I’ve been asked how I learned Mandarin more times than any other language. And it has aspects that make it hard to fit into the one-size-fits-all basic description of Synergy, so after I direct people to Synergy, I still have to do additional explaining. That’s why I’ve decided to make a post devoted to the learning of Mandarin. To be clear, the following is how I would recommend someone learn Mandarin from scratch. It’s not the exact method I used; it’s pretty close, but I’ve made some improvements. First, a word about my level, so that you can decide how qualified I am to guide you. I’m a strong B1. I speak fluidly with decent grammar and very good pronunciation. I can’t call myself B2 because I only use about 2,000 words in conversation in my best estimates. I do very well in one-on-one conversation, but not so great in reading native material, watching TV and writing. On the positive side, I’ve had several natives tell me I’m the best all-around speaker they’ve personally encountered, 2 different teachers insisted my level was B2, and many native speakers tell me my pronunciation is the best they’ve heard from a westerner. But the truth is, I’m just B1 with above average pronunciation. Now I’m going to explain the method, roughly following the same organization I used with Synergy. Step 1 – Isolated pronunciation Goals: Correctly repeat any single pinyin syllable after hearing it. Read single pinyin syllables out loud with correct pronunciation. Do all this with correct tones and know which tones are being used when you hear them. Expansion: Pronunciation requires special attention in Mandarin because it’s a tonal language, with tone changes (sandhi), and a few sounds westerners aren’t normally accustomed to. I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again here – tones are crucial. If you don’t make a serious effort to get them right before you start conversing, you will probably not be understood. Tones are more important than initials and finals (consonant and vowel sounds); there are regional variations in pronunciation of initials and finals, so natives are used to that fact and will give you some leeway with them. But tones are consistent, meaning there is very little leeway, so it’s more important to get them right. How to do it - working with a pinyin table. There are many available - I’ve picked one at random to work with. Pinyin is made up of initials and finals. Initial + final = syllable. You’ll find out later that each Chinese character (hanzi) has a one syllable pronunciation. The table has all possible syllables; there are about 400. If you click one of the syllables, you get a pop-up with audio for the four different tones. The goal in working with the pinyin table is to be able to pronounce all the syllables correctly in all four tones. There are many ways to do this, so it’s ok to experiment, but always listen to the audio before trying to pronounce a syllable for the first time. Here’s the method I suggest: 1) Select the 1st syllable in the 1st column (a), select the 1st tone, listen, repeat; select the 2nd tone, listen repeat; select the 3rd tone, listen, repeat; select the 4th tone, listen, repeat; pronounce the 1st tone, listen, repeat; pronounce the 2nd tone, listen, repeat; pronounce the 3rd tone, listen, repeat; pronounce the 4th tone, listen, repeat. 2) Select 2nd syllable in the 1st column (ba), and repeat step 1. After completing the first column, do them over, but only pronounce, listen, repeat. 3) Repeat for the 2nd column. Keep it up for 30min – 2hrs per day. 4) The next day, do it by row instead of columns. You will need to work through the entire table by columns and rows several times to get comfortable reading pinyin. It takes some time to get comfortable reading the pinyin table, probably 10+ hrs. Spreading it out over a couple weeks makes it sink in much better. Reading about and studying pronunciation. After you have finished your dose of pinyin table work for the day, do some reading. First, read this pronunciation guide in Sinosplice. There is a lot to Chinese pronunciation. It’s best to practice it, read about it, and practice it some more, each time trying to incorporate the things you’ve read about. You will always be checking your pronunciation by listening to the table, so try to pay attention and pick out the things that you read about too. After finishing Sinosplice, work your way through the pronunciation module for FSI. This might sound like overkill, but there are actually some things in FSI that aren’t in Sinosplice. Note – for this stage, focus on single syllables; leave multiple syllables and tone rules for later. Practice recognizing tones. After you feel like you are reading single pinyin syllables correctly, it’s time get good at recognizing tones. I recommend using Pinyin Practice. At this stage, just do the single syllable drills. You can come back to combinations later. Step 2 – Sentence level pronunciation, vocabulary and listening Goals: Complete Pimsleur. Repeat simple sentences correctly after hearing them. Read those sentences in pinyin out loud with correct pronunciation, including correct tones and tone sandhi. Memorize the vocabulary in those sentences. Understand simple listening material. Expansion: Step 1 was about single syllable pronunciation. Now it’s time to learn pronunciation at the sentence level. I’m adding reading, vocabulary and listening because of synergy. The listening I’m referring to in the title of this step is in addition to Pimsleur. Listening is perhaps the most difficult skill to develop, and needs to be started in the beginning. The synergy due to listening is very important. If you don’t have a good grounding in listening, you will have great difficulty when beginning to converse, for example. How to do it – Pimsleur. Get yourself a copy of Pimsleur Mandarin, all 3 parts (90 lessons), and transcripts. You will need to find a transcript somewhere or create your own because Pimsleur doesn’t publish them. Do the first audio lesson as Pimsleur describes. Don’t look at the transcript when you do it. Pronounce the sentences like the recording in every aspect. Pay special attention to your tones. Don’t give yourself a “pass” unless you get at least 80% of the sentences correct, including tones. For example, half of one sentence correct and half of another correct doesn’t equal one right and one wrong. That’s an example of both wrong. Also, don’t stop the recording. You need to be able to answer in a timely manner. After doing an audio lesson, using the transcript, memorize the new sentences and vocabulary from L1 to pinyin and pinyin to L1, reading them out loud with correct pronunciation. Put them in an SRS. More reading about pronunciation. After doing your daily Pimsleur work, it’s time to learn tone rules and sentence pronunciation. First, memorize the basic tone change (tone sandhi) rules. Like mentioned before, as you learn something new, try to apply it right away, and try to be aware of it when you listen. These 4 rules are very basic, well agreed upon, and compulsory for good pronunciation. There are a lot of other rules which, although are true, are more complicated and less crucial. For example, read rule 6 here and the discussion that follows. There is one last thing to know regarding pronunciation at the sentence level. Mandarin speakers will not always use the same pitch for a given tone number. This happens in almost every sentence and depends on the emphasis, but I’ve never seen rules for it. I bring this up to give you one more good reason why you should imitate native sentences, as you are doing with Pimsleur. Be aware of it, and try to get the hang of putting stress in the right places. More practice recognizing tones. It’s time to go back to pinyin practice and work on combinations. Listening. Listening as an individual component of your learning plan starts now and goes on until you have reached your goals in the language. Please follow the advice in the general Synergy Listening post. I’ll add a little information here, specific to beginning Mandarin learners. I recommend starting out with beginner podcasts. These typically have a lot of English in them, so you will probably need to listen to several of them to reach the suggested minimum of 10 min of native Mandarin per day. There are lots of good Mandarin podcasts out there. I used Chinesepod, which was free at the time. Often audio is free but one has to pay for transcripts. There are free transcripts out there, so a little research might pay off for you. Going through a ton of these beginner podcasts in a few weeks is a good idea if you have the time. Hanzi, reading and writing. Goals: Read and write all the characters, words and sentences learned in Pimsleur. Expansion: Due to overlapping, I have stopped calling these “steps” beginning here. I recommend starting the study of hanzi no sooner than 1 week after beginning Pimsleur, and no later than immediately after completing Pimsleur. I prefer sooner rather than later, but understand that this might not be convenient for some. I suggest holding off on learning a character until you have encountered it. Generally speaking, it isn’t efficient to learn several thousand hanzi out of context, because most of them will sit in an SRS for a long time before you use them. They stick much better when you are using them, so it makes sense not to learn them until you need them. That’s not to say there aren’t advantages to learning them all at the same time. But for most students in most situations, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. The techniques below are to be used on material that you have been familiar with for at least 1 week. That’s why I say not to start any earlier than one week into Pimsleur. After 1 week of exposure to material in Pimsleur, you should be pretty comfortable, and learning the characters should be a lot more interesting. My attitude is “wow, I wonder what the characters will look like for this word”; I’m pretty interested at that point. In the techniques below, when you check your answer, don’t forget to fail incorrect tones. How to do it – single characters. Although we aren’t going to learn all the characters up front like he suggests, we are going to use the mnemonic method popularized by Heisig. So first, work your way through this free PDF. When I say “work your way through it” I mean really learn the characters as he suggests. You will get about 100 characters really fast, which is a nice primer. This will also familiarize you with the technique, and then you’ll be able to use it on your own to learn characters as you encounter them. As you’ve seen, to use the Heisig method, you’ll need to know the radicals (components) of the characters. You can find a list of radicals here. So after you finish working your way through the PDF, learn these radicals. Take the first 20 radicals and make up stories for each per the Heisig mnemonic method. Put the radicals in the first column of a spreadsheet. The second column should be pinyin, and the third L1. Export the three columns into your SRS. Create the following cards: 1) L1 + pinyin/hanzi. Look at the L1 and draw the hanzi. The pinyin should have no part in your story, because that makes the mnemonic too complicated. It’s there to differentiate between characters with the same L1 keyword. 2) hanzi/L1 + pinyin. Look at the Hanzi, pronounce the pinyin and know the meaning. After you finish learning the radicals, do the same thing with your Pimsleur transcript. Learn all the characters of a sentence in the same session, but limit yourself to 20 total new characters per day, to keep from getting too many reviews. The L1 meaning can be found in an online dictionary like this. Keep learning characters this way through the end of Pimsleur, and all future characters as you encounter them. Vocabulary. Chinese words usually contain one or two characters, but may have more. There is no need to do anything extra for single character words, as they have been taken care of in the single character exercise. For words with two or more characters, make the following cards for your SRS (but only with words for which you’ve already studied all the single characters): 1) hanzi/pinyin + L1. Read the hanzi out loud, and think of the meaning. 2) L1/Hanzi + pinyin. Look at L1 and pronounce the Mandarin word out loud. Writing out words isn’t necessary here, as they will be taken care of in the sentences exercise. Keep learning words this way through the end of Pimsleur, and all future words as you encounter them, until you feel you have enough vocabulary that you no longer need to rely on isolated vocabulary study to learn new words. Please follow the advice in the general Synergy vocabulary post. It contains important information that’s non-Mandarin specific. Sentences, writing and reading. Make the following cards for your SRS (but only with sentences for which you’ve already studied all the words): 1) hanzi/pinyin + L1. Read the hanzi out loud, and think of the meaning. 2) L1/Hanzi + pinyin. Look at L1 and pronounce the Mandarin sentence out loud. Write the Mandarin sentence. Writing out sentences will be hard at first, but it will really help everything gel. After finishing all the sentences in Pimsleur, continue to use these types of cards for sentences. But you can drop the writing part, because you are going to have a separate component for writing which will cover you. In other words, after you finish all the Pimsleur sentences, continue to write following the advice in the general Synergy writing post. It contains important information that’s non-Mandarin specific. You will also start a reading component after finishing reading all the Pimsleur sentences. Please follow the advice in the general Synergy Reading post. Conversing Please follow the advice in the general Synergy Speaking post, which says you should start conversing about half way thru Pimsleur. I’ll just add a little Mandarin specific information here. Because it’s a tonal language, it pays to be aware of your tones. When you start out, at least for the first few weeks, it’s ok to be a little anal about it. If you do that, and stick to all the other things I’ve mentioned, you’ll find that your tones will improve quickly and require less monitoring. Of course you want to be able to relax a little so you can gain fluidity. As was discussed in the grammar thread, it helps some people to focus on only a handful of grammar points at a time, rather than trying to nail everything. So what I suggest is that you try to always keep tones in the handful of things you focus on. In addition to paying attention to your own tones, I encourage you to occasionally record or video yourself speaking. The first time you do this, it can be a little scary, but you’ll learn a lot from it. Turn that knowledge around and use to help you improve. Grammar Please follow the advice in the general Synergy Grammar post. I’ll just add a little Mandarin specific information here. Even though the general grammar post says to start grammar the same time as Pimsleur, Mandarin grammar is so easy for native English speakers, it’s ok to wait until after Pimsleur if you want. It’s the easiest grammar I’ve encountered in my language learning, but that doesn’t mean you can skip it entirely. Again, this method and these posts I write are designed for people wanting to reach C1/C2. Grammar study is necessary. So some time during or after Pimsleur work your way through a textbook. You’ll be glad you did. Pronunciation What, more about pronunciation??? Just a few closing notes. Although I have you doing a lot of pronunciation study early on, some aspects of it will take time to sink in. I’ve found that periodic check-ups are really helpful. Maybe once or twice a year re-read the tone rules. Amazingly enough, I’ve forgotten one or two on occasion, or at least something wasn’t crystal clear. Briefly going back through the pinyin table, or doing some tone drill practice, is also helpful, especially in the first year or two of your studies. Taking it to C1/C2 Please follow the advice in the general Synergy post. Traditional vs Simplified Characters Although I’ve provided some links that are simplified, I recommend you learn both. If you like Taiwan, Hong Kong, classical Chinese, etc, understanding traditional is necessary. And it’s pretty hard to avoid simplified these days, even in Taiwan. Learning both is pretty common advice. But what’s controversial is when to learn which form. Personally, I learn both at the same time. Others say to start with simplified because it’s easier, and you don’t need even more difficult distractions when you are learning Chinese. And still others say you should start with traditional, because they are more original and logical. I think that unless you have a clear reason for choosing one of those three options, for example living on the mainland vs living in Taiwan, in the long run it doesn’t really matter. Chinese characters are possibly the most interesting single phenomenon in all of language learning for me. Enjoy!