Tools to learn Chinese

What are some of the best tools and resources to study Mandarin? One of the hardest tasks when learning another language is to remain motivated for the long term, which is why it it’s helpful to have a goal. The HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is a standard Chinese proficiency test, which is administered by the Chinese government. I’ve been studying Chinese through Portland State University’s Confucius Institute, and plan to take the HSK 2 this summer. I really want to thank both PSU’s Confucius Institute and my teacher for helping me to learn this beautiful language. 谢谢 Based on my experience, I wanted to explore tools to learn Mandarin.

View of the ocean in Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2017

If you are studying Mandarin there are a wealth of free resources and websites to help you, and here are a few that I recommend. To be clear, I don’t know anyone at any of these sites or companies, and I haven’t received any gifts or funds for these endorsements. I also haven’t included subscription based services (like Skritter) because I’d rather buy something outright than have to pay by the month. I’ve also generally avoided apps that require you to share an email address to register, such as HSK online. These are all apps and programs that I’ve used myself for countless hours.

If you are only going to have one app for learning Chinese, you should purchase Pleco. This Chinese dictionary has a wide array of different services, depending on how much you want to spend. Although you can obtain it for free, if I remember correctly I purchased the most basic version, which I use to look up Chinese words, and learn characters. I love that I can see further information on each of the characters in a word, and a wide array of sentences in which the word has been used. It also allows you to see the stroke order when writing characters. You can’t get this context from Google Translate. If you are only going to purchase one app, start here.

AnkiApp is a great tool to learn vocabulary, especially for people trying to memorize Chinese characters. The flashcard app has vocabulary lists for a wide range of languages. For Chinese, you can choose HSK vocabulary. What I like is that you self-rate the difficulty of the word/character. The app uses spaced repetition to make sure that you see difficult words more frequently. It also allows you to track your progress over time. I’m always using this app while waiting for the bus, standing in a line, etc. I firmly believe in the power of habit (see this blog post) and this is a great way to make learning a daily practice. The price may vary depending on what smartphone you own, but I believe that it was about $25 when I bought it.

I also spent $9.99 to purchase Notability, which I didn’t purchase for language study, but rather as a means to organize a road trip. The app was originally designed as a note-taking tool, but it allows you to organize and annotate images in a wide array of ways. This proves to be great for learning Chinese characters, because you can look up images on Anki App or Pleco, and then write them onto Notability. The pen feature allows you to write on a blank screen to draw your character, and then to quickly erase it. I find that I can’t really learn characters until I’ve written them myself. You’ll use the app to annotate PDFs and other work projects too, so it’s a great tool to have. That said, I enjoy calligraphy, and still spend a lot of time writing the characters out by hand on paper. If you decide to try that, you should go to your local art store and ask for a calligraphy or brush pen. It won’t cost you more than several dollars.

Statue outside temple in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman

Another helpful app in the Apple Store is Tone Game. At 99 cents it is a bargain. The game asks you to listen to words with tones, and to pick the right tone in order to increase your score. It’s a good way to train your ear. Don’t despair if you score poorly at first.

Another app is “The HSK test,” which is free. It’s the exact format of the actual HSK test, and comes with four tests for each level. You can also retake each test. There is also “HSK online” in the app store, but I haven’t tried this resource because you must first register.

The basic level of “Du Chinese” is free, and enables you to read text and hear a dialogue appropriate to your level. Many people like the Chairman’s Bao, which is available as both an app and a website. This service has free sample texts at different levels, which are all news articles. There will be a brief article in Chinese, and then a translation. When you click on articles that aren’t free you will receive a notice that this is premium content, and that you can pay for a two week subscription for $5.99. I don’t like subscription services, and this seems expensive. You will also be pushed to create a username and login, and to share your email. Still, the product is really well done. With each news article you receive the Chinese characters, then the text in pinyin. Underneath there are tabs that provide a list of key words, all the grammar points found in the text, and proper nouns. I only use it for the free articles, and it’s still a useful resource.

There are a huge number of podcasts available to learn Chinese. One that I recommend is Talk Chineasy with Shaolan. The podcast always teaches you just one word by listening to a brief dialogue between Shaolan and a call-in guest. The pace isn’t too fast, and although you may focus on a single word, you’ll often learn how to use it in various combinations, and usually you’ll learn some Chinese culture as well. I also like Shaolan’s energy, optimism and humor. I also recommend her book Chineasy, which is available on Apple Books; your library may also have it electronically. It has many visual aids that will help you to learn Chinese characters. Apart from Shaolan’s podcast, there are many other books on Chinese characters, so it’s worth taking time to find the one that works best for you.

YouTube is also a great resource to learn Chinese, and there are a wealth of videos to explore. What I particularly like about YouTube is that I can view the characters or pinyin at the same time as I listen to terms or dialogue. The following are some great channels on YouTube:

Chinese buddy has a wealth of catchy songs to teach beginning Mandarin. If you are just starting to study, this might be a good place to begin. It’s also a useful resource for young children. Don’t view this if you aren’t in the mood for silly songs that amuse kids.

Chinesepod has a truly huge amount of content for free, which mainly covers material from beginning through intermediate Chinese. They also have a subscription service, which I have not bought. The videos tend to be professionally done, and have attracted nearly 50,000 subscribers.

Learn Chinese now also has a wealth of free material, which comes with a good dose of humor. Since the videos are produced in Chinese they often use traditional characters, although they will also often include the simplified characters too.

Yoyo Chinese also has extensive videos on Mandarin, including some videos on Chinese characters. This channel must be one of the most popular Mandarin instruction sites on YouTube, as it has over 214,000 subscribers.

Chinese class 101 will also try to sell you on its subscription service, but likewise has an astounding number of free videos, which have attracted over 130,000 subscribers.

Kate Chinese class is a somewhat quirky YouTube channel with fewer than a 1,000 subscribers, in which Kate will take you out to a coffee shop or park, and try to teach you basic Mandarin. She films some of her videos while driving in the car to work. More recently she has been doing immersive Chinese, in which she will speak in Mandarin while cooking meals or similar activities. These videos probably cater more towards an audience in their teens or twenties.

Mandarin Corner is a popular channel, in part because it has extensive videos subtitled in pinyin. This video channel is very popular with intermediate and advanced students who want to hear slowly paced Chinese dialogue.

Learn Chinese like a native speaker has just over 5,000 subscribers, and is a great place to learn practical vocabulary, such as how to check into a hotel.
Fluent in Mandarin focuses on screencasts of slideshows made by a British mandarin speaker. I found the videos about Chinese radicals to be quite helpful, but be warned that the slideshow format can sometimes make these videos rather dry.
Learn chinese with Yi Zhao also focuses on slideshows (although there are some videos out on the street too), and is one of the best channels on Youtube for beginning Mandarin.
From Zero to Hero. One of my students recommended this website, which they found to be quite useful. I like that they offer lessons at many different levels. Of course, you will also be pushed to pay for a subscription, but even so there is quite a bit of useful, free content.
Lastly, one of the best places to find advice and ideas to learn intermediate to advanced Chinese is in the subreddit “Chinese language.” I know that people sometimes think that Reddit is mainly home to cat videos and poisonous political dialogue, but it’s also a great place to find people with your interests. On the “Chinese language” subreddit, you’ll find links to language learning videos, suggestions about Chinese language apps, and a virtual community to share ideas. It is, however, focused on people who are further along in their studies, so they strongly encourage the use of Chinese characters. Because much of the community is made up of expats (or people who aspire to live and work in China) this probably isn’t the best resources for beginners. If you are further along in your studies, and need help understanding an idiomatic expression or grammar point, this is the place for you.
A few tips about learning 中文:
  1. There are no shortcuts. You’re going to have to put in the time.
  2. I love having the HSK tests as a goal to measure my progress. But if you focus too much on the test, you can start to learn only what’s required on the test. You can also start rushing to get to your goal, and not really master all of the content. So enjoy the journey too.
  3. Learning language is like learning to play golf. You can’t do it unless you’re willing to be embarrassed. So don’t become discouraged when you have a bad day, in which you’ve forgotten words you should know, or you can’t figure out the grammar points that you’ve just covered in the last lesson. Often you’ll make the most progress right after that day.
  4. It will take you longer to learn Chinese than a Western language. So don’t compare the two, especially if you’ve already learned another language.
  5. The HSK textbooks are an essential resource. There’s no substitute for a good text.
  6. Apps like Ankiapp are great. But don’t confuse learning words with learning the language (a phrase someone else once wrote on subreddit “Chinese language). In the end, the best step you can take is to find a patient teacher, which is more important -by far- than every resource that I’ve listed above. If you can’t see a good teacher face to face (is there a Confucius Institute in your area?) you can certainly take classes through video chat. I studied with the same wonderful, kind (and infinitely patient) teacher for about two years in Portland before moving to Cambridge. Now we do our classes by phone and video chat, and it works very well. 谢谢 Again, I want to thank the P.S.U. Confucius Institute -and all its wonderful teachers- without which I never would have begun to study Mandarin.

Whatever tools you use, or whatever language you choose to study, just don’t stop. It’s not about becoming fluent, but about getting better. And having fun.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Advertisement at Victoria’s Peak in Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2017

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