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How to self-study Mandarin

6 min read

I often get asked how I learned Mandarin and how I would recommend learning Mandarin, so I decided to condense my responses into a brief guide. This guide is purely based on my own experience of learning (2+ years), and talking to many of those who have successfully self-studied (n=~12).


This guide assumes you are great at setting up habits and systems and following them, and are sufficiently self-motivated. If that’s you, rejoice! This is going to be very efficient. If that’s not you, my recommendation would be to go to China or Taiwan and join an immersion course for 1-6 months that starts from zero. Casual language classes are mostly useless.

The approach in this guide prioritized reading and listening ability over speaking and writing. The assumption is that your first 6+ months are mainly spent on learning how to understand Mandarin, and speaking ability will come mostly on its own, or more easily with some practice later on.


Vocabulary app: Set up an app for vocabulary practice. I recommend HackChinese, which has a free trial and is paid afterwards, or Anki (AnkiDroid on Android) with this deck if you prefer not to spend money.

Dictionaries: Chrome extension for web, Pleco app on mobile.

Reading: Any graded reader app. I recommend DuChinese (which links up to HackChinese, see here). For news, The Chairman Bao’s is great.

First day

  1. Take some time to read up on what the HSK is, what Chinese Characters (Hanzi) are, google around a bit, follow your curiosity.
  2. Learn about what Pinyin is, how it works, and how it relates to Hanzi by reading through this article.
  3. Look at this chart to understand what sounds do and don’t exist in Mandarin. You can refer back to this chart whenever you’re not sure how a specific pinyin syllable + tone sound. Note that this table has all possible sounds and serves as an overview first and foremost.
  4. Make sure all the recommended tools from the Resources above are set up and ready to go.

First week

Levels of Mandarin language skill are measured and grouped via HSK, with levels ranging from 1 to 6, and 1 being the easiest. HSK 1 includes about 300 of the most common Chinese characters.

Vocab: Before you start learning any grammar or reading anything, use your vocabulary app to practice these for a week. HackChinese has a list for HSK 1 you can follow. The Anki deck should be ordered by HSK levels too. You should be able to study about 20 new characters/words a day, or more in the beginning, and this will likely occupy 30 minutes to 60 minutes of your time every day.

Pronunciation: Make sure to try to pronounce every item out aloud and compare it to the audio that comes with the vocab. Especially in the first week, this is very important to solidify good pronunciation basics. If you have trouble with specific sounds, look up youtube videos on how to pronounce them. These often come with helpful illustrations on how to move your tongue to form the sound. Counter to common belief, in this methodology, it’s better to not speak at all than to speak anything that’s not close to perfect, because you will get stuck with an accent otherwise.

First month

After you have learned about ~100 characters, it’s time to start practicing grammar and reading.

Continue spending 15-60 minutes a day on reviewing and learning vocabulary, once a week, sit down for an hour or two to study grammar as follows:

  1. Go to the Chinese Grammar Wiki for your level (the link is for beginner level)
  2. Starting from the "Grammatical Structures” section, select a grammar rule unfamiliar to you.
  3. Read through the entire page. Understand it. Look up anything that seems unfamiliar to you.
  4. Using words you recently learned, try to come up with a few example sentences using the new grammar rule.
  5. Go back to step 2.

Also, at least once in this month, spend an hour looking up different Chinese video content online. Listen to Mandarin speakers in different contexts (youtube, TV, podcasts, etc). You won’t understand a thing, but at least for an hour (just once! not every week!) try to focus on how the language sounds. Try to understand how it feels. Let that guide your future pronunciation practice.

By the end of your first month, you should be done with HSK 1 vocab, and done with HSK 1 grammar. You should be able to read basic sentences now, like the example sentences that come with the Grammar Wiki entry. Congrats!

If you’re bored with just doing grammar/vocab, feel free to take a peak at DuChinese and try reading some HSK1 stories, or just listen to the recordings in the app for the vibes.

Months 2-12

Vocab: Continue spending 15-60 minutes every day learning and reviewing vocabulary, moving on to HSK 2, then 3, etc. Every HSK level has twice the items from before, so 11 months should get you to the end of HSK 4 at best, which is approaching B1 level of fluency on the CEFR scale.

Grammar: Continue doing occasional session of learning grammar from Chinese Grammar Wiki, moving on to A2 grammar, B1 grammar, etc. The wiki indicates which level corresponds to which HSK level, so you can pace yourself based on this, relative to your vocab level.

Reading: Start doing 1-2+ weekly session of 30+ minutes of reading stories on your level in DuChinese or an app of your choice. Save the words you don’t know so that HackChinese can pick them up. Make sure to listen to the audio, and cross-check your understanding with the translations. If anything doesn’t make sense, look it up! The goal is that you feel like you have a good grip on what’s going on. Don’t shy away from 60min+ google rabbit holes if those are fun to you.

Months 12+

All the same months 2-12, but start watching lots of videos, shows, movies, etc, or listen to podcasts. Get as much native audio into your brain as possible.

After a few months of this, you’re finally allowed to speak a bit too. Go to meetups, tandems, etc, maybe find a language class in small groups for your level, go wild! As long as you keep doing the vocab-reading-grammar cycle, you will eventually be able to read ALL of Mandarin news and articles and books (usually once you hit HSK 5-6 it starts getting really easy to read anything).

Good Luck,

Peter Wielander