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How and Where to start learning Chinese

The Chinese language, at first, may seem like a completely alien language that is nearly impossible to learn. It could be the beautiful and mysterious-looking script, the confounding tones, or the fact that the language is based on ideograms instead of the alphabet. Well, Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, no doubt about that. But with the plethora of online resources and apps that you can use, the learning journey is a lot smoother than it ever was. 


Image Credit: Pixabay

How Do I Start?

Before swimming in the depths of the World Wide Web for online resources to learn, here’s a brief overview of what you will and should encounter first when you being your Mandarin learning journey.

The Four Tones

For many, the tones in Mandarin can throw learners off. But, seriously, there are really only four! If you can sing an off- key song, you can speak with four tones. One advantage that you have as a foreigner is that if you get a tone wrong, you could easily be pardoned even if you accidentally said something offensive. 

Listen and learn to identify the four distinct tones, and practise them aloud with every vowel.  You know you’re making good progress when you can tell the difference between  I would like to ask you a question and I would like to kiss you.

This Chinese Pod page is a good overall resource for beginners. 

The Pinyin System

Pinyin is probably the only reason why foreigners can even learn Mandarin. It is the official phonetic system for transcribing the pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. 

Check out the BBC language guide to familiarize yourself with Pinyin. 

Start With Basic Greetings and Numbers

Now you’re ready to learn the basics- greetings and numbers. If the sole purpose of you learning Mandarin is so that you don’t come across as a rude and clueless tourist, the learning to greet, say thank you, and order the right number of dumplings is good enough.  

Here’s a basic and well-organized guide to learning your basic Chinese words and phrases.


Image Credit: publicdomainpictures

Great Online Resources and Apps


There is certainly no lack of websites where you can start learning basic Chinese, get yourself to intermediate, and even start conversing with Chinese speakers.

From language hacking websites to podcasts and the good ‘ole free online lessons, there’s probably more than you have time for. 

Fluent U

Fluent U would be perfect for those who want to learn Chinese and get a taste of Chinese entertainment and pop culture at the same time. Catering to a wide range of fluency levels, Fluent U integrates video content (E.g. movie trailers, music videos, commercials) with learning tools so you’re learning real-world stuff.


Still prefer the academic way? Well, who else would be more qualified than Peking University itself? This course is suitable for beginners can be enrolled in for free or with a nominal fee for a certificate.  Reviews are consistently good. 


Instead of cursing at the traffic or watching viral videos of Facebook, you can study Chinese efficiently and effectively with apps. 

One major advantage of learning with apps is that they are usually designed to be used in an interactive and fun way, such as with games and test quizzes after every chapter, so that you can learn in a more engaging way and hopefully, remember more of what you learn.  Another advantage is that you can almost instantly figure out the Chinese words for whatever strikes your mind or your eyes as you go about your daily routine.


Learning language is pretty much a memory game. Anki is a flashcard program that greatly helps you to drill those new fancy-looking words into your consciousness. One key feature of the app is that it prioritizes your learning needs.  It tracks how well you know each flashcard, so that you spend more time learning what you need to, and less time on words that you already know. 


Having a dictionary and translator on hand is essential. Pleco’s dictionary can be used offline, and the best part is that you can look up words with your phone’s camera or from an image, and on documents too. You’d be utterly thankful for the app when you travel in China.

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.


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