Language

How to learn Chinese: The best, fastest and most affordable ways for total beginners

how to learn Chinese
Did you know that Mandarin is the fastest growing language in the US? Source: AFP

Between 1978 and 2020, China lifted over 800 million out of extreme poverty (living on less than US$1.90 per day) — the most ever in history.

Today, it’s the second-largest economy worldwide, on track to surpass the US as the world’s number one economy in just a few short decades.

This has left many searching for the best and quickest ways of how to learn Chinese.

Whether you want to study at its fast-rising universities, start a new life in Beijing or target Chinese consumers, there seems to be a never-ending list of opportunities here — enough for locals and non-locals.

See how a Frenchman made US$20 million from a Creative Food company and how companies like Apple became the world’s most profitable firm thanks to steady sales from a captivated Chinese market — and you’ll see that finding the answers to “how to learn Chinese” can take you far.

how to learn Chinese

Figuring out how to learn Chinese can connect you to the biggest manga community in the world. Source: AFP

The many benefits of figuring out how to learn Chinese

The significance of learning Chinese cannot be overstated. Proficiency in Mandarin, a prominent dialect of the Chinese language, has become a highly valued skill for professionals, with more and more international businesses demanding Mandarin alongside English from their executives.

There are many reasons why Mandarin is one of the best languages to learn for business:

  • It has 1.1 billion native speakers, making it the most spoken language in the world
  • China’s middle class grew from just 4% of urban households in 2000 to 68%in 2012
  • Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan, Singapore and the United Nations

While Mandarin’s complexity, numerous characters, and different sub-dialects might seem daunting to new learners, figuring out how to learn Chinese comes with many personal perks as well.

You gain insights into Chinese culture, especially its rich traditions, arts, and philosophies — which go back to around 500 BC to 1000 AD, when Middle Chinese was spoken.

Modern Mandarin developed from Middle Chinese. Although it is simpler and with a more regular sound system, it is still one of the hardest languages to learn.

Much of this is due to its tonal nature. What this means is a word changes depending on the tone it’s pronounced with:

  • First tone (ping): A high, level tone.
  • Second tone (shang): A rising tone.
  • Third tone (qu): A falling-rising tone.
  • Fourth tone (ru): A falling tone.

For example, the word “ma” can have five different meanings:

  • First tone (ping): mother
  • Second tone (shang): hemp
  • Third tone (qu): horse
  • Fourth tone (ru): scold
  • Neutral tone: yes

So challenging are its tones that when the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, speaks in Mandarin, he often mispronounces many words.

During a 20-minute-long speech, fully in Mandarin, to Tsinghua University in 2015, he confused the  tone for “heart,” for example, making it sound more like “belief.”

But despite these blunders, he soldiers on — as does Tesla’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk and the marketing director of Royce Leather, Billy Bauer.

These entrepreneurs know the value of taking up Mandarin. Zuckerberg and Musk impressed the Chinese media and government, while Bauer earned the trust of Chinese executives trust and eased the his day-to-day business dealings in the country.

Want to do the same? Here are the best, fastest and cheapest ways to learn Chinese.

How to learn Chinese: The best ways for beginners 

how to learn Chinese

Immersing yourself in the Chinese culture and making friends is one of the best ways to learn Chinese. Source: AFP

1. Make friends with Chinese people 

One of the most effective methods to learn Chinese is by making friends with native Chinese speakers. 

This not only allows you to improve your language skills but also offers insights into Chinese culture. Through casual activities like sharing meals, going to bars, or exploring China together, you can learn the language enjoyably and naturally. 

Choosing to stay with a Chinese family through a homestay arrangement can help with this and help you to build lasting friendships. 

Chinese people are known for their warm and welcoming nature. To expedite your language learning process, find someone to converse with regularly about daily life using the language. Real-world conversations are invaluable for sounding natural and fluent.

2. Immerse yourself in the culture 

If you are on a tight schedule, let’s say you are travelling to China to study there and need to learn the language, then immersing yourself in the culture is the best thing you can do. 

By exposing yourself to Mandarin through movies, songs, and books, you can grasp nuances that online courses and other materials may not offer. 

Understanding cultural history enhances your appreciation of the language and motivates you to learn more.

3. Set realistic goals 

The speed at which you learn Mandarin depends on your goals. If you aim to acquire enough language skills for a short trip, a few months of dedicated learning may be enough. 

However, becoming fluent and mastering the language like a native speaker could take years of continuous effort. Recognise the challenge of learning Mandarin and set realistic and practical goals. 

As a beginner, you could start by challenging yourself to learn five new words daily. This goal is not only easy to achieve but will also help you build your vocabulary.

how to learn Chinese

One-on-one teaching has proven to be effective for language learning compared to group classes. Source: AFP

How to learn Chinese. The fastest ways for beginners

1. Get a teacher 

If you have a tight schedule, opting for one-on-one Chinese lessons will be significantly more effective than learning in group classes.

Group classes do, however, offer the advantage of learning alongside fellow students and collaborating as a team to understand the language.

But one-on-one learning allows you to customise lessons according to your preferences, providing a personalised learning experience.

With undivided attention from your teacher, you can benefit greatly from this focused approach.

But remember: quick results don’t come cheap.

2. Speak Chinese every day 

To expedite your Chinese language learning journey, make it a habit to speak Chinese daily. To see results, consistency is key. It’s said that if you do something every day for 21 days, that’s when you form a habit.

You could start with just 30 minutes of study a day and gradually increase the amount of time spent depending on your progress. 

It has been proven that dedicating 30 minutes daily is more effective than cramming hours in a single session, which can lead to burnout.

For honing your pronunciation and speaking skills, try mimicking native speakers by playing and repeating recorded sentences.

Try recording yourself on your phone and comparing your sound to native speakers. This will help you identify the mistakes you are making and work o improving them.

how to learn Chinese

Joining an online programme is one of the fastest ways to master Mandarin. Source: AFP

3. Sign up for online classes 

Enrolling in online classes can also offer many benefits, whether through one-on-one instruction or group lessons.

Having a tutor who tailors lessons to your needs and interests keeps the learning process engaging.

If nothing more, just having someone to practics Mandarin with makes a difference.

How to learn Chinese: The most budget-friendly ways for beginners 

1. Download apps 

Today, almost everyone has a smartphone, and there’s a mobile app for just about everything, so it’s not surprising that there are so many apps to learn Chinese online.

One easy way to learn Mandarin fast is to use Chinese learning apps to keep things exciting and simple. 

They have short, bite-sized lessons and engaging flashcards that introduce new vocabulary daily, effectively building your word bank.

These apps often include quick quizzes to test your knowledge and reinforce your learning.

Consider these apps when considering how to learn Chinese:

  • Duolingo 
  • ChinesePod
  • Italki 

2. Listen to podcasts 

Despite Chinese learning apps being a great tool, one thing they lack is the absence of proper, practical conversations. Most of the lessons are catered specifically for new learners, so everything is simplified and slowed down. 

Actual conversations in Mandarin can take place at incredible speeds. So if you want to be able to hold a proper conversation, one tip for learning Chinese is to improve your listening skills. And the best way to do that is by tuning in to some Chinese podcasts. 

Not only will you be able to listen in on authentic conversations in Mandarin while picking up new words, but most podcasts can also be downloaded to your mobile device. This allows you to learn on the go.

When you learnt your native language, you did most of it by listening to your parents and those around you speak. So, why should acquiring a second language be any different?

Improving your listening skills won’t happen overnight and takes considerable time. Luckily it is something we can do both actively and passively.

how to learn Chinese

Now you can spend your time binge-watching tv while learning Chinese. Source: AFP

3. Watch television shows 

If you are someone who loves binging on a series, this option is perfect for you. This is the perfect excuse to spend your weekend on your couch watching a Mandarin series. 

The good news is while doing this, you could actually improve your reading and listening skills while learning new words. 

Most Mandarin shows will have Chinese subtitles allowing you to familiarise yourself with the different characters and their sounds. 

You will even learn about Chinese culture, a crucial but underrated part of learning a language. 

The good news is that your options are endless.

Here are some shows to watch to learn Chinese:

  • Empress in the Palace 
  • The Brightest Star in the Sky 
  • Ode to Joy