The Best Way to Learn Chinese: Methods and Considerations

best way to learn chineseIt is one of the age old questions in second language acquisition: What’s the best way to learn a second language?

Of course, you’ll get as many answers as there are teaching styles and learning styles. Try out every combination and you will end up with many, many different answers and many, many different people who all swear by their system or their own experience. And all of them are wrong. Or right. It just depends on who you ask.

Udemy has a class that goes over the best practices for learning a foreign language. Teach Yourself A Foreign Language makes the learning completely self-motivated and can assist you in finding low to no-cost materials to supplement your knowledge. Excellent stuff for the go-getter.

If you need some insights into typical approaches to teaching and learning Chinese and the methods behind them, keep reading.

If you are coming from an English speaking background, (or another European language) you will have quite the challenge learning Chinese, only because of linguistic distance. On a spectrum of whether or not a language is close to English versus far away with 1 being close and 5 being about as far as you can get, Chinese is on the opposite end of that spectrum, at 5. It is considered about as far away as you can get, which means it is more difficult to learn Chinese for an English speaker than, say, Spanish or French.

Beyond gaining a simple foundation, what is the best way to learn Chinese? There is no definitive answer, but hunger may be the most efficient. I had a friend who escaped to Hong Kong after he graduated college. He didn’t have any Cantonese knowledge and lived in a very cheap place where little to no English was spoken. He ate the same thing every night because he knew how to say that one phrase. Eventually, after being sick of it, and to keep himself from going crazy because of monotony and loneliness, he began to learn Cantonese and ended up living there for several years.

If you want to get started learning, though on the basics of Chinese pronunciation, I would recommend Elementary Class for Chinese Pronunciation. It covers all the pinyin and their associated sounds so that you can read it and learn Chinese pronunciation effortlessly.

Besides survival, there are many other established methods. I’ll cover a few and you can decide on your own what may be the best way for your own learning style to tackle learning Chinese.


Immersion is where the learner is in an environment where Chinese is spoken and used exclusively, with no familiar language spoken at all. In classroom settings, this could be a teacher who only uses Chinese to interact with students, presenting concepts, vocabulary and grammar as well as other subjects. This forces the brain to recognize and decode a language in an environment set up for that language.

Immersion can also be living in China or Taiwan for an extended period of time.  Even living overseas has its problems, because other people may not want to attempt to communicate if you are obviously not a native Chinese speaker. Or they want to practice their English. Having been in that situation myself, people typically want to practice their English with me rather than indulge my desire to practice my Chinese.

Sadly, immersion can be more challenging than a traditional classroom setting where basics are deliberately taught in the learners first language. Also, as a person ages, the capacity for the brain to learn the patterns and grammar of a language and reproduce them shrinks over time. It becomes more and more difficult to learn another language besides the ones learned in childhood. This is not a failing, it’s just the way our brains work, but it can be discouraging when it happens.

Direct Method

Another popular is probably the most advertised by Berlitz. They promote the direct method as a kind of miracle cure for language learning. In practice, it does actually promote acquisition quickly, but only in the first stages of learning. That short-lived burst of knowledge can be deceiving, because it holds so much promise, but learning quickly turns into work and the learning spike begins to level off into a plateau.

Bad habits can also form easily and lead to near-permanent bad practices called fossilization. The reason this occurs is that the learner’s mental focus is typically on this quick learning spike. Instead of refining the approach and clarifying what they are learning, people often are so surprised and happy at their newfound knowledge that they just barrel forward. Since corrections often used in the direct method are simply restatements of a phrase, but corrected, a student may just end up ignoring the input or have not acquired enough of a foundation to pick up on the fact they are being corrected. So they keep repeating the same mistakes and don’t correct their problems.

For example a student may say “Wǒ shì xué Zhōngwén.” (I am to be learning Chinese.)” only to be corrected by the instructor “Nĭ xué Zhōngwén.” (You learn Chinese.) The difference between the two is the absence of the word shì in the second phrase which is often interpreted as a perfect equivalent of “is”. Learners tend to overuse shì when speaking or translating, inserting it everywhere they may hear an “is” in English.

TPR and TPR Storytelling

On the complete opposite end of the traditional methods and the most recently developed is TPR and TPR Storytelling. TPR originally stood for Total Physical Response. This uses language as well as focused actions to get not just the brain but the body involved in a sort of holistic approach to language acquisition. As TPR developed and more methods were added, namely the aspect of reading and using newly acquired vocabulary and grammar to tell stories, it has came to be known as Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.

These methods involve a lot of activities and the physical acting out of concepts. An instructor uses only the language being learned, similar to immersion, and demonstrates verbs and concepts while narrating them. Students watch and process this and then are called to repeat the teacher’s actions.

For example, the teacher may say “Wŏ zŏu.” (I walk) and then get up and walk. He would repeat this while demonstrating the verb zŏu. Then he would call on a student to do the same, saying “Nĭ zŏu.” (You walk.) and they would get up and demonstrate, also saying “Wŏ zŏu.” This continues until everyone does and says the verbs and all the different pronouns. Some characters may also be introduced, like “Xiăo Xióngmāo zŏu.” (Little Panda walks.).

Questions would then be asked, and will incorporate previously learned vocabulary and grammar, as well as push students’ understanding, until an entire story can be constructed by the students. This story is then recorded and students take turns reading it.

All the saying, doing, listening, and eventual writing and reading, is a completely comprehensive approach. TPR and TPR Storytelling foster a high rate of retention in language learners regardless of age, but the older students get, the more reluctant they tend to be in actually acting out the things they are learning or telling stories about little pandas walking.

Communicative Method

The most widely used and probably most comprehensive method is the communicative approach because it utilizes parts from all available teaching methods. As its name implies, its end goal is for the student to be able to communicate. Mastery is obtained through practice and understanding of rules. The communicative method incorporates many different techniques, from the ones mentioned here to others, like straight translation and playing games, that help facilitate learning and acquisition. This ensures that not only is Chinese being learned, but also that what is learned is going to be retained.

Udemy has a class that is geared specifically for just such a communicative need called Survival Chinese. This course walks you through essential phrases and concepts you will need to know to get by in China, communicating effortlessly.

Successful teachers know how to motivate students and not just regurgitate knowledge. Of course, a good student will also know that learning Chinese, like anything, takes dedication and practice.

Since learning also needs to be guided, not just by a teacher but also yourself, check out Foreign Language Learning: Faster, Smarter, Cheaper, Forever. It has practical tips and is highly rated for the concepts it provides in motivating students of foreign language.

Avoid Relying on Software

An ineffective way to learn a language is relying solely on software. Things like Rosetta Stone and apps for tablets and smartphones seem like a neat way to build acquisition, but in fact they are often just gimmicks. The issues with these kinds of programs is that there is no feedback and most of the time they promote simple guessing or rote memorization over actual language learning or retention. In the case of Rosetta Stone, the foundational lessons are often the barrier to entry, providing little useful vocabulary and outdated examples. It’s just a little more effective than sitting alone with a textbook and hashing out the language yourself. Check out this scathing review to understand why software like Rosetta Stone is not a substitute for a skilled teacher.

If you’d like a couple recommendations for classes, these two are the attractive price of free and are also highly rated by users: Learn Oral Chinese and Essential Chinese for Travellers. Covering basics of the language as well as practicals, these are a good place to start, if you’re interested.

No matter what you do decide to do in learning Chinese, the best way will be one where you will learn and retain the language. The one that best suits you and guides you toward success.