 on 1 lessons and conversation exchange
Find professional tutors for very low prices or a language exchange partner for free. After leaving China I’ve continued to have 3 x 1 hour private 1 on 1 lessons a week, each for around 7USD each. Teaching quality varies so take advantage of the ability to test out teachers first. I would have test lessons with 4 teachers before choosing.
If you use the link about you can get one free lesson (if you buy a lesson). You can also do completely free language exchange with Chinese natives if you don’t want a professional teacher.
If you want some more information about Chinese speaking partners definitely check out this free eBook that I’ve written:
The most efficient way to memorize new words is through a Spaced Repetition System (SRS). If you are not familiar with SRS check out this article from Hacking Chinese.
For Chinese there are a couple of options.
Anki – Free on PC/Mac/Android, paid on iOS
The big daddy. This is the most powerful and flexible system. It’s not specifically for Chinese which means it is flexible but more fiddly to get up and running with. If you are comfortable with computers it’s a good option.
Skritter – PC/Mac/Android/iOS
Skritter is purpose built for Chinese (and Japanese) character learning. This means it has a bunch of useful features that Anki doesn’t have like the ability to practice handwriting with correct stroke patterns. Overall the app is beautifully designed. Setup is very minimal – it just works “out of the box”. Skritter and their user base have already created lists of 300+ Chinese textbooks so it’s likely that the materials you are using will be there already.
The biggest downside (compared to Anki) is the cost – the base subscription rate is $15/month, cheaper if you sign up for more time. If you compare this to textbooks/lessons though it’s a minimal cost – as long as you use it!
There’s a free trial so the best thing is to check it out and see if it’s worth the $15/month for you. We’ve talked to Skritter and have arranged a discount for our customers – you can get Skritter for $9.99/month for the first 6 months which at least saves ~$30. Use the code HANZIWALL to activate that.
Pleco (iOS and Android)
Pleco is primarily a dictionary app for phones but also has a flashcard system that can double up as a SRS. It’s features are lighter than Skritter/Anki but the ability to make new flashcards on the fly (as you’ll be using Pleco to look up words anyway) makes it very convenient. Pleco is an app you’ll want to seriously consider having anyway so it’s worth the time to see if the SRS is good enough for your purposes.
Both of these services provide high quality audio content at different levels (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced etc.). ChinesePod has more content but costs more than PopUpChinese. Both are great for getting content to listen to on your phone/iPod when in the car or gym.
I personally prefer ChinesePod’s style and the range of content but the best thing would be to check them both out (they both have free trials) and see what works for you.
FluentU finds and sorts video content by level and adds a set of learning tools to help you work through the material. Not only have they solved the problem of finding the right video content for your level but they’ve also added interactive subtitles that allow you to highlight, save and study new vocabulary from the content. Very slick and powerful tool that you’ll definitely want to check out.
The Chinese Breeze Readers are a series of graded readers starting at the 300 word mark and ascending to 750 words. Once you know 300 words you’ll be able to start with the readers (along with a dictionary). Unlike most graded reader series the Chinese Breeze stories are actually interesting. If possible pick these up whilst in China as they are very cheap – buying them from Amazon overseas is quite pricey.
Talked above above in the Must-Have section, these browser plug-ins allow you to hover over any Chinese word on a website and see its translation.
Lang-8 is a social network that allows you to write in Chinese (or indeed any foreign language) and have native speakers make corrections. This is simply the best tool for regular writing practice – set yourself a little schedule of writing once a day or a couple of times per week and you’ll see rapid improvement in no time at all. Each time you post an entry native speakers will make line by line, word level corrections to help you make it sound more natural. In return it’s good if you help correct other users’ entries as a native speaker of your language. The interface is slick and easy to use and you’ll get corrections for your Chinese writing in minutes usually.
Probably the best all purpose dictionary out there. Great for looking up words on your PC/Mac.
Another great dictionary. Has a particularly good etymology explorer for breaking down characters. I tend to use MDGB more because YellowBridge’s adverts get annoying. Otherwise a great site.
Less of a dictionary than a character decomposition tool. Use this to break characters into their radicals/components and learn more about what the character is made of. Made by Niel de la Rouviere of Confused Laowai.
If you follow one Chinese language blog make it this one. Olle Linge releases consistently high quality content in high volumes – simply great advice if you are learning Chinese. Take some time to explore this treasure trove and you won’t be disappointed.
The blog of John Pasden (of AllSet learning and formerly of ChinesePod). The “Learn Chinese” section contains top quality learning content. Lots of useful tips for beginners to be found here.
A little gem of a site maintained by Grace. The site has a lot of short stories, listening & speaking practice, songs, poems and other great Chinese language material to work with. This content plus a lively community make this a great addition to your Chinese practice.
The best online resource for Chinese grammar, put together by AllSet learning. Grammar points are arranged by level meaning that (unlike in most grammar books) you can focus on topics relevant to your level rather than be forced to read through every single usage of 了 in the same chapter. This level specific approach makes the wiki far more valuable that any traditional grammar book.
The Hanzi Quick Reference Sheets are one of our projects. We’re distilling the core of the Chinese language (with a focus on usable grammar) into a number of easy to read A4 sheets that can be printed and stuck on the wall next to your study area. If the AllSet grammar wiki is your textbook we want to make the Hanzi Quick Reference Sheets your “cheat sheets”. These are a work in progress, currently selling at a low price. As we add more and more content we send the updates through via email.
If you still prefer the smell of books (I do) then Claudia Ross and Jing-heng Sheng Ma’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar is likely best print grammar book available. It’s not particularly cheap but usually possible to pick up second hand from Amazon or from your local library. I’m hogging the Lambeth (South London) copy though!
Schools and Educational Institutions
If you are even thinking about heading to China to study then first check out this complete guide to scholarships and fellowships in China. There’s money to help you go to study – either from your own government, the Chinese government or a private foundation. Some are exceedingly generous. This guide could potentially change the next few years of your life!
If you have further suggestions drop me a message in the comments below or use this link suggestion/swap form.