Best Resources for Learning Mandarin?

If you are interested in learning Mandarin, this page is regularly updated with my best current advice on how to learn.

#1 Tip – Mandarin Blueprint

I wish I could pay to work with a live tutor every day, and I wish I had the flexibility work-wise to do so. But I can't.

For my daily learning, the absolute best resource I've ever found, is Mandarin Blueprint. Luke and Phil have provided an amazing resource. What I particularly like is that they weren't native speakers. That might seem odd but it's very hard for a native speaker, no matter how good they are, to imagine what it's like for you to learn.

I've been learning Mandarin since 2008 and I know enough to tell you that Luke and Phil both are now both at a very high standard of fluency. And they are great at explaining how they learned, and what they found hard.

Their method for learning characters is intriguing. They call it the Hanzi Movie Method. It's based on some of the techniques you see from people who are outstanding at remembering vast amounts of information. As someone who had already learned nearly two thousand characters by rote, I have to say that I found their method refreshing. It can seem daunting to learn such a large number of words, but their methods make it much easier to do.

If you want to learn from Luke and Phil, you can use a coupon code that they have supplied me: GREG_20OFF

And full disclosure, yes as well as you getting a discount, they give me some credit if you use this code. But I truly believe that you won't find a better resource for learning, or I wouldn't tell you about it, no matter what I was offered.

#2 Amy He at iTalki

I have tried many live tutors over the years. (I have studied with several online Chinese learning companies and probably worked with 40 or more tutors over the years).

The best I have worked with, by far, is Amy He. I have loved working with Amy over the years, and when she moved companies, I sought her out to keep working with her.

At present, Amy is working through iTalki. I've found them fine to deal with. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.

Amy has limited available time but if you are able to get time allocated with her, you'll see what I mean.

#3 Skritter

I have been really determined to learn to speak, listen, and read Chinese well. While writing Chinese characters on a computer is relatively straightforward, learning to write them by hand gives you a much deeper understanding of them.

The best tool, by far, that I have found for learning to write characters is Skritter. They have gamified the learning, and I find myself improving constantly. Sorry, but I don't have any sort of code to offer you from them. One day soon, I'll ask if there's a discount I can pass on, but in the meantime, you can find them here.


Over the years, I have worked with many other tools and services. I will add details about them here soon.


Measure words for parts of the body

I've made a few posts lately about measure words. In the first post, I discussed measure words for people, and in a later post, I discussed measure words for animals. Today, I want to round this out with measure words for different parts of the body.

Again, it's possible with many of these to just use the standard measure word (Gè) but you'll sound a lot better if you use the appropriate specific measure words.

(Gè) can be used for noses though. 一个鼻子 (Yí ge bí zi) is "a nose".

I mentioned last time that  (Tiáo) is one of my favourite measure words. It's used for most long skinny things. And it's also used for parts of the body where that applies.

一条腿 (Yì tiáo tuǐ) is "a leg".

Another measure word that's used for thin things (or even pipes), is (Gēn). No surprise that it can be used for fingers and hair.

一根手指 (Yì gēn shǒu zhǐ) is "a finger". (shǒu) is actually the word for hand.

一根头发 (Yì gēn tóu fa) is "a hair". It's similar to English in that 头发 (Tóu fa) on its own means "hair" and can refer to all your hair.

Last time, we saw that (Zhī) could be applied to dogs and birds, but it can also be applied to many parts of the body:

一只胳膊 (Yì zhī gē bo) is "an arm".

一只脚 (Yì zhī jiǎo) is "a foot".

一只手 (Yì zhī shǒu) is "a hand".

(Zhāng) is a measure word for flat things. The most common example is a sheet of paper. But it also gets applied to the face, and even the mouth:

一张脸 (Yì zhāng liǎn) is "a face".

一张嘴 (Yì zhāng zuǐ) is "a mouth".

The final measure word that I want to mention here is (Shuāng). It's very close in meaning to the English word "pair", and is used for things like shoes. But some parts of the body are in pairs too:

一双手 (Yì shuāng shǒu] is "a pair of hands"

一双眼睛 (Yì shuāng yǎn jing) is "a pair of eyes"

and there are more things that have pairs as well.



Measure words for animals

In an earlier post, I started discussing measure words, and talked about the common measure words for people. In this post, I'll look at measure words for animals.

In English, we have many of these and they are confusing e.g. a flock of geese, but a murder of crows, etc.

While you could use the standard measure word (Gè) for animals in Chinese, you'll sound a lot better if you use the appropriate specific measure words.

(Tiáo) is one of my favourite measure words. It's not just use for animals. It's used for most long skinny things. Here are some examples for animals:

一条蛇 (yì tiáo shé) is "a snake". Now that makes sense as they're pretty long and skinny. But others use this, even though they are less long and skinny.

一条鱼 (yì tiáo yú) is "a fish".

一条龙 (yì tiáo lóng) is a surprising one. It's "a dragon". Not sure they're all that long and skinny.

I've also seen this measure word applied to things like dogs, although they have better measure words.

一只狗 (yì zhī gǒu) is "a dog"

一只鸟 (yì zhī niǎo) is "a bird"

一只老鼠 (yì zhī lǎo shǔ) is "a mouse"

一只熊猫 (yī zhǐ xióngmāo) is "a panda"

(tóu) literally means "head" on its own, but as a measure word, it's used for some larger animals:

一头牛 (yì tóu niú) is "a cow"

一头猪 (yì tóu zhū) is "a pig"

But even though horses seem pretty similar, they have a different measure word:

一匹马 (yì pǐ mǎ) is "a horse"



Tomb Sweeping Day

While I like the process of learning a language, I also love learning about the culture associated with the language. I find festivals and celebrations especially interesting.

If you have Asian friends (from a wide variety of countries), many will have treated April 4th this year as a special day.

清明节 (Qīngmíng jié) is Tomb Sweeping Day. It's pronounced like ching ming, jair but the words literally mean "clean bright festival".

This festival (or more like a day or remembrance) originated with the Han Chinese. It's on the first day of the fifth solar term in the Chinese lunar calendar. As that's the 15th day after Spring Equinox (in the northern hemisphere), it'll be either the 4th, 5th, or 6th of April each year.

The general concept is that families visit the tombs of their ancestors to pay their respects and to clean the gravesites. It's also common for them to make offerings, generally (from what I've seen) of food but it can also be incense sticks (Joss sticks) or Joss paper.

I love the fact that there's a day where ancestors are remembered like this. So many western cemeteries are in total disrepair and no-one visits them.



Measure words for people

I often hear people saying that a difficult part of learning Mandarin is getting used to all the measure words. There are a bunch of them, but I actually think it's easier than in English.

Does any English-speaking person really know all the collective nouns for things i.e. a flock of geese, but a murder of crows, etc.

Chinese has one standard measure word:

(Gè). It's pronounced a bit like the "ge" in "gert", and has a sort of guttural sound, and definitely not like the "ge" in "german".

It can be used for people. So I can say:

一个人 (Yīgè rén) which is literally like "one unit/measure person"

It can also be used for specific types of person:

一个男人 (Yīgè nánrén) for "one man"
一个女人 (Yīgè nǚrén) for "one woman"

If I'm referring to family members, I can use:

(kǒu) which is pronounced like rhyming with "row" as in "row a boat"

I can then say:

三口人 (Sānkǒu rén) for "three family members"

A more polite measure word for other people though would be:

(Wèi) which is pronounced like "way".

I can then say:

一位老女人 (Yī wèi lǎo nǚrén) for "an old woman"

Many of these types of measure words also have different meanings when not used as measure words.

For example: (Wèi) when used as a noun, can mean seat or place.

If I need to show status to someone, not just the respect that (Wèi)  implies, I can use:

(Míng) which is pronounced pretty much as you'd expect in English

I can then say:

一名法官 (Yī míng fǎguān) for "a judge"



"And" doesn't work the same as in English

Mandarin tends to be more terse than English. Often it's really right to the point. One area where it differs from English, is how we use the word "and".

The word that translates closest to "and" is:

(hé) – It's pronounced closer to "her" in English.

In some cases, it works exactly like in English:

她和我会去超市。(Tā hé wǒ huì qù chāoshì.) – is literally "she and I will go supermarket" – so the meaning is easy to guess.

In that sentence, the two words that make up the subject are joined. This works for both nouns and pronouns. So you can do the same for objects of sentences:

她给了我一把锤子和一些钉子。(Tā gěile wǒ yī bǎ chuízi hé yīxiē dīngzi.) – is literally "she gave me a hammer and some nails".

Mandarin can also have commas in lists like we do:

她给了我一把锤子,凿子和一些钉子。(Tā gěile wǒ yī bǎ chuízi, záozi hé yīxiē dīngzi.) – is literally "she gave me a hammer, a chisel and some nails".

So far very similar. But where the languages differ a lot is with conjunctions. In English, we might say "I left and never went back". We use "and" for this. In Mandarin, this is:

我离开了,再也没有回去。(Wǒ líkāile, zài yě méiyǒu huíqù.) – literally "I left, again also not have return go".

The same applies when combining multiple adjectives. In English, we'd say "My dog is small and very cute". In Mandarin, this is:

我的狗很小,很可爱。(Wǒ de gǒu hěn xiǎo, hěn kě'ài.) – literally "My dog very small, very cute".


Words that mean the opposite to themselves

One thing I've come across in Mandarin that I don't recall striking often in English are words that have multiple meanings, and the meanings are the opposite of each other. They do exist in English, and are called Janus words or sometimes contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms.

An English example is the word "sanction". It can mean to give official permission or approval for (an action), but it can also mean to impose a penalty on. Another example is "seed". If you seed a lawn, you put seeds into it. If you seed a tomato, you remove the seeds from it. Others are less obvious like "trim" which could mean to add extras to the edge of something, or to remove them. But there aren't a lot of these.

In the main image above, you can see the Chinese word (Jiè) and Google Translate shows the meaning as "borrow".

All good. But now check out the alternate meanings that Google provides:

So "borrow" and "lend" ?

When I first came across this word, I had no idea how I'd know what was going on. But as always, context is everything.

你借我一块钱。(Nǐ jiè wǒ yīkuài qián.)

Google says "You lend me a dollar". Now it's not really a dollar but the basic idea is there. A dollar would be more like 一美元 (yī měiyuán) for an American dollar, or 一澳元 (yī àoyuán) for an Australian dollar. kuài is sort of a "piece" and qián is "money". Here it would mean one Chinese Yuan or about 1/6th of a dollar.

Similarly, turning it around the other way is:

我借你一块钱。(Wǒ jiè nǐ yīkuài qián.)

"I lend you a dollar". So that didn't do the trick. However:

我从你借了一块钱。(Wǒ cóng nǐ jièle yīkuài qián.)

"I borrowed one dollar from you".

(cóng) is essentially "from".



Days of the week and numbering days

I was doing some SQL Server work the other day and I got to thinking about how we number the weekdays. In the culture where I grew up, Sunday was considered the first day of the week. But in many Asian cultures, Monday is considered the first day of the week. And the names of days in Mandarin reflect that just.

星期 (Xīngqí) means "week" – literally "star period"

And logical as ever, the Chinese then name the days in relation to that:

星期一 (Xīngqí yī) is Monday (i.e. Day # )

星期二 (Xīngqí'èr) is Tuesday (ie. Day #2)

星期三 (Xīngqísān) is Wednesday

星期四 (Xīngqísì) is Thursday

星期五 (Xīngqíwǔ) is Friday

星期六 (Xīngqíliù) is Saturday

Sunday is where it changes a bit:

星期日 (Xīngqírì) is a common version of Sunday. The last character means "day". And similarly:

星期天 (Xīngqítiān) also means Sunday. The last character again means "day", but can also relate to concepts like heaven.

There is also another way that these same names can be written.

(Zhōu) also means week, and can also be used to name days:

周一 (Zhōuyī) being a shorter way to say Monday.

It's also commonly used another way:

周末 (Zhōumò) means weekend. And no surprise that the second character means "end".



Words that ask questions

I mentioned in a previous post that you can often tell if a Mandarin sentence is a question because it will end in (ma). (Similar to ka in Japanese)

But of course there are other words that indicate a question just by being there. Here are the common ones:

什么 (Shén me) – this is pretty generic but basically means "what"

为什么 (Wèi shén me) – this extends 什么 to become "why"

怎么 (Zěn me) – this is close to "how"

哪里 (Nǎ lǐ) – is "where"

(Shéi) – is the equivalent of our "who"

There are several ways of asking how many of something:

多少 (Duō shǎo) – is literally "how many"

One of the things I find odd with 多少 is that it's also used like we use "how much". For example:

多少钱?(Duōshǎo qián?) means "how much money?" but is literally "how many money"

Another common way to ask how many, is to use:


This one is normally followed by a measure word. A common example is:

几个马?(Jǐ gè mǎ?) – this is "how many horses?"

几个爸爸?(Jǐ gè bàba?) – this is "how many fathers?"

The typical answer is just the count and the measure word:

八个爸爸。(Bā gè bàba.) – in this case, eight fathers.

This character (Jǐ) is an odd one as when it's not used in a question, it's often a synonym for "several".