How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Efficiently and Enjoyably as an Adult

In early 2020, at age 61, the longing to return to the study of Mandarin Chinese after a 40-year hiatus came upon me. I met once with a private instructor in early March, 2020. Then the pandemic happened. I read the suggestion of Andrea Sachs of The Washington Post to learn a foreign language online during lockdown. I consider July 7, 2020 – my first meeting with an online italki instructor with whom I continue to work – as the official start of my return to serious study.

Nearly one year later, at the end of June, 2021, to bookend my efforts, I flew to Chicago to take Mandarin Chinese proficiency exams at the first and second levels. I am scheduled to receive my scores later this month.

Anne in Chicago's Chinatown

My first year of studying Mandarin Chinese was a bittersweet one.

With two-thirds of my expected life span over, I seek efficiency and optimization in many areas of my life. With regard to Mandarin Chinese, I want to learn to speak, understand, read, and write as proficiently as possible, as quickly as possible, with the least amount of time and effort, in ways that feel engaging and meaningful to me. According to the BBC, an educated Chinese person knows 8,000 characters. That sounds reasonable to me.

To evaluate my progress, to add credentials to my curriculum vitae, and to possibly open new professional opportunities, I decided to focus on studying for the Mandarin Chinese proficiency exams administered by the Chinese government, the globally recognized Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK) 汉语水平考试.

I ran into trouble from the start. The standard HSK exam prep course materials are printed in a font size too small for me to read. The most-recommended college textbook does have an online version with an adjustable font size. I found the content about students’ lives uncompelling, however, and couldn’t imagine using school-related vocabulary in my life as a counselor in Blacksburg, Virginia at age 61.

Seeking alternative study materials to these top choices resulted in hours and hours of searching and testing, hundreds of dollars in purchases, a surprising and painful discovery of orthodoxies in both the traditional and contemporary schools of thought on the teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese, then hours and hours of reviewing the research literature on second language acquisition to try discover a research-informed path.

In sum, although I am not sure of the size of the market, i.e. English-speaking adults seeking to learn Mandarin Chinese, this product niche is unfilled (with one exception, which I describe below): outcome-proven, comprehensive, Mandarin Chinese teaching and learning materials with content of interest to adults.

In hopes of assisting other adults interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, I have written the post I wish I had found a year ago when, after finding only materials for children and students, I refined my search query to “learning Mandarin Chinese for adults.”

How to Learn Mandarin Chinese Efficiently and Enjoyably as an Adult

To increase the likelihood of efficiently and enjoyably gaining proficiency in Mandarin Chinese as an adult, a systems approach is suggested. (Here’s a Wikipedia entry on systems theory and here’s a broad application of systems theory by my father, Robert H. Giles, Jr.)

Components of an efficient, effective study plan

Create an individualized study plan for yourself that includes these interrelated, interactive components:

  • Unorthodox instructors who – either by training or intuition – understand shaping, comprehensible input, comprehensible output, the forgetting curve, and “quick wins,” and who conduct their classes primarily in Mandarin Chinese, not English.
    (1) I have had stellar instructors I assume can speak English but I’m not sure because I’ve only heard them teach using Mandarin Chinese.
    (2) To learn more about shaping and comprehensible input, please see the video embedded in this description of Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition.)
  • A research-informed, outcome-focused, core course.
  • Graded readings
  • Writing for real purposes
  • Grammar consultation with instructors and with AllSet Learning’s Chinese Grammar Wiki rather than direct grammar instruction.
  • People with whom to practice speaking without correction or instruction.

Product recommendations

Instructors. Outstanding, unorthodox instructors can be found among the 1,850 Mandarin Chinese instructors available on italki, through AllSet Learning, and through referrals to private instructors. Asking a version of this question – “How have you decided to teach what you teach and in the way that you teach it?” – may be helpful in identifying versatile, thoughtful instructors.

I currently work with 4 online instructors, 30 to 60 minutes per session, 1-2 lessons per day. Depeng, Benfang, and Amy are with italki and one offers private instruction.

Core course. I recommend Mandarin Blueprint. I have explained why in detail here. I have tried more than a dozen other courses and apps and no other approach comes close to meeting these criteria: 1) uses a systems approach, and is 2) research-informed, 3) outcome-focused, and 4) engaging enough to continue. In this interview, Mandarin Chinese learner Chad Erickson cites similar reasons for using Mandarin Blueprint. William Beeman, Professor Emeritus at the  University of Minnesota, also recommends Mandarin Blueprint.

With Mandarin Blueprint, a barrier to entry was a high level of software expertise needed to use Anki, a form of spaced repetition flashcard software. I devised a paper-and-pen workaround to Anki and describe it here.

A private instructor in China has developed an astounding set of interactive slides to prepare students for HSK exams. This instructor does not have an online presence, but feel free to contact me for more information.

Graded readings. Mandarin Companion‘s characters-only graded readers are superior in content and engagement but coaching may be needed to transition from reading Pinyin to reading characters.

For example, on my computer screen, I displayed content of the Kindle versions of Edmund Chia’s Guo Guo Is Missing, then The Sports Boys (stories about kids, but if that’s the content that breaks the code of the English-pinyin-characters Rosetta Stone, so be it), interspersed with Mandarin Companion’s readers about Zhou Haisheng and Xiao Ming, and worked with instructors on deciphering characters. I can now read Mandarin Companion’s Breakthrough Level graded readers primarily on my own. I am a denizen of a nation with a loneliness epidemic, however, and prefer to read with an instructor and chat in Mandarin Chinese about the content.

The Chairman’s Bao is an online source of brief graded readings that provides characters, Pinyin, and English.

Writing for real purposes. Here is the method for writing with purpose and meaning that I am using. Added 7/24/21: I and others are writing brief dialogues about universal human concepts in simplified Chinese characters, pinyin, and English in hopes of helping people who speak all these languages understand each other a bit better.

People. Finding fellow Mandarin Chinese learners and native speakers willing to speak with learners in one’s locale can be difficult. During lockdown and afterwards, I attempted to find and form online Mandarin Chinese conversation groups that allow members to work out how to put their interior experience into words, and those words into sentences – however laboriously and however riddled with errors – without the use of English, and without correction or instruction by other members.

Paradoxically, interruptions in the name of “doing it right” may actually interfere with the brain’s construction of an inner network of understanding, termed an interlanguage. Within a group of people, extemporaneously practicing creating comprehensible output and taking in comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese remains a yet-unrealized dream of mine.

Mandarin Chinese courses can have dropout rates as high as 95%. I posit that orthodoxy – a rigid adherence to beliefs about the way things are to be done, rather than pausing to analyze what yields results and what doesn’t – not the language’s difficulty, is the primary culprit.

For adults who are interested in learning Mandarin Chinese, or for adults who have have begun to learn and, due to troubling experiences or lack of progress, are heading towards that 95% dropout rate, I hope my hypotheses, explanations, and recommendations are helpful.

With questions or feedback, please contact me.

. . . . .

If of interest, here is more background on my thinking.


  • I define orthodoxy as a set of beliefs and rules about “the right way” to teach and learn Mandarin Chinese.
  • In this context, I define optimize as a research-informed method to gain the most proficiency in Mandarin Chinese in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort, with the most pleasure, such that the learner can understand and be understood by native speakers. Other methods may exist and produce results, but these methods would do so with less efficiency than an optimal method.
  • I define a systems approach as a way to simultaneously and synergistically attend to all components of teaching and learning Mandarin Chinese. Again, here’s a Wikipedia entry on systems theory and here’s a broad application of systems theory by my father, Robert H. Giles, Jr.
  • Although my untested hypotheses may have broader application, my focus is on English-speaking adults acquiring Mandarin Chinese as another language.

Origin of hypothesis about a systems approach

I hypothesize that a broadly encompassing systems approach can optimize the teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese.

That hypothesis is based on:

  1. my reviews of the research literature on the neuroscience of second language acquisition, learning, and memory, particularly of Mandarin Chinese, particularly in older adults, and the psychology of learning,
  2. my knowledge, experience, and training as an educator and counselor,
  3. my virtual attendance of the National Chinese Language Conference in April, 2021,
  4. my year of attempting to learn Mandarin Chinese primarily in isolation, paradoxically ideal for collecting case study data since diverse variables were artificially controlled by lockdown, i.e. indirect learning opportunities through natural interaction or immersion in a language-speaking environment were non-existent, and
  5. my nascent attempts to teach English to native speakers of Mandarin Chinese,
  6. my having been schooled for at least 50 years by a systems thinker.

Specifically, as I explain more fully here, learners could optimize their acquisition of Mandarin Chinese – rather than through rote learning, sequenced learning, or using a task-focused approach – by engaging in a “flow” in, around, and through the five major language learning components of Mandarin Chinese – pronunciation/tones, Pinyin, vocabulary, grammar, and characters – while listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Disclosures: I am a current customer of italki, Mandarin Blueprint, and Mandarin Companion. I have been a customer of AllSet Learning. I receive no referral fees from any company or organization mentioned or linked to in this post.

Views expressed are my own.

I am a student of Mandarin Chinese and also a mental health counselor, able to provide counseling services only to residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia, U.S.A. This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.


  1. Great to hear your experiences learning Mandarin, another option for looking for online Chinese tutors would be Instant Mandarin (, can find some wonderful and flexible tutors on there, another nice alternative resource 🙂