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Learning Mandarin Chinese - Tips, Tricks and Useful Apps.

Updated on April 23, 2018
Yasmins Art profile image

I moved to China in March 2016 to work as an ESL teacher in a private school. I love to travel to new and exciting places.

I've written this article for anyone who, like me, is attempting to learn Mandarin Chinese or anyone who wants to start. In this article are the books, apps, websites and tips I've found most useful so far during my studies. Happy studying!


Why learn Mandarin Chinese?

  • For the challenge!
  • It's the world's most spoken language.
  • Languages create opportunities.

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, so it's definitely a challenge for anyone trying to learn. The meaning of each word can be changed entirely just by the tone in which it's said.

It is widely spoken across Asia and is the first language of China, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. It is said that roughly 1.2 billion people in the world speak Mandarin Chinese.

What is your favorite way to learn a language?

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Good Habits for Language Learning.

Everybody learns differently so find a style that suits you!

Tips for successful language study.

  • Be a little obsessive. Study every day. If you only manage ten minutes on some days, it's better than nothing at all.
  • Buy books at an appropriate level. Books that are too hard will be dull and demotivating.
  • Get a teacher or go to a regular class. Some people love to study alone, but having a regular session with a teacher helps to keep up motivation and can be useful for any error correction to stop the forming of bad habits.
  • Find friends to practice with. It's more fun. If you don't know anyone else who is learning there are some great apps for meeting and chatting to people who are also learning.
  • Schedule time to study. Write a time in your diary and make space in your routine where you can sit down and concentrate.
  • Immerse yourself if possible. Got to the country. Talk to the locals.
  • If immersion isn't possible, then create lots of exposure to the language. Change the language on your phone. Label everyday things in your house. Listen to the radio and watch TV in that language. Exposure will help you to understand what the language sounds and looks like.

Useful Apps for Mandarin Chinese Study

There are so many apps out there, make the most of them and find ones that suit you! Stick to some apps faithfully to get the most out of them but move on and use a new one if you are feeling bored.

Here are some of the apps I have found most useful for my phone/tablet.

  • HelloChinese - a cute little app that is great for beginners. It teaches basic vocabulary, grammar and characters in a fun way.
  • Anki Flashcards- Create your own flashcards in decks and look at them every day. The app records which cards you are strongest with and repeats the ones you are less familiar with more often.
  • Pleco - a great little dictionary. Draw, write or photograph characters for a definition.
  • InFlow Chinese - A fun flashcard app. The Practice section is a high speed memory game to really help you to learn characters easily.

Writing Chinese Characters.

The Chinese use a very complex writing system which is completely different to the Latin phonetic alphabet that English speakers are used to. The Chinese use characters. Each character is made up of ordered brush strokes and radicals to connote the sound and the meaning of the word.

Practice words in the same way that Chinese children do, by practicing the characters multiple times. A decent book explaining radicals and stroke order can really improve character writing. The ones I personally used to get started were Collins Easy Learning Chinese Characters and Learning Chinese Characters From Ms. Zhang. These both have clear instructions to follow and plenty of space to practice.

Another good way to improve writing skills is to keep a diary. Initially, writing just a few easy words relating to your day and increasing this to sentences and paragraphs as you improve takes just a few minutes to do and is a great way to practice.

Listening to Mandarin Chinese - An Effective Way to Learn.

Listening practice is really important. It helps you to get used to the way the language sounds and can solidify and words or grammar points you have learnt elsewhere when you hear them.

Here are a few great daily listening podcasts.

  • Pimsleur Chinese
  • Chinese Pod

Pimsleur is great for beginners. It has three different levels increasing in difficulty and each section is around thirty minutes long. Repeat the words you hear after the presenter to learn new language.

I love Chinese Pod. The podcasts are short, only around ten minutes long so are much easier to fit into a daily schedule. There are a number of different topics so it's easy to learn about things that personally interest you. These are at different levels and are supported by more materials on the website. The podcast teaches a few relevant key words and fits these into a slightly longer script that is repeated multiple times.

Another good method to improve your listening skills is to listen to Chinese radio, especially talk shows as these use a lot of natural language. Also, treat yourself to a fun way to study and watch Chinese TV shows with subtitles.


Chinese graded readers are a great way to learn a language! It's so easy to get lost in a book and a good story line and completing a book in a foreign language, no matter how low the grade, feels like a real achievement. Reading popular, well-known stories with a plot that may already be familiar to you makes it easier to understand. The pictures look great and help give extra understanding to the language and it's nice to learn from something other than a textbook, so that it doesn't feel like such a chore! The graded language means that the characters are likely to be relevant to your level and a few of the less common characters come with a translation at the bottom of the page. These are usually repeated throughout the book so it is easy to learn new language from these books.

Two companies I've really found useful in my personal studies are Mandarin Companion and Chinese Breeze.

A peek inside a graded reader.
A peek inside a graded reader. | Source

Mandarin Companion

Mandarin Companion books are brightly colored with lovely illustrations. They cover a number of popular stories. I've personally read and really enjoyed these stories, but there are a few more publications I still need to catch up with.

  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
  • The Secret Garden
  • The Monkey's Paw
  • The Country of the Blind
  • Great Expectations (in two parts)
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Curly Haired Company
  • The Sixty Year Dream

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Secret Garden: Mandarin Companion Graded Readers Level 1 (Chinese Edition)
The Secret Garden was the first graded reader I read from this company. As a I child, I loved to read the book and watch the movie so was really excited to find it translated into Mandarin using only 300 commonly used characters.

Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze have a large number of publications. The stories are perhaps less familiar than those of Mandarin Companion, but are still interesting and fun to read. Again, the pictures are useful tools in helping check understanding, however, these books are less colorful and feel a little more like a textbook. On the plus side, all Chinese Breeze books come with an audio CD of the story so you can get some good listening practice in or use it to read along with. Some of these have two speeds, a slow and a normal reading speed. The word count in Chinese Breeze seems to go a little higher than Mandarin Companion so it seems a good progression to read these after the Mandarin Companion readers.

I'm currently working through a stack of the level two and threes, here are a few of the titles.

  • If I Didn't Have You.
  • After the Accident.
  • The Painted Skin
  • The Moon Sculpture Left Behind
  • Mother and Son
  • Our Geese Have Gone
  • Green Phoenix

HSK Examinations - A Language Proficiency Test

HSK exams are widely recognized by many companies and show the level of your Mandarin proficiency. Each one contains a set number of characters and gets progressively harder.

HSK Level
Character Count
Approx Hours of Study

Thanks for Reading!

I hope you've found this article useful!

If anyone has discovered any more great methods to learn Mandarin, please drop me a comment below. It's always good to discover a new way to study.

© 2018 Yasmin Crawford-Hunt


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