The Best Way to Learn Mandarin Chinese

After years of dreaming about it, you finally want to speak Chinese fluently. You want to be able to communicate with your friend from China and explore Chinese culture.

But what’s the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese? Textbooks, apps, classes, software...What’s the easiest, cheapest, quickest way to make progress? What works and what doesn’t?

Starting to learn a new language can be overwhelming. With all of the options out there, it's difficult to figure out what the best method is. So what's the way forward?

Before we get to the holy grail of Chinese learning, let's take a look at these five basic approaches to learning Chinese - each with its own set of pros and cons:

  1. Plunging Right In (Immersion)
  2. Reading In Chinese (Translation Approach)
  3. Chinese Textbooks (Grammar-based Approach)
  4. Chinese Classes (Communicative Approach)
  5. Learning Chinese Online (Vocabulary-based Approach)
Great Wall, China - Best Way to Learn Mandarin Chinese, Rocket Chinese (Mandarin)

1. Plunging Right In (Immersion)

The immersion approach plunges you into Chinese language and culture. You travel to China and spend an extended period of time there. This will force you to use Chinese in your day-to-day life - everywhere you go!

It is a great option for those who don't like formal study and have plenty of time and money to spare.

  • The advantages: The immersion approach helps you to connect with native speakers, and teaches you valuable knowledge about Chinese culture. Not only that, but it does all of this within a very short period of time.
  • The disadvantages: This method is not for everyone. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and not to mention stressful when it comes to dealing with culture shock.

2. Reading In Chinese (Translation Approach)

Reading your favorite book a second, third or fourth time is always a good idea. Why not read it in Chinese this time?

It will force you to translate between Chinese and your native language. Feel free to use a dictionary here.

  • The advantages: It’s an excellent way of broadening your vocabulary when you’ve got a basic knowledge of Chinese and already know the Chinese script. The translation approach is cost-effective and can bring results to those willing to invest time and energy.
  • The disadvantages: A major drawback is that the translation approach doesn’t really teach you to speak, write or understand spoken Chinese. Also, this approach is not suitable for absolute beginners. You should learn to read and write the Chinese script first before plowing through longer texts.

3. Chinese Textbooks (Grammar-based Approach)

Chinese-learning textbooks mostly use the grammar-based approach. They focus on teaching the grammatical rules of Chinese. You will mostly train your reading and writing skills.

  • The advantages: For learners who like to fully understand the structure of the Chinese language, this is a great and cost-effective method.
  • The disadvantages: You won’t get many opportunities to actually speak or listen to Chinese and must memorize a lot of grammar rules. This can be very frustrating and sometimes a little boring.

4. Chinese Classes (Communicative Approach)

This is the approach we all know from school. It involves a teacher who gives lessons to a small group of students. Lessons are usually divided into reading, writing, listening and speaking activities.

  • The advantages: Language classes will give you a good general education. If the teacher plans and teaches the class well, you can have basic conversations in Chinese a few weeks into the course. Another benefit is that you have plenty of learning partners in a group of students!
  • The disadvantages: A big minus of Chinese classes is that you won’t get individual training custom-tailored to you. Your learning depends on the group of students and their pace of progress. Also, courses at universities or language schools are expensive!

5. Learning Chinese Online (Vocabulary-based Approach)

Have you thought about using a Chinese learning app or software? We bet you have! It’s one of the most popular ways of learning Chinese right now.

Most of the online learning applications make use of the vocabulary-based approach. You learn Chinese by associating words with pictures of the objects they represent. Say goodbye to lessons on grammar rules. You will pick up the structure of a language along the way.

  • The advantages: You can improve your vocabulary very quickly with this method because you repeat words over and over. A major plus is that you can learn at any time and any place that suits you.
  • The disadvantages: First, the vocabulary you learn is often not the most practical. Second, you risk sounding a bit like Tarzan when you speak because you don’t learn any grammar rules. A good vocabulary-based program can be difficult to find and expensive.

What Is The Best Way To Learn Chinese?

So what’s the secret? What is the best way to make progress?

The truth is that there isn't only one best way to learn Chinese.

Keep two things in mind:

First - every Chinese learner is different! What works for others, might not work for you. Try out different approaches and find out what suits you best.

Second - the key to being a successful Chinese learner is incorporating the above methods. Different approaches will teach you different aspects of Chinese - reading, writing, listening and speaking!

The best way to learn Chinese is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. Study Chinese script, vocabulary, and grammar in an engaging way - with apps, software, or classic flashcards. Speak Chinese out loud as often as you can - to native speakers or to yourself. Soak up Chinese comics, movies, music, social media.

Ideally, the best way to learn Chinese includes:

  • Interactive lessons (online or in a classroom) that teach Chinese script, vocabulary, grammar and culture through reading, writing, listening and speaking
  • A period of daily Chinese immersion
  • The ability to study at your own pace
  • Professional guidance from a native Chinese speaker trained in education
  • The ability to interact with Chinese native speakers and other non-native Chinese language learners
  • Occasional translation activities between Chinese and your native language
  • The ability to study vocabulary in a colorful, visual and interactive way
  • Reinforcement testing of skills learned
  • Motivational incentives to encourage daily practice

This may sound like a lot to ask for, but online courses like Rocket Chinese can provide you with many of these features. It's also easier than ever to supplement your studies with other programs either online or in person.

Learn Chinese With Rocket Chinese

Rocket Chinese is an online Chinese course that incorporates various of the above methods. Our lessons include audio tracks, a pronunciation tool, language & culture lessons and extensive reinforcement testing.

Why don’t you listen to the first Rocket Chinese Interactive Audio Lesson right here?

Unlike other Chinese learning resources out there, we don’t focus on only one approach. We believe there is more to learning a language than vocabulary and grammar drills.

You want to learn Chinese to communicate with others - confidently and authentically. Rocket Chinese will teach you exactly that.

Start your first Chinese lesson right now! You can sign up to our completely free, life-time trial of Rocket Chinese here.

What are you waiting for?

Huí tóu jiàn (回头见!)

Lin Ping and the Rocket Chinese Team