10 Ways to Learn Mandarin

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Thursday, 30 July 2009
I have been trying out several different ways of learning Mandarin as I set upon this language-learning journey. There is a multitude of different ways you can go about learning any language, and it can be overwhelming.

The language is of course overwhelming itself. No alphabet, 56,000+ characters, it looks wildly different from western languages and over a billion people speak it as their first language. The amount of people you can then speak to, after learning increases almost 200% from English to Mandarin. By being able to speak both of course, you are able in theory to speak to almost two billion people. A third of the world’s population.

Mandarin is also now the third most spoken language in the US, and as the Chinese economy is growing, it makes business sense to start to be able to converse in Chinese Mandarin. It makes sense to start learning Mandarin in terms of numbers of people and economics.

Yet of those reasons alone will not give you either the confidence or the determination to learn something so radically different. In my opinion, you have to want to learn Mandarin and have passion for the culture surrounding the language. The more you want to understand and open yourself up to the culture and language simultaneously the more you will take in.

Here, I wanted to just put a couple of links to software and books that I personally feel are good, as well as other resources, and ideas that could help you learn Mandarin. Nothing beats hard work and enthusiasm when learning a new language though.

  1. From books:

    There are so many different books that usually come with accompanying audio series for language learning, I could not even try to list them all. The ones I have personally found useful are:

    Chinese for Dummies

    Complete Mandarin Chinese Book/CD Pack

    I also purchased a book that teaches to write characters, although in my naivety I bought the traditional characters guide, whilst most people that use Mandarin use the simplified characters. It seems that mainly those in Taiwan and Hong Kong use the traditional Chinese characters.

  2. Podcasts:

    I have been made aware of some podcast series that help you learn Mandarin, whilst I personally do not use them. They are out there and no doubt help conversational Mandarin, whilst furthering the development of hearing the language day to day. The ease of being able to slip on headphones at work, or on the way to and from work, or even in the evening as you are relaxing, is very useful.

    The downside to this is as far as I can tell most podcasts tend to cost 99p per lesson, and they do not always cover as much as you would like.

  3. Rosetta Stone

    Personally I seem to get on with Rosetta stone well for learning new vocab and repeating the vocab in new ways that reinforces the learning. It is based around a picture system, where you get words and the pictures together and no there is no English spoken or written. I have found that the lack of explanation sometimes causes confusion (though does make you actively learn by trial and error which is engaging and therefore good) especially when first introducing negatives and possessive elements of the language. Otherwise though it is a strong software package which I thoroughly recommend.

    Rosetta Stone: Chinese (Mandarin) Level 1, 2 and 3 Set (Mac/PC CD)

  4. Online Mandarin / Mango Languages

  5. There is a plethora of upstarts and a myriad of compaies that offer Mandarin courses in one way or another. Here I would like to share a couple of the gems I have found and utilised.

    One of the other benefits to having twitter is being able to find out about all the other resources out there. I was lucky enough to talk to the moderator of MangoLanguages, and their system is similar in the repetition to that of Rosetta Stone, but without the pictorial element, which means that everything you learn is directly translated from English to Mandarin. The explanations are really good and there is extra narrative to provide a lot of background knowledge that Rosetta Stone cannot provide.

    Both of these systems (Rosetta Stone & Mango Languages) are great, one is just CD based off of your computer, Rosetta Stone and Mango languages are quite pricy, though Mango is free at certain libraries. I personally recommend Rosetta Stone, because I believe being immersed in the language and picking it up and working it out first hand is great.

    As for other learning Mandarin sites that I have found useful:

    BBC offer a small amount of free lessons and games to initiate you in Mandarin learning. I recommend the Mandarin tone recognition game.

    [I am open to any other suggestions for inclusion here]

  6. Twitter & #Mandarinmonday

    Though it is also on the internet this tool I think is immensely helpful so I have given it. its own point. Though social networking site Twitter, I have met several people that have already been incredibly helpful in my learning. Twitter is incredibly useful for meeting people that have similar interests, and I would recommend if you do not have an account, go and set one up.

    When you do, you will start to notice that to make things easier to search people use #hash key to keep relevant topics together and easily scan-able. Bill and his friends have started Mandarin Monday, which is where anyone that wants to can get involved speaking mandarin and trying out new phrases, whilst native speakers will correct and aid the learning of everyone else.

    It is a growing community and incredibly useful. Again, I would totally recommend that you utilise this free learning resource!

  7. Local Mandarin Get Together

    My local town has a small community of Native speakers that share their Mandarin with fellow learners. They meet once a month and only speak in Mandarin. This is particularly useful once you have developed some vocab and want to test it out.

    Gatherings like these are invaluable if you cannot afford that trip to China just yet.

  8. Chinese Movies

    Whilst the internet has YouTube and many online streams of Mandarin lessons on. I have to admit, for me YouTube is not a good learning environment and I am easily distracted. I believe the lessons range between brilliant and terrible and you have to find one that suits you...

    Nevertheless, for me personally, YouTube does not work. However, films in Chinese will get you used to the accent, pronunciation and the speed of the language, although you may not understand much that is said, the more exposure to hearing Mandarin spoken will develop your speaking and listening skills.

  9. College / School style Lessons

    For some reason where I am based, seems to be a lack of this type of course available and when it is, it is purely just passing the same old language qualification, GCSE or A-Level. I have always felt that you should learn what you need to get by, not what you need to pass an exam. Therefore this type of course, although invaluable would set you back substantial money (if you’re no longer in education) and when in a class of up to 20 others, you don't get the one to one time required to really improve.

    Whilst a great way of learning and the motivation of learning in a group, I feel that there are better ways to learn Mandarin. Especially more personalised speed of learning, as lessons are very rudimentary, and can therefore get boring and stuck in a routine. Learning a language should be for fun and for your own enjoyment when you are motivated to learn.

  10. One on One teaching

    An expensive but fruitful way of learning. But one that will be suited to your speed of learning and will not have a set syllabus like the lessons that you may find at schools or colleges. And the teacher will be able to spend a lot of time on the things that you personally want or need to develop upon.

  11. Go to China

    The best way to learn any Language is being immersed in it, and thrown in at the deep end learning everything and anything around you. It is probably the best way, but again expensive. For me personally, the allure of a trip to China is huge, but I want to have the basics in place first. Certainly to be able to read a little before I go is essential as I want to be included in my trip to China, not a tourist peering into a new World.

    There are so many other helpful resources and over time, I hope to get a large list of resources that people can utilise in their discovering of the Mandarin language.

    Please feel free to give me links to other sites here, and I will have a look around, and include them here.


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  1. Great blog, learning a language can be a long and arduous process and offering tips and tricks to making it easier is beneficial to so many people! Learning Mandarin in today's economy is essential as China has become a "big" player! One that cannot be ignored. Additionally, China's cultural and historical contributions are rich and amazing.

    Thank you for the mention - we are really glad you tried Mango Languages. We have only been around for about 2 years and work with Libraries to make our product free to their members. Our 2.0 launch is coming in a few short days - maybe then we can make you a convert. ;-) Here at Mango we love challenges.

    Charlie, we really appreciate your feedback as we want to develop a great system so that more people have access to free language learning.

  2. Please do keep me updated, I am always happy to have a look. I have to admit, I didnt realise it was free at libraries. So I have duly ammended the post.

    Is this true in the UK? If so I have to say that i haven't ever notied that.


  3. Teoh Says:
  4. Nice article. I have take note for my Chinese learning website.

  5. Anonymous Says:
  6. I'd say Point 10 is the most important key to success!

    By going to China, you either "survive" or "die"!
    You "survive" because you mix around with local people. You "die" that;s because you don't do that. Ha ha...

    But you know what's even better, go to a multi-racial and multi-cultural country like Malaysia, you can even pick up all sorts of languages, dialects quicker!!! That - I speak from my personal experience....

  7. Thanks again.

    I would say number 10: Going to China is my ultimate dream and goal. For now as i cannot afford the flights (being a lowly student *sniffs*) I intend on making headway into the language. After I graduate I will save up and visit China definatley.

    My personal feelings are, I at least would like a small grasp of the language, the sounds I will hear, the writing, so when I get there I don't feel quite so lost.

    Also I feel it would be disrespectful and ignorant to turn up and know nothing of the language or culture.

    But I think you could never learn it 'properly' without having visted the place and its native speakers.

  8. Anonymous Says:
  9. Ha ha... That's not completely true because I learnt my English 'properly' before I came over here.

    So you can do Mandarin in England too.
    Everything is possible.

    "I have a dream" - M L King, Jr.

  10. touché. :)


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