How to Teach Yourself Chinese

Shanghai Living

Teach yourself Chinese

Learning Chinese isn’t as hard as it looks. Get started with this handy guide.

With all the resources available on and offline, it’s easy to teach yourself one of the world’s most feared languages.

A teacher is undoubtedly useful, especially for honing pronunciation. But much of the language can realistically be learned with a computer, an internet connection, and a handful of offline resources. Here’s how.


Pimsleur can really get you off the ground when it comes to starting off in the language. The method consist of a series of mp3 lessons which repeat vocabulary and sentences in progressively more difficult (but similar) situations.

You may well tire of being told ‘You are an American man, meeting a Chinese woman.’ On the version I used, this American man asked the Chinese lady to dinner, but she refused. The rejection still hurts today.

Rosetta Stone

I’ve heard a lot about Rosetta Stone, and I’ve observed you can buy knock-off copies of their Mandarin programs in Big Movie. Their program works by teaching you words with visual cues only ( without English) so you’re immersed and thinking in Mandarin from the start. Like Pimsleur, it seems a solid way to get a good grounding in Chinese,

One thing that makes Rosetta Stone stand apart, though, is the speech recognition technology. Chinese is a tricky language to pronounce, and you’ll need some help before the locals can understand you.


Chinesepod is an internet based learning resource. It’s designed for busy people, which is more or less everyone in Shanghai. It’s also designed for smartphones, tablets and desktop learning. If you remember to download the mp3 lessons, you could be studying on the subway to work, backing up the vocab you’ve learnt on their app, and filling in the gaps at home on your laptop.

They also offering tutoring via Skype, though for those of us living in China, I’m convinced it’s better value to get a face-to-face tutor if time allows.

While Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone will teach you the basics well, Chinesepod has lessons from beginner level up to advanced, meaning it can take you as far as you want to go.

Tuttle’s Learning Chinese Characters

Everyone thinks reading Chinese is difficult. It’s an annoying misconception, because in reality mastering the basics of reading is no more difficult than communicating with a Shanghai taxi driver when you’re drunk (if you can do that already, time to start reading).

There are many books on the market that introduce the most common characters. This one is as good as any. Pick up a copy at Fuzhou Lu or look for one online. Once you have about 800 characters down, you’ll be able to read simple children’s books (you’ll still have to look up a few characters on your phone-see below- but you’ll be on your way to reading fluency).


Everyone thinks writing Chinese is difficult. They are wrong. Writing Chinese is almost impossible. Compared to the relaxing ease of just recognising characters, remembering their exact components and stroke orders is indeed a challenge.

Fortunately, for app-happy learners prepared to pay a modest monthly fee, the requisite hours of practise required to become confident in virtual brush strokes can be completed on your phone. Skritter allows you to practise and practise until you know a character like the back of your iPhone. You’ll need to remember a character’s stroke order and correct tone before Skritter lets you move on.

Pinyin Trainer by train Chinese

It’s possible to study Mandarin for years and still not be able to recognise tones ( I have personally proved this point). I wish I’d found this app earlier. It tests you on recognising single or double tones until your ears become attuned. After a while with this app, you’ll no longer need to ask your teacher, ‘which tone is…’.

Gained in translation

There are many Chinese-English dictionaries you can download to your phone. They are invaluable for everyone from the serious learner to someone who just needs to buy painkillers at the pharmacy.

For iPhone owners, I’ve found the trainchinese dictionary to be helpful. For android aficionados, Hanping Chinese Dictionary ticks all the right boxes.

2 thoughts on “How to Teach Yourself Chinese”

  1. I suspect each person’s learning curve and each tutor’s teaching capability are different. I’ve seen a few people with zero Chinese skills take one hour of private tutoring (one to thrice a week) before work and they still cannot communicate after three months.

    Personally, unless you are skilled with languages and/or make a concerted effort to study consistently, I would go with a more structured learning environment. The language programs at the universities (Fudan/Jiaotong/Tongji/etc) are pretty good. A colleague did a year of part time (3 hours/day, 5 days/week) and can get around without a problem.

    I did a year at Fudan during college and while I speak colloquial Chinese quite fluently I just signed myself up for part-time Business Chinese classes later this year (2.5 hours/day, twice a week, after work) to refresh.

  2. My teacher charges around 150 kuai an hour, she’s qualified, provides materials and has contributed to some recognised books. She comes to my house and is happy to rearrange by wechat. I have one lesson a week (except when I’m traveling, on holiday, in a full day meeting) which averages out at 50 hours a year, not exactly much.

    I started learning before I came to China and worked my way through some of the ‘Chinese with Mike’ series on youtube as well as some other online/ video stuff. There’s also some decent vocabulary apps, I used a couple to revise the week before my exams.

    All in all (even after 2.5 years) my Chinese is totally rubbish but I’m ok getting about in taxis, restaurants, bars, asking the odd direction etc. Survival-lite. I passed HSK I and II, more to put on my CV than anything else. Doing an hour a week and pretty much not revising (I’m fairly lazy) I don’t think you will get much further. Also, I’m not here to learn Chinese but I found that every scenario that I could scrape by with a little Chinese takes the pressure off and means I can relax a bit more and enjoy China.

    I know people who have learnt loads in a year with some intensive Uni courses and half day sessions plus actually revising and chatting to their ayi, having Chinese friends and chatting to colleagues helps. But then I also know people who have been here for several years that cannot communicate their own address in Chinese.

    None of the above would help me buy moisturiser rather than shower gel though. Pleco dictionary probably would help.


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