Reviewed: The best courses and apps to learn Chinese

If you are planning to move to China or travel there, you are probably thinking of learning some Chinese. Which Chinese do you need to learn? Mandarin is the standard Chinese, and that is what I’m talking about in this article. Nearly everyone speaks Mandarin in addition to their local dialect. It would benefit you to learn some before you go, but also to take a class once you arrive. In this article I am going to review:


Type: App
Cost: Free
Duration: No time limit

As a concept, I really love the idea of Duolingo, however, in practice, the app isn’t grounded in enough context for a beginner, and it’s certainly no good as a standalone language-learning app.

It starts with asking a question, and if you are a total beginner, you have to obviously guess the answer. This is supposed to be based on a particular type of learning theory but as a qualified teacher, I have long-felt this type of learning, by guessing and getting things wrong, might improve understanding/participation at the time of the learning, but it doesn’t encourage long term retention of the information. As an example, I spent about 8 hours working my way through Duolingo and I learned only the word for milk. And now I can’t even remember that.

I think as an accompaniment to an organized course it can be useful but you absolutely do need to take a proper course, especially if you are serious about going to China. With Mandarin, the most important things you need to know are the sentence structures.

Without these, knowing random words is really unhelpful because people in China don’t guess what you are trying to say, they will wait for inspiration to hit you and for you to magically speak the correct complete sentence. Since there are no “yes” and “no” (your guidebook lied), you must learn how to say each sentence in the positive. For example, if you wanted to say “I understand” you would say “wo dong” and if you didn’t understand, you couldn’t just say “no” to “do you understand?”, you have to say the whole sentence, “wo bu dong”.

This is the same for all Chinese (it’s also true of Irish). So an app where you learn single words will help you expand your vocab but it will not help you to get by in China. I still recommend it as long as you’re not expecting to rely on it to learn Mandarin Chinese.


Peking University: Chinese for Beginners
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 7 weeks
Sign up here.

This is a free online course, but it is delivered in realtime (if you want a certificate you have to complete it in a certain timeframe), so you need to complete each week’s work before the next course. It has a lot of videos in it, and honestly I found that each “week” took more than a week to learn. If I was just passively watching the videos rather than trying to learn and digest the course material, I could see this taking 7 weeks, or if I wasn’t working full-time.

It did cover a lot of content, although using my Chinese out and about, I found that people didn’t always understand what I was saying, and I feel like this course skipped over the most important basics for learning Chinese — the tones and how to properly shape your mouth/throat to pronounce words. Without that basis, any course in Chinese is not aimed at complete beginners.

I did like the fact we covered Chinese characters from the first week, and this was what I learned best and remembered the most from this course. One advantage of this course is that it is the “official” approved Chinese lessons taught by registered Chinese teachers.

With that in mind, this was a really good, comprehensive course, but it is not really for beginners, it’s more for people who have already done some basic Mandarin but now want to learn it in more depth or if they are rusty. There is a lot packed into every “week” of this course. If you have the time I think you could learn quite a lot of the basics from this course.

Queen’s University Belfast Languages Course: Chinese
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 6 weeks
Sign up here.

This is another free online course. You might be wondering why Belfast would be the place to learn Chinese. What I liked most about this course (and it’s tragic I only took this course after I had left China) was the way the teacher covered pronunciation in more depth than any other course I’ve taken. I felt like after taking this course, I had a much better foundation in pronunciation of the tones than I’ve gained from any other course I’ve taken.

Having said that, it did suffer a little from the same problem as the Peking University course, in that they were trying to cram too much learning into one “week” of study. It would better for all these courses to cover about half the amount of content so students have time to properly memorize it, especially since they all build on the content week-by-week. I felt like I was in a hard position of either skating over reams of content or missing large chunks and maybe learning 2-3 new phrases each week. Luckily, this course wasn’t done in realtime but there was still the pressure that I never knew if or when the course content would be taken down.

Shanghai Jiao Tong University: Learn Mandarin Chinese
Type: Online
Cost: Free
Duration: 15 weeks
Sign up here.

This is a longer course than the first two, and aims to teach you 1000 words of Chinese, including 30 real-life situations. There are regular starting points around the year and you do need to complete this course within a set time if you want to earn a certificate.

I felt like this one took a slower pace than the previous two, but because it ran for 3 and a half months, it meant there was time between classes to be able to digest the information and to practice the new phrases while I was out and about in China. I don’t know if it’s because this one was run by a Shanghai university, but I felt like I learned a lot more Chinese that people responded to from this course than from the one run by Peking university (I lived about 200 miles from Shanghai).

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