What is the best way to learn conversational Chinese without the characters?

Hello. I would like some opinions about the best way to “phonetically” learn Chinese without studying the characters. I just want to be proficient in speaking the language. What is the best way to do this on LingQ?

Do you think that disregarding every Chinese character is meaningful in itself?

I don’t know how to answer your question except to say that, with the limited time I have available, I would like to learn to speak some Chinese without learning to write it.

Perhaps watching some TV or movies with subs? You could start off with beginner’s material like children’s programs then work your way up to soap operas

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I think the best way to learn any language “phonetically” would be to listen and listen often. Part of the reason why I wanted to start learning Swedish is because for months before I started learning I would listen to a lot of Swedish music and just expose myself to the language. I was able to figure out a lot of words on my own before ever even looking at the language written down. A lot of my language learning happens outside of LingQ by just listening.

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Chinese school children (not Taiwan) actually learn pinyin for the first two years, in order to learn characters – I’m sure most Westerners don’t know that! Pinyin is also the dominant method for entering Chinese text into computers on mainland China – and for the rest of us, of course. So, I can’t see why you couldn’t paste LingQ paragraphs into Google Translate, say, and copy the pinyin into a Word doc for yourself in order to learn. You can then listen while reading the pinyin (Google tones are fairly accurate, but not always). So you can learn…but you will have to import your own pinyin texts (copy from your Word doc), putting extra spaces between words. You could download the corresponding audio from LingQ, then upload that audio back into your own private lingQ lesson. You can make your own pinyin lingQs. It can all be done, but it’s time consuming. You might quickly hate it.

I wouldn’t like to do away with characters altogether – they’re very beautiful, and almost always pronounced the same way individually once you learn them, unlike Japanese characters. I don’t know enough characters to read entirely without pinyin, but I’d definitely hate to read pinyin-only text. There are too many homophones, etc. Characters give clarity. Plus I’m a visual learner. You can sometimes guess the meaning of a word by sight when you recognise the character parts.

However, you need to know about tone change rules concerning pronunciation, which differ from the official printed pinyin in textbooks or online that you may read. I know Steve says something like tones don’t matter – to not worry, they’ll come. My Chinese professor was a stickler for tones, though. As a newbie I couldn’t work out why I heard different tones sometimes to what I was reading, until I knew the rules. It also helps with pronunciation.

You might want to know, for example, that when you see a 3rd tone marker in printed pinyin, it might be pronounced in 2nd tone or often as a half-tone, though it’s officially left as a 3rd tone in print. In 你好 (nǐ hǎo – ni3 hao3), for example, it’s pronounced as ní hǎo (ni2 hao3). This is because the rule is that when two 3rd tones are together, the first one is pronounced as 2nd tone.

There are other rules, too, such as 不 bù (4th tone) becomes bú (2nd tone) before another 4th tone. For example, you might see 不累 not tired (bù lèi – bu4 lei4), but it’s actually pronounced as bú lèi – bu2 lei4. Another one to watch out for is the pronunciation of Yi.

You can always google tone rules or grab a textbook showing tone rules. Or…not bother at all:)

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I seem to remember hearing that a few years ago, Taiwan also switched to teaching their children pinyin. Until then they had been using a few of those old systems.

I’m sure you can learn to speak well without learning to write by hand, but you will need to learn to recognize the characters in order to read and increase your vocabulary. I don’t know anyone who speaks very well and yet can’t at least read in the language.


Until LingQ fully incorporates state of art pinyin functionality within its reader, this will be hard to do with lingq, alone. Although one can reach fluency with lingq in Chinese, no problem.

Best approach for beginners, imo, is to get the beginner dialogues (Chinese only) from sites like chinesepod and popup chinese, which include pinyin and characters (together) in their mp3 lyric files, and then listen and read a lot. You can choose what you want to read, pinyin or Hanzi, or both.

After that, a program like: http://pth.linqi.org/pyzd_biaozhu.html , (h/t musclechan), is ideal for cutting character text into and then exporting files with pinyin only, or pinyin above the characters. Having pinyin above the characters allows text to be read in the most effective way for beginners learning Chinese, at least according to the research. Most effective = likely better than any other method; Language Log » How to learn to read Chinese .

However, when you try to import “pinyin above hanzi text” into lingq, it puts pinyin to the side, so not as effective.

After a while, just using a Chinese reader that gives you pinyin options is more than enough (pleco, mdbg etc).

I have no interest in learning to write the characters by hand, and I don’t see any reason why it will help me learn Chinese, but maybe I am wrong.

Learning to write characters from memory by hand helps immensely with reading fluency. If you only recognize characters it is hard to tell apart very similar characters.

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You put your reply in the wrong place. I have responded above.

In reply to Friedemann’s post bellow.

That’s what I thought might be the case. I remember it seemed like that when I first learned a few characters a few years ago. However, I also remember it took a truck load of time. I wonder if I would be better off just spending the time doing normal memorisation of characters.

Anyway, the question is academic. I am too lazy to learn to write the characters, even if it was a big help.

@iaing I agree with the pinyin-over-characters suggestion. If you are too lazy to study the characters, the best thing to do is find beginner textbooks or podcasts with everything in pinyin and characters. Read the pinyin; don’t study the characters too hard, but you should become familiar with the characters for the common words. If you really don’t want to learn to read, you should be mostly listening and conversing anyway. Learn by interacting with people, trying to say things, and asking them for help when you can’t. Pinyin is quite sufficient for dictionary use. Lingq could be used for listening practice, and you can follow along with the pinyin and the characters (you don’t have to LEARN them, just try to understand the speech while watching the characters “go by.”) Lingq’s vocabulary tools probably won’t work well until/if Lingq adds a full-pinyin mode. You may never read books but a bit of familiarity with characters is probably worthwhile, even if it lags far behind your speaking/listening vocabulary. It’s pretty common for American-born Chinese to be able to converse fluently but not read characters.

I think the main point I wanted to make was that pinyin over hanzi is, actually, the most effective way to learn characters, and, by default, learn any Chinese language. The studies are pretty clear on this. An additional major advantage, is that you are not wasting time using rote memory or massed practice techniques (which are time intensive, for low reward) and you can devote your time to more effective learning methods, which lingq promotes. At the same time, you can pick up many, many thousands of characters effortlessly and painlessly.

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I agree, Colin. I don’t think it helps all that much. I stopped writing by hand 10 years ago and have never needed it. I’m familiar enough with the radicals and other components to tell characters apart when reading. Simply more reading exposure is the thing that will help recognition the most.

By the weg, now that you have over 9000 known Chinese words, what is your level of reading? Are you able to read newspapers and books and that kind of thing?

I think 9000 Chinese words is quite a lot and might correspond to something like 40,000 German words.

For some reason, Colin, your last post didn’t have a Reply button under it, so I have to reply to this one. My known words total on LingQ doesn’t reflect my actual level. I’ve been learning Chinese since 2001 and currently live in China where I work in translation. But yeah, on LingQ with over 9k known words, there aren’t many true blue words left in even advanced level material. There are still a bunch of false blue words which are just errors in word recognition. But after X-ing all of them out, most LingQ lessons are black and white. I think at 9k words on LingQ you’ll be able to enjoy reading fiction novels, but will still encounter many new words doing so.

I am a chinese.A word of chianese is made of tow even more characters,so if you don’t learn the characters,you can’t use chinese well.

Writing by hand activates more and different parts of the brain than typing. For instance, students who take notes by hand remember more (in any subject) than students who use a computer.

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