Is Chinese difficult to learn?

Not for oral Chinese! It's much easier then most European languages - for example, there are only 409 syllables in the entire language.

You can learn Pinyin with some effort, first learning the four tones. It will be very different from the languages you know already, more musical, with highs and lows, but it still isn't too difficult.

Chinese grammar is easy and straightforward:

  • There’s no gender, there’s no plural, and there aren't even articles like "a", "an" or "the".
  • There are no verb conjugations; for example, the verb "to be" stays the same for "I am, I was, you are, you were, we are, we were", etc.
  • For simple past tense, we use Verb + "了" (le); for example, "I learned Chinese" is "I learn 了 Chinese."
  • For present progress, we use "在"(zài)+ Verb; for example, "I am learning Chinese" is "I 在learn Chinese."
  • For future tense, we use "将"(jiāng), "要" (yào), "将要"(jiāngyào)or a few other words + Verb; for example, "I will learn Chinese" is "I 将 learn Chinese."

Gaining a mastery of Chinese is as challenging as with any language, but you will be able to achieve a basic level of oral Chinese much faster than you may think!

What is Pinyin?

Pinyin is the standardized system to "spell" Chinese words in the Roman alphabet. Mandarin contains some sounds which do not exist in English.

Pinyin consists of initials (声母; 聲母; shēngmǔ) - consonants - and finals (韵母; 韻母; yùnmǔ) - vowels and tones. Pinyin looks like English, but do pay attention to a few letters which are pronounced differently: j, q, x, z, c, s, r, zh, ch, sh.

Tones are essential for correct pronunciation of Mandarin syllables. Pinyin is excellent tool to learn Chinese as a second language.

For example, "you yong" can either be "swimming" - "yóu yǒng" (游泳) or "useful" - "yǒu yòng" (有用), so you might be completely misunderstood if you use the wrong tones and speak the word independently.

Do I need to learn Chinese characters?

Pinyin uses letters that we are familiar with, which certainly makes it easier for Westerners to learn to begin with. However, a sound (a Pinyin) can be represented by many different Chinese characters, each of which means something completely different. For example "yu" can mean "slit", "fish", "rain", "jade", and many, many other things.

Trying to remember each of these meanings in association with a single spelling can be very confusing. For example, "you yong" can mean "swimming" - "游泳" or "useful" - "有用". If you learn characters, it is not possible for anybody to misunderstood you, even if you use the wrong tones. So, while Pinyin is a great tool to help you learn a very different language, there are practical reasons why you might want to learn characters as well.

But more than that, learning characters is brilliant, exquisite and even fun! They are jammed full of anecdotes, cultural and historical insights, and artistic flair. The experience of seeing meaning grow out of what initially seem like incomprehensible squiggles is one of the most deliciously enjoyable learning experiences that learning Chinese has to offer.

When people say that "Chinese is difficult to learn", they mainly refer to the written language, known as Chinese characters. However, if you making effort learning some simple Chinese characters to associate the meaning with the sound, and the image, it will become easier. The first 100 Chinese characters will take you some time to learn, bit further 250 will only take you about half of the time. The more you learn, the easier it gets. Once you've learned about 500 Chinese characters, you will find you can read many things on a website!

Should I learn traditional or simplified characters?

Do you know that people in Taiwan still use traditional characters? It is one of the only places where they are still officially used. If you are a beginner, it might be better to learn the simplified characters that are used in mainland China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other places with significant Overseas Chinese communities. They can be substantially easier to learn, as the examples below demonstrate.

Traditional     Simplified     Pinyin and English
mā - mother
má - hemp
mǎ - horse
mà - scold
ma - question particle
What is a Chinese word?

Unlike in English, a Chinese "word" is often a combination of two different Chinese characters that are used together as a phrase to express one idea. In a two-character Chinese phrase, each character is considered a word component. Here are some examples.

  • For example, the Chinese word for "airplane" is "飞机" (fēi jī). It contains two components "飞" (fēi) – fly" and "机" (jī) - "machine". Going even further, notice that the character "机" is itself made up of two components: "piece of wood"(木)and "numbers"(几).

    • "木" is there because machines were made of wood in ancient times.
    • Do you notice the similarity on the Pinyin 机(jī) and 几 (jǐ)? Yes, Chinese characters can be phonics.

  • The Chinese word for "cell phone" is "手机" (shǒu jī). It contains two components "手" (shǒu) – "hand" and "机" (jī) - "machine".
  • The Chinese word for "helicopter" is "直升机" (zhí shēng jī), and it consists of three components "直" (zhí) - "straight", "升" (shēng) - "ascend" and "机" (jī) - "machine".

So basically, each Chinese word is reshuffling and recycling different Chinese word components or Chinese characters. Here, please note that even though the word component "机" (jī) means machine, it cannot be used alone as a word. Most Chinese words are two characters. To really say the word "machine" in Chinese, it’s "机器" (jī qì), which consists of the word components "机" (jī) - "machine" and "器" (qì) - "equipment" or "instrument".

Another difference between an English word and a Chinese word is that there’s space between English words, but there’s no space in between Chinese words. You’ll have to separate the sentence yourself in your head.

How many Chinese characters do I need to learn to be able to read?

Unlike English, a Chinese "word" is often a combination of two different Chinese characters that are used together as a phrase to express one idea. In a two-character Chinese phrase, each character is considered a word component.

There are over 80,000 Chinese characters. How many Chinese characters do you need to know? Here are the coverage rates of the most frequently used Chinese characters:

  • Most frequently used 1,000 characters: ~90% (Coverage rate)
  • Most frequently used 2,500 characters: 98.0% (Coverage rate)
  • Most frequently used 3,500 characters: 99.5% (Coverage rate)

Therefore, if you know about 3,500 Chinese characters, you should be able to handle normal reading - books, websites, emails, etc., especially if you use a dictionary for words you are unfamiliar with.

Does it matter if I learn with a teacher who has a regional accent?

China is geographically diverse, so the language has fractured into many different-sounding dialects. Many of these you have heard of, such as Cantonese and Shanghainese, but so very many dialects are spoken in such a small area that it would not serve you well to learn them. Mandarin is considered "standard Chinese", and is the official language of China and Singapore.

Pretty much everyone in China has to learn to speak Mandarin at school. It’s based on the dialect spoken in Beijing, but the accent and grammar are standard throughout China. Chinese, on the other hand, is a general term. It includes Mandarin and some other common regional dialects you may have heard of, like Cantonese and Shanghainese. Since the majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin, when people talk about "the Chinese language", they’re usually referring to Mandarin.

Many Chinese speak Mandarin combined with elements of their own dialect or accent. People often mix up zh and z, ch and c, and sh and s. Some cannot distinguish an initial n and l, or final n and ng. As a result, it can be difficult for people to understand you, especially if you are a foreigner learning the language.

It would not help to look up a word in a dictionary or type it on a computer either. Therefore, you should try your best to find a teacher who is a native Putonghua speaker, even if it might cost you a bit more. You will find out later that it is really worth it.

What do I need to know before I start?

What are your objectives? Planning a holiday in China and working with a Chinese business partner are two very different reasons for wanting to learn Mandarin.

For advanced students there may be no English used during a lesson whereas for beginners, key concepts will need to be explained in English, giving examples in Chinese.

Are you able to spend time doing homework? Or do you prefer to review work during the lesson?

Can I use an English keyboard to type Chinese?

Yes, the simplest way is the Pinyin method (simplified Chinese: 拼音输入法; traditional Chinese: 拼音輸入法; Pinyin: pīnyīn shūrù fǎ). You can input Chinese characters by entering the Pinyin, as long as you use the correct settings, and it is essential that you type in Putonghua - Standard Mandarin Chinese.

Modern Pinyin methods provide a number of convenient features; for example, if you type in full sentences, the method attempts to guess the appropriate characters by using word phrases from a dictionary, grammatical structure, and context. While the phonetic system is easy to use, choosing appropriate Chinese characters slows typing speed. Most users report a typing speed of fifty characters per minute, though some reach over one hundred per minute.

Treatment of extended Pinyin ü: the letter "v" is unused in Mandarin Pinyin; it is universally used as an alias for ü. For example, typing "nv" into the input method would bring up the candidate list for Pinyin: nǚ; one of them will be female.

There are many shape-based and hybrid inputting methods, but some training is required to use these.

Do you cater for advanced students?

Yes, and we have many certifications in Modern Chinese. The course will be tailored to suit your needs based on assessments and your objectives, and we follow exam boards' syllabus and exam criteria. If you are willing to work hard, we can help you to achieve your goal within your desired timeframe. For more information, please see Certificate Exams Preparation.

Do you teach children?

Yes, we have been teaching children as young as four years old very successfully since 2010, and run Mandarin clubs at local schools. The kids learn through a fun-packed program including games, songs, sports, drawing and painting, but the course remains highly purposeful, building knowledge organically. In fact it is the best age to start to learn: children can develop bilingual skills (different brain structure), and speak like natives, with no or very little accent.

I am going to China in two weeks time, can you teach me some quick Mandarin?

Yes, we do run an Intensive Language Workshop designed for a last-minute business trip or to give you a richer experience on a dream holiday to China.

Do you provide online teaching?

Yes! With Skype and FaceTime, distance is no longer a major issue as long as you have a good internet connection. Please call (07929 948679) or email ( for details.

What books will I use for my course?

We offer free learning materials for beginners on our General Mandarin and Business Mandarin courses. They include vocabulary practice with online videos, grammar and exercises, and essential words, phrases and sentences, such as:

  • ordering food and taxis
  • numerals for money
  • date and time
  • emergencies
  • the essential art of shopping and bargaining in China.

For intermediate learners, we will propose some good books and resources based on your learning requirements.

Can I learn at a time that suit me?

Yes, we can teach from early morning to late evening, Monday to Saturday. We don't usually arrange sessions on Sundays, but we do not totally rule it out - this can be organised in agreement with individual teachers.

Where do you teach?

We want you to learn Chinese where you feel most comfortable, so you decide where you would like to study. It can be arranged at our office in Cheltenham, at your home or workplace, or anywhere in the local area. We may ask you to contribute some travelling expenses if you are not local.

Can I have a trial lesson before I start?

Yes, we offer one trial lesson free to all our prospective students. Through this lesson, you will understand our Chinese teaching method, quality and style; we will find out your learning objectives; and if you are not a total beginner, we will find out your current level. We also discuss your other learning requirements.

Most importantly, you will be able to judge whether or not your teacher is right for you. After all, the learning process should be fun and enjoyable as well as productive.

What happens if I miss a lesson?

If you need to change a booked lesson, please give your teacher at least one full working day’s notice. They will make it up at a mutually convenient time in the same week or the next. You shan't lose your fee.

How long will it take me to get to a level that I can hold a conversation?

With good motivation and aptitude, plus some revision between sessions, you should be able to master pronunciation, Pinyin and basic grammar within about 12 sessions. A further 12 sessions will give you time to learn more vocabulary, grammar and cultural references. You should then be able to survive quite nicely in China.

How does your fee structure work?

Fees are per person per hour for a one-to-one lesson; the costs for two-to-one lesson work out a lot less for each individual. A small group is the most cost-effective way of learning. If you are really keen to learn, and can't afford one-to-one, why not try arranging a group session together with your family, friends or colleagues? Our office is a perfect place for it.

Our standard lesson length for adults is 1.5 hours. For children, it is usually an hour, or 45 minutes for very young leaners. Lessons must be paid for in advance, usually per month for adults and per term for children. Invoices are provided.

Do you have some good tips for me so I can learn quickly?

Of course!

  • Master the Chinese Mandarin’s phonics - study Pinyin with a good Mandarin teacher who speaks Standard Mandarin.
  • Start a new learning habit by scheduling learning or reviewing Chinese at a regular time every day for at least 10 minutes, and for no more then half an hour each time.
  • Speak English as little as possible during your lessons.
  • Finally, be persistent and never give up!