Level Up in Mandarin: Beginner to Intermediate Guide

Lately, I’ve had students reaching out to me, asking how they can improve in Mandarin as beginners. With over a decade of teaching experience in Chinese, I’ve crafted a comprehensive guide and methods—from ground zero to an intermediate level—based on the feedback and learning experiences from students I’ve taught. I hope this will be helpful for everyone.

a guide for beginner


First Stage: Fundamental Pronunciation and Handwriting

Pinyin and tones: Pinyin and tones form the foundation of Chinese pronunciation. It’s crucial to have a comprehensive grasp of pinyin rules, which encompass initial sounds, final sounds, and tones, to ensure accurate pronunciation of each Chinese character. This systematic learning process isn’t overly complex and can be completed within ten instructional sessions.

Basic strokes: Basic strokes are essential for beginners, encompassing eight types: horizontal (一) “héng”, vertical (丨) “shù”, dot (丶) “diǎn”, hook (亅) “gōu”, left-falling (丿) “piě,” right-falling (㇏) “nà,” bend (?) “zhé,” and rising (㇀) “tí” strokes. Writing sheets can be beneficial for practice, and it’s crucial to pay attention to the correct stroke order. Only through extensive practice and correction can you achieve mastery.

This stage typically lasts several weeks to a month, ensuring you’ve mastered the fundamentals, laying a robust foundation for what’s to come. The problem here is, it’s difficult for you to assess whether your tone and pronunciation are correct, especially if you don’t have a native Chinese speaker or a Chinese teacher with a standardized accent to demonstrate and help you correct it. Rectifying these tones is particularly crucial for beginners; otherwise, you might continuously make mistakes throughout your learning journey.

Second Stage: Vocabulary and Sentence Pattern Accumulation

According to HSK exam requirements, HSK Level 1 candidates need to grasp approximately 150 of the most common words along with related grammar knowledge. This enables you to introduce yourself and discuss fundamental daily topics such as family, work, and shopping. For Level 2, candidates are required to know around 300 words, covering subjects like travel, health, and food. Thus, acquiring a certain number of vocabulary words and sentence patterns is essential for meeting the foundational requirements of the examination. However, it’s important to note that this is a long-term process.

Vocabulary: You can utilize Anki (a flashcard system) or use dictionary software like Pleco to assist in recognizing words. Ensure that while using Pleco, you have installed its free extended character font. This feature adds previously unseen character components to the Hanzi characters in the character tab, aiding in comprehending the meaning of Chinese characters. Additionally, in these applications, you can set the study content to display definitions and require handwriting. This way, you can practice strokes practically and solidify memorization through comprehension, rather than merely imitating the character’s form.

Sentence Patterns and Grammar: Apart from vocabulary, you also need to learn basic sentence patterns and grammar rules. Grammar often poses the most challenging aspect. A slight change in a word can entirely alter the sentence’s meaning. The learning method involves referencing numerous sentence examples based on a grammar rule, understanding the rule through these examples, and mastering sentence construction through these rules. At this stage, I typically dedicate one class per week to assist my students in summarizing, organizing, and distinguishing the nuances of each grammar point, ensuring a clearer understanding for them.

Third Stage: Listening and Reading Reinforcement

This phase can run concurrently with the second stage, consolidating and applying learned content through reading and listening.

Listening: Aside from textbook material, try comprehending normal-speed Chinese dialogues and short texts to enhance your listening skills within authentic contexts. I recommend using HSK listening practice exercises, gradually increasing difficulty. Additionally, bilingual podcasts, Chinese YouTube videos, or even simple Chinese TV shows can be effective learning tools.

Reading: Attempt reading longer and more complex articles, from short stories and news to lengthy essays, to enhance reading comprehension. HSK reading materials remain a good choice, but when purchasing books, ensure the reference answers provide more detailed translations and explanations. Bilingual storybooks also aid in expanding vocabulary. If you need book recommendations, feel free to message or comment with your proficiency level and preferences, and I can assist in selecting suitable books.

Fourth Stage: Oral and Written Practice

Oral practice refers to conversational ability, while writing involves expressing oneself in Chinese, not limited to handwriting. Once you have a certain vocabulary and grasp of sentence structure, this stage can commence. Writing tasks are included from HSK Level 3, while oral exams become a mandatory part of HSK Level 4. However, practice for these two aspects should span your entire learning journey.

Oral Practice: Begin by mastering basic daily conversation, accumulated through textbooks, listening, and reading. You need to express your viewpoints and emotions, which requires some additional topical vocabulary and expressions. I suggest engaging in a conversation with a native Chinese speaker once a week; pronunciation and grammar issues often surface during spoken communication. Typically, after correcting a student’s pronunciation, I provide examples for their responses, aiding them in expressing themselves based on real situations. Additionally, Some tools like ChatGPT voice chats and Pandarin can assist you, but they might not be as accurate as native Chinese speakers.

Writing: Start training with simple diary writing, progressing gradually to more complex essay writing. Before reaching HSK advanced levels, the basic requirement for writing is appropriately expressing viewpoints and emotions while avoiding grammatical errors, without delving into complex paragraph structures. Similar to oral practice, mastering basic sentence patterns and grammar correction is essential.

Learning Chinese is an ongoing process, and these four stages offer a more systematic learning path for beginners. If you seek targeted improvements in specific areas or need a more tailored learning plan, feel free to click here for a complimentary one-on-one trial class. Our experienced teachers will customize the course content in detail based on your situation.

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