Beginning Mandarin FAQs


As a beginning Mandarin learner, you need to aim yourself in the right direction right from the start.

My Chinese painting teacher, Zhang Jin Lin, explained to me, if you start off with the wrong kind of advice, it’s like firing a bullet from a gun. Just a little off the mark, and the mistake gets more pronounced the further it goes.

His lesson can be applied to learning beginning Mandarin as well. The point is, setting off in the right direction saves us from a lot of headaches in the future – and in many cases can mean the difference between success and failure.

So in this spirit, I’ve provided some answers to frequently asked questions about learning Chinese that anyone in the beginning Mandarin stages might inquire about.

FAQ's

  1. How long does it take to learn Chinese?
  2. Where's the best place to start learning for complete beginners?
  3. Can I teach myself Chinese? I mean, can I learn Mandarin without a teacher?
  4. Can I learn Chinese without ever going to China?
  5. Should I buy Rosetta Stone Chinese for learning Mandarin?
  6. I want to learn basic survival Chinese, but I don’t want to learn to read and write Chinese. Is this possible?
  7. I plan to travel to China and improve my Chinese. Which is a good city to go to where people speak Mandarin and not other dialects?
  8. Will learning Mandarin help me get a job?
  9. What does it mean that Chinese is a tonal language?
  10. Can I learn Chinese online?
  11. How can I find a Chinese teacher in my area?
  12. I can’t find a reliable teacher in my area to help me with my Chinese. What other options do I have?
  13. What is the difference between 'Chinese' and 'Mandarin'?
  14. What is the best textbook for learning beginning Mandarin?

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Q: How long does it take to learn Chinese?

A: The correct reply is that it depends on many things. But allow me to over-simplify the issue completely and give you my best concrete answer:

Years of StudyResult from Casual EffortResult from Smart Consistent Effort
1 - 2People can understand your well-rehearsed phrases, but you understand very little of what’s said to you.Survival Chinese is ok. After the satisfaction of making good progress, though, you may feel somewhat limited.
2 - 3Range of things you can say has increased a bit, but only sometimes can you understand people talking directly to you, (but almost never when talking to each other). If you are in China, you are not proud of your Chinese.Survival Chinese is quite good, and you can hold conversations on familiar topics, though you do make some mistakes.
4+Your survival Chinese is alright, though you realize your skills, especially listening, are still very limited.When a Chinese person tells you that your Chinese is good, unlike when you heard this before, it actually now means that, for a non-native, your Chinese is pretty good. Congratulations!

If nothing else, it should be clear from this table that it's best to get quality advice so you go about learning Chinese the right way, using the right materials, and also find support to stay motivated. Then you'll find yourself in the second column - not the first!

Q: Where's the best place to start learning for complete beginners?

A: Let me shamelessly recommend that you begin right here on this site! Please take advantage of the dozens of free articles and resources here. A good starting place might be Mandarin Words - A Beginner's Guide.

Q: Can I teach myself Chinese? I mean, can I learn Mandarin without a teacher?

A: Common sense tells us that having a Mandarin tutor or attending a Chinese class is helpful. It’s very true. Still, the tools for language learning available to you today, like books and cds, podcasts, readers with e-dictionaries, all kinds of software for learning on your pc or mobile device – they are just getting better.

If you can also find a partner to practice with, plus have a commitment to learn, then you can do quite a bit independently and succeed without a formal class.

Q: Can I learn Chinese without ever going to China?

A: Of course you will want to visit China at some point. That’s where your efforts to learn Chinese will really pay off. But, as they say in China: 不要急, or ‘don’t be anxious about it.’ As a beginning Mandarin learner, there’s no hurry.

Q: Should I buy Rosetta Stone Chinese for learning Mandarin?

A: Rosetta Stone seems to have the best marketing campaign around when it comes to software for learning languages. If you want to know if it’s worth the hefty price tag, see my Rosetta Stone Mandarin review.

Q: I want to learn basic survival Chinese, but I don’t want to learn to read and write Chinese. Is this possible?

A: Yes. If you just want to learn survival Chinese, you can rely on the pinyin to help you pronounce the words. The challenge will be to find some materials that don’t give much attention to Chinese characters.

Or you could use the traditional materials along with their cds and just ignore the characters.

Also some beginning Mandarin podcasts will make no reference to Chinese characters and can be a great help.

But you should know that if you want to go further with your studies than a very basic level, it will be much more difficult to find materials for learning Chinese that don’t assume you know basic characters.

Q: I plan to travel to China and improve my Chinese. Which is a good city to go to where people speak Mandarin and not other dialects?

A: North or northeast China is the home of the Mandarin dialect. You can’t go wrong in cities like Beijing or other northern cities. But you should know that all major cities in mainland China will be a safe bet for you these days. The reason is that there is a huge movement of people from all over China to larger cities, so that people must use the shared dialect of Mandarin to communicate in commerce and daily living.

Small or medium-sized cities that are not in the north may be the ones where you will come more often into contact with people who do not speak a brand of Mandarin that is easily recognizable. As a beginning Mandarin learner, it’s fair to avoid these places for that reason, but not essential, as many people will still be speaking Mandarin, particularly in educational settings.

For more related stuff on this topic, you can see this article about standard Mandarin.

Q: Will learning Mandarin help me get a job?

A: If you are already in a field where you specifically know that being able to speak Mandarin will be valuable to you and why, then that is a good incentive to learn Chinese. But generally, if you see learning Mandarin as a skill that will rocket you to the top of a competitive job market, I'm not sure your efforts will be rewarded in the way you imagine.

Intrinsic motivators, such as an interest in Chinese culture, or just a love of learning languages (which can be discovered if you don’t already have it), will be much better tools to help you realize success than a vague idea that Mandarin well help you gain employment.

On the other hand, I know of a guy who set out to learn Mandarin for 'his resume', but ended up sticking with it for other reasons - namely, the other various rewards that come from learning a foreign language. (So go ahead. You may just get hooked!)

Q: What does it mean that Chinese is a tonal language?

At the beginning Mandarin stage, you begin to confront the four Chinese tones. In Mandarin Chinese, a speaker's voice rises, falls, dips, or holds a pitch steady on each syllable. The Chinese are very sensitive to hearing these tones and they actually determine the meaning of a word in Chinese, along with the different sounds that we are used to distinguishing.

You don’t need to be a good singer or anything to imitate them. Rather, over time you will begin to get a sensitivity to hearing the difference. That sensitivity will make all the difference in your own pronunciation of the tones.

Q: How can I learn Chinese online?

A: There are many great resources to learn Mandarin online. There are great study programs and tools to access through the internet or with mobile devices that can form the core of your learning at any level. There seems to always be new and better ones to turn up. Of course, I recommend using our own dialogues and pinyin course as a way to get communicating well with everyday language and topics. But what's most important for your long term development is that you have a good framework with which to understand what methods work best and why. For this, you should understand the fundamental theorem of language learning.

And don't forget that you can have a live teacher through online services, too.

Q: How can I find a Chinese teacher in my area?

Check out if there is a Confucius Institute in your city and contact them. Or check on craiglist. Or put an ad on there yourself, saying that you're a beginning Mandarin learner and want some help from a native speaker. You can check out universities nearby, too, if they have a Chinese or East Asian language program going on. You could post on their bulletin board, electronic or otherwise, about what you’re looking for.

Q: I can’t find a reliable teacher in my area to help me with my Chinese. What other options do I have?

There are a number of services online that will help hook up a beginning Mandarin learner with a Chinese teacher one to one. Sometimes they integrate online lessons with their own materials such as podcasts and online learning tools.

If these are American run companies, as a few are, you will find that they have very professional and user-friendly presentations. You can spot them because the English on their sites will have no errors. The trade off is that they are more expensive than the outfits run solely by Chinese.

But don’t shy away from the Chinese-run services, especially if budget is an important issue for you. Some of these teachers (though certainly not all) have valuable teaching experience and can be a good match for your beginning Mandarin needs.

Also there are some options nowadays to do language exchange online for free, if you are willing to share your English ability as well as learn beginning Mandarin yourself. China is a goldmine of native speakers that are dying to practice English, much more so than English speakers needing to practice their Chinese. So the fact is that you can benefit from the imbalance, because by the good fortune of being an English speaker, you are in far more demand than the Chinese speaker.

Q: What is the difference between 'Chinese' and 'Mandarin'?

Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese. In China there are many, in fact too many various dialects in different regions. So in an effort to make everyone in China mutually understandable, the dialect of Beijing, called 'Mandarin' was chosen as the standard.

Chinese refer to it as “common language” or “national language”.

Cantonese is another Chinese dialect that is significant, though clearly not as valuable for communication as Mandarin.

Q: What is the best textbook for learning beginning Mandarin?

The book I like to recommend for those who are at the Chinese beginner stage is one titled “Short-term Spoken Chinese”. This one is a great all-around textbook. At our Chinese training center in Wuhan we start our learners off with this one if they are on a survival Chinese track.

I’m also a big fan of a new series of textbooks meant for studying reading, called "Reading China", published by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP).

They have a cd along with each book (very important). And their strength is that, unlike many Chinese textbooks, the creators made a special effort to keep the topics interesting to us ‘foreigners’. And in my opinion, they were pretty successful at that.

It’s a great series for building up your Chinese vocabulary and your listening skills.