- Do an (online or offline) introductory course to get started with learning grammar and basic vocabulary.
- Use the Transcrobes vocabulary learning and revision tools to super-charge your learning, and then use it to start consuming real content as soon as you feel you can.
Transcrobes already has a lot of advanced functionality, but here is some introductory advice on how to start using it for beginners to Chinese. A lot of Transcrobes functionality is currently focussed on developing written skills (reading, writing, vocabularly), so if you are a heritage learner with a large spoken vocabulary but only recognise a few characters, you should also start here (but you’ll likely progress VERY fast!).
If you already know around 1000+ words (700+ characters) or more (HSK 4 and above), then you should start here.
All tools in the Transcrobes learning application have an button, that takes you to specific help for that tool.
Most learners find some kind of online or offline class/course provides much-needed structure to learning. You should follow one, and use memory techniques and Transcrobes’ spaced repetition to help with learning vocabulary as quickly as possible, so you can move on to the fun part, discovering authentic content (books, websites, movies, music…).
We already have Transcrobes-optimised resources for some free online courses for beginners, which is a great way to get started with Transcrobes. If you know of a great, free course that we could also provide resources for, get in touch and we’ll explore making resources available for that too.
How to learn a foreign language
Beginning a second language
If you are just getting started with Chinese (or any language), then for teenagers and above who are not living in an environment where you are surrounded by the language, usually the best way to enter into a language is through an introductory course. Even if you are surrounded by the language, then introductory courses/classes are often still a great way to get started, particularly if you don’t hate formal learning or have a nasty teacher!
People have different preferences and situations. Maybe you are doing a formal course at a school or university, maybe you are doing a night class or something online. Maybe you don’t know and need some advice. Given that there are some pretty good quality, free courses available online, we suggest if you have some time, then you start with those. Depending on how you feel after a few lessons, either continue with free courses, find something online with more support, or look around for something in person. In-person courses are not obligatory but certain personality types can find it much more fun and much easier to get motivated. In order to properly learn a language, you need to be both motivated and capable of having fun while you learn (because learning a language takes time!), so definitely think about it. Maybe you are shy and the thought of a teacher asking you to say something out loud in class horrifies you. That’s absolutely fine too - online classes might be a much better fit for you (and you’re definitely in the right place here!).
Important things to consider for your introduction to Chinese
Typical courses all have a very similar structure. If the course is specifically geared to a “language skill” (reading/writing/listening/speaking) then you will likely have specific extra exercises (like pronunciation drills, hand-writing lists of characters, etc.) but a very, very common template is the following.
You will have a book (and maybe associated audio). The book will be divided up into lessons/chapters. Each chapter will have a list of new vocabulary and grammar points that are introduced in the lesson. There will be a few texts where you have grammar and vocab that you have seen in previous lessons, and examples of all the new vocab and grammar that is introduced in the lesson. The stories are typically extremely boring, and if there are any “current events” or “hot topics” then you typically won’t find them very “hot”, or particularly “current” (books get out of date quickly!).
So it’s typically very boring. Unfortunately, this is also one of best ways to get started. You need to start somewhere, and courses often give you very good structure to learn the basics of vocabulary and grammar, without which you will be completely lost forever. It is also going to be very similar to formal learning that by 12-13 years old you have already done a lot of, so you will be used to it. It is obviously possible to do without them, but for most people who are reasonably happy reading and are not completely allergic to doing school-type exercises, this allows you to get a start.
If you want to start out learning with Transcrobes then we assume you are also doing a course structured like this in parallel
How to use Transcrobes as an absolute beginner
The kinds of classes mentioned above have lists of new vocab (often on the first page of the book chapter). You need to learn and remember them. Most learners (even Chinese!!!) have a lot of difficulty remembering the many thousands of characters and words you need to read even a newspaper without help. Thankfully, there are both memory techniques and software (like this one!) to help you do that.
Memory techniques for learning vocabulary
You may have a great memory, or find these sorts of things horrible. It’s obviously up to you. If you find you are struggling to remember characters and are spending way too much time, then definitely give these a try. You might be surprised!
There are many techniques that have been developed over the years but a few have been around for a very long time and have stood the test of time. The “memory palace technique” that you may have come across in the BBC Sherlock Holmes with Benedict Cumberbatch comes to us from the Ancient Greeks!
Chinese characters can be broken up (more or less) into parts, based around things commonly called “radicals”. Basically they are chunks that get put together to form whole characters. The parts can look a little different depending on where they are in the character (left, bottom, top, etc.) but you quickly get to recognise them, if you spend a little time learning them. Any class (online or in person) you have will talk in depth about these when you start talking about characters.
Memory association for learning Chinese is typically done by learning a “meaning” for each of the common radicals (100 very common and about another 100 that are often seen). Because a radical is not something that can really have a “meaning” (it’s not a word or morpheme), exactly what you chose isn’t important, but you should choose something vivid and meaningful for you personally, and stick to that. Often these things will contribute to the meaning or pronunciation of the character as a whole, so it can’t (shouldn’t be) random. There are lots of lists, including a good one here, or here or even the English wikipedia page.
Imagination and fantasy
It is often easier to think of things (nouns) rather than actions (verbs) associated with the radical but if actions work for you then great. Start with what the traditional meaning associated with the radical is and adapt from there. Typically “car” would be better than “driving” but car and driving are pretty connected so both might work for you. Don’t try and picture a white Toyota Corolla though - go for something with more pizzaz than that, like an orange Maserati or a pink Cybertruck! Maybe something totally wonderful happened to you in a white Corolla though and gives you goose bumps every time you see one. In that case, go with the Toyota! You will definitely need to put in a little effort to find what is memorable for you but the more wild you go, typically the better you will remember, so definitely don’t hold back. The more extreme you go, the better the memory association will typically be. And this should all be in your head only, so don’t let social etiquette or the law hold you back either! Just make sure not to get too excited in a public place like a library :-).
Once you have good mental images for the radicals, then each character can become a scene. You get the character, separate it into the radicals/parts, and then think of a scene that combines the images in the wildest way possible that takes you from those component bits to the meaning. Take as long as you need but try and get something as vivid as possible. It will take a while in the beginning but it gets much easier as things go on, provided you stick with it. Then when you need to remember the meaning of a character, just chop the character up into the bits and, if you have done the visualisation right, the meaning will just pop out. Vice versa is also true - you get the meaning and you will have the vivid scene immediately come to you. Then you just need to extract the character components and put them together. Once you have that then 99% of the work is done, and the character will typically just write itself down from there.
The Hacking Chinese website has a lot of good introductory material (and courses) on how to get started with these techniques that you should definitely have a look at, particularly here. This is an article that is part of a series on learning characters which has a lot of good info.
Some people don’t like or need these techniques, but many do find them useful and fun, so definitely don’t discount them. There is quite a bit of scientific evidence that they are very effective techniques, when you spend the time to get used to doing them well, and you use them regularly.
Software for learning vocabulary
There are lots of different kinds of software for learning vocabulary but one kind that is also very widely used is called Spaced Repetition software. Transcrobes includes a very powerful Spaced Repetition system - Repetrobes - and a lot of scientific research is going into making it even better (and maybe even revolutionary one day!). The basic principle is that humans have a “forgetting curve”. You learn something (like a new word) and then after a certain number of minutes/hours/days you start to forget it. If you see/remember the word (or picutre/thing, etc) again at just the right time, you will remember it and make the mental pathway stronger, reinforcing the learning. Different curves have been thought of and tested. A lot of different systems have been thought of over the years since computers came around (it was pretty impractical before that). There are very common and popular systems out there, like Memrise, Duolingo, Anki and many more, with 10s of millions of users all over the world. When you combine this with the memory techniques talked about above, most people can learn 10s of words a day, every day, for months on end with a relatively modest time investment.
If you just want to learn a list of words so that you can answer multi-choice questions on a exam, then those existing tools are pretty good, as long as you use them every day. If you actually want to learn how to be productive in a language however, they have their limits. The reason is that they are disconnected from the rest of your learning. A lot of research (and the personal experience of many, many polyglots!) suggests that certain activities around authentic content like reading books/websites, watching movies, listening to music, etc., and particularly “extensive reading” (or reading for pleasure/interest) is a very powerful way of developing mature language skills, i.e, skills that will help you write a proper answer on an economics exam in Chinese, or understand a technical email from your boss in Beijing, etc. So something that is deeply connected to all the various learning activities that you undertake has a lot more power than stuff that is disconnected. If the vocabulary revision system knows that you have been reading a webpage on a new kind of bubble tea and have seen the word for “milk” already 17 times today, it knows that you have already seen that enough for the next three days. If the system knows that you have seen a word 943 times in different texts already but you still don’t know what it means, then that is a very high value word for you to learn. Transcrobes is the first system ever to do try to do this properly.
Vocabulary for beginners with Transcrobes
So how should you use Transcrobes for learning as a beginner? As mentioned above, you will typically get a list of words with the lesson you are about to start. You should copy/write those into a file, one word per line, and put a .csv extension on it , for example, one word per line in Excel and then “Save as CSV”, or using your favourite text editor. Make sure the file is a proper text file, not some horrible Microsoft wordpad thing that the system can’t understand! You can then import that file into the system. When the import has finished you can create a list. You can then immediately use that wordlist to learn the vocabulary by selecting the list in the Repetrobes vocabulary tool. So each new lesson you will create a new list and start learning that. It might take you half an hour or so the first couple of times but you will quickly find your preferred way of doing this and it will likely only take you a couple of minutes when you are used to it. Repetrobes, if you use it regularly, will then make sure that you never forget the words you have already learnt, so you can ace any tests you have and spend your time doing something you love instead! You can combine lists however you like, and you can start learning a few weeks before if you are particularly motivated (or have a boy/girl/teacher you want to impress!).
Write the characters down when you learn/practice them
Repetrobes includes a touch-sensitive system whereby you can “write” the characters with your finger (or stylus, if you have one) on devices that are touch-sensitive (smartphones, tablets, etc.). This is great, but many people find that it is actually even better if you use a pen or pencil and write them down on paper - at least if that is practical. Touchscreen writing does also force you to write the strokes in order, and can give you some hints, so it is not 100% clearcut either way in terms of “the best way”. The science around this is still not very clear but the physical gesture of writing is important as it really helps to solidify the memory pathways for most learners, so typically both will be better than neither. In any case, many find learning characters can be a good way to spend their time on public transport, and you typically can’t use a pencil and paper while standing up on the metro, so you can let the situation decide for you!
By starting out learning this way with Transcrobes and Repetrobes, the system will already have a very accurate picture of what you know, and when you are ready to start reading/watching/listening to some authentic content (after you learn the basics), it will already be perfectly tuned to make your learning very efficient and loads of fun! You can read more about what is in store later by looking at how to use Transcrobes after you know a bit more here.