Studying Chinese

Chinese learning methods

Recently I had lunch with a reader who I’m happy to call my new friend too. She asked me what my Chinese study methods were, what did I do to reach this level of Chinese. I couldn’t give her a good answer on the spot, so I decided to make it a blog post instead.

There isn’t any short cuts to mastering Chinese, you need to do the work, but there are methods and tools that can help you to reach your goal. The challenge in learning Chinese is to keep at it, not to give up.

Here are some study methods I’ve used. This blog post includes affiliate links that helps to pay the web hosting for this blog.

Elementary level


  • Podcasts are an excellent tool to use right from  the beginning of your Chinese learning journey. Try to listen one short podcast everyday. Always repeat out loud what you hear in order to practice pronunciation and spoken Chinese. Try ChinesePod or ChineseClass101 to see which one suits you the best. Personally I’ve used ChinesePod from beginner to advanced level.
  • Happy Chinese is a tv series dedicated to teaching Chinese to us foreigners. It’s about an American girl who lives with a Chinese family and how she learns the langauge and culture of China. I found this series when I was getting from elementary to intermediate level and it was a fun way to practice my listening skills.
  • It’s important to listen standard Mandarin Chinese as much as possible. Podcasts, movies, tv shows, radio, everything you can think of. Listening will help you to understand what correct Chinese should sound like.
  • More tools for listening


  • During my Chinese studies at Finland I didn’t really practice my spoken Chinese besides taking classes. I started talking when I arrived to China first for travel and then for study.
  • No matter where you are, in China or abroad, find a friend or tutor to help you out. Schedule regular meetings where you will speak in Chinese with them.
  • I have learned my own spoken Chinese by being in a relationship with a Chinese guy, and now living with the whole family. You of course don’t have to date in order to learn Chinese, but you will need a way to make you speak daily.
  • Read aloud texts in your textbooks. Hide the pinyin and also check it if you forget the pronunciation. Listen to the textbook’s mp3 and repeat aloud. Always buy a textbook with audio!

hidepinyin   My textbook back in 2010


  • Take classes or if you’re studying on your own, find a good textbook series to follow. As I’ve always taken lessons I didn’t have the choice, but if you can, choose New Practical Chinese Reader, it’s an excellent series of textbooks. Your textbook will be the core of you studies, other tools are to complement it.
  • If  you come up with a difficult sentence in your book that you find hard to understand, translate it word by word to your native language. For example: 刚才刘老师讲的你都听懂了吗?Just now – Liu teacher – speak – you – everything – understand – ? I used this method a lot when at the elementary level.
  • Read a book in Chinese! Yes, you can totally read a book even as little as 300 characters. Check Chinese Breeze, absolutely amazing books for elementary level students.


Learning to write characters in 2011 (not so pretty yet!)


  • Learn to write some basic characters by hand. You won’t get a good-looking handwriting without writing by hand on paper. I don’t know about you, but for me it felt nice when teacher complimented my nice handwriting.
  • After you have learned the words of the current chapter in your textbook, put them to Skritter for review. I used Skritter from elementary level to advanced, here you can find out why. They also have an iPhone app.
  • A great introduction to learning characters can be found at East Asia Student.


Intermediate level


Continue using the methods and tools from elementary level, but gradually add new material to your study routines so you will keep improving.


  • Start watching Chinese TV, dating shows like 我们约会吧 and 非诚勿扰 are on the easier side language vice. I watched a lot of these when I finished with Happy Chinese and came to intermediate level.
  • More TV show ideas you can find from Chinese-Forums’  The Grand First Episode Project.
  • Listen to Chinese radio, it’s harder when you only rely on your ears, but that’s needed in order to progress. For less talk and more music, try Hit FM. For more talk try 北京故事广播.


  • Continue speaking daily, to yourself, to your friend or with a tutor.
  • If you live in China, use every opportunity you have to talk with the locals.
  • Record yourself speaking Chinese and listen to your mistakes. This is a method I’ve wanted to use more, but haven’t which is one reason I still have problems with my Chinese pronunciation. Getting a good and understandable pronunciation isn’t easy, hard work is needed, but it’s necessary for communicating. Before you start recording, read about the famous Imron Method too.


On my bookshelf


  • Getting to intermediate level you need to start reading more in Chinese. First read Graded Chinese Reader and then change to native level books. Usually silly romantic novels have easier language, so if you can bear with it, try those first.
  • Read ebooks with Kindle and check unfamiliar words with the built-in dictionary.


  • You now know the basics of writing characters, now it’s time to use your vocabulary and starting writing short stories. Get a teacher, tutor, friend or an online community to check what you have written.
  • Use Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, and start posting. Great for reading and writing practise.
  • I personally like writing, have written short stories since I was a kid and even studied at a high school specialized in creative writing. If you aren’t used to writing in your native language, it might feel hard to do in Chinese. You can start with writing about interesting movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read.


Advanced level


This is the level where I’m at the moment. You can continue using the methods from lower levels that you’ve found useful and which work for you. I personally don’t do that much pure studying anymore. I learn by using the language, writing my thesis in Chinese, teaching in Chinese and working in Chinese.

It’s easy to get stuck, especially if you don’t study or work in Chinese. Here are some ideas how to continue improving your Chinese skills.


  • Watch a lot of Chinese TV, shows you like  and series you find a bit challenging.
  • Continue listening to the radio to train your ear.
  • If you live somewhere outside of the standard Chinese region, for example I live in Guangdong province, it’s important to get your fair share of the standard pronunciation. Living in Guangzhou have affected my pronunciation a lot, I can say that now, and I try to balance it with TV and radio.


  • Unfortunately I’m out of good methods and tips for advanced spoken Chinese. Do you have any ideas?


  • Read in Chinese as much as you can. Novels for relaxing and work related books for studying.
  • As my career will be in teaching Chinese, I mostly read books on that field. This way I can learn more about my work, teach my students better and improve my Chinese all at the same time.


Thesis writing in Chinese


  • If you want to get your writing to an advanced level, it is usually for a clear goal. No matter if you use Chinese for work or study, learn my doing.
  • Reading is always good for improving writing too, in any language.


  • Just start, don’t waste time finding the perfect method, don’t wait for next Monday or next year, just start right now.
  • Don’t give up! It will be hard at times, you will plateau at the intermediate stage and feel like there’s no progress. There is, but you just don’t know it. Keep at it and you will improve.
  • Have clear goals to reach, track your improvement.
  • Have fun!

Now it’s over to you, what are your learning methods? How are you learning Chinese or how did you reach your level? Lets make this a useful post for all the other Chinese learners out there!


  • Robert Budzul

    Looks like the main piece of advice is read! And use the language as much as you can. Annoyingly I’m sort of conversational but reading is still pretty tedious. And on top of that, when speaking with Chinese that speak some English, the most annoying thing is you have to convince them not to switch to English as soon as you don’t understand something. I suspect they always presume that we westerners understand very little so they don’t persevere in Chinese. If you find someone that does then you need to not let them go. Or just hand out with Chinese that know no English at all – in fact that’s probably the main secret.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Yes, the “secret” is to use the language as much as possible. Reading helps with your vocabulary, grammar, reading skills of course and writing.

    Finding Chinese people who can’t speak English is great, you will all do your best in order to communicate. You can also try to hide that you know English, claim that you only know your native language, something like Finnish which no one understands.


  • Nommoc

    1) Glad you wrote such a comprehensive article about learning Chinese. : )
    2) Sad you didn’t mention nommoc with Skritter. Both are great options for learning to write Chinese. : (


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I hope to get to know nommoc better after my thesis mess is finished :) You’re email is in my inbox waiting for a reply also, have been thinking of a good way to help each other.


    Nommoc Reply:

    Sounds good.

    Nommoc is a labor of love with active development going on, so as your time permits, we look forward to you “getting to know” nommoc and giving feedback! ; )

    Writing a thesis is no joke… the fact that you have any life outside of that is amazing! Let alone find time to write the in-depth blog posts such as above. As your time permits, look forward to working together, as you said “help each other”. Teamwork is fun. ; )

    On that note, the way I see it, the “non-native adult learning Chinese” community isn’t huge… the ones that come to my mind are: Olle , John , The Skritter Team , The Popup Chinese Team in Beijing , ChinesePod Team in Shanghai , Hugh , Mandarin Poster to name of a few… and you of course… ; )

    Therefore, there is no room nor need for “burning bridges” or fostering mean-spirited “competition” in this small community. There is so much work as it relates to “promoting” and “educating” others on China and Chinese, it is far more useful for us to team-up.

    Thus, my goal with working on nommoc is to partner up with Skritter in raising awareness on “expat illiteracy” and motivate more non-natives to take learning to read and write Chinese as seriously as they do speaking and understanding Chinese… that’s a big job, much bigger than I can do on my own. ; )

    Plus, I really see Skritter and nommoc as partners in the overall goal of helping students learn to write Chinese, therefore to me, a student could differently use BOTH Skritter and nommoc and get great results, better than if they used just ONE.

    As mentioned, I believe Skritter and nommoc can live together, not “compete”.

    For example:

    1) Skritter ( ) is great for learning to write Chinese due to its textbook integration (so many major vocab lists are included in their massive library), Skritter utilizes SRS, has user data and user feedback, includes simplified and traditional characters plus stroke order animation. All this is great for learning how to write Chinese! Nice job Skritter team.

    2) Nommoc ( )is great as well for learning to write Chinese because it is simple, easy to use and focuses on “free-hand” writing. The example Chinese character with stroke order animation is hand written by a native Chinese, this gets the learner on the road to being able to read hand-written Chinese, not just computerized stroke animations. Also, this “hand-written” example character lets the student analyse real-world size, shape and balance. Plus… the student can also write free hand with their finger or stylus. They too get the real-life experience of writing the Chinese character and seeing the results, similar to writing on paper, this gives them a huge opportunity to fine tune their character size, shape and proportion. Something that can never happen if every time they write a stroke it is replaced with a pre-built computer animation.

    Ok, that’s it for the nommoc advertisement…

    Look forward to your email when you get the time!

    Now back to work on your thesis! 加油!; )


    R Zhao Reply:

    Does your nommoc site work for users without a vpn? I tried the link and the page wouldn’t load.


    Nommoc Reply:

    R Zhao, good day to you.

    1) In theory http://www, opens in China without a VPN, sometimes. haha

    As you may be aware, any website that has not been officially registered with the Chinese government is subject to total outright blocking, and at a minimum such a site will be randomly blocked.

    Summary if in China keep trying at different times and different places.Oh yeah, or you can consider moving to the new Shanghai Free Trade zone. : )

    2) You can also try accessing nommoc directly through the app store here:

    Best wishes.


  • R Zhao

    Great advice and thanks for posting useful links!

    I’d also like to add, that if you are at an intermediate level and not really in the mood for trying romance novels, children’s books can be great. I haven’t really ventured into reading Chinese children’s books, but have reread some of my favorite childhood classics in Chinese such as “The Little Prince,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Charlotte’s Web.” Some books have both characters and pinyin so it can be very helpful to review and learn new tones as well as practice reading aloud. I also find, at my current level (upper intermediate), these books are easy enough that I can usually fully understand without looking any words up. This makes reading more enjoyable, though I should probably transition to reading more adult books soon.


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Great tip R Zhao!

    For someone looking for children’s books, remember to pick something that is meant for the kids to read themselves. There are many books that are meant for the parents to read aloud for their kids, that might be too difficult for beginner.

    It’s also good to choose stories that are a bit closer to everyday life, if you want your reading to help with your daily Chinese. Not that there is anything bad about learning fairy tale terms in Chinese :)


  • Ellen

    Thank you sooooo much for sharing this! Amazing! Two most important tips that I got from this post are recording own speech (simply read a book out loud) as well as this Happy Chinese TV series. I had a look at the TV series and I liked it a lot.

    Though, two things I would like to share in return. Firstly, why there is not mention of SKRITTER? I totally adore this app and I think it’s an unreplacable tool for those who learn writing.

    Secondly, I believe, next to being well equipped with the right tools, it is equally important to have the right attitude and confidence. Surprisingly, I have met some very talented people, yet who are afraid of speaking in the foreign language and hence they don’t progress even despite being hard-working.


    R Zhao Reply:

    I also love using Skritter! Sara mentions it in this post (Elementary level, writing) and an earlier post, which is how I actually learned about the app. :)


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Yep, like R Zhao said, Skritter is hidden in there :)

    And you are totally right. You could have all the books, materials and tools of the world in front of your and still fail to master Chinese if you don’t believe in your self and have the motivation to learn the language.


  • Hills Learning

    Sara, this is a great and well thought out article about learning Chinese. I like that you break it down via language skill (speaking, listening, reading and writing) and that you also have straight forward suggestions for learning language.

    Some of the methods you chose, such as reading the sentences outloud at home, recording and listening to them and playing them against a native speaker’s recording are excellent choices and we also recommend these methods to our students that are learning with us.

    For beginners, also I’d recommend reading up on grammar, vocabulary, and using flashcards designed by a school. Here’s a quick resources page from Hills Learning that outlines what I’m talking about:

    But, you covered most of what’s effective on the beginner level.

    For the advanced level and practicing speaking, I would actually recommend joining a group class like an advanced conversation class where it is teacher led, and you take the class with other advanced speakers. It’s basically a way to discuss current social trends in China with students who are about your level and having a native speaker there to correct your grammar usage, and recommend alternative vocabulary.

    Also if you’re taking private lessons from an instructor, you should ask him or her to give you spoken homework at home, you can then go home record oral practice on your smartphone and then send it to the instructor to listen to and look over before attending the next private lesson.

    Twitter’s also excellent for communications in foreign languages, you can search in Chinese and respond in Chinese. Our students have done this previously and recorded good results, although I know this is written and not oral communication.

    Hope you found some of these tips useful.

    Best regards

    Director Hills Learning


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you for interesting suggestions Jon! That really sounds like an excellent way to improve speaking skills on the advanced level. Something I really would love to try.


  • Miguelg007


    I love the product but I was wondering if there is an easier way to select characters for practice, than just by their number? If you dont know the number of the character the only option is to scroll until it is found in the very long list.

    Is there an alternative??


    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi, to which product are you referring to?


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