Fun and effective ways to learn Chinese

You might have read my blog post about the greatest challenges expat spouses face in China. One of the challenges people mention to me over and over again is how their lack of Chinese skills are one of the greatest barriers to enjoying their time in China.

Therefore, let’s have a look at fun ways to get you fluent in Mandarin in a jiffy!

Do your research

Before you even get started on your Chinese learning journey, make sure you know all your facts about the language. Why? By answering questions like…

Characters – what is their history, how are they written, do I even need to learn them?

Traditional vs. simplified writing system – which characters should I learn if any?

Local dialects – what is spoken where I am and will that influence how I learn Chinese?

What are tones, and how important are they to learning Chinese?

…you will understand more about Mandarin and be able to make an educated decision of whether you really want to take the plunge into this fascinating language at all.

Be intentional

For all and any goals in life, when the goal is too big and the journey there seems too long, we tend to lose interest. There is a commonly held belief that mastering any skill takes 10,000 hours. That translates to about 9 years, if you were to practice 4 hours a day and 5 days a week. Does that mean you have to give up your life if you want to learn Chinese?

Consider an alternative: Josh Kaufman did a presentation for TEDx CSU on getting a handle on mastering any skill in just 20 hours. Have a look at the video to hear what he is talking about.

20 hour method TED talk by Josh Kaufman

So, if you were to take a page out of Josh Kaufman’s playbook, how could you devise a plan for your 20-hour journey to learning Chinese?

You could figure out which aspect of the language are most important to you, and focus on just those. Then you would learn enough about these aspects to be able to practice them and correct yourself when you make mistakes. Then you would remove all barriers that might keep you from practicing. And then you would start by practicing the most important aspect of the language for 20 hours to master it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And, lo and behold, the task of learning Chinese just became a lot less intimidating.

Discover your medium

When learning any language, you should try to make studying as much fun as possible. If it is an entertaining diversion to you, rather than a tedious chore, you are much more likely to stick with it.

One way of making the process enjoyable is to be mindful when choosing HOW you learn. Let’s have a quick look at the most common ways people learn languages and at their pros and cons.


Signing up for a class is the preferred way of a lot of language learners. The advantage of taking classes is that you have personal interaction with a qualified teacher, who will correct your pronunciation and be there to answer any questions you have. Also, compared to some other means of learning mentioned below, you get a good bang for your buck. And you meet like-minded people for study groups or simply to socialize.

Disadvantages of group language classes are that the time the teacher spends on each individual student is limited, and also that the learning approach is one-size-fits-all. It is almost impossible to adjust or change the curriculum because of the needs of one individual.

So, what if you would like something a bit more personalized?

               Private tutoring or 1-on-1 class

Many expats and their family members in China go for the private tutoring or one-on-one language learning approach. With a private tutor or a teacher from a school coming to your home, you get all the convenience of scheduling classes when they fit your timeline. Another advantage is that the content of the class can be 100% tailored to your personal needs. The teacher focuses on you alone and spends all their time on furthering your progress.

But many who take this approach soon realize that all that focused attention is tiring. And that taking class by yourself can be a bit lonely and you cannot benefit from the examples of other classmates. Additionally, this learning solution is a good bit more expensive than group classes.

What if you are not much of a classroom learner? Are there less formal ways of learning Chinese as well?

               Watching & listening

Some people do not thrive in classrooms and abhor structured learning. For them, listening to original language content might be a valid alternative. Watching TV shows in Chinese, listening to songs in Mandarin or following language-learning podcasts can all be beneficial study tools. There is one caveat, though: you need to have at least a basic understanding of the language before watching shows or movies or listening to songs will help you improve your Chinese level.

When it comes to podcasts, there are some free and very good paid options. One that I particularly like is ChinesePod. You should check them out!

What if you don’t feel you are ready for real-life Chinese like you hear in shows, movies, or songs, and you are not comfortable listening to podcasts?


In this case, learning Mandarin with the help of an app could be your way to bliss. There is no shortage of apps for Chinese learners on the market. If anything, there are too many options to choose from. Skritter, ChineseWriter, Pleco, Duolingo and ChineseSkill are just some worth mentioning. Check out this article by travelchinacheaper or this one by sapore di China for overviews of different apps and some reviews.

  • My personal favorites out of these are probably (in no particular order)
    Duolingo, as it is free and fun to use and I learn other languages on it also
  • ChineseWriter, because it makes the sometimes-tedious task of practicing character strokes into a game, and
  • ChineseSkill, because it is pretty good at gamifying the entire experience.

Other than picking the correct medium that works with your language-learning goals, what else should you consider when learning Chinese?

Pay attention to tones and characters – but not too much

When learning a language, people generally fall into two categories: those who want to make quick progress and “get to the good stuff”, and those who want to do things perfectly. My personal experience is that those who worry about being perfect before using their language skills get discouraged and quit more than those who are fine with making mistakes.

When it comes to learning Chinese, I find there is a delicate balance between not paying enough attention to tones or characters and being over-eager to get it all right. If you decide to let the tones fall where they may, natives will have trouble understanding you. If you categorically refuse to learn characters, many words will start to look alike after a while and studying vocabulary gets especially hard. But if you insist on having perfect pronunciation and grammar, you’ll have trouble even getting out of the gate of communication. My tip: find your happy medium between those two extremes!

What else should you pay attention to to make quick progress on your journey to fluency in Chinese?

Make friends

Making Chinese friends teaches you about the language, but also the underlying culture. Besides the fact that having local friends makes your life in China a lot easier, it can also help you improve your Chinese skills.

So, how do you go about making Chinese friends? One way is to discover individuals or groups in your vicinity who share your interests and/or circumstances. Some examples are: language corners, sports groups, Mahjong clubs, Taiji practitioners or walking groups in the park, parent groups, fellow foodies, art lovers, volunteers at an animal shelter. The list goes on.

If you don’t know how to find these people, ask around your foreign friends circle or maybe the team assistant of your expat partner whether they have any ideas. Follow English-language WeChat accounts for your town and ask them for tips. Check local universities to find English (or other language) students who are interested in starting a language exchange. Walk up to the grannies and grandpas in the park and ask them if you can join in. The vast majority of Chinese are happy and proud to share their culture and the things they do with an interested Laowai.

What if you are too shy to approach someone to try and make friends with them? What if your language level is too low?

Use what you know

Even after 1 single Chinese lesson, you will have enough knowledge to start using your language skills. So, use what you already know. All the time.

While that seems obvious, there is some solid science backing up this suggestion. Repetition and especially spaced repetition have long since been considered cornerstones of successful language acquisition. If you are a nerd like me, you might want to check out the large body of work on what happens in the brain when we are repeating new vocabulary and using learned structures in real life settings. But I digress.

Keep learning

I started learning Chinese in 2003. And I am still learning. Truth be told, I don’t really foresee a time in my life when I won’t be studying Chinese in one form or another.

Currently, I am teaching myself all the yoga poses and various body parts in Chinese. I recently started using Keep, the most popular Chinese fitness app, and thus do my daily yoga practice in Chinese. Will I ever need how to say downward dog in Chinese again? Maybe not. But my smarty pants self is sure proud she can.

The point is, you can always get better, learn more, combine what you love doing with your desire to learn Mandarin. And if you snooze, you lose. Your level of Chinese, in this case.

That’s it – some pointers on how to effectively learn Chinese while having a blast. Knowing even a bit of the language will make your stay in China much more enjoyable, help you make friends, connect with your surroundings, and immerse yourself better in culture and history of the Middle Kingdom.

Oh, so you would like to take the plunge, but are unsure of how? Or do you need help fixing your language-learning goals? Or sustaining them over the long haul? For any of those questions, a coach might be able to help you. If you are interested in learning more about coaching, check out our article What is coaching and book a free introductory coaching session.

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