Learning Mandarin Chinese 2

This is the first study plan I developed for myself in the summer of 2020. I have kept it for historical purposes. The content below was originally posted on this page.

. . . . .

This is my working page for studying Mandarin Chinese. I have listed the links I use for ready access. An explanatory narrative and my study plan follows below the links.

Links used daily

Frequently used links

Frequently used apps

  • Hello Chinese
  • Skritter

My interest in the Chinese language began while playing bridge at Squires Student Center at Virginia Tech when I was in high school and as an undergraduate and graduate student, 1976 through 1983. Many of the students who played bridge were from Taiwan. They kindly helped me as a beginning bridge student and welcomed me to their gatherings. A highlight of my life was being invited to attend a wedding. I even planned to move to Taiwan to teach English and learn Chinese but was offered a scholarship to attend graduate school at the University of Connecticut to earn a Ph.D. in the history of Chinese-American relations. That was not a fit for me but I took a semester of Chinese there. I returned to Blacksburg to finish a master’s degree in education in 1982.

Virginia Tech had an “adopt-a-visiting-scholar” program and I cherished my time with two visiting scholars from what was then termed “Mainland China.” I moved to Florida in 1983, back to Blacksburg in 2006, and felt my passion to learn Chinese rekindled when I spoke with a Blacksburg resident who speaks Chinese at a political event in the fall of 2019.

I wrote this summary of my study plan in early March, 2020.

My intention is to learn to speak about the basics of human living and the human condition with people who speak Mandarin Chinese. To document I am gaining this ability, I plan to progress through levels of the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK), a standardized test of proficiency administered by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China.

The nearest test center is at George Mason University. It is currently closed.

I took a semester of Chinese at the University of Connecticut in 1982. I believe we used the Wade-Giles system of transcribing Chinese characters into Latin letters used for English. I think I remember that the Yale system was considered radical. Pinyin was adopted in the U.S. in 1986.

In order of priority, I wish to learn to:

  1. Listen and understand.
  2. Speak and be understood.
  3. Read and understand Pinyin.
  4. Write understandable Pinyin.
  5. Read Chinese characters.
  6. Write legible Chinese characters.

Introduced to Chinese culture and history by my Tawianese bridge partners, a focus of my study of history at Virginia Tech became Chinese history. I took all the courses Dr. Young-tsu Wong offered. To remind myself of the context in which I am learning a language, I am updating my knowledge by listening to The Rise and Fall of China.

I began by experimenting with memorizing a set of 12 nouns offered in the first session of Chinese for HSK 1 from Coursera. An online image included a set of pictures of the things, the Pinyin, and the character. I snipped them into 36 mini-flashcards.

Observations on 3/1/20

  1. I need to transform, replace, and unlearn my knowledge of Wade-Giles as I learn Pinyin. (In my mind, China is Jōng Gwó, not Zhōngguó. I think “China” in English, then “Jōng Gwó” from my 1982 learning, then have to think, “That’s wrong,” and correct it with “Zhōngguó.” Onerous!)
  2. Learning Pinyin is multi-part. a) The Chinese characters may be different, but the Pinyin letters for them are identical. b) The Pinyin may be spelled identically but have different tones and, therefore, different meanings. c) Understanding what I am hearing will require consideration of context. Pinyin may have the same spelling, pronunciation and tone but mean different things.

[Update: I consulted with an instructor and concur with her that 1) learning characters as I go will be helpful, 2) but not to insist I learn each character for every vocabulary word before I move on. Learning the most common characters seems recommended, possibly including memorizing the 100 most common Chinese radicals used within characters. This will give me “thinking” context, similar to catching myself up on Chinese history. (This seems helpful on the 100 radicals.)]

As I memorize, I pronounce the Pinyin. I can memorize imperfectly, possibly harmfully, by not knowing and a) saying the correct Pinyin pronunciation b) with the correctly expressed tone.

I need help learning correctly. I need help recognizing and correcting my errors. I have queried my network, received a referral, and queried the tutor about working with me.

Resources abound for learning Chinese. Given that I am 61, I seek efficiency.

After much searching, review-reading, and some trial-and-error effort, I have found these resources helpful so far:

For context:

Online course:

For help understanding tones:

That’s what I’ve got so far.


I have a fantastic tutor! (We met once before lockdown and now meet via Zoom.)

After consulting with my tutor, I’ve learned that the Coursera course may gloss over some fundamentals in order to help the student know enough to pass the HSK exam. My learning style requires understanding the big picture before I can memorize parts of it. That requires an academic textbook so I have queried my network again and we’ll see what I learn.

Update 4/30/20

Integrated Chinese is the top-rated and top-used textbook so I ordered a copy. For my eyes, the text is too small and faint for me to be able to see it. No ebook version exists. I requested permission and received it to preview the web app and I can read it! I’ll try it for a month and see how often I use it.

I have found using the Hello Chinese app on my iPad charming and effective. I love the Coursera instructor but the interface is a bit clunky and I have found myself turning more often to Hello Chinese.

I am using Skritter on my iPad to begin to learn writing Chinese characters. I am realizing I need to be able to look at and understand the characters to understand what is meant. Progress!

Thanks to this recommendation in The New York Times, I have registered with Italki in hopes of practicing speaking in real-time with speakers of Chinese. I am scheduled for my first session on Monday, 5/4 at 6:00 PM. This is a post on the Italki site about the effectiveness of learning a language through Italki but the logic makes sense and matches my personal experience when I was learning French.

I love watching Happy Chinese, a story about an American girl in China recommended to me by my tutor. I don’t understand much but I find it delightful.

The Short Story of Charlie is geared to learning the vocabulary required to pass the HSK 1 exam. I find it very pleasant, too. Again, I still don’t understand much.

(Yes! Chinese was recommended to me by a language professor. So far, it’s slow to load and I haven’t figured out how I might use it yet. This video was also recommended and is on my to-do list.)

I wish I could find a continuous, on-going, audio narrative by speakers of Chinese, with normal speaking speed and no breaks for instruction –  perhaps through a radio station or podcast – to play in the background while I am washing dishes or folding laundry. I don’t need to understand it and it’s probably best that I hear advanced vocabulary because the adult speakers of Chinese in my town are highly educated. I think more exposure to the sound of the language would help me with my pronunciation. I prefer not to watch a film since I have so much visual screen time already!