The 10 best free resources for learning Mandarin Chinese
I’ve gathered here what I consider the best free resources for learning Mandarin and ranked them in order of usefulness. I reckon you could learn Mandarin very effectively, for free, using only these resources.
SRS software lets you keep track of everything you’re learning and study it efficiently. If you’re starting out learning Mandarin (or any language), I’d strongly recommend using Anki from the beginning.
If you’re already some way into the language, start creating flashcards as soon as possible.
Anki’s cool because it’s fairly easy to get up and running, but the more you use it the more you come to realise how deep its features and capabilities go. It can’t do everything for you, but it can make the time you put in much more effective.
If you use nothing else from this list, use Anki.
2. YouTube, YouKu, TuDou
Anki can only help you remember the stuff you’re learning, and for that you need to find some materials to study. These three video sharing websites have millions of hours of free Mandarin learning content, more than you could ever listen to in the course of your studies.
Whilst there is plenty of lesson-style content to get you started in the beginning, the best thing is the countless videos containing real native speech. You can use this to get audio learning materials for free.
Dictionaries are useful for quick checks on words, particularly from the target language into your own. But experienced language learners know that to accurately grasp the meaning of a word you need to see it in action.
For this you need example sentences, and Jukuu is a website offering Chinese-English example sentence in abdunance.
Whenever I want to learn a new word in Chinese, I look up a few example sentences and add them to my SRS system to retain them long term (see above).
If Jukuu isn’t enough, Tatoeba is another great source of Chinese example sentences. It’s already got a huge database of sentences, and more are being added every hour. The thing that makes Tatoeba stand out though is that it’s more than a 1 - 1 list of translations; it’s a web of translations.
It’s also a free, community-based project (you might have realised by now that I really like free, community-based projects). This means that if there’s something you don’t know how to express in Mandarin, you can just add it in English and wait for someone to come along and translate it.
5. Free Chinese podcasts
I’ve written about free Chinese podcasts before, as they really are a great way to get tons of free listening material in Mandarin Chinese.
I’d recommend you try and listen to real Chinese podcasts aimed at native speakers as soon as you can. You’ll quickly build up your listening ability and they make a great way to fill out your day with more exposure to Chinese.
A good quality free dictionary had to make it on to this list somewhere, and I find the best Chinese dictionary to be the MDBG Chinese-English dictionary. It’s very fast and reliably online, and it’s also the result of an admirable community project to build a free and open dictionary.
I would have put ncikuhere, but I find it’s either very slow or inaccessible, and when it actually does load, the interface is a overwhelmed by advertising. It has great content but really is hampered by these issues.
Update: reader Crisgee mentioned another excellent Chinese dictionary: YouDao 有道.
7. Chinese Forums
Tatoeba can give you usage examples of new words and phrases, and let you post new material. If you’ve got actual questions about learning Mandarin, though, Chinese-forums.com is the place to go.
This community really is fantastic, and anyone learning Chinese for free online is lucky to have it. It’s got a lot of very active users, included native speakers and expert learners, who will rapidly tackle any question you post.
A lot of people are paying through the teeth for tutors to get their Mandarin learning questions answered, but you can get the majority of that for free on Chinese Forums. Great stuff.
8. Chinese Language Stack Exchange
Chinese Forums is still the dominant online Chinese-learning community, but there are many others, all of them with a different flavour.
I enjoy the other Stack Exchange sites, and the Chinese language exchange is pretty good.
There’s a mix of native speakers and other second language learners answering questions about the language, and they all undergo Stack Exchange voting process that filters out the good from the bad.
The only concern I have is that there’s quite a lot of potential for bad information or advice when the Stack Exchange model is applied to language learning. Native speakers aren’t always the most qualified people to speak in depth about their own language, and neither are language learners for obvious reasons.
None of that stops it being a good place to get your questions answered and read about other people’s opinions on speaking good Chinese.
9. Perapera-kun plugin
So far this list hasn’t provided a lot of sources for reading material. That’s because there’s a whole Internet out there, with more free Mandarin text than you can shake a stick at. Use Google and Baidu to start tracking down some stuff!
Seeing a wall of Chinese characters is very daunting at first, but with perseverance (and a few years) you really can get to the stage where you can comfortably have a stab at texts you come across.
The perapera-kun plugin makes that process easier by providing mouse-over definitions for any text in your browser.
10. Chinese Boost!
Well it had to be on here somewhere, didn’t it? This site is still in its early stages, but the Chinese grammar section is already super-useful. There’s more on the way, too!