How to Learn Mandarin Chinese on Your Own

You Can Teach Yourself

Want to learn Chinese for a trip or business? Or maybe you want to speak to relatives or friends. Even though this language spoken by over 1 billion people, very few high schools have classes, and the langauge isn't available in all colleges either. However, you can learn on your own, and, in fact, might even learn more than taking a class.

Why? When you teach yourself, you can make sure you really learn one level before you move on to the next. You can spend as long as you want to on a vocabulary list. Rather than just trying to pass a test, you can make your goal be learning the language.

Teach Yourself Learning Programs

Mandarin Language Learning Method
Advantages
Disadvantage
Pimsleur
can repeat as much as you want, learn slowly, hear speaker clearly, do at own pace, "quiz" method helps you learn
slow vocabulary build up, does cost about $300 per set of 30 lessons although you can get discounts and re-sell tapes, lessons get dull to listen to repeatedly
Chinesepod
fun to listen to Ken and Jenny, explains background of phrases and teaches conversation in context, can listen to repeatedly, free to listen, can go from novice, to beginner, to intermediate and advanced
lots of English in early lessons means you don't learn as much, jump between levels is tough sometimes, learning seems somewhat disconnected and vocabulary is not built up, no quizzing to help you see what you know
Mandarin Learning with Serge
Serge does have longer conversations and vocabulary lists you can buy which do teach Mandarin in a more systematic way based on themes like restaurant, banking, relatives etc. Longer lessons and conversations than Chinesepod. Free to listen to podcasts.
Lessons can be difficult for new language learner. Serge is Russian and so sometimes his English is off. Lessons are not as systematic as Pimsleur. Vocabulary is not repeated and built up. Vocabulary lists for each lesson are long.
Youtube Videos
Free and offer both listening and viewing of people speaking. Variety of lessons and types of lessons.
Some Youtube videos are just sample lessons and you have to pay to subscribe to whole program. Some lessons are not systematic or don't go beyond basic vocabulary. Other lessons may not be well structured. Need to search for good videos.
Chinese Language Class
Systematic instruction with teacher who will guide your learning. You will be held accountable for learning. You will have other people to learn with. You will be tested on what you know. Teacher will help your progress.
Tendency to focus on tests rather than what you really know how to speak. Often language classes focus more on reading and writing rather than speaking. Not enough chances to listen to native speaker.
Online Chinese for High School Credit (Powerspeak or Language 360)
Can get high school credit for Chinese learning. Uses online and face to face instruction. Usually other students in class. Systematic language learning.
Test driven. Does require dedication to study and do work. May not really master the speaking portion. A good start but not guarantee of learning to speak unless you do a lot of speaking outside of class.

Me in Beijing!

Source

I Thought I Couldn't Learn

Or rather, that I couldn't really learn to speak. It wasn't that I hadn't tried. In fact, I'd studied German and Spanish and could read in both languages but couldn't ever speak to someone when I got the chance.

Everyone says that you need an immersion experience in order to really become fluent, but that didn't work for me. When we moved to Texas, we joined a Spanish church. Although most of the younger people did speak English, the sermons were in Spanish and many of the older people only spoke Spanish. My husband enthusiastically talked with everyone and enjoyed practicing his language skills, but in spite of having studied Spanish in college, I found I could not ever remember what I’d learned beyond the occasional “Hola” and “Adios!”

Embarrassingly, in the three years we belonged to the church, I never once had a conversation with anyone in Spanish! Sometimes, I'd try to practice starting a conversation on my own at home, but when it came to talking to someone in person, I'd always get embarrassed and start speaking English instead. Afterwards, I’d feel so frustrated that I never could remember what to say when I wanted to speak.

Why Try?

You can imagine what I thought when my husband said we should start learning Mandarin! Hadn't I learned my lesson? However, we do have two daughters adopted from China and we really did want them to learn some of their native language. Moreover, we had plans for taking not only our family but also some of the college students we work with to China on an extended trip, maybe more than once. Surely that was enough of a motivation? I wasn't so sure.

Reasons to Learn

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Chinese Adoption tripSpeak with RelativesTeach Children Do business in ChinaLearn CultureTravel Learn about new foods.
Chinese Adoption trip
Chinese Adoption trip | Source
Speak with Relatives
Speak with Relatives | Source
Teach Children
Teach Children | Source
Do business in China
Do business in China | Source
Learn Culture
Learn Culture | Source
Travel
Travel | Source
Learn about new foods.
Learn about new foods. | Source

Listening to Pimsleur

My husband did some searching on the internet and talking to other professors he knew who had learned the language. One of them (who was fluent in several languages) told us that after he had studied Chinese through taking some college courses, he went over on business to Beijing and found no one could understand him. Of course, this story did not drive up my confidence. However, this professor told us that the problem was that he had learned visually and not by listening, so he had never really mastered the tones. He started learning over again using the Pimsleur method of learning by listening and repeating what he heard and found that it worked. Soon he returned to China and this time, they understood him.

Sample Pimsleur lesson one

Pimsleur Review

So we decided to try the Pimsleur method. Although the tapes can be expensive, my husband found that you can order them used and then re-sell them afterwards, so the cost is under $50 for the first thirty lessons. My husband plunged through Pimsleur 1 and 2 and then started on course 3. Skeptical, it took me a while to be even willing to try the first 30-minute lesson. When I did start listening to the Pimsleur tapes, I was initially frustrated because I couldn't “hear” the sounds of the words and repeat them correctly. Then I worried that I wasn't going through the tapes quickly like my husband. However, I just decided to not worry about how fast I was learning and just take as long as I needed to remember the lessons.

It was reassuring to know that the tapes said I only had to know about 80% of the lesson in order to move on because the vocabulary would be repeated later. At first, I'd have to listen over and over to the same phrases and try to recreate those sounds. However, the listening paid off and I began to be able to "hear" the sounds more easily and then began to be able to pronounce them. Although I learned about the four tones, I did not worry about memorizing them. I just tried to pronounce the word the way it sounded to me.

Does the Method Work?

Yes! Even for a slow language learner like me, or maybe especially for a slow language learner since you can repeat the lessons as often as you need to. I'm now on my 3rd time of going through the Pimsleur tapes (after also doing some of the other methods below). Although even after the first time I was able to actually be understood in China, now I'm able to actually hear and reproduce the tones more clearly. Moreover, I really do have close to 100% recall in both listening and speaking. These tapes work. I'm also finding that even though the vocabulary is not huge, it is enough to speak basic conversation and to get information. In addition, I've been very pleased to have native Chinese speakers tell me my tones are very good.

Podcasts

ChinesePod, Mandarin Chinese Lessons with Serge Melnyk and other Podcasts

Since my husband had finished most of the Pimsleur lessons, he began looking around for other language learning materials. We read up on Rosetta Stone and decided that we were not convinced that it was worth the price. Instead, we downloaded the free iTunes pod-casts from ChinesePod, and Mandarin Chinese Lessons with Serge Melnyk. We also tried some of the other pod-casts, but most of those didn't have many lessons or were not well done. For variety, we started listening to these pod-casts along with Pimsleur.

Short video Sample

Our Experience

We took a trip to China after I'd only done about 15 lessons on Pimsleur Mandarin 1 and maybe another 20 podcast lessons. At the time, I doubted these lessons were going to do me much good since I wasn't sure I really remembered much from them. Not only was I sobered by my Spanish experience, I started realizing that I hadn't exactly been the most enthusiastic or dedicated learner this time around. Most of the time, I was just listening to the Pimsleur lessons while exercising at the YMCA, where there were so many distractions that I would find my mind drifting away a lot of the time.

I was astonished when I found that I was actually able to remember a lot of phrases and words to use on our trip. In fact, I found that I was sometimes able to communicate better than my husband who had studied far more lessons than me! What a difference from my experience in Spanish! Listening and learning at my own pace had worked for me in a way that classwork never had. Even though I’d only gone half-way through the first set of lessons, I had allowed myself enough time and repetition to actually remember the words I’d learned.

How to be Successful

After returning from that trip, I realized that I can learn languages. The key for me has been to give myself: time, repetition and variety.

  • Time means I do spend some time almost every day listening to a podcast, CD or doing Powerspeak online.
  • Repetition means that I don't pressure myself to "memorize" lists of words but just allow myself to hear and say the words over and over until suddenly I realize I "know" them and no longer have to think about what that word means.
  • Variety means that I don't stick to just one learning program. In looking through several blogs, I found that most people trying to learn the language used several programs, not just one.

Learning Variety

Most language learning programs have both strengths and drawbacks. Any one of them can be tedious to listen to over and over. Using a variety of materials instead of just one works the best for me. Instead of just turning off Pimsleur when I get tired of its question and answer format, I can switch to listening to the banter of Ken and Jenny at ChinesePod and hear a more in-depth discussion of the same words, or I can practice my pinyin and expand my vocabulary using Powerspeak.

Child's Lessons

YouTube

Another great free resource is YouTube videos. There are many free lessons available for kids and adults. My children have also enjoyed just listening to children's Chinese music videos. Listening to the tones of the words is part of the immersion process and I think it has helped them to "hear" the language.

CNTN Learning. Thanks to Hui for alerting me to the CNTN programs! I've checked it out and they have many videos and great instructions. There are several different programs to look at that are all online videos. They also offer PDF transcripts in pinyin, characters, and English. There is even a series of videos for teens. These are on YouTube but also offered on the CNTN website. Look for "Learning Chinese."

You Can Do It!

In fact, our experience is that we have learned more from studying on our own than we ever did in taking language classes in college. Really remembering a language requires a lot of repetition. In a class, you are always needing to move on to the next list of vocabulary, whether you really learned the words or not.

  • Work at Your Own Pace. When you study on your own you can work at your own pace and make learning, not grades, the goal.
  • More Auditory Help: In a class, you are generally relying on hearing just the teacher speak the words correctly, and you only hear the teacher in class.
  • Immersion Method by Tape. When you use audio study methods, you spend most of your time listening to native speakers talking, so you have much more of an immersion experience. Many tapes use several different speakers also, so you can hear different accents. However, studying on your own does takes effort and can get boring. I've found that it really helps to use a variety materials to keep myself motivated.
  • Slower Learning Means Better Language Retention. Oh, and the greatest irony? Now that I'm studying Chinese through listening, I'm also finding that I can recall and speak in Spanish much more easily. In fact, while we were in China, my husband and I ended up having a fifteen-minute conversation with one another all in Spanish while we were waiting for the subway. Even better was the time when I was stopped by a Spanish couple and their interpreter. They asked me a couple of questions and I was able to answer them. When then complimented me on my Spanish, I could hardly believe the irony of finally having a conversation in Spanish thousands of miles away from the nearest Spanish speaking country! Now I'm realizing that if I really do want to speak any of the other languages I've studied, I can do it by studying on my own. If I can do it, you can too!

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Comments 13 comments

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Billd--These are very good programs. My high school kids are also using Powerspeak--which I haven't had a chance to write a Hub about yet. That is also available free (at least in part) from our local library. I'm so glad there are so many resources!


billd01603 profile image

billd01603 4 years ago from Worcester

Thanks, Good Hub. My son is taking Mandarin and I will refer him to your Hub.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Wesley, Thanks for adding your experience with Pimsleur. I agree that you won't learn much if you try to do it too fast. I ended up spending about 2 years going through all three levels. I still want to go back and re-do the whole thing one time through again before we take our next trip to China. My kids are doing an online program for high school credit called Powerspeak. I need to do a review on that too. That program does teach writing as well. I do feel pretty far behind on that.


Wesley Meacham profile image

Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

I enjoyed reading this. Your husband might have gone through the Pimsluer material too fast. Pimsluer is what I've been using for almost a year. I went through the first thirty lessons back to back. Listened to a new one every day for a month. I didn't retain that much though. One day I put on one of the older lessons and realized that I didn't remember any of it. I decided to start over with it, repeating the lessons more. Currently I'm on track ten but I recall the material much better.

I've also used a lesson or two from Chinesepod. I do like their set up. I've never heard of the other programs you mention though. Will have to give them a listen. Thanks for this useful hub.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

Virginia,

This is an interesting and useful hub about teaching yourself Mandarin. In a way, I envy people today who now have access to programs like Pimsleur and internet podcasts for learning Mandarin. I had none of that when I started in 1967. Yes, constant repetition and learning at your own pace is very important. If you are learning by yourself, I think at times it would be beneficial to have a learning partner who can push you when you are getting lazy or discouraged. Voted up and sharing.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Brennawlker! We actually hosted a group of Chinese graduates students for dinner this last week and I found I was able to communicate with them better than I had before! And I was able to remember the words I wanted to say. I've found it actually harder to speak in Mandarin here with students who are very fluent in English--I also get tongue-tied. This method works!


brennawelker profile image

brennawelker 5 years ago

Thanks for your informative article. This is very useful.


szts77 profile image

szts77 5 years ago from Spain

Wow, Virginia, thanks! My friend actually decided to learn Mandarin, too, this year. She spent a month in China this summer on a university campus with an intensive program, and she hadn't studied Mandarin before, at all.

Great hub, and thanks for the advice in your answer!


whoisbid profile image

whoisbid 5 years ago

When I started dreaming in another language I knew something was happening. It is so great if someone can speak several languages.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 5 years ago from United States Author

Hui--thanks so much for this information about the CCT program. In researching on YTube for this hub and my other one reviewing resources for learning English I've come across several other learning programs. I will try to find this one!


Hui (蕙) profile image

Hui (蕙) 5 years ago

There is a TV program,travel in Chinese,in China Central Television and used to be channel 9(the CCTV9).The program is simple and relax,and based on some Chinese ordinary life and traditional culture.The host is a Canadian guy who can use Chinese as a native people,maybe better.I think that program is helpful,and I used to watch it learning simple English.Of course,I'm not sure you will be able to access to it.


visionandfocus profile image

visionandfocus 5 years ago from North York, Canada

I'm so glad to have stumbled on this hub! Your experience (and that of the professor who had to learn Mandarin twice) is fascinating. I've been trying to learn too, but have been stumped by the four tones. Now I'm inspired to try again, and will consider the Pimsleur. Thanks so much for sharing!


DaniellaWood profile image

DaniellaWood 5 years ago from England

Hey, VirginiaLynne, great hub! I am studying French and German at Uni and wanted to take up Chinese, too, but complications meant I couldn't, so I decided to teach myself it using the internet as my tutor. The learning's going well so far, and this hub definitely contributes to that! In my opinion, a good linguist is someone who is willing to try, and expresses enthusiasm for the subject; if you have that, the rest will come with time. Thanks again, Daniella.

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