If I Were to Begin Learning Mandarin Chinese Today

If an English-speaking adult with limited opportunities for immersion in the language came to me today and said, “I want to learn Mandarin Chinese. Where should I begin?”, this is what I would answer.

“[Mandarin Chinese is] one of the most geopolitically important languages in the twenty-first century.”
– Jing Tsu, Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern, 2022


My personal experience cannot be generalized to apply to others.*

The claim, “If it worked for me, it can work for you,” is unlikely to be true, particularly for language learners who do not live in a country where the language is spoken, do not have a love interest who speaks the language, do not have in-person classes they can attend, or who live in an area with few people who speak the language. It oversimplifies the complexity of context and of individual differences.

That said, I have done 100+ hours of review of the research literature on adult second language learning, particularly of Mandarin Chinese. Beyond my own experience, I have case study data from having observed adult learners in this effort, this one, and others. I feel confident offering some limited guidance, with the caveat that individual needs and strengths vary.

Screenshot from Hack Chinese dashboard

I took a semester of Mandarin Chinese over 40 years ago, then started again in 2020 as the pandemic began. My intention is to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese well enough to have meaningful conversations.

If the person were uncertain about whether or not they wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese, I would suggest that, before doing anything else, they book a 30-minute lesson with italki instructor Benfang Wang. Benfang is a teacher unsurpassed in skill in helping beginners learn Mandarin Chinese while only speaking Mandarin Chinese. Here he is speaking with a complete beginner. Here he is speaking with me in 2021 and again in 2024.

I have worked with over 50 instructors. Benfang is a master teacher. My hypothesis is that, after 30 minutes with Benfang, if the person has a nascent spark of interest, that may flame to a passion that calls to learn more.

Why can’t a person just try a few apps or courses and see if something sticks? The person certainly can. But there’s an ominous statistic to consider.

Although this study focuses on elementary and secondary students in Australia, my case study data corroborates it: 95% of people who begin studying Mandarin Chinese quit. Adults have to find ways that are individually reinforcing and individually work for them very quickly to maintain the consistent effort needed to outrun the forgetting curve.

My hypothesis is that adults quit learning Mandarin Chinese because they don’t make enough progress fast enough to make it seem worthwhile.

The primary problem with learning Mandarin Chinese is remembering and not forgetting. The content is vast and complex. Being able to speak and read requires a precision unknown in English. The adult human brain can learn and remember new information, but the content needs to be meaningfully connected.

The only Mandarin Chinese course I know of, and recommend, that offers a connected, systematic, reproducible way of learning to pronounce, read, and write characters is Mandarin Blueprint.

Their invention is ingenious. A learner is taught this process: With a character, associate initials with people, finals with places, tones with rooms within those places, components within characters as items, then imagine scenes in which action unfolds with those elements in the sequence in which the components are written in the character.

For each character, the learner creates a personally meaningful story. Some characters become instantly recognizable; some can be remembered through recognizing elements and the story attached. It’s quite miraculous. I often wish my parents were still alive. I can imagine their wonder that their 65-year-old daughter can pronounce, read, and use 藏 in a sentence.

. . . .

For people who do want to learn Mandarin Chinese, after hard, trial-and-error labor since 2020, this is how I wish I had begun.

About studying Mandarin Chinese as an adult, I wish someone had given me this guidance:

  1. Begin with, and continue to practice, self-kindness. Some things in life don’t happen as a result of desire, insight, or will. When learning languages as an adult, since one can always do more or know more, self-criticism, self-judgment, and worry aren’t merited. Self-appreciation and self-kindness are merited.
  2. Use self-awareness to monitor what delights you and what doesn’t. Do what delights you.
  3. Make it daily.
  4. Make it personal.
  5. Take your time to master as much as  you can as you go. Adding too much new information too quickly simply overwhelms the adult human brain.


  1. Open a Hack Chinese account. Bypass use of Anki, Traverse, and/or other spaced repetition software for now.
  2. Take the Mandarin Blueprint Pronunciation Mastery course. It is imperative to learn correct pronunciation before learning characters so when characters are learned and reviewed, they are pronounced with precision in the mind and with the mouth. (To test whether or not Mandarin Blueprint is a fit, the course is available for 15 days for $7. The full course is about $1K, payable in installments, and offers a 90-day money back guarantee. I have no affiliation with any sources mentioned in this post.) My suggestion is to crank through the Pronunciation Mastery course videos, skipping making flashcards. Practice with the videos and move on. If needed, the course can be reviewed again later. I took it twice. Luke has summarized the content of the Pronunciation Mastery course in 1 hour.
  3. Master pronunciation. “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” – Outlier Linguistics
  4. Record yourself speaking. Download and save the first audio you record to return to later. Vocaroo is easy to use.
  5. Start a personal vocabulary list in Hack Chinese. Add a very small number of characters and words from the Pronunciation Mastery class that are personally meaningful or interesting to you. Try diligently to add what you are beginning to recognize, not what you wish you knew. Review these as you complete the PM course.
  6. Join me and fellow study buddies who are Mandarin Chinese “streakers,” i.e. daily studiers of Mandarin Chinese who check in via Google doc.
  7. When you complete Mandarin Blueprint’s Pronunciation Mastery course, as a pre-test, take HSK level, an assessment created using an artificial intelligence algorithm by François-Pierre Paty, Ph.D. HSK level is the only credible, online assessment that I have been able to find that serves as a reasonable pre-test/post-test to measure gains. One needs to save the results page as a .pdf to retain the results. The results are not stored or retrievable.
  8. Create a Mandarin Blueprint (MB) Phase 1 vocabulary list in Hack Chinese by importing the character list in the progress link at the end of Level 6. Note: This step is possible if you’re a daily studier. If not, doing this may be too much information, too quickly. Research suggests learners need 3 to 17 exposures to a new word to learn it.
  9. In Hack Chinese, add props/components cards to your first MB list. For example, in Level 4, you will learn 兑. The component at the top, 丷 also has a card in Hack Chinese. In Level 5, you will learn 说 = 讠 + 兑. In Hack Chinese, 讠also has a card. Adding characters and components keeps your list comprehensive.
  10. As you learn characters and components – termed “props” in Mandarin Blueprint – use Purple Culture or another source to add to the notes the original names and meanings of the components.**
  11. Memorize the tone with the character. Mandarin Blueprint uses the method of loci (also termed “memory palace“) to help learners remember tones. I envision their system as a “tone house” and place characters within rooms.
  12. Add a Simplified Characters keyboard to your electronic devices and begin using characters in your messages and emails.
  13. Start Phase 1 of Mandarin Blueprint. Although it will be difficult because many of the characters will seem unrecognizable, start reviewing the MB Phase 1 list in Hack Chinese every day for 2 minutes (or more, based on your schedule and your awareness of your inner experience – don’t push, easy does it.) Just start getting familiar with these first characters.
  14. Continue discovering your own personal study strengths and interests. Monitor your inner experience and repeat activities that bring you a sense of flow and satisfaction. Experiment with the review schedule that works for you.
  15. On the Hack Chinese dashboard is a list of hard words. You can send these to a teacher. Book a lesson with italki instructor Benfang Wang, message him that you are a beginner, and copy and paste the “hard words message” into the message box.
  16. Get ready to speak only Mandarin Chinese AS A BEGINNER using words you know and will be taught. Benfang Wang is a teacher unsurpassed in skill in helping beginners speak only in Mandarin. Here he is speaking with a complete beginner and here he is speaking with me in 2021. Note: It is critical to speak only Mandarin when learning Mandarin. Research studies suggest an adult must suppress the native language in order to optimally acquire a new, target language.
  17. Record yourself speaking after your experience with Benfang. Compare this recording to your first recording.
  18. Engage in passive listening. Listening to audio in the target language while doing other tasks is termed “statistical learning (SL), the unguided, automatic extraction of regularities from the environment through passive exposure.” (Alexander et al., 2022) Andrew Methven recommends these podcasts.
  19. Watch this video on word order from Shuo of Shuoshuo Chinese.
  20.  After you have finished about 300 characters in MB, try reading Twenty Three Cats. If all goes well, you will become a reader of simplified Chinese characters, skipping over the few words you don’t know to find out what happens next! It’s wondrous! If you can’t establish a reading flow, just stop. This will come.
  21. Experience the swirl of delightful synergy created by  pronunciation + characters + vocabulary + reading + speaking + listening! This synergy provides the early and immediate reinforcement busy adults need to keep studying.
  22. After you are able to read Twenty Three Cats, consider continuing with other graded reader texts. If reading is not your cup of tea, let it go! This will come. Graded reading materials of interest to adults are difficult to find. Possibilities for reading include: Mandarin Companion, Chinese Breeze, Imagin8 Press, Du Chinese (stories), and The Chairman’s Bao (news). Frank, an instructor with italki, has custom-created several graded reader texts for our group of study buddies, posted in Google docs, including The Gift of the Magi and Rickshaw Boy.
  23. Retake HSK level at intervals personally meaningful to you.
  24. Keep going with Mandarin Blueprint to get a core 1,000 characters done.
  25. There are many enrichment options*** after this! 加油!

Consider working with additional instructors.

I’ve had over 600 lessons with italki instructors and had sessions with about 50 teachers through italki and other means. I currently only meet with 3 of them. Why?

Ultimately, at nearly 65 years old, I need to have an excellent customer experience. At the end of the session, I need to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, not a sense of inadequacy or failure. Given the complexity and difficulty of the task of helping an educated, articulate adult navigate the limits of speaking in a new language, this requires an instructor with extraordinary awareness and skill.

I seek instructors who

  1. speak only Mandarin Chinese during lessons (because adults must suppress their native languages in order to optimally acquire a new, target language),
  2. have expertise in adult second language learning and teaching,
  3. are focused primarily on me as a learner, rather than on themselves as a teacher,
  4. see me, hear me, recognize what I know, and help me build on that.

I have had a great deal of difficulty finding instructors who meet these criteria.

If instructors

  1. speak English during the session,
  2. speak more than half the time,
  3. correct me so frequently I can’t complete my thought or sentence,
  4. fill in what I’m struggling to say or a character I’m trying to read without giving me time to retrieve the content from my brain, thus robbing me of the chance to make a new connection,
  5. give me advice before they learn what I’ve already tried,
  6. focus on what I do incorrectly rather than help me build upon what I know,
  7. introduce too much new content too quickly for me to be able to connect it efficiently with what I already know,
  8. insist on using their content rather than what is personally meaningful to me,
  9. lead me to feel small vs. collaborate with me as a fellow adult,

I say 谢谢 and don’t book another session.

I’ve cried 一万 tears and wasted 100s of hours trying to convince teachers to speak only Mandarin with me, to help me try to think in Mandarin, and to catch me doing something right.  Shaping works. Success breeds success. If the instructors don’t get it, they don’t get it, and probably won’t. Move on.

In working with instructors, I have gained the most benefit from asking questions about materials of interest to me. For example, I’ve asked to share my screen and used this public, graded reader level version of The Gift of the Magi by italki instructor Frank to get help with pronunciation, reading fluency, and grammar points.

About the image

The image is a screenshot from my Hack Chinese dashboard from August 12, 2023. I subscribed to Hack Chinese short of a year ago, in October, 2022, on the recommendation of a study buddy, to review words used in Mandarin Companion graded readers. I used it intermittently until mid-August, 2023, when a study buddy shared his screen with his dashboard showing me the results of daily reviews for over a year. 哇!I want what he has! I am on my way!

I have no affiliations with any of the service providers mentioned in this post.

My understanding evolves. I will continue to update this post.

“There is a phrase in China, “zhiyin” (知音), used to describe the person who knows you best…As far apart as China and the United States may seem, our futures are deeply intertwined, and the world’s destiny lies in our collective hands. Americans must try to understand the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Chinese people.”
– Carla Dirlikov Canales, opera singer and U.S. arts envoy, guest essay for The New York Times, 10/07/2023

. . . . .

*My personal experience can be termed case study data, anecdotal data, experiential data, and/or qualitative data. My personal experience cannot be equated with quantitative, human subjects research data which reports on answers to questions about what helps most people, most of the time, better than other things, and better than nothing.

**Knowing the original meanings of components, rather than trying to remember pictographs based on how they look, is more helpful for reading characters in the long run. Only about 5% of Chinese characters are pictographs.

For example, 且 qiě means “and; moreover; yet; for the time being; to be about to; both (… and…)” and is composed of these components:
月 [ yuè ] moon; month
一 [ yī ] one; a, an; alone

In Mandarin Blueprint, the suggested image to remember for 且 is a bookcase, but that’s pretty distant from the true meaning.

In my opinion, Mandarin Blueprint’s invention is a true innovation in the learning of Mandarin Chinese by adults. Learning both – the elements of their method, plus the original meaning of components – is ideal.

This post from Mandarin Blueprint on learning Chinese by yourself is very helpful.

***I have tried dozens of courses, programs, texts, and apps, and have worked – mostly briefly – with over 50 instructors. I have only a very few recommendations for post-1,000 character enrichment. Other than graded readers and a few instructors, these are the only resources that align with what research suggests and that I have found myself returning to when I seek further clarification or instruction.


Still at too high of a level for me but I find the content fascinating:

Interesting and helpful:

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., L.P.C., is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Commonwealth of Virginia, U.S.A., and a student of Mandarin Chinese. She has passed the pre-2021 HSK 1 and HSK 2 exams but did not pass the HSK 3 exam in 2021. She holds master’s degrees in curriculum and instruction and mental health counseling, and a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certificate. She attended the virtual National Chinese Language Conference in 2021 and 2022. She has taught English at the middle school, high school, and college levels. Her experience in working with non-native speakers of English includes serving as a support person for two visiting scholars from China to Virginia Tech, 1982-1983, tutoring non-native speakers, working with language exchange partners, and enjoying co-housing with international visiting scholars, 2020 to the present. She is a volunteer tutor with Literacy Volunteers of the New River Valley, Virginia.

Last updated 3/31/2024

All content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. Consult a qualified professional for personalized medical, health care, and professional advice.