Deathblade’s Learning Chinese FAQ

I often see questions asking about learning Chinese. How hard is it? How long does it take? Where to start? Below are some of the questions I see most often, along with my answers. Please note that this is just my opinion, based on having studied Chinese for about 7 years or so.

Contents:
How long will it take to learn?
Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?
Should I study Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
I don’t want to learn to speak Chinese, just read it. Is that possible?
How many characters do I need to know to be able to read Chinese web novels?
Where should I start in terms of learning the language?
Should I take classes?
Should I get a tutor?
What other resources/methods do you recommend?
Can you recommend any good wuxia novels?

How long will it take to learn?

Obviously, everyone is different. For me personally, it took around four years before I got to the point that I could start to read novels with adult-level Chinese (painfully slowly at first). That was four years of studying every day for between 1-3 hours per day. Two of those years were spent living in China. I would say that in terms of studying Chinese, I worked harder at it than most. However, I probably could have studied even harder (or better). Furthermore, I never received any real formal education other than a crash course in pinyin at the very beginning. If you studied Chinese at a university or some other special school in China, or went crazy with studying, you might have faster results.

In any case, I find it hard to believe that anyone could get to the point of being able to read books in anything less than two years. Furthermore, the Chinese novels that readers of wuxiaworld enjoy have a lot of specialized and even made-up terminology, which makes reading the Chinese harder in some ways. This is especially true of books like I Shall Seal the Heavens which have Classical Chinese, poetry, Daoist terms, etc.

By the way, I currently still have to look up lots of words when I translate ISSTH. Granted, when reading for fun you can skip things and still get the basic meaning. I don’t have that luxury when translating. The point is, even after studying Chinese for nearly 7 years, I still am far from being able to read and truly understand a Chinese book without frequent use of a dictionary.

Final word: You are looking at years of work before you can read a book. At absolute minimum 2-3 years.

Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Generally speaking, Mandarin refers to the official language of the People’s Republic of China. All young people study it in school similar to the way students in English-speaking countries study English. Long story short, just about everyone in China is supposed to be able to speak it. Cantonese, on the other hand, refers to the local dialect spoken in Hong Kong and other nearby parts of Guangdong Province. Actually, almost every city and region in China has a local dialect; Cantonese is only one of many. The reason it is so well known is because for many years, most immigrants to other countries came from that part of China. The popularity of the Hong Kong film industry also has a lot to do with it. However, Cantonese speakers are a drop in the bucket when compared to speakers of Mandarin. Unless you plan to live in Hong Kong or Guangdong, learning Cantonese wouldn’t be very useful. Learn Mandarin.

P.S. Don’t forget that written Chinese is for the most part mutually intelligable regardless of which dialect you speak. A Cantonese speaker might not be able to communicate orally with someone who only speaks Shanghai dialect, but they could communicate with written Chinese.

Final word: Mandarin

Should I study Simplified or Traditional Chinese?

The reason the PRC simplified the characters was to increase literacy in China. In other words: Simplified characters are easier to learn. Unless you plan to live in Hong Kong or Taiwan, it won’t really benefit you to learn Traditional characters. Also, don’t forget that converting a body of written text from Traditional characters into Simplified characters can be done with the click of a mouse. In fact, qidian.com, the home of many famous authors like IET and Er Gen, has a button at the top where you can switch the entire website back and forth between Traditional and Simplified.

Final word: Simplified

I don’t want to learn to speak Chinese, just read it. Is that possible?

I don’t know anyone who has successfully accomplished this, although apparently foreign scholars used to do so in the past when they weren’t able to actually enter China. However, an understanding of the pronunciation of the characters is one of the key aspects to reading. Most Chinese characters are made up of two components, a radical and a phonetic. The radical often gives you a clue as to the meaning of the character, whereas the phonetic can tell you about its pronunciation. Knowledge of this can help you to understand characters that you’ve never studied before. Without learning to speak Chinese, you will also be missing out on a lot of the word play that is a fundamental aspect of the Chinese. Furthermore, without knowledge of how to speak the language, how will you say the names of the characters in the story?

Final word: It’s technically possible. Good luck.

How many characters do I need to know to be able to read Chinese web novels?

To pass the highest level of the HSK test, a standardized Mandarin assessment in Mainland China, you need to know about 5,000 characters. This level is described as being “designed for learners who can easily understand any information communicated in Chinese and are capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form.” My understanding has always been that roughly 5,000 characters are need to be able to read material written for adults.

As for how many you need to read web novels, it might be slightly less than that. Assuming you don’t mind missing out on some things, you could probably make a passable effort with only 2,500-3,000. However, don’t forget that more often than not, the most important parts of the story, especially descriptions of spells, skills, weapons, etc., will contain characters you don’t understand. Take the following passage from chapter 408 of ISSTH, in which I took out a few of the complicated characters/words that beginners might not understand (one of which is a term that doesn’t exist in the CH>E dictionaries):

Another key aspect was that after reaching the Nascent Soul stage, Cultivators could almost instinctively use a certain divine ability called… (????????)! The Nascent Soul could emerge, because the body was only (???????). Cultivation was focused on the Nascent Soul itself; if the body (???????), it could be abandoned, and a new body could be (???????).

Another thing you can’t forget is that many characters can have multiple meanings, like 台, which has 17 definitions on dict.cn. There are also some characters that don’t really have any meaning at all in English, like the character 的 which is usually used as a possessive particle. In addition, characters are combined to form words; in other words, those 5,000 words can actually end up forming tens if not hundreds of thousands of words. You might know that 马 means “horse” and 桶 means “bucket.” But without studying the meaning of 马桶, would you be able to guess that it means “toilet?”

Final Word: Between 2,500-4,000, depending on what you’re reading and how much you can tolerate not understanding stuff

Where should I start in terms of learning the language?

If possible, find some sort of crash course where you can learn pinyin and basic Chinese pronunciation. The best would be to do this at a school in China or Taiwan. Alternatively, most major cities in other countries have programs like this. If you don’t have access to something like that, do a Google search for online courses. There are a host of them out there for all levels. Studying for an extended period of time at a school might also be worth it.

Another good starting tool is the Pimsleur Mandarin audio course. I went through this course when I first started learning, and it definitely helped. Similar to Pimsleur is Rosetta Stone, although I never used it.

Final word: A crash course or an audio program

Should I take classes?

Like I mentioned above, I don’t have too much experience with classes, because I never really took many, except for in the beginning. My personal opinion is that taking classes in the beginning would probably be a good idea. After that, I don’t really think it’s worth it. However, everyone is different, and some people learn better in a classroom environment. For me, I felt my time was better spent using the methods described below in the “resources” question.

Final Word: At the beginning, yes. Afterward, I don’t think it’s the best use of time

Should I get a tutor?

Tutors can answer your questions and provide custom advice and help. This will especially help with your pronunciation. In a classroom environment with lots of other students, you usually don’t get much personalized advice, and can end up having major pronunciation problems and not even realize it.

There are two kinds of tutors. The first is the paid professional kind. The up side to this type of tutor is you will be getting professional service from an experienced teacher. The down side is that it can be expensive. You should be able to find tutors like this on Craigslist or via a Google search.

The second type of tutor is the language exchange partner. This would be a Chinese person who is learning English and will exchange Chinese lessons for English lessons. The up side is that such an arrangement is free, and can be a lot of fun. The down side is that your language exchange partner will likely not be a professional teacher. He or she might answer questions incorrectly or teach you something wrong (I experienced this). A good place to look for a language exchange partner is on Lang-8.

Final Word: Yes, get a tutor of some sort

What other resources/methods do you recommend?

SRS software – If you are serious about learning Chinese, I HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest using SRS software from the beginning. If you have never heard of this before, then read this article. One of the most popular SRS programs is Anki, although a simple search in your app store will turn up a variety of free or purchasable options.

Podcasts – This was one of the main ways I learned Chinese. A simple search either on your mobile device or on Google for “Mandarin podcast” will pull up a lot of great resources. Some of the ones I listened to in the past include Popup Chinese, iMandarinPod and ChinesePod, although there are many others.

AppsSkritter is ABSOLUTELY essential for learning characters, and is also an SRS study method. Pleco is the best Chinese dictionary suite, which also has an SRS flashcard program in the paid version. WeChat is the Chinese version of WhatsApp. You can use the “Shake, People Nearby and Drift Bottle” features to look for people to chat with in Chinese, or maybe to find a language exchange partner. The app has a built in translator that you can use to translate Chinese into English.

Online resources – There are a host of blogs, twitter feeds and websites for Chinese language learners. Lang-8 is a great place to find language exchange partners. For twitter and blogs, start with Sinosplice, Hacking Chinese, YoYo Chinese, and then search around to find others that you like.

Books – There are tons of books and textbooks out there. Some that I found useful are Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, and Dirty Chinese (this one has much more than dirty words and expressions. Lots of very useful stuff.)

TV Shows and Movies – Using TV shows and movies to study is more of an intermediate/advanced study method, but it’s a very good one. Just make sure not to watch the shows with English subtitles. Also, don’t use those subtitles as a study method (they’re often incorrect or different from the original Chinese). One method I’ve used before is to watch a TV show or movie one scene at a time. Pause, rewind and watch line by line to dissect the dialogue. After analyzing it thoroughly, go back and watch it with Chinese subtitles. Then watch it again with no subtitles at all.

Can you recommend any wuxia novels?

That’s a complicated subject, especially considering that there is a bit of confusion right now about what exactly wuxia is. My personal favorite wuxia translations are Smiling Proud Wanderer, Return of the Condor Heroes, and Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword.

If you’re interested in reading wuxia stories in Chinese, here is a great article about that very subject.

Conclusion

Learning Chinese can be very fun and rewarding. However, no matter which way you go about it, you will have to work hard and spend a lot of time. If you’re willing to make such a commitment, then you can succeed!

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63 thoughts on “Deathblade’s Learning Chinese FAQ” - NO SPOILERS

  1. I am really interested to learn chinese .. hahaha and want to translate too.. so that i can read awesome novels such as ISSTH hahahaa!

  2. I can see myself attempting to learn Chinese and failing even after 10 years. It just looks so complicated. Props to you DB for self learning it and blessing us with your translations.

  3. Well I am starting to learn Japanese from apps. I will get around to learning chinese after that.

  4. Interesting. My Japanese is also mostly self-taught and only had formal schooling for two semesters, and they were only really elementary. Maybe even lower considering how lax the classes were. It also took me a few years before I can finally read raws but I still need a dictionary to help me find the reading of some characters. The greater part of my vocabulary has been increased through listening so finding out the meaning of a word for me usually depends on the reading rather than recognizing the character itself.

    It really takes years and years of studying and practice if you want to be proficient in a foreign language. Much like how cultivation is increased through daily practice. (。•̀ᴗ-)✧

  5. Thanks a lot for this compilation.

    Started learning about three months ago (took an extra uni class). I recommend to everyone to start in a class at start as DB said, especially if the teacher is from China (as in my case). Helps a lot with tones and pronunciation.

    Have to say it’s fun so far, and it is not too difficult (at least for me).

  6. Thanks for the tip. May be watching Police Force in Chinese in no time at all! Need to start listening to all of Jackie Chan’s music! J/K

  7. Yup, basically a language with thousands of symbols. One of my hurdle when i learned jap before. I could have read the novel with machine translation, but i’ve never ever been comfortable reading an mtl-ed one. That’s why i can barely survive while longing for your translation. Because it’s really worth it. Thx a ton, Patriarch and co.

  8. I am learning Chinese for six months now. I only did it to read web novels, so I decided to just learn characters and grammar. Now after six months, although I am at the point where I can get about seventy percent of content just by the use of popup dictionaries, but it’s definitely not fun. Now that I have decided to go all the way about learning and speaking Chinese, this would definitely help a lot. Thank You

  9. 1 more question, if I would primarily use SRS method, how bad will it be? or how good?
    And if I add simple listening to tv or anything that will speak

    1. I used SRS every day for the first 4 years or so and felt that it was essential. Depending on which software you use, you can easily include audio recordings, video etc.

  10. “I don’t want to learn to speak Chinese, just read it. Is that possible?”

    i can speak but i can’t read x)

    1. I have the same problem you have where I can barely read but can hear and speak it. I just use a text to speech software to read it to me. You should copy a few chapter into google translate and try listening to it. Even if I can read it no problem,I would still prefer hearing the story since I know that I won’t miss any details and I can do other stuff while listening to it.

      If you like this method, let me know since I got some program just for this task.

  11. I too learned english self taught, it was 2 years. sigh but it was fun, in my way to self taught i came across to many lucky encounters, those years where like in my favorite chinese novels and the only reason why I began to learn it was to read Light Novels because the spanish fandubs are too lazy to translate then and I was “OMG i want moar b…but… but I can’t read english :c”

  12. or you could just simply plug yourself in the matrix system and upload your choice of language to your brain :p

  13. Thanks for the info. I minored in Japanese in college and regretted not being able to also study Chinese. You helpful suggestions will make studying Chinese more enjoyable and efficient. Thanks:) And I also agree about taking classes. For the first two years taking Japanese classes in college was of great benefit, but after that they skipped levels and made it soo hard that it was a waste of my time. I would have been better off studying on my own for the last two years.

  14. Thanks! I’ve been wanting to learn Cantonese because my boyfriend and his family speak it. They seem to talk down about mandarin and I haven’t been clear as to why… Thank you for the resorcources, even though it’s for mandarin I’ll definitely try to learn so I can at least read web novels lol.

    Do you know any resources for learning Cantonese? I know you suggest mandarin but for the reasons above….yeah (◍•﹏•)

    1. They talk down about mandarin probably because they are from Hong Kong and they think they are much better than people from the mainland (Is an actual trend in Hong Kong). I would suggest learning mandarin instead because there are a lot more of everything(Song, Drama, Shows, Novel, ect ect) coming out in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. For every single good content in Cantonese there is probably hundreds in Mandarin. You can almost say Hong Kong don’t produce content of much entertainment value anymore (aside from yellow umbrellas). Also learning Mandarin would be easier since more resources for learning it. Whichever one you choose to learn, you will still understand a bit of the other.

  15. Did you find learning the characters harder or learning how to speak and understand conversations harder? or around the same?

    1. Speaking. Chinese is a tonal language, and getting a good grasp of the tones is a challenge.

  16. Hi,
    thanks for this it’s really informative.

    Also… I self-thought myself japanese a bit before I got a degree in japan studies. Now I’m more or less fluent in japanese and can read books without much hassle. Althought I wanted to learn korean first since its gramatical structure is more similar to japanese (from what I heard)… I also considered learning chinese but got really nervous about the pronaunciation… but I guess that it wouldn’t be all that important for reading (as long as I knew how it should sound even if I can’t say it, it should be fine) but my biggest fear is the difference in usage of chinese characters since my friends kept complaining about the differences…

    So my question is… How much harder do you think that my pre-existing knowledge of japanese usage of chinese characters will make it ?

    thanks for your time

    1. i think your knowledge of chinese characters will only make it easier. i found korean to annoying to get serious about, because they don’t use chinese characters in writing anymore. while the only thing that will fell weird to you about chinese are the simplifications of characters.

      the usage will be fairly easy to adjust, since the structure of the chinese language is completely different from japanese. the basic ancient meanings will still be somewhat similar, enough to recognize at least part of the concept.

      not that i’ve learned more than the tiniest bit of chinese. but my experience says that “well, that also makes sense”.

    2. Having not been in this situation, I’m not sure. I imagine it would help a lot. And you’re right, pronunciation and tones won’t matter too much if you don’t plan to be able to speak. In China there are TONS of people who can read English quite well, but can barely speak it.

    1. You mean deaf people? Similar to deaf people in most countries, they learn sign language.

      1. Yeah deaf… I am talking about learning how to read the written language. I wonder how they learn it beside the sign language. In that case, I think, learning the sign language is a lot easier than trying to learn written and speech language in China.

        1. After a bit of googling, I’m not really sure. It seems clear that they do learn to read and write, as for how they go about it I’m not sure…

  17. ENGLISH……23 years have passed and I still have some issues with it. Another language??? I will probably need the rest of my life 🙂

  18. Thanks! I’m doing a Chinese course outside of my main subjects these days and its nearing the final exam, so your article helped me out a lot.
    Btw I like learning new languages too, infact it have been my hobby for quite a while now (even though I kinda hated it at first =_=!)
    Anyway besides English, I’ve been forced to learn two languages since I was little, and later on, for some reason I wanted to try learning Japanese (mostly becuz I wanted to read mahouka) and now I’m trying Chinese (^_^)v
    well its also becuz I want to read web novels… hehe
    Sooo hope I can get your help later on too… thanks again for this!

  19. You guys forgot to add that dating a chinese girl also has its benefit in the process of learning chinese.

  20. just wanted to add one thing to the learning regime, because it’s seriously effective:
    https://www.chineseboost.com/blog/sentence-mining/

    i kind of do this all the time and rather unconsciously (always too lazy to actually take notes, much less read them). but it works. also always focus on understanding rather than simply translating when reading to study. reapeat the sentence until you understand the meaning as you read it. it’s particularly important when the grammar or word usage acts in an unexpected way.

  21. My understanding of Chinese is almost nonexistant; however, as a new editor of radianttranslations (the people who bring us Child of Light) in just a day i am 99.9% sure i have learned the characters for the laughing sfx 哈哈. one down 5999 to go.

    1. Okay here’s your second lesson. You’ll know a total of four characters after this.

      1, 2, 3 is….

      一二三

  22. Thanks for the FAQ. I’ve been curious about learning Chinese for a while now, and there’s 1 question I’ve always wanted to ask. Does anyone know of any parser-dictionaries for simplified Chinese? I’ve self-taught myself Japanese, mainly relying on something called “JParser”. It automatically determines the most likely structure for a Japanese sentence, and then lists the most likely definitions for the Chinese words which have been parsed. There’s also ruby text above the characters which shows the pronunciation. I know it’s a lot harder to parse Chinese than Japanese, but I still think it should be possible to have a program like this, and I haven’t found one.

    1. I personally haven’t heard of anything like this. There are popup dictionaries that will usually pull out the meanings of the various words, but don’t help with grammar. Try the clipboard reader in the Pleco app.

  23. Hmmm.I suspect that if i truly tried maybe I could learn to write and read Chinese in two to three years or even one year .But I am only eleven meaning school .Even if I wanted to learn it it will take more than four five years.And one of the things I hate the most is learning for five years ..I don’t even try studying and look my notes are perfect because of my memories that is the reason i’m confident in learning to write and read Chinese.But as you guys are saying I didn’t even use one year to learn English but Chinese looks several times more complicated .

  24. Thanks, but no thanks. Already tried learning Chinese and I can say 100% that it’s not my type of language.
    I know 9 languages, 2 of which are “professional”(as in used mainly by my profession.) and 7 other are because I travel a lot. And now I’m learning 2 more right now, so can’t see myself learning Chinese any time soon… And even if I will have the time, which I wont, I will not even try to learn it ’cause I cannot see myself understanding it one bit.

  25. What do you think about not learning the characters and using only pinyin instead? I’ve found it super hard to memorize any complex character and I think all characters have a pinyin equivalent..

    1. That’s what I tried to do at first, and I feel it was a mistake. If you truly want to become fluent in Chinese, I wouldn’t recommend it.

      By the way, rote memorization of the characters will be extremely difficult. Having an understanding of the various components that make up the characters will make it much easier to memorize. Without understanding the meaning of the phonetics and radicals, think of how difficult it would be to memorize the following characters: 劝, 功, 劢, 动, 劫, 劲, 勋, 劭, 勃, 助, 勖

  26. I recommend studying Traditional over simplified. Why? Because the majority of “non-PRC” chinese character users use traditional chinese. For instance, Japan, Taiwan, etc.

    You can always use a converter to convert simplified to traditional, and you will have a leg up to learning other languages.

    It is ALWAYS easier to go from tradition to simplified, than from simplified to traditional.

    That, and traditional looks WAY prettier. I mean WAY prettier.

    And never learn Pinyin romanization to learn to read chinese. Only use it to learn how to speak the words. Chinese is a type of language that is impossible to read with pinyin unless you already speak the language fluently (but at that point, you might as well learn the characters).
    You would have a better time memorizing the characters to their english meanings, than converting the words to pinyin.
    I am serious. Unless you are fluent already, romanizing Chinese to read is a pipe dream.

  27. Don’t do it man. That method only works if you already know how to speak the language fluently.
    You will only be confused if you try to do it that way from scratch.
    If you do want to start learning how to “read” that way, then I suggest you do verbal and spoken chinese training first, but you will still have hard time. (Written and spoken chinese is different)

    Otherwise stick with learning through the characters, and associating sounds with the characters. Of course you should learn how to read the pinyin system (that is the only system I suggest as it uses roman letter and has similar pronunciations to english).

    Yup. Most important in learning chinese is speech than characters. If you don’t care about that, like me, then just straight up learn how to read and ignore the speech part. I did. I don’t know how to pronounce many chinese characters, but I can still read it.

    You do need to learn grammar, but most chinese web novelists have bad grammar and sentence structure anyways, so you only need the basics. The verbs and nouns and certain articles are more important.

    1. Hey, I’m not familiar with that app, so I’m not sure. However, there are definitely plenty of resources out there in terms of apps, programs, etc.

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