Tips for starting out in Chinese

Hi. Anyone who has learned Chinese can you give any tips on what worked well for you and what didn’t when you began learning. I have been learning Mandarin recently, and whilst I am definetly improving, it is proving slower than say German or Spanish. Do you have any tips on how to overcome initial difficulties? Especially tones. I have listened to a lot of Chinese recently and can now distinguish the differences between all the tones when a Chinaman talks. However, I find it difficult to replicate the tones, especially in a sentence.

Any tips or resources would be heartily welcomed. Thanks a lot.


  1. Don’t get too obsessive about the tones. Of course you should try to remember the tone as you learn a word, but it will be very hard to produce them for a long long time. Practice repeating phrases, try to get the intonation, but it will take years.I found that listening to comic dialogues, over and over, helped because of the exaggerated tonality of their speech. It just takes time and a lot of listening.

  2. The characters are something I would start on fairly soon.

I’ve done a bit of Chinese and what I’ve done is LingQed just one lesson and then, when LingQing, was to go onto google translate and get the phonetic pronounciation. Then, I would go onto iLingQ flashcards and in a notebook write down the character, the meaning and the pronounciation. Underneath, I would write down the character multiple times to remember it.

Progress in Chinese was much slower for me as well. I believe this is because of the ambiguity of the sounds and the massive amount of vocabulary that you will have to learn from scratch. I would agree that learning to read characters (but not necessarily hand write them) should be begin early on for two important reasons:

  • Without knowing the characters it would be more difficult to remember all these homophones that have different characters.

  • Due to the particular challenge of comprehension in Chinese you will have to rely on transcripts for a long time. When you move on to authentic media content, all of the transcripts for that will be using characters.

As for media with transcripts I can recommend the Chinese version of Deutsche Welle. If you can put up with the Chinese state media, CCTV has a lot of programs that you can watch online that include transcripts:

Wow thanks a lot for the quick replies. I really appreciate the advice from such learned people as yourselves :slight_smile:

So I take it that my slower progress in Chinese than in European languages is nothing to worry about, nor is my current inability to correctly produce the right tones sometimes. Also I should begin to learn the characters too. Thanks a lot.

I am in the incredibly fortunate position in that from October this year, I will be living with two native Mandarin speakers. My hope is that I can build up my Chinese from now on so that I will be able to take full advantage of the situation from October onwards.

For hearing tones; this tone drill site is useful for practicing listening to tones:

For speaking tones well; a site like AIchinese is probably the quickest way to get on top of the pronunciation of tones. For example, it only take me a month or two at aichinese to get well on top of pronunication of the tones.

For a good overview on mandarin pronunciation check out John Pasden’s site:

For more detailed info on how to pronounce specific initials or finals, use this site:

At the end of the day, the best approach to Chinese is just to listen to lots of mandarin-only dialogues and then read through transcripts of these dialogues (but the transcript into if you only have access to the characters as the transcript). Your pronunciation will take care of itself in due course, following a “lots of input” approach. It is quite feasible to get very good at mandarin by October (six months) following this approach.

The most helpful resource by far that I’ve found for getting a solid foundation in the language is John DeFrancis’ Chinese Reader series. I made a thread about it a while ago explaining its ingenious structure which makes the acquisition and retention of characters and compounds an almost effortless task.

The series uses traditional characters which are worth beginning with if you’re in this for the long haul, but there are also supplementary lessons in simplified for those whose focus is specifically on the Mainland.

Here’s the thread I made detailing the series:

Thanks! I feel I have a much better chance of getting to grips to Chinese with all this advice, thanks :slight_smile:

*with Chinese

As many people have already pointed out, learning the characters early is extremely useful.
Personally, I really like this book by James W. Heisig, “Remembering Traditional Hanzi”

Here’s a preview of the book:
The book on Amazon:

I’ve used Heisig for Chinese, that exact book you mention, and got up to about 1350 characters. However I dropped it in the end because as my knowledge of written Chinese grew from reading actual content, I started to realize that many, many characters are polyvalent, that is, they have different meanings and usages depending on context. While Heisig provides an excellent mnemonic method for learning to write characters, assigning one rather vague English keyword to a character in the end seemed kind of counterproductive and pointless to me. I find it easier to simply study characters (using an SRS) that I find in my reading and test them for recognition, so character → various meanings. I can keep up and maintain my written level simply by writing out the characters as I encounter them that way. Because there are connections between characters and I find after you study and practise a certain number of them, the rest kind of come of their own.

It’s not that I would now dissuade anyone from using Heisig; it did help me a lot with remembering the writing of characters. I just don’t think it’s as necessary or even as helpful as I once thought.

you can also try with “Remembering Simplified Hanzi” by W. Heisig, I can send you Book 1 as .pdf file if you want.