How to Hack Chinese: Six Tips For Learning Faster

I am going to talk to you about six hacks for mastering Chinese. Basically based on my experience when 40 odd years ago within a nine month period I went from scratch to where I could read novels and translate diplomatic documents in Chinese. Both English into Chinese and Chinese into English.

Chinese Hack #1

Hack number 1. The first month or maybe two, FOCUS ON LISTENING TO PINYIN. Pinyin is the Romanisation. Just get used to the sounds. It’s too difficult in my view to start learning characters when you don’t even have words. It’s easier to learn things when you have something meaningful that you can refer it to – so you listen to stuff, you read the pinyin and by this time you’re getting more and more keen to attack the characters. The characters for the words that you have now already learned. So hack number one is focus on pinyin for the first month or two.

Chinese Hack #2

The second thing is, once you decide to STUDY CHARACTERS, this is the second hack, go at them full-time. Full time meaning half an hour a day at least and develop your own memory system. You may use anki, I had a system where I used these flashcards, these are now well over 40 years old and I developed my own sort of space repetition system writing, which I can explain to people if they want, but learn those first 1000 characters. Thereafter you will find that you will be able to pick them up because so many elements repeat and it becomes easier to learn them through your normal reading activities. But the first 1000 characters. The second hack is make a deliberate effort – almost as a separate activity to learn those characters. That is hack number 2.

Chinese Hack #3

Hack number 3 is; FOCUS ON PATTERNS. If you are – whatever book it is that you are using – don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, focus on patterns. When I was studying we had a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni. It was called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese, A Pattern Approach. Every single lesson they introduced were patterns and to me that’s how I sort of got a sense of how the language worked and developed these patterns, which became almost like the frames around which I could build (my) whatever I wanted to say, so focus on patterns. That is number 3.

Chinese Hack #4

Number 4 – READ A LOT. Read a lot and in my case – and find interesting things that you want to read. In my case, very soon after we got passed our initial sound only, pinyin only text called ‘Chinese Dialogues’, we graduated to something called ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’. ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ is very interesting historically, it consists only of texts and a glossary, no complicated explanations, no quizzes and when I look at this – and this was a sort of lower intermediate book ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ and today. Like the last time I was in China, I bought this ______________ which is an advanced book in Chinese, OK? It is full of the most boring content about so and so, who went to school and met his friend and went to the barber and they went skating and I don’t know what and it’s full of questions and stuff like that. There’s only one thing to do with this kind of book in my opinion, throw it away. I don’t like it. Unless you are interested in that kind of stuff, so and so went skating. I graduated from ’20 Lectures on Chinese Culture’ to this ‘Reader in Modern Chinese’ which was fascinating and introduced the patterns, and then I went on to novels like ____________. So read. Read a lot. Much easier to do today because the internet provides so much content, you can use online dictionaries, you can study at LingQ, so read.

Chinese Hack #5

Next FOCUS ON LISTENING TO THINGS THAT YOU LIKE in my case I listened to a lot of ______________ but nowadays you can get online, you can go to Beijing and buy, you can buy elsewhere CDs, the classics of Chinese, of history, novels, you name it. _____________ is available, if you look at my latest blog post you’ll see a link to a site where you can download an audio version free of charge. So FOCUS ON SOUNDS.

Chinese Hack #6

And one last hack that flows from this focusing on sounds, and this is something I am going to admit. I have tended to not being a great fan of shadowing because I didn’t really do it, but I am saying to myself. Chinese with this intonations, with the music of the language. I think you should shadow and I must admit I am going to try and do more shadowing now with my Korean and even though, while you are trying to speak while you listen and you miss stuff and you don’t understand it as well and it can affect trying to really enjoy the content – so I wouldn’t suggest you do it all the time – but as a process of getting used to the music of the language. Give it a try, and let me know how it works. It may be that plus a lot of listening to real lively Chinese that you like, is going to help your brain get used to the tones. A better solution than trying to memorize the tone for each word.

So there you have it – those are my 6 hacks on learning Chinese. Bye for now.

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9 comments on “How to Hack Chinese: Six Tips For Learning Faster

Norm Hamer

In your Youtube “6 Hacks” you said that in this blog post there would be a link to download some Chinese material free of charge. I can’t find any link in this post.


    While learning Mandarin, I remember listening over and over to Chinese 相声 (xiang sheng comic dialogues), and to artists like 侯宝林, even when I didn’t really understand them all that well. I remember my sense of satisfaction at reading 骆驼祥子 (The Rickshaw Boy) by 老舍 (Lao She). I remember listening over and over to the NHK radio special on the history of the Showa Era in Japan, 昭和の記録, while driving around in Tokyo.


kaufmann, i’m impressed

everyone is going on about hacks and you’ve included it in your blog
keeping up to date, the sign of an agile mind

also experimenting with shadowing
i’ve tried it and it does feel like you’re learning something when you do it
and i suppose copying accents is shadowing, something we do already
i haven’t seen big results from it, but i’ll continue testing it to see what happens

one of the reasons i’m good with languages, is because i test every method at least once

These hacks are great and easy to follow. Chinese characters and language do have patterns, and keeping an eye out for it will help you understand your language learning better. Reading a lot will also boost your learning in so many ways, as the more you are exposed to the language, the better your brain will receive it.

Chinese is a difficult language to learn. There are dozens of regional dialects and such, and even speaking Mandarin is hard. Mispronouncing even just a single vowel can change the meaning of an entire word completely.

These six tips are indeed very helpful in that challenging path to learning Chinese.

Tom Smith

I’ve been learning Chinese for a long time now, and I’m confused by this….

Could anyone explain? What is a “pattern” and how does one “focus” on it?



    Chinese sentences have less flexibility in structure but the grammar is easier. Once you learn a verb you can use it and the sentence pattern is the same. For example:

    Yesterday, I eat. Today, I eat, Tomorrow, I eat.

    One cannot put yesterday after eat but it is easier to learn than many languages as you just learn patterns and then fill in the blanks.

    Hope this helps.

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