My Beginner Resources for Learning Chinese

I can’t pinpoint a particular reason why I decided to start learning Chinese. Like most, I have some experience with foreign languages through my secondary school education (a little French and a little more German), but I held no strong feelings for continuing the subjects once the exams were concluded.

In a general sense, I think as I get older I have come to appreciate education and learning a great deal more than I did during school and university. Alongside this, it also seems like a worthwhile goal to achieve fluency in at least one language besides your mother tongue. I’ve also been inspired by the various polyglots on YouTube who show how taking the time to learn another language can bring people of different cultures together and cause them to really open up to you. A good example of this is Xiaoma:

This is a really impressive clip of Xiaoma

So we’ve established a few of the reasons why I’ve decided to pick up my language learning again, but why Chinese? Again, there is no driving force behind this choice, but there are a few reasons I can think of off the top of my head. For one, I find the culture interesting and hope one day to do some travelling across China. I also find the written characters visually beautiful from an artistic angle, so I also have the aim of one day combining this language learning with practising my handwriting and calligraphy.

If you’ve read any of my other posts on this blog, you’ll know that I’m fairly frugal, so when it came to choosing language learning resources I was primarily looking for things that were either free or low cost. I also didn’t want to end up in a situation where I obtained every app, book and podcast subscription I could to the point where I was too overwhelmed by content to actually want to knuckle down and study. So my aim was to keep my Chinese learning resources fairly minimalistic and orderly in addition to being affordable. Here’s my setup:

1. Duolingo

Making mistakes in Duolingo.

Duolingo is great. I appreciate that even if you finish a language course on the platform, you are unlikely to be anywhere near fluent (based on testimonials to this effect I have seen on YouTube), but as a tool for getting started with reading, writing and oral language practice I think this little app’s awesome. Better yet, it’s free (with fairly minimal in-app advertising).

I have put Duolingo at the top of my list as it currently forms the foundation for my Chinese learning resources. The learning is structured via a “tree” of lessons which begin at the very basics and gradually progress to become more difficult as you make your way through the various levels. The lessons are also sufficiently varied that you won’t end up getting bored, with all sorts of tasks whether that’s repeating Chinese sentences into your device’s microphone to test your speaking skills, matching the Chinese Pinyin with their English translations or translating written sentences from scratch into Chinese.

The best part about Duolingo is that it reinforces the requirement to be consistent with your learning. By logging in and completing lessons each day, you are able to maintain your “streak”. Although there is no real in-app consequence to breaking your streak of learning, I think the point of this feature is that with language learning in particular you will rapidly forget what you have learned if you do not consistently make time to practice. It seems to be much like practising an instrument. So although the little Duolingo practice reminders can be a little annoying, I now welcome the prompt to ensure that I am not letting days pass by where I am forgetting or putting off my language practice.

I think the most difficult part of taking on the challenge of learning a language is consistency. There are days when I’ve been up early for work, got home late and had little time to do anything besides eat dinner, brush my teeth and go to sleep. On a day like this, you might be forgiven for passing on getting down to some language study (as it likely wouldn’t be particularly productive when you’re that tired anyway). However, I find that if you allow this mindset to repeat on too many occasions you can find yourself inadvertently failing to study your languages for a month.

I have often found it difficult to keep up good habits, whether that’s exercising, healthy eating or maintaining a consistent time when I go to sleep each night. However, by effectively turning language learning into a fun game, Duolingo has made something that historically has been considered a difficult and time consuming endeavour into something fun and accessible that I find myself wanting to come back to time and again.

2. Han Trainer Pro

This is another free resource, but this time it’s in the form of a free online Chinese dictionary.

One of the small issues I have with Duolingo is that, in many of the exercises, the translation to English is not included. For example, in the exercises where you are matching Chinese characters with their Pinyin equivalents (Pinyin is effectively the anglicised pronunciation of the Chinese characters), no English translation is included. So when you’re confronted with a new character, although you are getting the pronunciation written out in English, you are not given the actual English definition of the character.

Han Trainer Pro features awesome stroke-order animations to help with your writing practice.

This is where Han Trainer Pro can be of real use. By typing in the Pinyin, the website will give you the English translation. Not only that, but the website will give you the definition whether you are inserting the English, the Pinyin or the Chinese character itself (which I anticipate will be of great use when I eventually move on to reading exercises).

As an added bonus, the website also features animations for each Chinese character to allow you to properly write out the characters by hand with the correct stroke order. Click here to see the animation for the word “I” on Han Trainer Pro.

3. Collins Gem Mandarin Chinese Dictionary

Much like Han Trainer Pro, but in physical format, the Collins Gem Mandarin Chinese dictionary is a pocket dictionary that offers a comprehensive translation reference tool for use when you don’t necessarily have an internet connection to hand.

Collins Gem Mandarin Chinese Dictionary
Collins Gem Mandarin Chinese Dictionary

The book is broken down into neat little sections, with translations from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English in the second half (in this section the Chinese Pinyin is alphabetised, ideal for following up on those missing Duolingo English translations!).

In addition to the standard word translations and a section on pronunciation, this little book also contains a great section on useful phrases that you may need when travelling China. For that reason, this book will definitely be accompanying me when I eventually make the trip to China for some adventures.

So these are my three resources. Simple, free (save for the mini Collins dictionary which is optional) and effective. My goal for 2021 is to finish the Duolingo tree and then to assess how comfortable I feel with the language at that point. I think that once I have completed the Duolingo course, I should have a good feel for the areas of my learning in which I could use more refinement so that I can make the most effective choice in my next choice of language learning resources.

Let me know in the comments if you are also learning Chinese (or any other language for that matter)! It would be interesting to hear about the resources you use and how you maintain consistency in your learning.

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