New to Chinese? Start here!

A guide by chryssi, created for the /r/ChineseLanguage Discord server.

1. Read this overview of Chinese

(Optional but provides helpful background)

Chinese is a family of tonal languages (also called dialects, topolects, or varieties) united by a single writing system (well, two - Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese). When most people think of Chinese, they probably think of Standard Chinese (commonly referred to as “Mandarin”), which will be the focus of this document. We’ll shorten “Standard Chinese” to just “Chinese” or “Mandarin” in this document.

The following document by Cyra gives a broad overview about how different aspects of Chinese work, such as the difference between the two writing systems (Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese), Pinyin, and how characters work.

Also consider checking out our r/ChineseLanguage FAQ for answers to questions commonly asked by people starting out.

2. Learn the basics of Chinese pronunciation

Pinyin romanization system, plus vowels and consonants

Pinyin is the official romanization system of Standard Chinese, and it’s the most popular way of representing the pronunciation of Chinese characters and words using the Latin alphabet. This will be essential in learning how to pronounce Chinese at the beginner level as a stepping stone to reading in Chinese characters. Being designed for native Chinese speakers, Pinyin is a bit unintuitive in places - here are some very useful resources to help you get started:

Four tones of Chinese

Standard Chinese is a tonal language with four tones, plus a “neutral tone” for unstressed syllables. Each syllable typically carries its own tone. The way tones are used to distinguish words is just as crucial as how English uses vowels to distinguish “beach” and “botch”, so they are absolutely critical for listening and speaking in Chinese. so developing a keen ear and good pronunciation are critical for Chinese listening and Chinese speaking respectively.

This is a notoriously difficult aspect of Chinese for English speakers, so if listening comprehension and/or speaking Chinese are part of your goals, it’s worth taking the time to get this stage right before forming bad habits.

Here are some excellent introductions to how Chinese tones work:

Below are some websites providing tone drills to help train your ear to recognise the four tones when listening. Be sure also to practice tone pairs (i.e. two syllables in a row) as well, as this will help you better move on from single syllables to handling whole words, phrases and even sentences.

If you want to speak Chinese, I strongly recommend getting a tutor who can give personalised feedback - you can find them on platforms like italki. Alternatively, you can hop on to our Discord servers (see the “Communities” section below) and post a voice recording (by uploading to Vocaroo and sharing a link with others), or join a voice channel to get feedback.

3. Learn basic grammar and vocabulary

The traditional way to achieve both of these is through a textbook, which will provide structure to your learning and give a solid foundation. (Scroll down for a list of popular Chinese textbooks.) Hacking Chinese and FluentU both suggest using more than one textbook at the same time, to give you more chances to practise reading and listening to Chinese texts suitable for your level (without you feeling overwhelmed).

Alternatively, you can:

Ideally you’ll want to find resources that you find interesting and engaging. Learning a language is like running a marathon - a little bit a day makes a huge difference over time, and it’s important to find materials that you enjoy so that you keep motivated!

Remember: there is no one right way to learn Chinese!

A note about learning characters

Once you’ve got a strong foundation of the Pinyin system and you’re beginning to learn some words in Chinese, you should transition to reading/writing Chinese characters instead of Pinyin, and use Pinyin only as a pronunciation guide. This is because 99.9% of actual Chinese writing exclusively uses Chinese characters, and so not using Chinese characters would severely hinder you in the long run (see this thread).

TODO: fill in this section using these threads: one two three

The paid course Outlier’s Chinese Character Masterclass might be helpful in understanding how Chinese characters from a linguistically informed perspective. It’s a bit pricey though.

A note about handwriting

Most Chinese these days is typed, not written, and so handwritten Chinese isn’t strictly necessary now like it used to be. Reasons you may want to learn how to hand-write Chinese include if you’re interested in Chinese calligraphy, or if you would like to live in a Chinese-speaking region (where handwriting often won’t be necessary anyway).

This article from Hacking Chinese about how to improve your Chinese handwriting might be helpful, or this /r/ChineseLanguage thread on reddit. Whatever your approach, it’s important to make sure to copy from a more natural-looking “Kaiti 楷体” font that will better mimic handwriting, instead of a “Songti 宋体” or “Heiti 黑体” font (roughly corresponding to serif and sans-serif fonts) that will look like a computer.

4. Immerse in Chinese

As you learn more Chinese over the medium-to-long term and begin getting past the beginner stage, more and more of your time should be spent in immersion: immersing yourself in reading and listening to native Chinese texts appropriate for your level. When picking a text to immerse in, consider the 98% rule: you should ideally already know 98% of the words in whatever you’re reading or listening to. This is so that you can figure out the words you don’t understand from context, and so that you don’t get demotivated or lose important context of what’s going on in the story.

See the below “Reading” and “Listening” sections for some immersion recommendations, or check out the “Chinese Media” section of the Heavenly Path website for a more detailed list.


All-in-one resources


See here for more textbook ideas.

Comprehensive apps

More apps are listed on the r/ChineseLanguage wiki page, and below as well.

Online courses



(See Hacking Chinese for more)


Here are some places where you can get feedback on your own writing - whether that be a few sentences that you’ve made, or even a journal post.

Writing by hand

See Hacking Chinese for more resources.





Looking for more resources?

Alternative approaches to learning Chinese:

Lists of resources:


Based on the English-Japanese Language Exchange server’s beginner guide and FluentU’s beginner guide.

This document is a work in progress, and there may be mistakes! If you’ve got something to add or have ideas/suggestions/feedback for how to improve this document, please let us know by joining the r/ChineseLanguage Discord server and posting in the feedback channel (be sure to mention chryssi#1856).