How do I start with chinese?

I’ve decided to embark on the Chinese express.
But I’m overwhelmed with regards on how to begin.

I know I must first focus on tones and pinyin, but it somewhat bewilders me the fact that on, say, the first mini stories the character is attached to the pinyin, so as I don’t understand I’d have to Lingq every single character.

How should I go about this?
Should I start on LingQ from scratch?
What other tools or platforms are a must to get the ball rolling?

How and when should I tackle characters?

What about Pimsleur, Duolingo?

Which is the best place to learn character?

Should I still mark as learned words that I understand the meaning of the pinying but not the character?

Further knowledge on approach is very much appreciated.

Worth noting, I have 3 hours a day to my disposal.

Thank you!

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I used lingq from 0. I recommend that you ignore tones in general or a while and just focus on getting the main connections. character recognization → pinyin → translation. After that, start listening once you acquired enough vocabulary. Best of luck!


I highly respect Chytran, but I would strongly disagree. I would spend the first 2-3 months focussing on getting the pronunciation and tones right. Practice tone pairs, listen to YT videos on how the pronunciation works, etc. Otherwise, while learning Chinese characters you will subvocalise them in your head with your “wrong” English pronunciation. Also, Chinese words are intrinsincly linked to tones.


I have not studied chinese directly but i have listened to a lot of people’s opinions about this subject and have some character study under my belt. Luca did tones first then characters. His logic being tones is a few months while characters is a few years. This is what Jan is suggesting and what I have heard from most people.

After my character study although for korean was much easier when I could attach pronunciation to the characters so I would say pronunciation then characters but if you wanna dabble and learn the first 100 common radicals etc without pronunciation for fun then go ahead. It will give you a headstart and characters are fascinating really 上, 中, 大, 有, 我, 在, 人, 不, 到, 子, 下, 你, 年, 生. They just look pretty lol. Anyways good luck on the “chinese express” its a bumpy but very scenic ride hehe.


I think all LingQers agree that Duolingo sucks. Pimsleur is a great concept, but in my experience since they tried to mass-market it and use a once size fits all approach for each language, the execution is often disappointing. It also moves far too slowly for my taste, but thats also because it really drills the individual sounds which may be helpful for people who don’t have a good ear. That being said, given all the hundreds or thousands of hours required for language learning, spending 40-50 starting there might not be a waste of time.

I would strongly recommend John de Francis’ old course–you should be able to find used copies online. I trailed off with Chinese before getting too far but his books are beyond brilliant–if youre interested in the theory behind it you can dig up his article “why johnny cant read Chinese.” A lot of it has to do with teachers trying to cram characters, even though it doesnt really mean anything to “know” a character, because of all the combinations and unique features each one has in actual text. The books include an organic spaced repetition alongside constant reusing of the same high frequency characters so you see the full breadth of their usage, not just the most common meaning in isolation.


It may be heresy to say it, but I think Duolingo does a good job of teaching you the main function words (in, at, of, did, will do, can do, …) and some basic content words (I, they, mother, father, person, eat, walk, …)

That helps me feel a bit better about not being able to read or understand most of the words: at least I understand the “framework” of the sentence to some extent! Of course, I’m still a beginner at Chinese myself.

It’s also entirely possible to start from 0 and simply LingQ everything. You’ll eventually remember and learn the most common words, etc. I have been doing this with Persian: when I started on LingQ, I couldn’t even read the alphabet. But that requires confidence that it’s possible, because it can be very overwhelming! In that case, Google, Youtube, Wiktionary and Wikipedia are your friends, to help you understand how to read the pinyin etc.

First, learn pinyin. It is phonetic Chinese in our alphabet. Pinyin is what Chinese schoolkids learn first (in 3 weeks). Then they take 10 years to learn the characters. Pinyin is the way adults “type” Chinese into computers and smartphones. They don’t type “吃饭了吗?”. They type “chi fan le ma?”.

To get started, you need some basic grammar and words. I started with courses at and For me that format works well: a teacher who is fluent in English standing in front of you to explain the tricky parts. But nowadays there are a bunch of websites, each with their own method. Each method might work well for different people.

Specifically for a Chinese beginner, I don’t recommend LingQ. I think LingQ is excellent: I am using it now to study beginner Turkish. But at the start learning Chinese, you need to learn a lot of differences: different ideas, different word order, etc. It’s fun, but it isn’t “English with different words”.


John de Francis’ is a linguist, specializing in Chinese. I’ve read 2 of his linguistics books, which include Chinese and other languages.

I found his “Beginning Chinese” book at, new $42 to $55, or cheaper used. The book uses pinyin throughout – no Chinese characters.

The only problem is that it’s a book. There’s no audio. So you can’t train your ear to hear the sounds, or your mouth to create the sounds. Perhaps that was the best you could do in 1963 (when the book was written) or even in 1976 (when the updated edition was published). But to me it is unthinkable today. Any language that I learn I want to hear.

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I agree with “ignore tones in general”. In ordinary speech they are very different than the ones teacher’s teach. I stopped worrying about tones in year 3 (of learning to hear Chinese).

Chinese has many homonyms (same sound, different meaning). Tones help this a little, but not very much. Almost all the recognition in speech is based on context, not tones.

English has even more of this: we call it “30 meanings for 1 word”. And we also use pitch in sentences for meaning. Think of tones as like the stress patterns in English. Which syllable is stressed more?

i never really attained a high enough level to weigh in, but for what its worth, when i learned the tones, i massively overdid it, because i saw most westerners practically ignoring them, until i realized its much more subtle and used to disambiguate, in fact quite like in english, as famously if you italicize each word in the sentence (want, live, house, her) you get a completely different meaning “i didnt want to live at the house with her”

@chytran: have you published here somewhere your roadmap? Like what you did first and so on? That would be very interesting to read.

there really should be a stickied Lingq answer to this question.


@Davide: See chytran’s profile page:


Hi mes204,

Apart from the tips given by others below, my recommendations are:

Which resources could you use as an absolute beginner?
Here is a selection of the tools I’d use if I were you:

Hope that helps,

PS -
See also these reddit threads:


Thanks, very interesting. But as he started with LingQ from day 0, I was interested to know what he did when he was a full beginner. How he approached the language here as a distant L2.

You will find some of the answers in his posts:

I’d checked them first because they’re pretty good!
Then I’d ask more “specific” Q’s…

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John DeFrancis reader series (Beginning Chinese Reader, Intermediate Chinese Reader Part I, etc) from Yale University, from the 60s, are full of Chinese, but have pinyin to give pronunciation in the vocabulary sections.

I also thought they were fabulous, because he used spaced repetition, and started with easy structures and words.

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I forgot I could click on his posts name, thanks.

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@gaoli You should look at his explanation of the methodology, in the intros to all the books. Beginning chinese is only half of the (beginner segment of) the course–it is acompanied by the beginner chinese reader and the character text for beginning chinese–the often misunderstood relationship between the spoken and written language and the best way to teach them in tandem underpins his entire approach. on top of this i believe there are recordings floating around the internet, but even if not it is unmatched as a way to get over the hump

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Since so much has been said before, I’ll try to keep it brief. Here are some ideas:

Regarding transcriptions:
There are basically two transcription system in use, Pinyin (Mainland) or Zhuyin (Taiwan). Choose one. But note that LingQ doesn’t support the latter, which makes LingQ not an ideal choice if your focus is primarily on Taiwan / Taiwanese Mandarin.
I think you can get by with only transcriptions for a long time if you so desire. I personally like the characters and started learning them from day one, so I’ve been mostly ignoring transcriptions.
Note, that LingQ’s Pinyin is auto-generated and might contain errors, therefore it is recommended to copy the correct Pinyin from a dictionary to your vocabulary definitions (most contain it already anyways).


  • I don’t think it really matters what approach you take to learn them:
  • most people probably use spaced repetition systems like Anki, choose some beginner deck, I believe the one from refold is very popular
  • mnemonics Heisig remembering the Hanzi
  • Or the low tech / old school approach of taking a list of the most common ones and copy them out by hand.
  • The mentioned DeFrancis readers are good albeit really old fashioned, have low quality audio and are in traditional characters, but they are free on
    Whatever works for you. Once you got the first 500 (maybe 1000) down cold, you can probably stop this activity and just pick words up naturally by reading and listening.

General advice:

  • I find listening comprehension to be the most challenging aspect, therefore I think this skill must be prioritized
  • don’t underestimate the power of ‘passive’ listening do it whenever possible
  • whenever possible read and listen at the same time
  • repetition is key, at each level: word / sentence / lesson / course

How to use LingQ when you know nothing?
Choose a lesson with accurate timestamps (e.g. from LingQ) and go into sentence mode. Now repeatedly play the sentence audio. First while using all the assistance that LingQ offers, that includes looking at the text / Pinyin, looking up any unknown words, making LingQs and using the translation feature. The ultimate goal is to understand the sentence without looking at the text. This can take a lot of repetitions, maybe 5, maybe 20. If it gets too annoying it’s fine to skip to the next sentence. After going though a lesson in such a fashion put it on a playlist for passive listening. Cycle through the lessons, to balance novelty and repetition. For example if you do 10 lessons in total per day, add 1 new lesson, repeat 9 and discard the oldest - every day. Since this technique is rather intensive, I recommend working in 15 minute intervals. This also facilitates time tracking as LingQ won’t count listening time.

Why do I believe in this technique?
For one it provides immediate feedback (do you understand or not?) and it’s more efficient to spend time on the actually difficult sentences by repeating them many times, and easier sentences fewer times.

After some time you will be able to read along with the voice, then you may want to ‘graduate’ to page mode. But that’s another kettle of fish.

If you feel like it you can use the shadowing technique on lessons you already studied intensively. This way you can naturally segue into output activities. Especially since you’ll basically know the content by heart, so making modifications, summarizing or ad libbing will be comparatively easy.

If you’re using LingQ with the browser you probably want to reassign some keybindings, so that it becomes more ergonomic, e.g. only one keypress to reveal the translation etc. You can also try using a game controller or a bluetooth remote. A popular software for Microsoft Windows is on Mac you can try

How to find lessons?

  • Try the guided course shelf
  • Go here: Login - LingQ select ‘Courses’ and ‘Content type’ ‘internal’ then select the desired level
  • My own stuff: Login - LingQ

Hope this wasn’t too confusing, I think it’s all really simple just make sure to listen and read a lot. Feel free to balance this with general immersion, like TPRS, Refold etc. Make sure you put in the hours and don’t get frustrated, it’s a long road.