This article contains a list of free resources to learn Chinese online. Click on one of the following links to “jump” directly to the section of the article that interests you most:
You’ll find a brief review and corresponding link to the web site of each resource cited.
Disclaimer: This article, which when it was first published in June 2012 contained 25 resources, is updated every 10-15 months with the best web sites and free apps (many of which were suggested to us by you readers) that we “discover” during the year. Our goal is not to list all the free resources dedicated to learning Chinese; rather it’s to present to you the best of each of the categories listed above. Enjoy!
Line (ex Nciku)
For years we have always recommended Nciku as a desktop dictionary, which has however recently been acquired by Naver and reborn as Line Dictionnary (Line is an application similar to WhatsApp, leading the sector in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and other Asian nations).
Naver seems to have preserved the most important characteristics of the dictionary, especially the database that, each time you search a character or word, suggests various phrases that illustrate the different meanings of a given character in a well-defined context. At the moment it lacks the Character Recognizer Tool, that allowed you to discover the pronunciation and meaning of various characters that you encounter reproducing them with the mouse, but when you enter the site for the first time a message appears explaining that the function will be restored as soon as possible.
Another great dictionary is MDBG.
Pera Pera is a pop-up dictionary and study tool available as free add-on for both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. After you install it (if you follow the link, it will take you less than a minute), activate it by clicking on the star that will appear on your browser, go to a webpage in Mandarin and point at a character you don’t know with your mouse. A small grey window will appear with the pronunciation and meaning of the character.
If you use Skritter to learn and write Chinese characters, then I recommend that you take a look at the pop-up dictionary Zhongwen since it allows you to import words directly into your Skritter account; just click the letter”S” on your keyboard.
The problem with Zhongwen, is that it only works on Chrome (while Pera Pera also works on Firefox).
Hanping (for Android)
Hanping is one of the best Chinese/English dictionaries for Android devices. The free version, called “Lite”, includes the Chinese/English dictionary and the option to “send” characters to Skritter, eStroke (to learn the order of strokes that make up the character) or Google Translator.
To use the audio or video recognition functions, you’ll have to get the “Pro” version of the app. Click here to read our reviews on the best apps for learning Chinese.
Pleco (for iOS)
Pleco is another excellent dictionary for smartphones. While Hanping works only on Android, Pleco works both on Android devices and iOS. If you have an iPhone, this would be your best option.
Note that both Pleco and Hanping work even if you’re not online.
HanziCraft is a software developed by Niel de la Rouviere. I find it especially useful for people who are learning how to write Chinese characters, as it breaks down a character into its main components. For each character, it also provides the pronunciation, the meaning and a list of words that use that character (in combination with other characters).
For example, take the character 游. You will learn that 游 is made up of 氵 (water), 方 (square/raft), 丿 (bend), 一 (one) and 子 (child); it’s pronounced you2; it means “to walk/to tour/to roam/to travel” and it’s used to create two high frequency words (旅游, which means “trip” and 游戏, which means “game”) and a bunch of medium frequency words.
Chinese Grammar Wiki
Chinese Grammar Wiki was launched by AllSet Learning in early 2012 and despite is young age, has become my main reference when it comes to Chinese grammar, as the explanations are pretty impressive. You don’t believe me?
Check out the page dedicated to the particle “了”. What I also like is that the resource was released under a Creative Commons License and everybody can contribute to improve it (like a true “wiki” should be).
If you are looking for a more traditional course, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has released their Chinese courses for free through the MIT OpenCourseWare platform. I didn’t test the course myself as I prefer to follow a more unstructured path. However, MIT is quite well known, so I don’t doubt the quality of the course ; ) Digging within the platform, I also discovered that they offer a course on Classic Chinese Literature for really hardcore students…
Coursera is a digital platform founded by two professors from the University of Stanford that offers an enormous amount of courses in physics, medicine, information etc freely accessible online. The courses last from six to ten weeks, with about two hours of video lessons – held by university professors – every week. Besides lessons, the course includes quizzes, exercises, and sometimes a final exam. Could they possibly not have a Chinese course? No! Click here to sign up for free!
DigChinese offers a collection of resources geared toward the learning of Chinese. Here are some that stood out the most:
1. A list of “measure words“, which in Chinese are used together with numbers to define the quantity of a given object. For example, 三辆车 means “three automobiles” (the measure word for automobiles is “辆”), while 三本书 means “three books” (the measure word for books is “本”).
3. Lastly, a pinyin converter. What does that mean? Have you ever had to write in pinyin, but since your keyboard doesn’t have the letters with all the accents, you wind up having to write the words one by one in a dictionary to be able to copy/paste the accented letters? Voila, the DigChinese converter resolves the problem: just insert the pinyin with the corresponding accent numbers (such as jin1tian1tian1qi4zen3me5yang4, which corresponds to characters “今天天气怎么样”) to get the pinyin with correct accents, or “jīntiāntiānqìzěnmeyàng“.
Jukuu is a database of sentences in English and Chinese. Its interface is very simple and very similar to Google’s.
Once you enter a word into Jukuu and click on the search button (called 句酷一下) you get a list of sentences in English and Chinese that contain the word you entered. It can then be quite useful to understand the context in which you can use a given word. The database seems quite complete too: for all the words I tried I obtained 100 sentences.
The Taoteba Project is a database that catalogues phrases in different languages. If for example you enter “他最近從法國回來了” in the search bar, you’ll see the same phrase appear in 12 different languages (among which is also English).
This is a useful tool for those looking to translate entire phrases. In my opinion a tool like this is particularly helpful for translating slang expressions for which a dictionary is rarely useful.
Audio and Video
FluentU is a database of Youtube videos in Mandarin. The primary advantage of FluentU, compared to other video platforms, is without a doubt the subtitles in Chinese characters, pinyin and English that accompany each video. It’s also possible to create a list of vocabulary words that interest you by simply clicking on the subtitle stream (you don’t even have to stop the video!).
The videos are arranged according to difficulty level (Newbie, Elementary, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, Advanced & Native), subject (Everyday life, Science, Business, Culture, Art, etc) and format (Courses, Music Videos, Mini Movies, News, Advertisements etc).
The only disadvantage of FluentU is that in China, Youtube is blocked. So in order to use it you’ll need a VPN.
Popup Chinese offers podcasts and tools for learning Mandarin.
It’s the most highly rated Chinese teaching series on iTunes and it’s recommended by the heads of all four major Chinese immersion programs in Beijing.
You can easily create a free account to check the entire archive, which doesn’t only contain podcasts in mp3 format but also mobile apps, HSK tests and other study tools.
When I heard of Talkify for the first time I was a bit skeptical. The site, in appearance is very simple: there’s just a bar to insert a link to a web page in English, German or Chinese. The promise is that once the link is inserted, the web site will begin to read it for you with an accent comparable to a native speaker.
To test it I went to the Marco Polo Project web site, which I’ll speak more of later, and I randomly chose an article, this one. I then copied and pasted the link into the bar on Talkify and… nothing happened. After twenty seconds the speakers began spitting out audio in Chinese, while the page came to life: the parts being read were highlighted in orange. I paid real attention to what I heard and to my extreme surprise, the audio being created in realtime corresponded exactly with the page that I had chosen.
Another interesting feature is that by clicking the mouse, you can jump from paragraph to paragraph without having to wait until the software arrives at the paragraph you’re interested in (just beware that if you switch paragraphs every three seconds you’ll have to wait a few seconds until the site “downloads” the new paragraph). Such functionality is extremely useful if you want to “listen” to a page that contains both material in Chinese and other languages.
While if you’re a beginner student listening to a web page is a fine exercise in and of itself (you won’t understand much), for intermediate or advanced students Talkify offers infinite possibilities.
CNTV is the website of the national Chinese television network, where you can find a ton of Chinese news and TV shows.
The only “drawback” is that the website is in Chinese so, unless you can already read Mandarin, it becomes difficult to find the kind of programs you want to watch. A possible solution is to check the English version of the website (however here some videos are in English).
Baidu is the Chinese Google. Yes, China not only has its own system of characters, its own ATM circuit (Union Pay) and its own eBay (the mythical TaoBao). It also has its own research engine, Baidu.
It differs from Google in that, if you go to the video section of Baidu (just click the link above) you’ll have an infinite supply of movies, TV movies, songs and much more available to you. Much of the audio and video material that you’ll find is protected by international Copyright, so use it at your own risk. Others instead are Copyright free. You’ll also notice that you’ll be redirected to a third-party site, many of which are visible only in China (unless you don’t have a VPN with a Chinese server!).
Tudou and Youku
Tudou and Youku are the two Chinese clones of YouTube where you can find virtually any kind of videos you want in Mandarin, and they often come with subtitles. Even if you have a VPN and can access YouTube, the same video in Tudou or Yukou will often load much faster.
If you live outside China, the majority of videos on this platforms will be blocked (unless you have a VPN with a server in China.
Slow Chinese (慢速中文) is a “cultural” podcast, in the sense that it deals with subjects having to do with the ancient and modern culture of China rather than focusing on topics of everyday life such as how to shop or order at a restaurant.
As you can deduce from the name, the narrators speak at a pretty slow pace (2-3 characters a second) in a way that even beginners can follow what’s being said in the text listed under each podcast. At the moment it’s possible to listed to about 120 episodes, all offered for free.
Cultural interviews with Chinese-Speaking Professionals is a compilation of brief video clips in which Chinese-speaking professionals discuss practical cultural information about business topics, providing vocabulary in areas within a professional setting and offering non-native speakers of Chinese multiple examples of natural speech.
You can choose to watch the videos via streaming or by downloading the mp4 files. You also get a transcription in both traditional and simplified Chinese as well as the English translation. Cultural Interviews with Chinese-Speaking Professionals is a project of the University of Texas.
Marco Polo Project
The Marco Polo Project is a website that offers a selection of new literature from China (short fiction, opinion pieces and social commentary by intellectuals and popular bloggers). It’s open to language students and enthusiasts who want to collaborate on the translation of the texts.
Through the Marco Polo Project, Chinese learners can practice their language skills, read new Chinese texts and join a community that actively promotes cross-cultural dialogue. Also, non-Mandarin readers can discover the voices of Chinese writers. Even if you decide to not actively participate, you can still go there to read “real” Chinese material with translations into English, French and Spanish. Click here to read my interview with the founder, Julian Leyre.
Short Stories is a project of Grace Feng, author of the blog “Just Learn Chinese”. Gloria pubblishes on a regular basis short stories in Chinese, arranging them in order of difficulty. For each story you’ll find the Chinese characters, pinyin and the English translation.
Foreigncy is a web site that publishes select articles in Chinese and other “critical” languages (Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hebrew and Russian) providing a brief summary of the article (in English) and a list of key vocabulary words, flashcards and quizzes to prepare you for the reading.
This is a resource that I only recommend to advanced students seeking to expand their vocabulary and Chinese comprehension ability.
Chinese Etimology is a web site run by Richard Sears that I discovered thanks to Sinosplice, a blog that I’ll speak more on later.
Just insert a Chinese character in the space on the left (under the photo) to find out its origin (with lots of pictograms).
Pinyin.info is a guide to writing pinyin, that is, the official transliteration of Mandarin characters to the Latin alphabet. You will find a chart containing all the possible combinations of initials and finals, the basic rules for writing pinyin, where to place tone marks, information about the history of pinyin and other romanization systems (MPS2, Wade-Giles, Yale) and so on. Also, the website is home to a funny article, Why Chinese is so damn hard, by David Moser.
Have you ever heard that Chinese has an extremely limited number of sounds? It’s true! In fact, all Chinese sounds can be summed up in the so-called “pinyin chart“.
Among the many pinyin charts available, besides the one on Pinyin.info we chose the one on Yo Yo Chinese (click on the link to have a look) because it offers the possibility to hear every sound (just click on the syllable and chose the tone in which you’d like to hear it). Also, if you click on the sounds featured on the first column (the one in yellow), you can accede to short videos (around 30 seconds each) that explain how to reproduce the specific sounds.
Flashcards and mnemonic devices
Anki is the most popular spaced repetition software (SRS), which allows you to review flashcards with a clever scheduling. Its code has been released under a GPL v3 license and it can be downloaded for all the most popular platforms. While the version for Windows, Mac OSX, Linux and Android is free, then one for iOS costs 24.99 USD.
You can use it to review your lessons by inputting your own flashcards or to study new vocabulary by choosing among the hundreds of free decks already present in Anki’s database. Another feature I like about Anki is the opportunity to open a free account on the Ankiweb platform so that you can synchronize all your devices (laptop, smartphone, whatever you have) and won’t lose any information in the event your hardware stops working or gets stolen.
All Japanese all the time
All Japanese all the time is a blog written by Khatzumoto, who learned Japanese by himself until reaching such a level that he could get a job as a software engineer in Tokyo through a phone interview. I believe that SRS is great but at the beginning it’s easy to make mistakes, get bored and give up. So, you should read about what other people are doing before attempting to memorize 2,000 cards in a row : P Even if Khatzumoto talks about Japanese, his blog is so far the most comprehensive resource I found for people getting into SRS. The above link, for instance, underlines a common mistake almost everybody starting with SRS makes.
Hacking Chinese is the website of Olle Linge, a passionate language learner. I quote Olle: “In my language learning life so far, I have been taught a lot about grammar, words and culture, but I have seldom been taught the most important thing of all: how to learn these things. Most textbooks and teachers focus on the language itself and present material for students to learn, but forget that there are lots of things to say about how one should go about to learn that material in an efficient way.” Efficient language learning is indeed the core of Hacking Chinese. Click here to learn my interview with Olle.
Just like Khatzumoto, Olle has plenty of good tips on SRS, and this is why I preferred to add his website to this section.
Memrise, which I discovered thanks to Nrupesh (a reader of this blog), is a community of language learners that share mnemonics, pictures, videos and audio material. Most of the site is freely editable. Anyone can make and share sets of flashcards, add words or create mems.
As a big fan of mnemonics (and especially of the ideas described in Quantum Memory Power by Dominic O’Brien), what I like about Memrise is the fact that people can vote up and down the “mem cards” so that the best ones will gain precedence (at least this is what I have understood so far). Just like with Anki, you can find a lot of already made decks (HSK, most common words and so on).
Motivation and advice (personal blogs)
Sinosplice is the blog of John Pasden, the founder of AllSet Learning. John arrived in China in 2000 and, since 2002, has been sharing his tips on learning Chinese. The blog has a huge archive, so I suggest that you start with the entry “How I learned Chinese.” If we could develop (yeah, “we” because I’m still battling with myself over Mandarin…) even a small fraction of John’s motivation, I’m sure we would be half way along the path of mastering the Chinese language. John is a linguist, so his explanations tend to be technical and precise. Click here to learn my interview with John.
Laowai Chinese is the blog of Albert Wolfe, another long-term Chinese learner and blogger (he started Laowai Chinese in 2006). Albert arrived in China as an English teacher and, without ever taking a formal class, he learned Mandarin to the extent of becoming a translator in many capacities, hosting a televised English speech contest and appearing on a Chinese-language radio talk show. He is also the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin.
Confused Laowai is the blog of Niel de la Rouviere. Niel’s approach differs from the previous bloggers for two main reasons. First, he lives and studies Chinese in South Africa. Therefore, he faces different problems than those of us learning Mandarin in China. Second, he has a very “geeky” approach to Chinese and linguistics in general. I like to read his blog because he keeps me updated on all the latest technological advancements.
Quoting from their “About” page, Chinese Hacks started with the idea of providing a set of tips to effectively learn Chinese. Now it mostly provides examples of real-world Chinese in the form of news, advertising, signs, posters and anything that shows how Chinese is actually used. It also reviews lots of software, websites and mobile apps related to Chinese language and culture.
Living a dream in China
Living a dream in China is the blog of Sara Jaaksola, who is studying Mandarin at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. What I especially like about Sara’s blog is her enthusiasm for the Chinese language and China in general and the idea of sharing her goals and achievements monthly in order to keep her focus and motivation.
Fluent in 3 Months
Fluent in 3 Months is the blog of Benny Lewis, who can speak eight languages and is in the process of learning Mandarin. You may like or dislike his approach. However, I speak a fair amount of languages myself (Mandarin will be the sixth) without having really studied any of them, and many of the things Benny suggests make perfect sense to me (especially “speak from day one” and “aim at making mistakes”).
The Polyglot Dream
The Polyglot Dream is the blog of Luca Lampariello, an Italian guy that speaks eleven languages.
I still have to finish exploring his blog but up until now, my favorite article is Tips on how to learn Chinese tones, where Luca explains why a top-down approach is more effective than a bottom-up approach (that is, the way you learn in any traditional Chinese language school), when it comes to learning Chinese tones.
Motivation and advice (company blogs and Youtube channels)
These days foreign languages represent an enormous business. And Chinese is no exception. One of the best ways to advertise yourself, especially for firms that offer Chinese courses online, is that of having a blog that captures the attention of readers interested in knowing more about the study of Chinese (that is, potential clients). This is why many private companies have started blogs that are often well-done and interesting. I’ve decided to recommend four of them:
Skritter offers, in my opinion, the best product for anyone who wants to learn how to write Chinese characters. The reason why I don’t review it in this article is because it is a “premium” product (that is, one you have to pay for). Here you’ll find my review. The Skritter blog has been around since 2008 and there you’ll for the most part find articles having to do with the study of characters (both Chinese and Japanese).
FluentU is another excellent company active in the foreign language learning sector (seven languages in all, including Chinese). Since they offer a free service, I already mentioned FluentU in the “Audio and Video” section. The FluentU blog has been around since 2011 and covers a wide range of subjects. Seeing that their focus – and experience – is in the video sector, I particularly recommend to you their TV programming guides, such as “The Ultimate Guide to Learning Chinese through TV Shows” published in March 2014.
Yo Yo Chinese’s Youtube Channel
Yo Yo Chinese is a company specializing in video courses. Despite their offering paid courses, Yo Yo Chinese also publishes free video lessons – conducted by founder Cheng Yang Yang – on her own Youtube channel. With more than 60,000 subscribers, the Youtube channel of Yo Yo Chinese is, as far as I know, the most popular among those specializing in teaching Chinese. Beginning in 2013, Yo Yo Chinese also has a blog, which you’ll find here.
ChinesePod’s Youtube Channel
ChinesePod is my favorite podcast of those dedicated to the learning of Chinese. Click here to read my complete review. As with Skritter, I didn’t include ChinesePod on this list because they don’t offer a free version of their product.
HSK (standard Chinese language proficiency test)
China Edu Center
HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, 汉语水平考试) is the only Mandarin certification recognized by the Chinese government (let’s just say it’s the equivalent of the American “TOEFL” or English “Cambridge”). On the China Edu Center site you can download a free example of the test for each level of the HSK (available in both PDF and MP3 files). Why would you need such certification? If for example you want to study law, engineering or any other subject in a Chinese university, then such certification is obligatory.
HSK HSK is a web site completely dedicated to the test. Here you’ll find various resources among which are graphics that show the relationship between various words that you’ll have to know in order to pass the HSK test, and lists of those words in order of difficulty (HSK haas six levels).
HSChinese is another web site where you will find free exercises to help you pass the HSK test.
As opposed to the other two resources I mentioned earlier, HSChinese also offers a free app that works on both Android and iOS systems.
Forums and Social Networks
The Chinese Forums are, as far as I know, the most popular forums that specialize in the Chinese language. They have more than 330,000 posts and more than 50,000 members.
The main sections are “Learning Chinese,” “Studying, working and living in China,” and “Chinese culture.” They seem especially useful when it comes to asking for advice.
Lang-8 is a website where you can post a text in the language you are learning and get feedback from native speakers and other students of the same language. There are several communities that offer more or less the same service, however the Lang-8 crew seems quite active and you get fast answers even if you post relatively long essays.
Study More Chinese
Study More Chinese is a social network, created by Brandon Owens, that is completely geared to those studying Chinese. Despite there being “only” 2,000+ users (which might seem small compared to the 50,000+ of Chinese Forums), the site is very active.
Moreover, continuing the comparison of Chinese Forums, the graphics are without a doubt more modern and well-done.
For those looking for a more specific resource
If you’re looking for a more specific resource I recommend that you start with the following databases:
Hacking Chinese Resources
Hacking Chinese Resources is a database that catalogues resources dedicated to the study of Chinese. The database is hosted by Hacking Chinese, Olle Linge’s blog (of which I’ve already spoken). The resources are arranged by category (vocabulary, grammar, reading, etc), type of resource (textbook, app, etc) and level (beginner, intermediate or advanced). You’ll have no problem finding what you’re looking for.
Learning Chinese Online
Learning Chinese Online was founded by Dr. Tianwei Xie in 1997 and is the oldest resource listed here. The website is a directory that contains an impressive number of links regarding online Chinese schools, pronunciation, conversations, characters, grammar, reading, listening, dictionaries, translation and other learning materials. The problem – common to almost all directories – is that there is no way to evaluate which is the best resource on a given topic without exploring all of them.
Hao Hao Report
Have you ever heard about Digg.com? Well, the Hao Hao Report works the same way except for the fact that it only features articles talking about China, with an entire section dedicated to the Chinese language.
The website was created and is managed by Ryan McLaughlin and, in my opinion, his best achievement was keeping it 100% spam free despite the large amount of traffic and number of daily submissions.
Through a series of random events, Chinese isn’t exactly the first foreign language that I’ve tried my hand at.
Even if technology is making things easier – if only due to the possibility of communicating with people who have been born and live in another part of the world without leaving home, – I personally believe that the “secrets” to mastering a foreign language are always the same:
- Find the right motivation. If you start studying Chinese only because it will be the most widely spoken language in the future it’s likely that you’ll give up at the first sign of difficulty.
- Conceive ambitious long-term projects, and at the same time, focus on short-term goals that are easily measurable.
- Dedicate yourself to the language you want to learn in a balanced and sustainable way so as to not burn through the original enthusiasm (and I guarantee you that the rush of adrenaline due to its newness tends to cool off very quickly with Chinese).
- Expose yourself as much as possible to the language. If you don’t have the opportunity to interact in person with native speakers, you can always apply yourself to Chinese cinema or become an active user in a linguistic exchange community such as Lang-8.
- Don’t be afraid to speak even if you’re convinced your grammar and pronunciation are terrible.
Are you learning Chinese? What is your preferred online resource?