Mandarin Chinese Workshop Syllabus

For the Mandarin Chinese Workshop for adults, the syllabus below describes required and recommended milestones, materials and resources, lists study support tools for using Mandarin Blueprint, and offers “insider tips” and other recommendations.

Materials and Resources

Required materials

Shared reading and viewing materials

  1. The show we may discuss during the workshop is The Rational Life on Netflix.
  2. The book we may discuss is Just Friends? , a Mandarin Companion “Breakthrough Level” graded reader using 150 characters. Here is an annotated character list. Mandarin Companion review decks are available in Skritter, If you would like a electronic version to read on your phone or tablet with Chinese dictionary app Pleco‘s reader, please ask. If you would like a print version, please ask. If  you would like an Audible audio version, please ask.

Other suggested materials

Frequently used online resources


Please see the list in the 30-day workshop description.

Mandarin Blueprint study support tools

Insider tips on using Mandarin Blueprint

In an innovative application of the method of loci – a memory strategy attributed to the ancient Greeks and Romans – Mandarin Blueprint users are taught how to pronounce, write, and read Chinese characters by attempting to create the equivalent of autobiographical memories by envisioning places from their own personal histories, then imagining actors interacting with props in rooms within those locations. Characters are introduced in order of frequency of use in publications, increasing the likelihood that users will be able to quickly recognize, then read, text they encounter online and in print.

  1. Choose “z” characters ahead of time.
  2. Choose 13 memorable locations/sets that you don’t mind visiting many, many times. For some locations, revisiting them may prove traumatizing, including one’s childhood home, the latter used throughout Mandarin Blueprint. Here are the finals represented by the sets:
    -(e)n: -en, -n
    -(e)ng: – eng, -ng
    ∅, no final
  3. Orient yourself to visualizing tones using a “Tone House,” a way to envision rooms associated with tones using the method of loci (also termed “memory palace“).
  4. Although Mandarin Blueprint invites you to use your own “props,” if you intend to continue with Mandarin Blueprint, using their props is easier since you will encounter them hundreds of times and that’s one less thing to remember. (For example, I had to Google “rocket launcher” to see what one looked like, but I now recognize 𤴓 for an accurately used rocket launcher when I see it.)
  5. Use Hanzi Search to find characters in Mandarin Blueprint. Directions: Copy and paste the character of interest into the search box. Clicking on the character takes the user to the lesson in Mandarin Blueprint where the character is taught. Text links below the character take users to other resources that offer definitions and examples. For example, these URLs link to descriptions of 十:  Dong |HSK |Z2H. The latter, Z2H, offers movie clips in which the character is used.
  6. If of interest, here’s an interview of me by Mandarin Blueprint co-founder Phil Crimmins.

Research-informed and case study-informed insider tips on learning Mandarin Chinese

  1. Play to the strengths of the human brain. Self-kindness optimizes. Self-judgment delays.
  2. One word: Homophones. Mandarin Chinese has around 400 sounds. In comparison, English is reported by several pundits to have an estimated 14,000 sounds (a number I have been unable to verify). That means a) syllables, words, and concepts in Chinese sound alike, and b) the same sounds will have multiple meanings. Most characters, however, have single meanings.  Therefore, learning characters from the start is an imperative because, although many concepts may sound alike, a disambiguating mental image becomes associated with each word, syllable, and/or concept.
  3. Consciously attend to your morale and do what helps, not hurts. Stay aware of your engagement and shift to another activity when it wanes. Mandarin Chinese courses can have a 95% dropout rate.
  4. Become aware of, and attend to, your personal remembering and forgetting processes. Not being able to remember is a central barrier to achieving proficiency in Mandarin Chinese. As Qi et al., 2019, aptly put it, “The capacity for retaining proficiency after training is a critical challenge for real-world language learners.”
  5. Learn new content, then, rather than letting the brain’s natural forgetting process overwrite previously learned content, consciously keep new content dynamic by mentally integrating it into the existing, established circuitry of your interlanguage.
  6. Rather than attempt to force yourself through sheer willpower to learn new content, cheerfully and consciously collect exposures. Researchers have found that second language learners may need from 3 to 17 exposures to learn a new word.
  7. Writing a short story in Chinese expands “the first sentence” concept. Early studies suggest joint production of stories may optimize gains as long as complexity stays low.
  8. Interaction, with all its rich unpredictability, may help create autobiographical memories and may help keep content dynamic, potentiating the human brain to remember rather than forget. According to neuroscience studies on second language learningadults learn languages most efficiently through social interaction, particularly when it’s immersive for adult learners.
  9. To be intelligible to all but our teachers, we need to pronounce Mandarin Chinese with meticulous accuracy. Best to consciously learn it from the start, particularly tones. It’s inefficient and painful to go back and retrace one’s steps.
  10. Pinyin isn’t always pronounced as it’s spelled.
  11. Only 3% of Chinese characters are pictograms.
  12. The end in mind is finite and achievable. According to Everson et al., 2016, “For native readers of modern Chinese, it is estimated that between 2,000 to 3,000 characters are needed to accomplish most reading functions on a daily basis. Chinese children learn 3,500 characters from first to ninth grade.”

Prior to the first workshop meeting

  1. Begin Mandarin Blueprint‘s 6-hour Pronunciation Mastery course.
  2. Consider downloading and beginning to use the free features of Hello Chinese for on-the-go practice.
  3. Peruse the profiles of Mandarin Chinese teachers on italki and save links to the profiles of teachers with whom you might like to work and will fit your budget ($100 italki voucher will be provided). Seek teachers – either by training or intuition – who seem to understand the theories of shapingcomprehensible inputcomprehensible outputTotal Physical Response (TPR), the forgetting curve, and “quick wins,” and conduct their classes primarily in Mandarin Chinese. For example, here is a video of Benfang Wang using only Chinese to teach a complete novice the beginnings of Mandarin Chinese.
  4. Sample Mandarin Chinese TV shows and movies on Netflix* and/or Amazon Prime.

During the first week of the workshop

  1. Contemplate a useful metaphor to describe your “interlanguage”** the systematic, individualized way you will organize your learning of Mandarin Chinese.
  2. Complete The First Sentence exercise.
  3. Continue with, and complete, the Pronunciation Mastery course, then begin learning characters through the Mandarin Blueprint Method online course, progressing through the levels and phases.

Suggested one-hour study schedule priorities

Short of attending an extreme immersion class in China, based on my research and experience, I hypothesize that, to achieve the greatest proficiency in Mandarin Chinese through studying one hour per day for 90 days, one-hour study sessions would prioritize the following tasks.

Learn to pronounce Mandarin Chinese. Progress through the Mandarin Blueprint‘s Pronunciation Mastery course. Supplement with shadowing a Du Chinese story for 5 minutes.

Learn to read characters. After finishing the Pronunciation Mastery course, progress through the levels and phases of Mandarin Blueprint‘s online curriculum. Consider tracking your learning using paper and pen and a Hanzi Movie Method chart.

(I hypothesize that the more progress people can make through Mandarin Blueprint‘s online curriculum in 90 days, the higher their HSKlevel scores will be as long as the time spent with the curriculum is engaged time. Self-awareness while studying is crucial. As soon as engagement wanes, even if only minutes have passed, to optimize gains from time spent, I urge workshop members to switch to a different activity.)

Interact: Teach to learn. Review and reinforce what you’ve learned by teaching it to fellow workshop members. Particularly with material you found difficult, create and share a brief quiz, exercise, or activity.

Interact: Speak Mandarin Chinese,15-30 minutes. Speak Mandarin Chinese with a fellow student, a language exchange partner, an italki instructor, or any willing speaker of Mandarin Chinese. Instant lessons are available on italki at all hours within 5 minutes of booking.

(Suggestion for working with an italki teacher for an instant lesson: Copy and paste what you’re working on – understanding a character’s meaning, how to pronounce a character, etc. – into the chat and ask for help.)

The First Sentence, 3 minutes. Practice pronouncing and writing the pinyin and hanzi for your “first sentence.”

Watch TV. Watch The Rational Life or other TV series or movies or YouTube shows made in China just to hear, see, and observe.

Interlanguage, 2 minutes. After creating a log to track the description of your interlanguage as it develops: 1) Add a brief list of the teaching and learning activities in which you engaged each day. 2) Imagine and describe how what you learned today fits into, and enriches, your interlanguage. Write and log a one-sentence description.

Enrichment options

  1. Add new sentences to The First Sentence dialogue.
  2. Pick one of the stories of interest to you from Du Chinese and “play” with it. Follow along as the app/software reads the story to you. Tap characters, words, and phrases and see their meanings. Choose several to repeat over and over again (shadowing) until they feel like they’re yours.
  3. Watch TV shows and movies on Netflix**, both with and without Language Reactor.
  4. Write sentences, poems, plays, and/or stories in Mandarin Chinese.
  5. Accumulate exposures. Researchers have found that second language learners may need from 3 to 17 exposures to learn a new word.

Enrichment option: Memorize a song

For beginners, Benfang recommends Tián Mì Mì 甜蜜蜜 by Teresa Teng 邓丽君 (Dèng Lìjūn). Here’s a YouTube version with English, pinyin, and Chinese characters. Here’s more about the song on Wikipedia. Here’s another version by Luhan (鹿晗 (Lù Hán) and one by David DiMuzio.

Here is a set of worksheets for learning Tián Mì Mì 甜蜜蜜 that include the lyrics in pinyin, pinyin and characters, and a blank practice sheet.

Suggested steps

  1. Memorize the words to the song in pinyin while learning the tune. Since learning a one-to-one correspondence between words in one’s native language and the desired second language can create a barrier to language acquisition with the rather ghastly term “parasitism,” ignore English translations of the song. Consider using standard memorization techniques such as these from wikiHow.
  2. Write the song lyrics in pinyin from memory.
  3. Sing the song with an instructor with the music, then a cappella (without accompaniment).
  4. Sing the song solo with the music and a cappella. 
  5. Sing the song for others.
  6. Rehearse both mentally and orally while doing something else.
  7. Simulate the experience. Since performance is enhanced by simulating the real-life test, one can use a spatula as a mic, use a karaoke machine, or perform for an audience.
  8. Make a recording (optional). Here’s a video of me singing Tian Mi Mi.

At intervals during the workshop

Submit scores for:

  • $50 award for submitting achievement scores and completing 30 consecutive days of study, one hour per day.
  • $100 award for submitting achievement scores and completing 60 consecutive days of study, one hour per day.
  • $200 award for submitting achievement scores and completing 90 days of study, one hour per day.


As the workshop comes to a close

  1. Retake the Mandarin Chinese Interest Survey. Record and save your answers. Find your pre-course answers. What insights do you gain from comparing your pre-course and post-course answers?
  2. Re-take the HSKlevel.  IMPORTANT: Save your scores as a .pdf. Calculate the percentage gain in your recognition of characters. What conclusions do you draw about your progress? Rank order the teaching and learning activities you engaged in over the past
  3. Consider whether or not you will continue learning Mandarin Chinese. If you will, write a plan of study.


Here is a list of romance TV series on Netflix recommended for their use of contemporary, general purpose Mandarin Chinese and engaging story lines, in rank order, with links to IMDb or Wikipedia:

  1. The Rational Life, 2021
  2. The Perfect Match, 2016
  3. Well-Intended Love, 2019, season 1 (not season 2)
  4. Use for My Talent, 2021
  5. My Sunshine, 2015

Approximately equal


Meteor Garden, 2018, frequently recommended by Mandarin Chinese schools, belongs in a mesmerizing category of its own for the personality challenges of its characters, general misogyny, and baffling ending. Outtake videos, like this one, are often sweet.

This project is funded through the legacy of Robert H. Giles, Jr.., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Virginia Tech, to foster use of the findings of science to build a system of global, humane, human connection in service to the greater good. Ut Prosim.

With questions or comments, please contact Anne Giles.

Mandarin Chinese Workshop-related links

For comprehensive pronunciation instruction, Finding Your Chinese Voice is recommended. For deeper understanding of characters, Outlier Linguistics is recommended.


Based on my reviews of the research literature, the primary way adults can optimize their second language learning is through consciously developing an inner system of making meaning of the content of the language. This is termed an “interlanguage.”

An “interlanguage” is a developmental, dynamic, individualized, structured, systematic way to use the  brain’s schematic functions to organize and integrate second language information, make meaning from it, and speak, write, and create in it. If the learner continues to be willing to receive input, the interlanguage can eventually transform into multilingualism, i.e. the person is able to think, feel, work, relate, and make decisions in many languages.

This perhaps, is a real-world example of an interlanguage at work:

“Renée Fleming spent two years in Germany studying voice while she was in her twenties. She told me that over the course of her life, each time she went back to Germany she found her fluency had mysteriously improved, as if the language had continued to work its way into her brain regardless of whether she was speaking it.”
– Ann Patchett, “These Precious Days

According to Gass et al. in Second Language Acquisition, an interlanguage is a means “both consistent and dynamic,” by which “learners themselves impose structure on the available linguistic data and formulate an internalized system.” Further, consciousness of an interlanguage may protect against “fossilization,” a language learner’s creation of over-strong schema and too-early cessation of learning in some areas.

I envision an interlanguage as a beautiful internetwork of stars and squares and glitter as words and concepts and meaning. Workshop members are asked to envision an interlanguage in images that are meaningful to them.

Since China’s written language has been modernized to work digitally, online fiction from China flourishes. Megan Walsh posits that we’re currently in a golden age of Chinese science fiction. It’s possible that the worldbuilding inherent to science fiction and fantasy writing might also serve as an interlanguage. This worldbuilding template might be worth perusing. Note: This idea is a hypothesis inspired by reading how author Judy I. Lin engages in worldbuilding.

Last updated 10/27/22

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