How To Learn Chinese

Inspiration is a funny thing when it comes to writing. Sometimes you literally have a million ideas falling out of your a** from, I don’t know where. You’re brilliantly shiny!

But other times, it’s like grasping for straws. Especially when you’re writing for a buck. Feeling uninspired, not loving the editing angle, topic or sensing nobody cares if you write well or not. Deadlines, create, create, create! You start turning in hot turds like they’re just as good as your work you put you heart into, but deflated you just think poo emoji, put on your best fake smile and hit send. Meanwhile you get edits, edits, edits. You start thinking damn, how long can this go on for? Sometimes, even when you are writing for yourself you get in the same funk.

Lately I’ve been a bit stuck on ideas here. But, today I got a gem of an idea!

On Instagram I got a DM ask on how to learn Chinese and then I laughed because I realized I took my first Chinese class at 20 (right now I am 32) and started studying with a tutor in maybe 2011, use it for work research, have lived in China for a solid decade and often ask my current Chinese tutor I have been working with since 2013 (we do six hours a month) when I can stop studying, semi-desperate with a dash of humor. Or I just ask if we can gossip instead… So I really thought this was a brilliant topic for a semi expert like myself to write about. In all seriousness though, despite the long lead in, here’s what I’ve used so far:

Self knowledge / purpose

It’s important to know why you want to learn Chinese. For work? Out of personal interest? Purpose matters.

If it’s just for personal interest, I would say learning how to read on an advanced level is of moderate use.

That being said being able to read helps you understand how words are built. A lot of Chinese words are fun like kid which is ‘xiao pengyou’ little friend or be careful ‘xiao xin’ which is little and heart combined together. Rather poetic. But, since you need to learn the phonetic spelling - pinyin, meaning and characters, reading can be pretty rough.

If you do want to work in China or write about it, it really, really helps to be able to read for research.

Next, set your mindset

Some people are great at learning languages, but I’ve never been one of them. So if you are like me, for English native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is a level 4 language, meaning one of the most difficult to learn. Be prepared for difficulty.

While purists prefer traditional characters (used in Taiwan and Hong Kong), in mainland China simplified is used. If you are studying for professional opportunities, I highly recommend simplified.

Create a base

While I spoke Chinese at home growing up, it is super useful to take level 1 Chinese in a school setting to develop a proper base. Chinese has several tones, the grammar is very easy though for conversational stuff.

Develop a thick skin

If you look Asian like me, I do feel you get the second degree for not magically speaking the language. I don’t know how many times I have been made fun of for grammatical errors, saying a word wrong, etc. The only thing that matters it to remember who gives a fuck. It’s like working out, you suck, you are out of shape, you have to keep going to get fit.

If you really want to learn ignore the haters, or use it for motivation to get better. Don’t be self conscious, it’s how one learns.

Continuous learning is clutch

Ok so now that you have the mindset for learning established, just remember mastering a language is a continuous process. After developing a baseline, just keep dedicating time to learning. You might not notice you are making progress but it’s probably happening. I would say it’s more important to just develop the habit of studying.

Here’s some of the stuff I used previously:


Mandarin Chinese English Bilingual Visual Dictionary by DK publishing

Language apps:

Pleco (my favorite Chinese dictionary)




When I arrived in China in 2008 it blew my mind how everyone used drop down readers to read English for research. There’s a Chinese to English web browser extension called Zhongwen for Google Chrome that I use which is great.

On Apple products you can turn on the speech function, this allows you to highlight text which is then read to you by a computer. You can also copy text into Google translate and then you click on the microphone icon and it can also be read to you. has a bilingual section. Click around, use the speech feature or Google translate to read it to yourself.

I use to take some free classes online from China Pod way back in the day, they also have paid content, BBC also has free stuff here

Look for vocab lists for HSK 1-6 online. Go through them.

Otherwise watch movies or tv shows, I use to watch a kids cartoon, Xi Yangyang - Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf. These days you can easily find English articles about shows or movies to watch.


I also bought myself kids flash cards, when I first arrived in China I worked in bilingual early education for awhile, so I needed to know animals, fruits, transport. This is also a great way to build vocab.

Basically that’s all I’ve figured out for now. It’s essentially just trying and keeping at it.