My Chinese Language Journey

Why Chinese?

  1. Communication. About 3x as many people speak Chinese (1st language) as English. It's nice to be able to communicate with people and to know what people are saying.
  2. Competitive advantage. Chinese is a predominant language in areas of high-technology manufacturing. Knowing the language increases opportunities.
  3. Epistemology. Linguistically and paradigmatically, Chinese (as an eastern language) and its idioms are about as far as possible from English in their evolution. The language thus provides a lens into a fundamentally different way of thinking about things (both syntactically and semantically). There is real meaning and value to the phrase, "lost in translation". It's nice to interpret things as they are meant to be interpreted.
  4. Peer pressure & fun challenge. My good friend Stephen Balaban speaks great mandarin. He's one of the smartest people I know. Of course I like to use him as a marking-post to inspire myself to continuously learn. Since I've known him I wanted to see if I could learn Chinese and have a conversation with him.
  5. Investing in bilingual future. My work colleague Brenton Cheng only speaks to his kids in French. I love this idea; not positive if I have the constitution to do the same, but I'd hate to take it off the table due to lack of putting the time in.

Immediate Goals

I'd like to be able to:


I am extremely cheap with myself (fiscally) and strangely principled. I like to use what resources other people have freely accessible to them, on a weird matter of principle. This means I tend to steer clear of tutors and other paid resources like courses. I feel confident the resources must exist out there, and I'd like to contribute and give back by stringing them together and contributing by sharing my learnings, instead of paying for the best lessons with my privilege. At least not until I've exhausted all my other options and stuck with it long enough to convince myself I've gotten as far as I can myself. Weird? Yeah, but that's me.

What I've tried

Everyone learns differently. I spent about a year and a half noncommittally "learning" ( I tried textbooks, watched asian dramas, tried to jump into Chinese chat rooms or found random people on wechat and hellotalk, tried duolingo, watched youtube lessons, tried a coursera class, tried keeping a chinese journal. My conclusion has been, it's really hard to create a curriculum for yourself when you have no idea what you're doing. And Chinese is as foreign as skill as a native English speaker can get if one doesn't have the right guide (a tutor, a class, etc). What about a tutor? EDIT: I have since tried an italki tutor and it was good but it takes a while to sync on skill level, otherwise the pace can be slow. I am currently taking a class twice a week for 2h on Tues/Thu at the Taipei Mandarin Center.


I was recently recommended this video from a facebook Taiwan Expats chat and really appreciated how this YouTuber Danyo Pang, "Mapped the Territory" of language learning by breaking it down into ~ parts:

Shout-out to Tommy (cameo'd in this video) who I randomly met at the Owl Hostel at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan!

  1. Find 90%+ Native Content (e.g. Podcasts)
  2. Learn to Read (early)
  3. Find Language (Exchange) Partners & Parents
  4. Tools: Erase Friction Points
  5. Travel & Immerse (Classes)

Finding Content


Step 1: I'd start with this wonderful free 3 hour lesson on the basics:

Bonus: You may also enjoy my very experimental "Chinese From Scratch" videos which attempts to demonstrate teaching absolute beginners basic Chinese without using a single word of English. They're based on Stephen Krashen's amazing Language Acquisition presentation, which introduces the concept of Comprehensible Input, (read more). I know of five great examples of this method in practice, but it's hard to find enough content:

  1. Stephen Krashen's Demo of Language Acquisition
  2. Deaming in Spanish (Super-beginner Spanish)
  3. Learn Chinese: Immersive Series
  4. Keren's Unconventional Chinese
  5. Hit Chinese
Note: These "Chinese From Scratch" videos are embarrassing and full of errors! I made them for myself as a way to practice my Chinese and to explain to tutors what I am looking for in a teacher.

Step 2: Build a routine to teach the basics which you can lock into place and which will grow with you for at least six months. This could be a coursera course like this one. What you don't want is to constantly context switch and have to become distracted searching for new tools. My strong recommendation is you download the free HelloChinese or ChineseSkill apps. I prefer Hello Chinese slightly because I prefer the voices, the lesson UI, the material order and difficulty. It goes up to HSK4 and has 1,000 words and 240 grammar points (this will take you months). Both apps are similar to but far superior to Duolingo (they have dozens of free lessons and a skill tree). They will teach you vocabulary, grammar, listening, speaking, and writing. You can customize the settings based on which of these aspects of the language you want to prioritize. As I write below, I turned off pinyin as soon as I could, in favor of hanzi. I also intentionally sped-up the audio playback setting to force myself to listen several times until I could confidently understand before progressing. Finally, I skipped most of the writing practice, at first, because my priority was becoming converational. When I arrived in Taiwan, I realized I was having trouble reading many signs and feel that practicing my writing would have also strenghtened my ability to recognize Chinese characters in the wild. I am in no way affiliated with this software.

Step 3: Start learning by listneing to new sentences spoken by native speakers. Either...

  1. Anki's, "Spoonfed Chinese" deck (paid) (recommended)
  2. Pimsleur's Mandarin Chinese (paid) (try free lesson)
  3. US Foreign Service Institute Mandarin Chinese Audio (free)

Step 4: Build everyday study habits. Every day I study Hello Chinese using the spaced repetition. I also use the 當代中文 (dangdai) Anki deck for the "A Course in Contemporary Chinese" book, which I use to practice writing characters. I take a class twice a week (Tues/Thu for 2 hours each). When my schedule involved a commute, I used to listen to audio lessons daily. If I still have energy left over from HelloChinese, chinese class, tandem chat, writing characters, and ocassionally doing spoonfed audio or pimsleur, then I go to my happy place, which is to listen to my virtual Chinese Teacher Yimin's, amazing free Chinese channel. Her HSK sentence guides will expose you to grammar, sentences, tones, meaning, common mistakes, and more.

Step 5: Type or talk to native speakers. Every day I also try to type to language exchange friends on tandem and line in Chinese. I've tried meeting up with people and doing calls to exchange English and Chinese, but I am very self self-conscious and know so little that we end up speaking mostly in English. Tutors and classes can really help you make effective use of time spent speaking to others. And speaking and listening are very hard if you're not immersed somewhere (like Taiwan) where you can't practice every day. Recently, in Taiwan, I've been going for hikes with friends and that way, even if I don't practice that much Chinese, I'm still making good use of time. Also, I get to listen to friends talking to each other in Chinese and jump in and out of convesations as I feel comfortable.

Step 6: Fill in the gaps: exercise left to reader. Use the resources below to create a menu that works for you! This probably will entail watching lots of youtube videos from people explaining answers to questions you have, like "when do I use `ma` versus `ba` versus `la`" or "when do I used `le` versus `de`". Some days I'll spend a few hours learning about radicals or measure words. I personally find that even after many months I am unable to watch Chinese dramas, even when they're slowed down, because the grammar and accents are beyond my ability. But if you're at that level, you might want to try this chart of graded dramas.

What's worked?

Essentials. For me, success would be near impossible without the ability to use certain workflows or tools together. For instance, when I'm on my android phone, I can copy any text and send it directly to Google Translate. Pleco also has a similar reader feature. Using chat apps like Tandem or talking to people on LINE would be much harder without these workflow. For my desktop, the same is true for the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary Chrome Extension which lets me hover over any chinese character in your browser and translate (highlight-in-place). These two tools are absolutely essential to my mobile and desktop experience.

Here are some other things I learned and resources I found useful:

  1. Stayed with pinyin training wheels and took them off as soon as possible.
    I learned enough pinyin to understand how to pronounce words. I did a good portion of the first 2 sections of ChineseSkill app using pinyin. Then eventually I bit the bullet and turned pinyin off (once I had good coverage of the different sounds and strange cases).
  2. Skill-tree Apps.
    1. HelloChinese - this app is great. It's superior to spanish-quality duolingo. Same skill tree you love, native speakers, voice + tone correction, explanations, games, spaced-repetition w/ daily reminders. Even podcasts where they walk you through interactions. I turned off pinyin and english right away.
    2. ChineseSkill + Words (spaced repetition). It's basically HelloChinese (perhaps an even better version). It's harder, in my opinion, and I found HelloChinese easier to stick with, especially because of its spaced repetition. It's completely worth doing both. Increases the number of unique sentences, voices, and vocabulary. And ChineseSkill has a "Words" version for HSK spaced repetition.
  3. SRS Flash cards. Spaced repetition, vocab, and listening practice: Anki: Spoonfed Chinese I set the mode to audio only (Traditional only)
  4. Dictionaries & Input. Pleco + Google Translate. Pleco is perhaps the best translating app I've ever used. It's a swiss-army knife and takes away the pain of looking up words from various contexts. It has sentence examples, audio TTS. One of the best optimizations I've made is adding the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary Chrome Extension which lets you hover over any chinese character in your browser and translate (highlight-in-place). For Linux, I use the SCIM pinyin input package for debian (linux), but it doesn't seem to have Traditional by default. On Mac, the default Traditional pinyin setting works great and it's easy to switch between English and Chinese with a simple key-binding which you can configure.
  5. Language partners. Typing or speaking to Ariel Liu (though I think this is driving her crazy, especially since my tones are bad and speaking is what I practice least -- my reading is getting passable). Recently, I've been switching to Tandem app, which is very good. There's also HelloTalk
  6. Youtube videos.

    Litao Chinese

    1. Learn Mandarin Chinese Language: Elementary Course (HSK Level 1) (20 lessons)
    2. Practice Your Chinese (HSK Level 1)
    3. Learn Mandarin Chinese Language: Elementary Course (HSK Level 2)

    Yimin Chinese

    1. Chinese HSK1 beginner vocabulary course (words + sentence pattern + grammar)
  7. Kids Videos like this index

    Or this series which Shachaf discovered

  8. Kids Books Free on Open Library. Super excited to return to SF and work through the copy of ЛИНЗИ КУИН and Jon Robson's "a little daily dose" which they left on my desk!
  9. Dramas: Viki (especially their "learn mode" which allows you to introspect characters and see their definition. warning, most Chinese + taiwanese dramas are pretty not great and also most don't have "learn mode..."). Also, honestly, even after a year of practice, listening is very hard and I pause at each scene to translate the hanzi.
    - (has learn mode, but... dang, little hard to watch)
    EDIT: I recently learned about this resource of skill "Graded" dramams from Ariel Liu. Seems like a game changer!

(Not Quite) Pro-tips:

- I was convinced 3rd tone went down and then up. It's a lie. 3rd tone sounds like a low zombie note.
- Some words like "一" (yi) change tone depending on the tones of the word it precedes: Same is true for "不" (not). Then there's  the special rule for 3rd tone followed by a 3rd tone (the first 3rd tone becomes a 2nd rising tone). Yeah, it's tough.
- When using an app like HelloChinese or ChineseSkillz, force yourself to read every sentence out loud (both reading the Chinese characters and practicing tones) until you feel comfortable with the sentence.
- When doing spaced repetition, practice *just* listening (no looking at the hanzi / characters). And when practicing the characters, mute the audio
- There are studies which show you learn more much from watching a show in a foreign language without english subtitles (or pinyin). Even if you're lost, watch for the context and the phrasing (I am not quite at the point where I can do this well).
- Chinese words come in two's. If two words don't make sense with each other, it's most likely an expression. There are very few sentences which can be translated word by word. (but for HSK-1 words, almost all of them can be). It gets harder as you venture into idioms.
- Tell yourself stories about characters. I've got a ton of them:
* 喝 - looks like Stephen Balaban wearing a lambda labs shirt holding a bottle. "he" means to drink
* 买 - looks like a person dropping coins on a counter (makes more sense if you consider 人 is a person)
- There are also rules about being able to predict the approximate sound or semantics of a word through its radicals + base (but I can never remember this -- someone please point me to a video about this). maybe or EDIT: The Pictophonetic Method.
- Some words don't sound like their pinyin at all, you just have to remember them. Like “zi ci si zhi chi shi ri” in Mandarin

Other materials

Share your tricks:

Please! How can one inexpensively improve their speech recognition and speaking? Where can this 白人 get away with speaking to people in Chinese (without traveling overseas or hiring a tutor)?

cc: Ryan Pon (who is in a reading club that I've been trying to sneak into), Ben Yu and Jasmine Wang who I think I've read have similar learning goals?