East Asia Student

Random Stuff Related to East Asia


How I started studying Mandarin

Following on from my post about why I decided to study Chinese, here’s one on how I got started with it in the early stages.

After I’d been accepted by Cambridge and got the required grades at A-level, I asked if the college could help me arrange something productive on my gap year. They sent me off to teach English in a kindergarten in Qingdao, from January to May 2009. I really wouldn’t recommend teaching English as a way to learn Chinese.

That might seem obvious, but when you have no experience, it’s tempting to think that just being in China is the main step you need to take, and that the rest will take care of itself.

This really isn’t true, especially with teaching English. From your first day in China, you get inserted into an English-speaking bubble, spend most of your time speaking English, and will socialise mostly with other expats, in English.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not going to do anything for your Chinese. I was a perfect example, spending two or three months in Qingdao but making next to no progress with my Chinese.

Frequency lists!

Realising that I was in danger of wasting the whole trip, I began putting more effort in towards the end. I didn’t really have any vocab to get started with, so I went to Google and made a classic Chinese beginner mistake.

When you start learning Chinese, you know you’ve got to learn characters, and at first there’s no obvious order to approach them in. You have a think about it, and come up with the genius solution of learning them in order of frequency. That way, the next character you learn is always the one that will open up the most doors for you.

I think pretty much everyone has this thought and gives it a go. So the first character you learn is 的, the most common character in Chinese writing. Unfortunately, if you’ve got no other characters under your belt, a grammatical particle isn’t actually the easiest thing to learn.

You know that 的 marks possession. Great. Now try to get some meaning out of anything using that knowledge. At least if you learnt 爱 first you could actually read something sometimes. In any case, frequency lists really aren’t a good way to attack Chinese.


I then made another classic beginner mistake - I decided that flashcards were the answer to all my learning needs. If I just did enough flashcards each day, it would all fall into place. So I went ahead and installed the Granule flashcards program.

There’s nothing wrong with Granule - it does what it’s intended to do to, which is provide a simple flashcards system. It’s even got a basic spaced repetition system, but even the best SRS algorithms can’t work miracles”) for you. All they do is add some efficiency to one aspect of your learning.

But being the noob that I was I attempted to plough on with my SRS system and frequency list anyway.


Inevitably I got pretty frustrated with that as it did hardly anything for my Chinese. I then decided to switch tactics and focus on listening and speaking to begin with. This was probably the first good decision I made.

I Googled around and came across ChinesePod (full disclosure: I have an affiliate scheme with ChinesePod, so I get money if you sign up through that link. They are good though, otherwise I wouldn’t have the affiliate scheme). I got started with their Newbie content (which was free), and listened to lessons one after the other in my room.

It was only then that I actually started to get anywhere with Chinese. I would log on to ChinesePod in my breaks at work and in my spare time, and listen to as many lessons as possible. I also spent a lot of time with their vocabulary card matching game.

Through ChinesePod, I got some basic listening and speaking down, plus a tiny bit of reading ability. I couldn’t write anything at all, though.

That was the first stage

I view that as the first stage of my Chinese learning, before I started university (where it actually took off). I had rudimentary speaking and listening skills, could pick out a few words from texts (although I constantly got things like 字 and 学 mixed up), and might have been able to write 你 from memory on a good day.

In other words, I was thoroughly crap at Chinese. But I had taken the first few steps in the right direction, and from there it’s just a matter of pressing forward (and getting lost a few times on the way, of course).

How did you start learning Mandarin? Was it effective? If you haven’t started yet, how are you planning to do so?