Once upon a time, finding Mandarin Chinese resources meant either moving abroad or committing to expensive, boring, location-dependent classes.
Thanks to the advent of the Internet, new business models, user generated content, and clever crowdsourcing, today’s learner has unprecedented access to free resources, cool tools, and native speakers no matter where in the world one happens to live.
With a little creativity and discipline, that smartphone in your pocket is all you need to master all four Chinese language skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
The problem now is not a lack of tools, but an overabundance.
Instead of wasting your precious study time trying to find the “right” tools, just pick a few of my pre-approved resources below and get busy learning. I have spent hundreds (perhaps thousands!) of hours over the past 5 years trying out different tools and resources so you don’t have to.
But no matter what you choose, always let interest, curiosity and fun guide the way.
Note: This resource page has been assembled by my friend John Fotheringham from Language Mastery. If you appreciate the thoroughness of this page, you will absolutely love his outstanding guide to learning Chinese: Master Mandarin.
Listening is the primary language skill upon which all others rest. Many language learners make the mistake of investing too much time reading and not enough time listening and speaking.
You get better at what you practice, so this imbalance inevitably leads to the frustrating situation where you can easily recognize things when written down but struggle to understand words, phrases, and structures when spoken aloud. To avoid this trap, use the following listening and speaking tools to maximize your exposure to spoken Mandarin each day.
Developing accurate—or at least, comprehensible—pronunciation in Mandarin Chinese is one of the most important stages of your journey.
When it comes to making yourself understood, pronunciation often trumps grammatical accuracy, so spend as much time as you can getting things right in the beginning. Undoing bad pronunciation habits is far more difficult than creating them in the first place.
Audio podcasts are one of my favorite language learning tools since most are free, they cover a wide range of topics, can be downloaded to your smartphone or MP3 player for on-the-go learning, tend to be shorter in length, and sometimes include transcripts (you can always add your own to the MP3 file if they don’t).
Here are some of my favorite podcasts intended for Mandarin learners:
For more advanced learners, try listening to podcasts intended for native speakers. Here are a few places to look:
There are countless podcast apps to choose from these days on all the major platforms. Here are but a few of my favorites:
Note that you can also use the two radio apps below to stream many podcasts.
While podcasts tend to be better suited for language learning than radio (since you can pause, go back, read transcripts, etc), radio can provide a good kick-back listening experience that doesn’t require as much active jockeying.
Radio programs also tends to be more closely tied to events of the day while podcasts usually focus on more evergreen topics.
Here are some great free sites for streaming Mandarin radio programs:
And here are my suggested radio apps (which can also be used to stream many podcasts):
For learners just starting out in Mandarin (or for those of you who have been learning for a while but still struggle with pronunciation), the following two audio courses are both excellent ways to tune your ears and mouth to the sounds of Mandarin, while also familiarizing you with essential words, phrases, and structures.
Before I began learning languages, I thought audio books were only for the lazy or illiterate. How wrong I was!
Not only do audio books allow you to “read” as you do other things (commute, shop, do chores, etc.) but you can also use them in combination with print books or eBooks to build both your listening and reading skills.
Here are some places to find Mandarin audiobooks online:
Take a look at the Chinese word for music for a second: 音樂・音乐 (yīnyuè). The term literally means “sound fun”, a pretty apt description of music given how powerful it can be in language learning.
Not only is music inherently enjoyable, but rhythms and melodies can actually help improve retention and recall of new words, phrases, and structures. Here are some places to find Mandarin music:
Good game designers create just the right mix of challenge and reward to keep you coming back for more. This can be a bad thing of course if you are prone to addiction, but if used responsibly, can be a great way to ensure daily Chinese immersion.
Video is one of the best flavors of language learning input: 1) it provides valuable visual cues to help you figure out the context, 2) the story line help keep you engaged, and 3) many videos include subtitles. When you have a choice, I suggest using English subtitles in the early stages, transitioning to Chinese subtitles as you progress.
Getting consistent speaking practice with a native speaker, tutor, or teacher is arguably the most important, high-yield activity you can do to quickly improve your overall level in Chinese.
Speaking with a tutor gives you a contextual opportunity to apply what you’ve learned, helps identify where your holes are, and creates a safe environment to identify and correct mistakes. Here are some of the best places to find native Mandarin speakers:
If you have text-only content you’d like to convert to audio, you can ask your tutor to record for you, use the power of crowdsourcing, or employee text-to-speech technology. Here are a few tools to help:
Although I consider listening and speaking to be the foundation of language acquisition, the important of reading and writing cannot be understated. Learning to read Chinese can be intimidating with its plethora of 漢字・汉子 (hànzì, lit. “Han Chinese Characters”), but if you go about learning them in a systematic, adult-friendly way, you may just find that they are more approachable, more logical, and more fun than you would expect. The key is to use “imaginative”—as opposed to “rote”—memory, coupled with extensive exposure to interesting texts you enjoy.
There is no shortage of free Chinese reading resources and tools online today. Here are just a few to get you started:
For pop-up browser dictionaries, see “Browser Extensions” below.
You will hear many people (including the Chinese themselves) go on and on about how difficult characters are to learn. Yes, just like learning to speak the language, learning to read and write Chinese takes time and effort. But the task ahead is not nearly as arduous as you’ve been led to believe: If you focus on the highest frequency characters first. If you learn the basic character building blocks (“radicals”). If you learn the phonetic and semantic clues radicals provide. If you use creative mnemonics instead of rote memory.
With their vivid visuals, exciting stories, and relatively simple language usage, comics are one of the best reading tools available to Chinese learners. Here are some places to find them:
Magazines are another good addition to the Chinese learner’s arsenal as they provide short, topical reading input and are available for a wide range of topics. Here are some tools to find Chinese magazines that fit your interests:
One of my guilty reading pleasures is comparing news articles from Mainland China and Taiwan. The juxtaposition of state controlled censorship on the one hand and market driven sensationalism on the other can be quite entertaining! And you get the added benefit of practicing both traditional and simplified characters.
For those wanting something more substantive than comics, magazines, and newspapers, you can choose from heaps of eBooks (many of which are free), bilingual texts, Chinese novels, and children’s books:
To type in Chinese, you just need to learn Hanyu Pinyin system (see “Mandarin Pronunciation Tips & Tools” section above) and add the appropriate keyboard or app on your device:
Though your writing skills will gradually improve with enough reading input and writing output, you can greatly speed your rate of improvement by getting direct feedback from native speakers. Here are 3 places to do just that:
Last but not least, here are some useful reference tools to help you learn more about the Chinese language, make heads or tails of your Chinese listening and reading input, and better communicate with native speakers.
Each of the following dictionaries have their advantages and disadvantages; just try out a few and see which work best for you:
For pop-up browser dictionaries, see “Browser Extensions” below.
For Chinese terms and concepts not found in the dictionary, use one of these free online encyclopedias:
Phrasebooks are not just for travelers; they are in fact one the best sources of high-frequency, high-yield vocabulary and grammar patterns. Moreover, they allow you to use the “speak first, then point” method if your efforts to communicate fail (i.e. native speakers can just read the Chinese phrase printed in the book).
Contrary to what most language teachers will tell you, you don’t have to “study” grammar to “acquire” it. If you get enough exposure and practice, your brain will naturally make sense of a language’s underlying patters. That said, the adult brain can help speed the assimilation process with a little strategic grammar study. The key here is to augment your input activities with grammar study, not the other way around.
Installing just a few free browser extensions can greatly improve your online language learning experience. Here are a few of the best:
Using the Chinese version of your favorite search engine has two key advantages: 1) it shows more relevant results for Chinese language inquiries, and 2) provides extra Chinese input in and of itself since the menus, meta data, etc. are also in Chinese.
Given how much time you spend in front of the screen, changing your operating system to display in Chinese will give you massive amounts of extra exposure to the language.
Well done for reaching the end!
I hope this will prove to be a useful collection of Mandarin Chinese resources – why not add it to your bookmarks right now so you can find it again when you need it?
John and I recently recorded an in-depth interview on learning Chinese… I think you'll like it!
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