One of my personal ‘bucket list’ goals of learning was learning basic Mandarin, and during 2020 I finally found the time to make it happen. Here’s a few resources I really liked to help you get started on learning!

Disclaimer — I am very much a BEGINNER in Mandarin! I can say basic phrases, have a oral vocabulary of 400–500 words, I can read ~250 characters, and I can write ~100 characters.

Resources are at the top, but if you want to learn more about why I wanted to learn Mandarin & my process, I wrote a bit about that after resources.

Mandarin, like any language, definitely takes a lot of focus and practice, but it’s incredibly rewarding, especially as someone who has never learned a character-based language!

What resources did I mainly use?

  • I found Rosetta Stone great for 3 months, then I switched to mostly online vocab lists, YouTube videos, and practicing with friends
  • Practicing with friends is really really great and helped me stay on track (thank you to Lisa, Jenny, Lily, Callista!)
  • Included a few other resources that may be helpful!

Resources — Books


This book is stunning! It’s made by a graphic designer, Shao Lan, and it includes a lot of neat writeups about origins of characters and tidbits about ancient and modern culture. Not necessary to learn characters, but amazing to look through. I got it for 15$ on Amazon — worth for sure. It helped me look at characters in a different way. The author has created a ton of resources for learning Chinese which are helpful, and a lot are free!

Link to website

Book on Amazon

HSK1/HSK2 activity books: Any HSK1/HSK2 prep book will do — it’s helpful to practice writing out characters. I found two at Indigo for 15$ each.

Resources — Online Apps/Learning programs

Rosetta Stone

  • I got a free trial for 3 months from March to May of 2020, and it was great. I think it’s worth paying for a few months if you’re dedicated — it’s fun and really helped me with pronunciation.
  • Doesn’t align with HSK level words exactly, but you’ll pretty much learn very similar stuff
  • You’ll have a good ability to actually say phrases!
  • Don’t just jump into Rosetta Stone — do a month of self-study first so you know the basics.


  • I have done a lot of Duolingo, and did quite a bit for Mandarin, but didn’t find it as useful as for Romance languages just because the app’s interface didn’t teach pinyin and characters well. Might be an update since then, and it’s good if you already have some basic knowledge.


  • A fun app to learn new vocabulary for 5 min a day


  • I personally didn’t use Coursera, but I know a few friends who did and said the course was well structured

Online Videos

Online resources


Why I started learning Mandarin:

  • Language is a conduit to culture! I love learning about anthropology and how people live, and I feel like learning a language is a great way to approach that. I wrote my IB extended essay in grade 12 about food practices in modern China, and I’ve always wanted to learn more about China from a geopolitical and cultural lens.
  • Languages have always been a big part of my life! Grew up speaking Ukrainian (though sadly I don’t speak nearly as well now!), took French throughout high school, and spent first few years of university speaking Spanish.
  • Mandarin is spoken by 1.1B+ people in the world — that’s a whole lot of people to meet and learn from!

My goals learning Mandarin

  • I initially was hoping to be conversationally fluent at a basic level by the time I was supposed to go to Asia on exchange in early 2021 (sad bc no exchange now :( ), but I modified that goal after I saw the challenge of just learning the basics.
  • My goals instead were to have an appreciation of how the language works, be able to say basic phrases, know ~500 words in pinyin, and be able to write 100–200 characters. I thought this would be a good foundation for if I ever wanted to take an intermediate immersive course in China in the future.

Trying to learn: 3rd time was the charm

  • I started in 2018, did one activity book (aka, copying out ~100 characters in my free time) over the summer for a month or so, but didn’t really have time once school started.
  • I wanted to take Chinese 101 in fourth year, but it conflicted with a mandatory course. I tried drop in classes on campus one hour week, but had a lot going on and I wasn’t doing enough practice each week to actually gain confidence in my abilities.
  • In quarantine, I decided to try again with more of a plan to commit! I worked about 5 hours a week for a few months, and successfully completed my HSK2 test in late October 2020.

What’s the best way to learn?

  • I used to do a lot of tutoring/teaching, and honestly, I think this depends a lot on how you learn! Different tools will work for different people.
  • For me, I learn much better in collaborative environments with other people. Having conversation sessions with close friends was really great to keep me on track to go over vocabulary and practice speaking. Having to speak, even if I lacked the confidence, was really helpful when I was learning Spanish, so I tried doing that with Mandarin too.
  • I also learn vocabulary best by copying the words out. It’s really repetitive, but I did this, in a bright red duotang with every new word I learned on every program/book , and this was really helpful.

What’s the HSK test system?

  • HSK stands for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi — the Chinese Proficiency Exam. They’re standardized language level tests for Mandarin proficiency. HSK tests for listening and reading, and I believe writing at higher levels (though not HSK2!)
  • There’s 6 levels, HSK1 to HSK6. Vocab builds, so for HSK3, you’d have to also know HSK1 and HSK2 vocab. Here’s a table about how many words you need to know for each one:
HSK levels and the vocab you need to know for each.
  • Why I chose to do HSK2 is because for HSK1 and HSK2, you don’t need to know characters! Pinyin is included. But starting at HSK3, no more pinyin — so you actually need to be able to read characters.
  • So even though I know most of the HSK3 words orally, I’d have to study for another month or two to really be able to read all the characters.
  • There’s also the HSKK, which I think is a speaking test. I don’t know much about this or HSK4 upwards.

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