The Ultimate Guide to Chinese Online Learning
(There are plenty of resources available for learning Chinese on the internet, but for the purposes of this article, I am assuming that you are referring to Mandarin Chinese and Simplified Chinese Characters (to understand the difference, check out this blog post).
Which resources you choose to use to help you learn Mandarin will vary based on your current level as well as your goals. This will vary quite a bit from person to person, however bear in mind that Mandarin Chinese is a very difficult language to learn without being literate. I’ll quote here from another answer I made related to teaching yourself Chinese:
“You need to learn characters for two main reasons, one practical and one philosophical
Practical: Mandarin Chinese only contains approximately 409 independent syllables (not accounting for tones). This means that you have a preponderance of homophones throughout the language. English has something like 15,000 independent syllables, so it becomes possible for you brain to naturally pattern recognize when it comes to auditory content alone, however with Mandarin this type of auditory only approach quickly runs into a ceiling because there are so many words and characters that have the same or very similar pronunciations. From a visual perspective, however, characters with the same pronunciation often are visually completely distinct. This allows your brain to pattern recognize much more easily.
All of these characters are pronounced “shi” in various tones (5 of them are 4th tone). From an auditory perspective this becomes very hard to distinguish, but as you can see they are visually nothing alike. Starting to see how learning characters will give your brain a huge pattern recognition advantage?
Philosophical: Mandarin Chinese is not a bad sounding language at all, I actually quite like it, but it isn’t exactly in the running for most pleasant sounding language (here’s looking at you, French & Italian). However, I would argue that the Chinese writing system is by far the most interesting, culturally relevant and rewarding system to learn in the world. You will open your mind to ways of interpreting reality that will make your brain, quite simply, better at thinking. But most importantly…
Reading is incredibly effective for acquiring a second language. The only reason people avoid this with Chinese is because they are intimidated by the writing system (more on why they feel this way below). Effectively if you don’t learn characters, you are handicapping yourself massively in the acquisition process. Anecdotally I find this to be the case, the more I read, the faster the right word comes to my mind in situations of speaking or writing.”
So, assuming it is your intention to be both fluent in speaking as well as literate, the path to get there should be paved with a solid understanding of the order you need to take things. Here’s a graphic that will help explain the general order in which you should take things:
Note that pronunciation is the first step, and while the relative energy you need to spend on it diminishes over time, it practically never goes away entirely. It’s like swimming for a water polo player, regardless of how much you learn about water polo technique or strategy, you are always going to have to swim. No matter how big your vocabulary gets in Mandarin, you’ll always have to pronounce things you didn’t grow up pronouncing. A lot of these ideas came to us by perusing Gabriel Wyner’s book and website Fluent Forever. Well worth a read!
Resources for Learning Pronunciation:
ChinesePod “Say it Right” Video Course- Excellent video course on the proper way to articulate the possible Chinese sounds. Good looking site, and of course ChinesePod has a great reputation.
iTalki- Paid online tutoring. This site is great for if you already have an idea of how Pinyin works and need a native teacher to correct you. This site can also be good for you in the future relating to the higher layers of analysis regarding Chinese study. That said though, when you first start encourage your tutor to focus mainly on pronunciation.
Mandarin Blueprint Pronunciation Mastery- Luke and I have been working on Mandarin Blueprint’s pronunciation mastery module for nearly two years now, and while we are still teaching it as a live-online training as of Nov 2017, we are in the process of shooting a video course designed to combine pronunciation techniques for all syllables with survival Chinese.
Resources for Learning Pinyin:
The above resources all are great for learning Pinyin, and there are actually loads of great options out there, but for now here are a few good Pinyin interactive pinyin charts:
Pinyin by All Set Learning- Great option for iOS. All Set Learning is full of excellent resources for learning Chinese, this pinyin chart just being one of them.
ChinesePod Pinyin App- ChinesePod again! This link is for the Android version because the above All Set Learning link is only available for iOS.
Yabla Pinyin Chart- A great online pinyin chart. This would be my highest recommendation, because in this chart the majority of the 3rd tones are pronounced the way third tone would be contextually, as opposed to how it is pronounced when it is isolated.
Yoyo Chinese’s online audio/video pinyin chart is also great, highly recommended.
Resources for Learning Characters:
Gee wiz, I don’t want to sound like a broken record here, but learning characters is the single most import layer to learning Chinese. Go forth with a plan! Frequency is key here. Learn the important characters first.
Unfortunately despite this layer being the most important aspect of learning Chinese, there is sadly not nearly enough out there for helping people properly learn characters. There are resources out there, but they tend to be unsystemized; essentially just a collection of facts about character components or individual characters that may or may not be relevant to what you need at any given stage of your learning. Sure, you can find books that talk about character components, but so what? Can you use it right away? Do you understand the context in which it will be used? I’m not arguing these types of books aren’t useful, but rather that there are more efficient ways of going about learning through systems.
Forget about textbooks for character learning. I’ve seen loads of different textbooks, I graduated from a Chinese university, and none of them have any good method whatsoever for learning character-by-character. They simply skip this step because they are flummoxed by the question of how to go about it.
The classic book that can help with this is Remembering the Simplified Hanzi by James Heisig & Timothy Richardson. I will for the rest of my life be grateful to these two heroes of character learning, but as I have mentioned in previous articles their method has a couple of big weaknesses. The first is that the book provides no method by which to learn the pronunciation of each character. You can learn how to write them and what they mean (admittedly the most important part), but not knowing how to pronounce them makes it very difficult to start applying the knowledge you’ve just acquired. As a result of believing that characters cannot be learned in their entirety, they would often introduce characters quite late because they believe a component in the character was rather complicated. For example, because the left side of character 那 nà is comparatively somewhat complicated, it is not introduced in the Heisig sequence until you’ve already learned over 1400 other characters. This is a problem because 那 is the 33rd most frequent character in Chinese. If you are a person who wants to learn things in context quickly, then unfortunately the Heisig book will be frustrating. The promise of this book is “You’ll thank me later for accumulating this knowledge!”, and this promise is true, but oh boy what a commitment that is to learn a bunch of characters that you can’t use yet.
It is in this area where I can confidently say that our project Mandarin Blueprint really is the best option out there for learning characters. Using the MB method you can learn all aspects of a character in one visualization exercise. The pronunciation, meaning, components and even writing can all be imagined in one “movie scene”, which is why we call it the “Hanzi Movie Method” (Hanzi being the Chinese word for characters). Best part is that it covers the most frequent 500 characters without waiting too long to get to them, and its also systemized with words and sentences. Put simply, after you learn a character, you can instantly see it in the context of words and sentences that you understand. We’ve had students learn the top 500 characters in under a month using this method, and that alone is going to take literally years off your Chinese study time.
As of right now (Nov 2017) we’re teaching this method and offering the materials via live online teaching, but we will in the next year be making a video course that teaches the method and helps you along the way, stay tuned!
Tip: I would highly recommend Outlier Linguistics as an add-on for Pleco. Pleco is a great dictionary app by itself, but if you want to know about the etymology of the most frequent and important Chinese characters, these guys are doing excellent work. I’d recommend following one of the founders of Outlier Linguistics John Renfroe here on Quora if you aren’t already, his answers are always well researched.
Resources for Learning Vocabulary:
There are a fair few resources out there for learning Chinese vocabulary. You can search for Anki Decks for free on your computer, but bear in mind that Anki is not exactly user friendly so there is definite learning curve for getting used to it. Feel free to check out some videos we’ve made about the basics of Anki here.
A classic and already hugely famous resource for learning words in many languages is of course Memrise. Fun to use, organized well, and uses Spaced-Repetition Software (SRS) as all good flashcard systems should. Use memrise for the purpose of learning some words, but remember that learning vocabulary in a vacuum is not the same as learning it in context. Memorizing a definition of a word is by no means useless, but it is only a step towards actually knowing a word.
Ninchanese- Relatively new site that started from Kickstarter and is doing awesome work to have all sorts of Chinese learning. Super impressed with these guys, I’d recommend going there and trying it out. Its a lot to go over the details and this answer is already too long, but they have a good way of trying out their product before you buy it.
Resources for Grammar Acquisition:
First of all, remember that learning grammar rules is not the key to acquiring grammar. Its actually simply a matter of have massive amounts of comprehensible input. In other words, listen and read a lot at or slightly above your level.
For what its worth, the real answer to how to acquire grammar is immerse yourself in the language, and if you want motivation go to Khatzumoto’s All Japanese All the Time blog and read everything on the “Best of Ajatt” side panel. Your motivation levels will skyrocket, just go read them.
However, while you are in the process of immersing yourself, graded readers are one of the best ways to get input that is at your level. Graded readers are simply stories or articles that have been simplified to use vocabulary that suits particular levels. Often they are organized by HSK levels. There are many possible resources for this, but I’m going to give you two main recommendations:
The Chairman’s Bao- This resource is excellent in part because of it’s specificity to Chinese. They have a team of writers that simplify newspaper articles and other content from its original form down to specific HSK levels, 1–6 and even 6+. This allows you to steadily increase your level by reading real content. Highly recommended.
LingQ- This site is run by Steve Kaufman, who is a polyglot and truly understands what creates actual language acquisition. He absolutely believes in his product, and the evidence of that is that as of writing this he still has the highest score on the entire site in several different languages. The best part about it is that you can important your own material into it, it automatically uses an AI function to analyze the content and figure out how to separate the content into its component words (it doesn’t do this perfectly, but it is certainly close), and then figures out which words you’ve already studied or not. The ones you haven’t it shows in blue, and if you decide you want to study it with an SRS, you can click any word to turn it yellow and make a “LingQ” (pronounced like “link”). Both my business partner Luke and I are reading “A Song of Ice & Fire” in Chinese using LingQ at the moment and its so fun and gratifying with the gamified aspects built into it. Of course, they have loads of leveled content that is already built into the site, and like Chairman’s Bao it is growing all the time. Can’t recommend LingQ enough.
If you are looking for physical books, you can can order graded readers from Mandarin Companion or Chinese Breeze. I would still recommend using something online that tracks your progress, but hey, if you like to have the real book in your hand go for it.
Finally, if you are interested in learning Chinese grammar rules, the All Set Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki provides loads of Chinese grammar explanations in plain English with lots of good examples.
Resources for Listening:
PopUp Chinese- Seems that PopUp Chinese isn’t making that much new content these days, but I love that they always try to make their dialogues funny and lighthearted. The personalities of all the people running the show are great, but as per usual be aware that a lot of the elementary lessons have a bit too much English, so it’s best to download the Chinese only version of the easier level podcasts. Listen to the full podcast with the english once and then listen to just the dialogue after that, following along with the transcripts for the extra benefits that come from interleaved learning. Then just start building up these dialogues on your phone and listening to them whenever your can. Same goes for…
ChinesePod- Mentioned before because of their “Say it right” course, but remember they have loads of great content that if you can download with transcripts if you buy a subscription.
喜马拉雅FM- This is a Chinese podcast APP that has loads of self-made podcasts from all over the country. Nearly all the major podcasts in China can be found here, and while it is an app that requires navigating in Chinese, remember that this type of “sink or swim” way of changing your language of operation to Chinese helps you figure out things in a trial by fire type of way. Yes, that’s a very “top-down” way of learning, but the context in which top-down learning works is the context in which you truly need the language.
荔枝FM- Just like 喜马拉雅, 荔枝 FM is a great mix of good podcasts, many of which have gone quite viral. 糖蒜广播 (literally “Sugar Garlic Broadcast”) has a number of different shows with themes like movie reviews, book reviews, current events, etc.
得到APP- As I write this I am listening to 得到, it is the APP created by the founder of the 罗辑思维 podcast. 逻辑思维 luóji sīwéi means “logical thinking” in Chinese, and the founder’s name is 罗振宇 luó zhèn yǔ, so he changed the first character of “logical thinking” from 逻 to 罗 as a play on words. This is in competition for the most well prepared and logically consistent podcast I’ve listened to ever, including western podcasts. Yes, it is for advanced Chinese learners, but remember that part of the elementary and intermediate stages is for having immersion in standard Mandarin, even if you don’t understand. Everything on this APP is standard Mandarin, so that at least you can count on. As you get better at listening, you’ll start to learn things you never knew before from this APP. This is why I love it. This is why I keep listening. I feel like I’m gaining a competitive advantage listening to it, because how many westerners are listening consistently to some of the most intelligent and intellectually humble Chinese podcasts?
Podcasts to Search for In Your Podcast APP:
- Slow Chinese- Great for pronunciation, transcripts are on the website, so great for putting sentences into Anki.
- Chinese Learn Online (CLO) — Especially geared towards beginners and intermediates. Great reputation.
- ChineseClass101 — Same style as above
Resources for Chinese TV & Movies
TV and movies are incredibly effective ways of learning real Chinese. Here are some great websites to find content on:
- Youku and Tudou — Basically Chinese YouTubes. Worth signing up for the paid version to get loads of full movies with no ads.
- Good Drama — Loads of full Chinese TV shows
- Youtube — Check out practical Chinese reader’s channel and Yoyo Chinese, as well as loads of other Chinese content.
- 爱奇艺 (ài qí yì) — Chinese video website and APP. Almost unlimited relevant video content of many different categories and lengths, including news clips, TV shows, Movies, and random clips
- Fluentu — Website and APP that collects loads of Chinese adverts TV shows with interactive subtitles. Excellent and worth paying for.
Tip: While watching a tv show, instead of pausing every time you come across a word or phrase you aren’t familiar with and searching in pleco, just take screenshots of the particular scene and study yourself later. Better yet, show the screenshots to a teacher as part of your next lesson.
Resources for Speaking Practice:
It goes without saying that having conversation in person with Native speakers is the best situation possible, but if you aren’t in China this isn’t always easy to find (however consider use the “People Nearby” function in WeChat; Chinese people are all over the world, you never know if a native speaker might be near you). If you aren’t in China, or you are just rather introverted and have trouble breaking the ice, you can use some of the resources below.
Glossika- My business partner Luke has been raving about Glossika recently, and even at his incredibly high level of Chinese he is finding their content to be really helpful. Bear in mind, this is a great way to practice speaking and pronunciation when you are by yourself, but it is still not as good at activating vocabulary as actually speaking to people. Nonetheless, Glossika’s learning philosophy is so incredibly on point that we can’t help but give it our strong recommendation. Very helpful when it comes to mastering quick and useful spoken Chinese phrases.
iTalki- This is a paid language tutoring website that is really cool for the purposes of finding teachers quickly and scheduling online lessons. Often there are teachers available at any time that you want to have a lesson, and so this gives you a great opportunity to have opportunities to speak. The teacher will take notes during the lesson and send you a summary of everything you went over which you can then import into Anki if you so choose.
HelloTalk- Free language exchange app, which can be excellent for introverted people, because you know for sure that the people on the APP are also looking to have a conversation. HelloTalk requires you to send at least 5 messages back and forth before you can start a call to prove you are not a robot or otherwise talking to the person for nefarious reasons, but after that you are free to create a new language buddy. I would recommend that if you find someone who you connect with, see if you can set up a weekly time to chat. Also, be sure to make clear rules about how much time you spend speaking English and how much time you spend speaking Chinese (e.g. 10 mins English, 10 mins Chinese) and stick to it! Inevitably, one of you is going to be better than the other at their respective second languages, so the natural tendency would be to speak in the language of the person who is more fluent, but its important to avoid this temptation by setting objective rules at the beginning.
Tandem- Another great free language exchange APP, but the advantage of Tandem is that it does a one-time identity verification, and after you can immediately give a language partner a call (unlike HelloTalk). Tandem also has a really cool topic generator, which can help if you are at a loss for what to chat about.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and of course there are always new resources coming out each year. I recommend that you use these resources with a few basic principles in mind:
- Characters are the most important layer of analysis in the early days
- Not having fun will make you quit, so use these various resources in tandem in such a way that suits your mood.
- Something is better than nothing. Not sure which resource to use? Just try one. Learning in a fun way is better than learning a boring way, but coming to contact with Chinese at all is better than zero.
It truly is amazing all the resources available to a Mandarin learner now, so 祝你成功！