So you think you can teach yourself Mandarin?
I did. So can you.
With the right combination of a clear motivation, effective resources, and a deep understanding of core language learning concepts, you can be well on your way towards fluency as you self study Chinese.
Keep reading to learn our best advice on how to learn Mandarin by yourself!
My Story of Chinese Self Study
I moved to China with the intention to learn Chinese and experience life in a different part of the world. However, I came with a wife, two kids, and no job. With the mentorship of friends, I was able to quickly learn the basics of survival.
However, I realized early on that my career path in China would necessitate sending my kids to local Chinese schools as opposed to international schools that required hefty tuition rates. In a few short years they would be starting school and I knew I needed to learn Chinese if that was to become a reality.
After I got my first job, I bought a textbook at a bookstore and for a while I studied Chinese for an hour every day before I went to work. I learned pinyin and began typing out characters via an instant messaging platform to coworkers in my office. I still communicated everything important in English and my Chinese was limited to simple conversations and basic communication.
After two years, I spoke broken Chinese and knew about 500 characters, but I still struggled to converse in Chinese and confidently use the language.
The Breakthrough Moment
I first learned about extensive reading from an English teacher who had taught at the University of Bangkok, and immediately became so intrigued that I thought it could help me with my Chinese. I found a Chinese graded reader series and proceeded to read 10 books in Chinese in three months, mostly on the metro commuting to and fro work every day.
In that short period of time, my Chinese went from broken to conversational. All of my work colleagues were amazed and asked me how my Chinese had improved so quickly. “I don’t know, I’m just reading these books” was all that I could say. It was so simple and easy that I felt like I was cheating on a test.
Since that time, my Chinese has continued to develop. While it is not perfect, my Chinese is proficient. I am fluent in what I know.
Now 10 years later, after having been immersed in Chinese education, helped hundreds of learners, coached and trained countless Chinese teachers, and interviewed dozens of people about their experiences learning the language, I will pass along these insights if you want to learn Chinese by yourself.
How to Succeed at Chinese Self Study
✅ Find and understand your motivation
You must have a reason to learn Chinese. This is the #1 factor I have found among anyone who has achieved a high level of proficiency in Chinese. They have their reason and you need to find yours.
Maybe it’s the challenge and the thrill of learning a language. Or perhaps you’ve fallen for a guy or a girl. It may be because you simply must survive in your environment, or because you want to connect with another culture. It could even be because someone said you can’t do it!
Whatever the reason, you have to find it, own it, and let it sustain you through your studies. That reason may change over time and that’s ok! Just be sure that you have a reason to do it.
Why Your Reason is Important
Classes provide you structure and accountability for learning. When you self study, it’s up to you. Nobody is there keeping you on track or providing structure and accountability. You are one of the few, the brave, the independent learner.
You don’t need a class to learn something. In fact, there is a school of thought that argues all learning is self-learning. Think about it: just because you’re in a class doesn’t mean you’re paying attention, and just because a teacher is teaching, doesn’t mean that you’re learning.
Ultimately, even if someone is teaching, that doesn’t mean you’re learning; YOU have to take an active role in your learning.
» Read Now: How to Find Your Motivation to Learn Chinese
✅ Take advantage of explicit and implicit learning strategies
Explicit learning is when you are intentionally trying to learn something such as “I’m studying this character” or “I’m trying to pronounce this properly.” Implicit learning is when you unintentionally learn something; you’re not trying to learn but you’re picking up stuff and learning along the way.
That’s one of the goals behind gamification of learning. While you’re playing a game and having fun, you’re learning, and you don’t necessarily *realize* you’re learning.
You can successfully teach yourself Mandarin if you lean into both explicit and implicit learning.
A core concept behind extensive reading is that there is a huge amount of implicit learning taking place, especially with grammar. Grammar is simply patterns of language usage and when you see grammar patterns over and over again, you start to recognize those patterns and simply become capable of replicating them without effort.
Studying Grammar = Unnecessary? ?
Some expert linguists say that studying grammar is unnecessary. Instead the focus is on acquiring vocabulary, providing enough exposure to sample texts and dialogue, and then clarifying grammar points as questions arise.
Just look at Steve Kauffman. The man speaks 20 languages and he’s never studied grammar. Instead, as outlined above, he simply exposes himself to enough language to pick up grammar patterns.
And while we know that deliberate instruction can help clarify at times, it stands to reason that you don’t have time to think about grammar rules when it’s time to use them. You just have to instantly recall and use.
When the time to perform arrives, the time to prepare has passed.Peter Vidmar, Olympic Pommel Horse Gold Medalist
Avoid less effective methods to teach yourself Chinese
❌ Studying flashcards till your head explodes
Flashcards can help you gain knowledge about characters and words, but it won’t help you become conversational or fluent. It’s an easy way to focus on specific words and characters, but all of these elements of Chinese are learned in isolation from each other without context. All of these bits of knowledge are siloed off from each other without a fluid understanding of how they all work together. The knowledge is abstract, and stays abstract, because it was learned abstractly.
Just because you study a book about guitar doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play guitar.
This is a favorite way for many who think it is the best way to self-study Mandarin, especially with popular apps citing spaced-repetition algorithms (looking at you Duolingo and Anki), but alone it won’t get you fluent.
❌ Forgetting output
Language consists of two sides of the same coin: input and output. At times we may be so focused on studying or the “input” side that we neglect the “output”. If you’re looking for the best way to self study Chinese, you have to find ways to generate output in the form of speaking and writing.
Most learners can understand more than what they can speak. It seems reasonable to think that if we can understand something, we should be able to reproduce it ourselves. However, when we first learn a new bit of Chinese or have only seen it a small number of times, it has yet to firmly implanted itself in our memory.
The Value of New Learning
New learning has a place in our receptive vocabulary, but if we want to move it into our working vocabulary, we must encounter it enough times in context before we understand it well enough and feel confident enough to use it. Most research indicates this is 10 to 20 encounters with a word.
This is a critical step, but the next critical step is to begin using what we have learned so that we retain the knowledge of what we have learned. You can teach yourself Mandarin, but at the end of the day, language is a tool to communicate and communication is a two way process.
Start finding opportunities to speak or write (and when we say write, we mean type) in Chinese. Basically, use it or lose it.
How to learn Mandarin by yourself
1. Start with multimedia platforms.
For the modern language learner, we can do much better than the traditional textbooks of yesteryear that are tied to the solitary dimension of written input. Today’s learning technologies offer learners a wealth of multimedia interactions in the form of reading, listening, writing, and even speaking.
At Mandarin Companion, we’re fans of Mandarin Blueprint and Yo Yo Chinese. A tried and true platform such as ChinesePod is still relevant to our day (the platform for which my co-founder John Pasden was the academic director of for many years).
However, there are many platforms out there, some are better than others, but almost all of them have advantages over traditional textbooks. Find one that is relevant to you and your reason for studying Chinese (don’t forget your reason when doing this!).
Start on these three platforms. They each have their own curriculum, and each is important because they’ll teach you a mix of listening and reading.
WARNING: Do not, I repeat, DO NOT spend your hard earned dollars on programs such as Rosetta Stone, Pimsleru, or any program or app which claims you’ll be speaking fluently in three months.
Many of these programs have slick and convincing marketing, but they lack real substance. If you want to learn enough Chinese to get by during a trip to China, then you can try those. If you are serious about learning Chinese, then don’t waste your time. And just a note (and unpopular opinion), Duolingo is not a serious platform for learning Chinese.
2. Learn pinyin and pronunciation before learning characters.
First learn to read pinyin and properly pronounce the unique sounds of Chinese. Once you have a firm grasp on this, start learning characters.
There are so many great resources out there to get started. We recommend the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki which will help you get a firm grasp on the pinyin and pronunciation. It’s a free resource, but there are also countless YouTube videos out there with people to help coach you through the sounds that are most difficult to you.
A word of caution: Pinyin can become a “crippling crutch”. In many learner materials, the pinyin is written above the characters and the alphabet-loving-eyes are naturally pulled away from the characters towards the pinyin.
While helpful in the early stages, avoid becoming over-reliant on pinyin, which can slow down your progress to fluency and character recognition. If you can’t read a given text without the support of pinyin, then you’re probably not reading at the right level.
3. Get a tutor to review and reinforce what you have studied.
Now that you have been studying and building Chinese skills, that learning is still quite “fragile.” It’s time to put it to use and reinforce what you have studied.
Get a tutor and start reviewing and practicing what you have learned. You can search for a tutor through friends, the community, or even online. For online tutors, iTalki is one of the best platforms to find a competent online tutor.
Instead of starting a new curriculum, give your tutor access to what you’re studying so that they know what you have been exposed to.
Begin having conversations in Chinese with your tutor. Ask clarifying questions about words or points of grammar. Become familiar and comfortable in what you have studied and move that knowledge into your working vocabulary.
Note: Not all tutors are created equal! Listen to this podcast on how to find the right Chinese tutor for you.
If this is being done well, you’ll be working through a curriculum on a multimedia platform and practicing the Chinese you learned with your tutor. Your progress will be determined by the time you devoted to study and practice, as well as how consistent you are with your efforts.
It is better to break up your studying and practice over time. For instance, if you devote five hour per week to Chinese, commit to spending one hour over five days than to spending 2.5 hours in two days.
An axiom states “The most important thing to study is what you learned yesterday.”
» Read Now: Why We Forget (and How Not To)
4. Get into extensive reading ASAP.
This is the real secret to teach yourself Mandarin; get on the implicit learning train ASAP.
In simple terms, extensive reading is reading a lot in the language you are learning at a high level of comprehension. Decades of research has proven that we learn best when we are reading at a high level of comprehension of roughly 98%. This is about one to two unknown characters or words out of every 40-50.
To do this properly, learners need special books that are written specifically for learners at the appropriate level. These types of books are called graded readers. There are three key characteristics of a graded reader.
1. The Language is Selective. The book should be written using only language that you, a learner, is likely to know at your level. Graded reader series typically have a leveling system to help you determine if the level is appropriate for you.
2. The Language is Controlled. Graded readers also pay close attention to the grammar structures used, sufficient repetition of words, and making sure the content is not too complex for the reading level of the learner.
3. The Book is Long Enough. Short articles and sample sentences simply are not long enough to provide the benefits of extensive reading (not to mention they’re not very engaging). Proper graded readers will be long enough to provide enough repetition of words and patterns.
What is Not a Graded Reader
Just to be sure, there are a lot of books out there masquerading as graded readers, but here is a list of books learners commonly turn to but are NOT graded readers nor are they the best books to self-study Mandarin.
- A collection of short articles
- Kids books
- Text books
- Books/articles intended for learners that pay little to no attention to grading the text
- Short articles in a text book
- Newspaper/magazine articles with dense subject matter
- A story too short to provide enough repetition
What You Can Expect with Extensive Reading
When you begin reading at an extensive level, a lot of amazing things begin to happen. Here are four things that you can expect:
1. You can learn vocabulary twice as fast. Many studies show that learners have doubled their vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading. But it’s more than just learning vocabulary. Because you are seeing words over and over again in many different contexts, learners begin to concretely understand how words are used in different ways and become confident in using it themselves.
2. Grammar is acquired naturally. Grammar is nothing more than patterns in language and our brains are very good at recognizing patterns. By reading, learners will see these same patterns over and over again until they just become understood. Grammar ceases to be an abstract concept, instead it is seared into the brain of the learner until it becomes common and natural.
3. Your brain will begin to automatically process the language. When we begin learning a language, we start by using our native language to understand the second language. After enough comprehensible input of Chinese, our brains will simply begin to understand it in Chinese. Extensive reading shortcuts this by giving the reader a mass amount of comprehensible input in the form of reading until you, the learner, just begin to understand it in Chinese without translating in your head. It’s almost magical when this happens! This is where fluency really begins!
4. It is fun. When was the last time you picked up a textbook for fun? That’s what I thought. However, when was the last time you got lost in a book? Stories have a way of captivating our senses, the ability to bring us into a new world unlike anything else.
One of our readers expressed his experience in this way:
“During the most dramatic moments, I found myself on the verge of tears. Partly because it is just a really great story, but it was also because I was moved by this new experience in Chinese! I felt like a child filled with the wonder of learning a new language; this wonder that gives you a chance to explore yourself in an entirely new context. You’re still you, but your experiences, your identity, all have to be constructed and retold using new words, new phrases, and new cultural references.”
» Listen Now: Extensive Reading and the Path to Chinese Fluency
Extensive Reading + Learning Chinese on Your Own
Extensive reading is very powerful and it provides all new ways to work with a tutor. Remember English literature classes back in high school? You’d be assigned to read books, then come together with your peers to discuss the plot, the characters, their motivations, etc. It’s a very engaging way to speak deeply about a topic of conversation. Writing is often then inspired by these discussions, where you are tasked with assessing characters, authoring tangential stories, and more.
If you want to teach yourself Chinese, you can apply this same approach to Mandarin.
Start discussing the story with your tutor. This opens up a cornucopia of ideas for discussion and writing! Here are just a few ideas for discussion.
- Explain what you read since the last tutor session.
- Discuss the motivations of the characters.
- Talk about how you see the characters actions as right or wrong.
- Predict what you think will happen in the next stage of the story.
- Identify alternative choices the characters could have made.
Grant Brown, an experienced Chinese teacher who has helped his classes reach a 100% pass rate on Chinese exams, shared his experience with extensive reading in this way.
“Once a student understands enough Chinese to start reading extensively, learning new characters just becomes easy and learners have a great time doing it. They get on this implicit learning train that is just constantly picking up new things all the time. The sooner we can get students onto that train, the fewer students will be lost in the grind of character memorization.”
Reading in Chinese doesn’t have to be a chore. You can have reading gain without the pain. Our graded readers are specifically designed to reflect common stories from our childhood (like Journey to the Center of the Earth or The Secret Garden) so you can focus less energy on understanding the overall story and more energy on soaking up those grammar patterns and vocab words.
5. Find peers so you can celebrate (and commiserate…)
So now you’re on this Mandarin train, and yes, you’re thrilled at the idea of achieving fluency without the restrictions of classrooms, textbooks, exams, and homework.
Even so, the reality remains that Chinese is challenging and it is really nice to have a community of peers around you who just “get it.” Others who, like you, are on their own mission towards self taught Mandarin. They’ll be able to relate to you on so many levels: the highs, the lows, the laughter, the tears (just sayin’…), and everything in between.
Here are just a handful online resources we’ve found to be helpful while we learned Mandarin on our own:
When you teach yourself Mandarin—or are learning a language period—know that there is a difference between knowledge and proficiency.
You can acquire the knowledge, but not be proficient. The proficiency comes the more you’re exposed to and use the language. Therefore, you must consciously seek for ways to be exposed to and use the language.
Teach yourself Mandarin successfully!
Learning Mandarin by yourself takes a mix of motivation, commitment, and fun. Understanding core language learning concepts, like explicit vs implicit learning, comprehensible input, and extensive reading, can set you up for success on your path towards Chinese fluency.
Other resources like graded readers, podcasts, and tutors can help accelerate your language proficiency more quickly.
However, if there is one thing I have learned, its that there are many ways to learn a language, and they all can work, it’s just that some ways are more effective than others.
What are some tips you used to teach yourself Chinese? Add them in the comments below. And remember, you can learn Chinese!