I often see questions asking about learning Chinese. How hard is it? How long does it take? Where to start? Below are some of the questions I see most often, along with my answers. These are my observations and opinions after about a decade of study.
How long will it take to learn?
Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?
Should I study Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
I don’t want to learn to speak Chinese, just read it. Is that possible?
How many characters do I need to know to be able to read Chinese web novels?
Where should I start in terms of learning the language?
Should I take classes?
Should I get a tutor?
What other resources/methods do you recommend?
Can you recommend any good wuxia novels?
Obviously, everyone is different. For me personally, it took around four years before I could read novels at the adult-level of Chinese (painfully slowly at first). That was four years of studying 1-3 hours per day, every day. Two of those years were spent living in China. I would say that in terms of studying Chinese, I worked harder at it than most. However, I probably could have studied even harder (or better). I never received any formal education other than a crash course in pinyin at the very beginning. If you study Chinese at a university or some other specialized school, or spend immense amounts of time on study, you might have faster results.
I find it hard to believe that anyone could get to the point of being able to read books in anything less than two years. Furthermore, the Chinese novels that readers of WuxiaWorld.com enjoy have a lot of specialized and even made-up terminology, which makes reading them harder in some ways.
By the way, I still use a dictionary constantly when translating. Granted, when reading for fun you can skip things and still get the basic meaning. I don’t have that luxury when translating. The point is, even after studying Chinese for over 10 years, I still am far from being able to read and truly understand a Chinese book without the help of a dictionary.
Final word: You are looking at years of work before you can read a book. At absolute minimum 2-3 years.
Generally speaking, Mandarin refers to the official language of the People’s Republic of China. All young people study it in school similar to the way students in English-speaking countries study English. Long story short, just about everyone in China is supposed to be able to speak it. Cantonese, on the other hand, refers to the local dialect spoken in Hong Kong and other nearby parts of Guangdong Province. Almost every city and region in China has a local dialect; Cantonese is only one of many. Cantonese is well-known overseas because, for many years, most immigrants came from that part of China. The popularity of the Hong Kong film industry also has a lot to do with it. However, Cantonese speakers are a drop in the bucket when compared to speakers of Mandarin. Unless you plan to live in Hong Kong or Guangdong, learning Cantonese wouldn’t be very useful. Learn Mandarin.
P.S. Don’t forget that written Chinese is, for the most part, mutually intelligable regardless of which dialect you speak. A Cantonese speaker might not be able to communicate orally with someone who only speaks Mandarin, but they could communicate with written Chinese.
Final word: Mandarin
The reason the PRC simplified the characters was to increase literacy in China. In other words: Simplified characters are easier to learn. Unless you plan to live in Hong Kong or Taiwan, it won’t really benefit you to learn Traditional characters. Also, don’t forget that converting a body of written text from Traditional characters into Simplified characters can be done with the click of a mouse.
Final word: Simplified
I don’t know anyone who has successfully accomplished this, although apparently foreign scholars used to do so in the past when they were prohibited from entering China. I have seen people online who claim to have done it, but I'm skeptical about the results. Without learning to speak Chinese, you will miss out on a lot of the wordplay that is a fundamental aspect of the language. Furthermore, without knowledge of how to speak the language, how will you say the names of the characters in the story?
Final word: It’s technically possible. Good luck.
To pass the highest level of the HSK test, a standardized Mandarin assessment in Mainland China, you need to know about 5,000 characters. This level is described as being “designed for learners who can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese and are capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form.” My understanding has always been that roughly 5,000 characters are needed to be able to read material written for adults.
As for how many you need to read web novels, it might be slightly less than that. Assuming you don’t mind missing out on some things, you could probably make a passable effort with only 2,500-3,000. However, don’t forget that more often than not, the most important parts of the story, especially descriptions of spells, skills, weapons, etc., will contain characters you don’t understand. Take the following passage from chapter 408 of I Shall Seal the Heavens, in which I took out a few of the complicated characters/words that beginners might not understand (one of which is a term that doesn’t exist in the CH>E dictionaries):
Another key aspect was that after reaching the (???????) stage, (???????) could almost instinctively use a certain divine ability called… (????????)! The (???????) could emerge, because the body was only (???????). Cultivation was focused on the (???????) itself; if the body (???????), it could be abandoned, and a new body could be (???????).
Another thing to remember is that many characters can have multiple meanings, like 台, which has 17 definitions in one of the dictionaries I use. There are also some characters that don’t have any meaning at all in English, like the character 的 which is usually used as a possessive particle. In addition, words are usually formed from multiple characters; those 5,000 characters can actually end up forming tens if not hundreds of thousands of words. You might know that 马 means “horse” and 桶 means “bucket.” But without studying the meaning of 马桶, would you be able to guess that it means “toilet?”
Final Word: Between 2,500-5,000, depending on what you’re reading and how much you can tolerate not understanding stuff
If possible, find some sort of crash course where you can learn pinyin and basic Chinese pronunciation. Ideally, do this at a school in China or Taiwan. Of course, most major cities in other countries have similar programs. If you don’t have access to something like that, do a Google search for online courses. There are a host of them out there for all levels.
Another good starting tool is the Pimsleur Mandarin audio course. I went through this course when I first started learning, and it definitely helped. Similar to Pimsleur is Rosetta Stone, although I never used it.
If you're on a budget, there are plenty of resources to be found online, including on YouTube. For instance, the channel Yoyo Chinese has a great pinyin course for free.
Final word: A crash course or an audio program
Like I mentioned above, I don’t have much experience with classes, because I never took any, except for a few weeks in the beginning. My personal opinion is that taking classes in the beginning would probably be a good idea. After that, I don’t really think it’s worth it. However, everyone is different, and some people learn better in a classroom environment. For me, I felt my time was better spent using the methods described below in the “resources” question.
Final Word: At the beginning, yes. Afterward, I don’t think it’s the best use of time
Tutors can answer questions and provide custom advice and help. This will especially help with your pronunciation. In a classroom environment with lots of other students, you usually don’t get much personalized advice, and can end up having major pronunciation problems and not even realize it.
There are two kinds of tutors. The first is the paid professional kind. The upside to this type of tutor is you will be getting professional service from an experienced teacher. The downside is that it can be expensive. You should be able to find tutors like this on Craigslist or via a Google search.
The second type of tutor is the language exchange partner. This would be a Chinese person who is learning English and will exchange free Chinese lessons for English lessons. The upside is that such an arrangement is free, and can be a lot of fun. The downside is that your language exchange partner will likely not be a professional teacher. He or she might answer questions incorrectly or teach you something wrong (I experienced this). A good place to look for a language exchange partner is on Lang-8.
Final Word: Yes, get a tutor of some sort
SRS software – If you are serious about learning Chinese, I HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest using SRS software from the beginning. If you have never heard of this before, then read this article. One of the most popular SRS programs is Anki, although a simple search in your app store will turn up a variety of free or purchasable options.
Podcasts – This was one of the main ways I learned Chinese. A simple search either on your mobile device or on Google for “Mandarin podcast” will pull up a lot of great resources. Some of the ones I listened to in the past include Popup Chinese, iMandarinPod and ChinesePod, although there are many others.
Apps – Skritter is ABSOLUTELY essential for learning characters, and is also an SRS study method. Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary suite, which also has an SRS flashcard program in the paid version. WeChat is the Chinese version of WhatsApp. You can use the “Shake, People Nearby and Drift Bottle” features to look for people to chat with in Chinese, or maybe to find a language exchange partner. The app has a built in translator that you can use to translate Chinese into English.
Online resources – There are a host of blogs, twitter feeds and websites for Chinese language learners. Lang-8 is a great place to find language exchange partners. For twitter and blogs, start with Sinosplice, Hacking Chinese, YoYo Chinese, and then search around to find others that you like.
Books – There are tons of books and textbooks out there. Some that I found useful are Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, Modern Chinese Grammar, and Dirty Chinese (this one has much more than dirty words and expressions. Lots of very useful stuff.)
TV Shows and Movies – Using TV shows and movies to study is more of an intermediate/advanced study method, but it’s a very good one. Just make sure not to watch the shows with English subtitles. Also, don’t use those subtitles as a study method (they’re often incorrect or different from the original Chinese). One method I’ve used before is to watch a TV show or movie one scene at a time. Pause, rewind and watch line by line to dissect the dialogue using the Chinese subtitles. After analyzing it thoroughly, go back and watch it again with Chinese subtitles. Then watch it a third time with no subtitles at all.