How to learn Chinese for foreigners

(Updated  Jan 2018)

This is an ongoing essay, so if you have any suggestions, corrections or advice, please contact me at


First, set your target when learning a language, for example, you only want to speak in Chinese, and you do not need to write passages, do not spend too much time on advanced grammar rules, only learn those easy and functional one. If you only have 2 hours per week learning Chinese, spend it on listening for sure.

Language learning consists of two training aspects, the elements training and the skills trainingchinese language


Language elements Language skills
Phonetics (first handle tones by listening more)  Listening (a must for beginner) 
Chinese Characters (Read only, type with PC, write basic,  remeber radicals) Oral (second target,  not pushy)
Grammar (learn simple and functional one,  make sentenes) Reading (some at beginner,  intensive intermediate)
Vocabulary (learn those important to you) Writing passages (advanced)


1. Know which language elements you should learn and which language skills you want to obtain and what is your motivations, e.g. motivated by family expectations, future work opportunities, work needs, or personal interests…different motivations lead to different learning approach (skills training / elements training etc.) and material used (integrated textbooks / visual aids / audio / oral-focus textbooks).

2. To enjoy the Chinese learning and not to feel frustrated too early, highly suggested not to put too many barriers in your beginner level,  below is some advice helping you learn step by step:

imagine you are the “super-mario”, “the mario” try to get more flowers & stars to be enlarge to “super-mario” and run faster (gain more coins), they avoid bump into the things that diminish them, hope you know what I mean)


True story

One of my friend from the US said “I only want to speak Chinese”, so she just skipped learning Chinese Characters. By doing so, she could have conversations with me in Mandarin after a few months of full-time study, surely she enjoyed a lot throughout the study and managed to keep it up. It was smart for her by noticing what language skills she wanted to develop — ONLY ORAL, NOT WRITING, but still some Characters recognition is needed. One day if you can only read pinyin, romanization comes up into your mind stopping you from leading a quick verbal response,  it would be uncomfortable.  Back to her case,  she put aside some unnecessary stress and workload in the beginner level, which is smart, that is not wrong,

However, there is limitation on “learning through romanziation”, just bear in mind, romanziation is created, artificial and it is only a tool to assist you getting used to this new asian phonetic system, once you are more familiar to such a system, quickly use your brain to remember naturally how to speak, train it not to memorise without romanization. In short, people learn faster with face-to-face conversation, it is the stronger stimulation which trigger associations and long-term memory.

1. How to practice the language skills

It requires intensive language input (listening to mp3, watching Mandarin and Cantonese movie or even move to China), so you can have some degree of output (to be able to speak a little).


As a beginner, you can spend more time listening and be relaxed, no need to push yourself to speak immediately. In another words, don’t expect to speak perfectly when you first learn a sentence. Take it slower. When you understand what native speakers say, even you won’t be able to make instant responses, you can survive :] and don’t forget you can use body language to express which is universal.

You will be able to speak when you have enough listening. Baby takes time to learn and start to speak word by word.


2. How to handle Chinese Phonetics

Chinese is a tonal language, how can I master it?

Please don’t drill too much on the tones at the beginner level, there are 4 tones in Mandarin and 6 to 9 tones in Cantonese. Don’t sweat too early and face too many barriers at one time. What we can do is to briefly understand there are tonesbe relax and move on. Because when you know only a few sentences, native speakers can easily guess what you say without paying attention to the correctness of your tones. So now, the heavy stone is removed. You can enjoy a bit more to be a second language learner. NEVER expect yourself to pronounce the tones correctly like native speakers. 😀 Adult learner may be way too harsh on themselves. Let us learn step by step.

It is because when you know only a few sentences in the beginning, native speakers can easily guess what you say without paying attention to the correctness of your tones. So now, the heavy stone is removed, focus on the key vocabularies, key sentence structures and recognize some key characters first. You can enjoy a bit more to be a second language learner, learn in a fun way, Chinese songs, poems, calligraphies etc. NEVER NEVER expect yourself to pronounce the tones correctly like native speakers or the Beijing accent 😀 People in different places speaks Mandarin with their accents, Northern / Southern China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysian, American born Chinese, BBC etc . Don’t be too harsh on yourself. learn step by step.

When you reach the intermediate level,  tonal accuracy is the target,  as you know more words,  tones are how those words be distinctive to you and others when you speak.


3. How to handle Chinese Characters

Oh…Chinese characters look like pictures to me, how can I master them?

I like Chinese Characters, especially the traditional characters, as they carry more ideological meanings. You and I both see the beauty of Chinese characters, then leave the writing to native speakers to write it. 😀 What you really have to do is to recognize them starting from the beginner level. Not all the words,  choose the common mostly used one, key characters.

The lastest journal (江新,2011) suggested that on foreigners may try to recognize the characters instead of writing them. Just like if you live in Hong Kong, you probably need to recognize some Chinese characters for a better living, such as dates, bus stops, toilet signs etc. When you are familiar with the romanization, you can type Chinese on the mobile phone and the computer. Therefore, you don’t have to learn how to write the strokes, what you have to do is to recognize characters and write them with Chinese-input software.

Believe or not, when you read enough characters, traditional characters are more recognizable than simplified characters. (謝錫金,2011)

4. How to handle grammar and vocabulary


Chinese grammar can be very simple or very complicated depending on how you treat it. Choose those functional grammar will make more sense. To listen and read as fast as you can is to accumulate word power (create your own word bank using flashcard or anki etc., practise on memorise or quizlet)

word bank

I taught my student to build up her own word bank, (to create her own tailor-made flash cards), she was married to a Chinese, so she desperately wanted to learn some “housework” vocabulary to communicate with her parents in law. This motivated her a lot. Find your vocabulary that you will use in daily life.  My husband likes Chinese dim sum very much, I do think he has a word bank on Chinese food so as to order what he wants. And what about you?

Native speakers can guess what you say even you make grammatical mistakes. But we won’t understand what you say if you do not have enough vocabulary or mess up with the tones even though you are grammatically correct.

To conclude, set your target, put aside some of the barriers, focus on the language skills and elements you want to acquire, think what ways can make your learning efficient, and revise regularly.

Character recognition, highly recommended.

Vocabulary, intensive

Grammar, functional

Phonetics, tonal accuracy at intermediate level

Learning vocabulary can be fun with a box of flashcard or a cellphone apps. Read and listen more help increase word power and improve your tonal accuracy.

flash cards

Citation : mostly from professor 江新, 周健 in China and 謝錫金 in Hong Kong.

Further reading : (Language Learning from Psychology perspectives – the process of scaffolding)