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5 Most Common Mistakes When Studying Chinese

5 Most Common Mistakes When Studying Chinese

This article is intended to go over some of the most common mistakes committed by students when trying to learn Chinese. The points listed here are based on my experience as a student and as the manager of a small Chinese Academy.

1. Neglecting to study Chinese characters

One of the most complicated aspects of the Chinese language is without a doubt its writing system. Learning how to read and write characters is a difficult task that can discourage many students.

Many students who are anxious to learn Chinese as quickly as possible decide to put aside studying writing to focus on learning how to speak Chinese through the phonetic system (pinyin).

There is no doubt that learning Chinese exclusively through pinyin is the most common mistake committed by people when starting to learn Chinese. Aware of this, over the past years, many “miraculous” Chinese courses based on this principle have appeared, promoting it as an easy way to learn Chinese in a few months. Nonetheless, in Chinese, just like any other language, there are no shortcuts. It’s true that some ways of learning are more efficient than others, but learning Chinese only through pinyin is certainly not the way to go.

While pinyin is very useful in the beginning, it’s problem resides in the phonetics of mandarin. As opposed to in Western languages, words are fairly short in Chinese (normally 1 or 2 syllables) and there are relatively few possible sounds (somewhat more than 400 syllables). Combine this with the fact that in the beginning, the majority of students have trouble differentiating certain sounds and above all the tones, it’s very common for students to quickly feel like everything sounds the same.

The basic unit of Chinese is the character, which represents meaning and not sound. It’s very common to run into characters with very different meanings with exactly the same sound (or very similar sounds). In addition, the formation of new concepts is carried out by combining characters. In other words, the logic of Chinese is found in characters and not in sound.

As opposed to small children who learn through imitation, we adults mainly learn through association, in other words, by using logic. That means that if you overlook the basic unit of the language (the character), it will be impossible for you to learn through association and you will have to limit yourself to imitation, which is very difficult for adults.

To put things simply, people who decide to not study writing make much faster initial progress by omitting one of the most difficult parts. However, their learning quickly comes to a standstill as learning new vocabulary becomes more difficult every day. Many words appear to be the same and completely meaningless.

On the contrary, for people who include characters in their study program, their initial progress is slow, tedious and at times frustrating. Nonetheless, their learning progressively accelerates and incorporating new vocabulary becomes increasingly simple.

If you truly want to learn Chinese and not a couple of sentences to survive, you have no other choice but to learn its writing as well.

chinese character

2. Learning the most commonly-used 3,000 characters

One of the most prevalent urban legends surrounding learning Chinese says that by learning the most frequent 3,000 characters, you can read 99% of texts in Chinese.

It’s true that the 3,000 most common characters cover 99% of texts in Chinese. Nonetheless, knowing them is not the same thing as being capable of understanding a text. In modern Chinese, the majority of words are formed of the union of at least two characters. While individual characters have a meaning in themselves, when they are combined to create a word, their meaning, although it tends to be related, is not always easy to guess.

Basically, learning the most common 3,000 characters, despite being an excellent memorization challenge, is probably the most frustrating and inefficient way to learn Chinese, as it won’t let you read or speak.

There are numerous frequency of use lists based on words and not characters (such as the HSK lists) that are definitely more useful.

learning chinese

3. Learning Chinese because it’s the most spoken language in the world

Learning a new language takes a lot of effort and continuous motivation over a long period of time, especially if it’s a language as different as Chinese. Because of this, before starting to learn a language, you have to be clear about the goal that you are pursuing and create a detailed plan of how you are going to reach this goal.

When people come to my academy and ask me about Chinese lessons, the first thing that I tend to ask them is why they want to learn Chinese. An answer that I often receive is: I want to learn Chinese because it’s the most spoken language in the world. When I hear this answer, I usually tell them how much time and effort they will have to dedicate to studying Chinese if they want to be able to effectively communicate. The majority of them never come back.

This student profile is the main target of “miracle courses”, as in my opinion, they don’t have the adequate motivation to learn the language. Their interest is mainly the result of a passing trend that has been brought into the spotlight by China’s economic power. Because of this, the only thing that they are looking for is for someone to tell them that they can learn Chinese without making an effort.

It is essential that before learning Chinese, you ask yourself what you want to do and what you will achieve by doing so. The more specific your objective, the easier it will be to keep up your motivation over time. Below, I give a few examples of concrete goals:

  1. Learning Chinese to be able to communicate with clients or suppliers from the country and by doing so improving your job prospects.
  2. Learning Chinese to go to China to study a master’s degree or an exchange during the following year.
  3. Learning Chinese because you have a spouse or family member from the country and want to demonstrate your interest in their culture and language.

Like these, there are thousands of good reasons to learn Chinese, but studying must be highly motivated and contain a “reward” for the efforts made. If you’re not going to use the language at all, what point is there in learning it?

Learning Chinese is much more than learning a language; it’s a doorway to understanding a thousand-year-old culture and society that at times isn’t as different as we think it is. Making yourself the habit of studying and giving yourself the right motivation will be your best ally in overcoming the numerous obstacles and frustrations that you will encounter.

chinese writing

4. Believing that because you’ve learned other languages, you know how to learn Chinese

Something that I often run into is people who want to study Chinese and the first thing that they say is that they already speak a couple of languages.

People who already master multiple Western languages mistakenly believe that they can apply their experience with these languages when learning Mandarin. While it’s true that they are at an advantage compared to a monolingual person, as they already know the efforts implied by learning a new language, it’s also true that they are more likely to commit mistakes in the learning process.

Despite coming from different linguistic branches, Western languages have common roots and have influenced one another a great deal over history. This makes it so that their logic and above all grammatical structure are very similar. The origins of Chinese and other Asian languages are very distant from that of Western languages, because of which it is a mistake to approach them with the same logic as in studying much more similar languages.

The common problem among students who speak multiple Western languages is that they try to apply their language structure to Chinese, and over time become frustrated. In the end, they end up saying that Chinese is illogical and impossible to learn.

Chinese has its own logic that is simply very different from yours, because of which the best thing to do is to forget everything you think you know and to try to completely immerse yourself in a different way of communicating.

Learning chinese

5. Spending too much effort on pronunciation and grammar

Don’t get me wrong: grammar and pronunciation are very important in Chinese, but they aren’t everything.

Tones and pronunciation in Mandarin tend to be a headache for many students. Pronunciation errors can be one of the main barriers to being understood by a native speaker. In addition, for many students, Chinese grammatical structures appear confusing and “unnatural” to them, because they are very different from those of their native language.

Because of this, it’s common for people to end up speaking endlessly in a zealous attempt to pronounce every tone perfectly and to place every word in its correct place. The problem with this attitude is that the person listening ends up not understanding anything.

Chinese is a language in which the context where a word is pronounced is very important for understanding its meaning. When speech isn’t fluid, in addition to becoming tedious for the listener, the context is also lost. The problem is that if the listener loses the context, they won’t understand anything.

Forget about speaking perfectly; as a non-native speaker, you can’t set your sights on impeccable pronunciation and not making grammar mistakes. Improving the fluidity of your speech will certainly give you better results than avoiding a couple of mistakes. Keep in mind that what’s important is communicating.

Bio BIO: Sergi worked in Beijing for five years and China changed his life. Upon returning home, he left his job as a researcher to dedicate his time to sharing what he learned in the Middle Kingdom. He is currently the editor of the website Sapore Di Cina, intended for people who would like to go to China to live or travel, and is the co-founder of EsChina Space, a Chinese language and cuisine academy in Barcelona.

3 Reasons Why Successful Students Learn Chinese In the Car

Not only is it possible to learn Chinese in your car, there are 3 great benefits that will help you master the language faster and with less effort.

With everyone so pressed for time these days, it might seem like a daydream to believe that you could learn Chinese in your car—but it’s not! Thanks to a wide range of new technologies and resources, learning a language in your car is easier than ever. Not only is it easy to learn a language while driving, there are actually a number of benefits, especially if the lessons are part of a structured learning program like ChineseClass101. Here are three specific benefits to learning Chinese or any other new language in your car.

3 reasons why successful students learn chinese in the car

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1. Transform Downtime into Progress

How much time do you spend commuting to and from work? Learning a language in your car transforms your commute time into tangible progress towards your dream. So instead of being stressed over how much time you are “wasting” on errands and daily commutes, you can decompress and have some fun while you learn Chinese in your car!

2. Daily Exposure Leads to Passive Learning

Practice makes perfect and learning a new language is no different. The daily exposure you get when you learn Chinese while driving helps improve listening comprehension, pronunciation, and of course helps build vocabulary and improve grammar. Don’t worry: You don’t need to memorize everything as you listen in Chinese while driving. Just having continuous exposure to a foreign language helps you improve your vocabulary, learn faster, and ultimately retain more through passive learning.

3. Learning While Driving is Fun

Learning a new language does require a serious commitment, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! When you learn Chinese in your car, you get to take some time away from the PC or smartphone and immerse yourself in the language instead of just “studying” it.

Plus, there are a number of “fun” activities that you can do and still learn in your car, such as:
- Singing Along with Chinese Songs
- Playing Word Games or Trivia
- Just Listening Along and Seeing How Much You Can Pick Up and Understand

Want to Learn How to Get Angry in Chinese? Pick-Up Lines? Our Vocabulary Lists are Made for You!

Yes, you can learn a language while driving and have loads of fun doing it. Now let’s take a look at some specific things you can listen to while driving to help you learn a new language.

BONUS: 3 Ways to Learn Chinese in Your Car

-Listen to Podcasts: Typically designed to focus on one topic or lesson, podcasts are a great way to learn a language while driving. Unfortunately, podcasts are rarely at the same listening/comprehension level as the language learner so listeners may not get their full value. But at ChineseClass101, our podcasts are created for every skill level so you don’t waste any time on material that isn’t relevant or suited to your exact needs.

-Sing Along to Chinese Songs: Remember, just immersing yourself in a language can create passive learning and improve your pronunciation. Plus, with ChineseClass101, you can sing along and memorize the lyrics, and then look the words up and add them to your personal dictionary.

-Playing Word Games or Trivia: There are audio games available online that you can download to any media device and listen to on your commute. Although we recommend this option for more advanced users, games are a fun and productive way to learn Chinese in your car because they require listening and comprehension skills.

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You won’t recognize or understand every word you hear in a Chinese song, podcast, or game—but that’s ok. The daily repetition and immersion in the language leads to passive learning that gradually increases your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. And the greater your foundation in grammar and vocabulary, the more you’ll understand and learn from the audio lessons, podcasts, or whatever you listen to while learning Chinese in your car.

Yes, you can learn Chinese while driving because it leads to passive learning via daily immersion in the language. Although you may not understand all or even most of what you hear at first, the exposure helps improve pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar over time. Learning a language while driving also helps transform your commute into exciting “exotic adventures” that secretly teach you Chinese in the process. Podcasts, songs, and even games can all help you learn Chinese in your car while eliminating the “boring commute” in the process!

At ChineseClass101, we have more than 2500+ HD audio lessons and podcasts for every skill level that you can download and use to learn Chinese while driving!
So don’t forget to sign up for a Free Lifetime Account on to access tons of FREE lessons and features to become fluent in Chinese!

4 Reasons Why Chinese Slang Words Will Make You Fluent

Learn 4 honest reasons you need Chinese slang words and why they are so vital to truly learning and mastering the language.

Teachers may normally cringe at the thought of their students learning Chinese slang words. After all, slang words and phrases are typically defined as being grammatically incorrect. So why would your teacher want you to spend time learning the “wrong way” to speak Chinese? Here are 4 of the top reasons why you should study slang words and expressions when learning Chinese or any new language.

reasons to learn chinese slang words

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1. Native Speakers Use Slang Expressions in Everyday Conversation

If you are going to study a foreign language and plan to use it to speak with native speakers, then you have to learn slang words and expressions. Otherwise, just using formal expressions and grammar may alienate you from native speakers and make it more difficult to establish a real connection. So it is best to at least learn some common slang words and expressions if you’re planning to meet or speak socially with someone.

2. Slang Words Are Used All Throughout Chinese Culture

If you turn on any popular Chinese TV show, listen to any song, or watch any movie, you are quickly going to see the value of learning Chinese slang phrases. Just like everyday conversations between native speakers, Chinese culture is filled with slang phrases and expressions. Without at least some knowledge of the more common slang phrases, popular culture and most conversations will be very confusing and potentially alienating.

Want to Amaze Native Speaker? Be a Good Lover? Our Vocabulary Lists are Made for You!

3. Slang Expressions Help You Better Express Your True Thoughts and Feelings

Only relying on formal grammar and vocabulary is very limiting, especially in social situations. Just like in your native language, using the appropriate Chinese slang words can help you express a broader range of emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

4. Proper Use of Slang Makes You Sound More Natural

We’ve all met foreigners who technically used formal language perfectly but still sounded odd and well….foreign. But when you use the right slang words and expressions, you will sound more natural and like a true native speaker. If you notice, even most politicians include a sprinkling of slang expressions and words throughout their speeches to help them sound more natural and to better connect with the audience.

The Dark Side of Slang Expressions

Learning Chinese slang words can indeed help you sound more natural, better understand the people and culture, and make integration much easier. However, there is a dark side: using the wrong slang expressions can also make you look foolish, uneducated, and potentially disrespectful.

But how do you know which slang words or phrases to use and when?

The truth is that you can’t learn the most modern and appropriate slang words in textbooks or formal classroom settings. By the time the information gets incorporated into a formal curriculum, it’s already outdated and no longer in use by actual Chinese people. And while you can learn current slang expressions from Chinese TV shows, movies, songs, and games, you may not understand the context. If that happens, you may use the right Chinese slang words but in the wrong situation and still look like a fool or possibly even offend someone.

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So where can you learn current slang expressions and the right context in which to use them?

At ChineseClass101, native speaking instructors create audio and video lessons that can include slang expressions and words. Our instructors provide context and examples for all the Chinese slang words used in any lesson to make sure students understand the right time and place to use them.

Chinese slang words and expressions may be grammatically incorrect but they are vital to truly understanding and immersing yourself in the culture. In fact, it will be very difficult to fully understand any movie, TV show, song, game, or even 1-on-1 conversation without knowing a few of the more common slang expressions.

However, it is important to learn the proper context and use of even popular slang expressions or you may come across as confusing, disrespectful, or uneducated.
At ChineseClass101, you’ll learn how to use slang phrases and words to draw the right attention and avoid these problems.

Don’t forget to sign up for a Free Lifetime Account on to access tons of FREE lessons and features to become fluent in Chinese!

Mini Chinese Lesson: Titles for People

Learn Chinese with ChineseClass101!

In this mini lesson, we teach you some  ‘titles’ you will frequently come across in Chinese.

Some titles are used for family members.  The reference point for those older or younger is oneself.  Other titles are used for people with certain positions or occupations.  Others are more like terms of endearment.  This week we started with family members:

  • In the family:  ‘lil bro:  弟弟  (dìdi) – younger brother
  • In the family:  big bro:  哥哥  (gēge) – older brother
  • In the family:   big sis:  姐姐  (jiějie) – older sister
  • In the family:  ‘lil sis:  妹妹(mèimei) – younger sister
  • In the family:  mommy dearest:  妈妈 (māma) - mom
  • In the family:  dad knows best:  爸爸 (bàba) - dad
  • In the family:  not kissing cousins:  表哥(biǎogē) – older male cousin

Want to learn even more Chinese?
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Test Your China Knowledge

The focus of this lesson is to test your knowledge about China. This lesson will build your basic knowledge of China by quizzing you on 5 areas of Knowledge: Geography, Pop Culture, Travel, Economics and Myth Busting!! Are you ready?

1)What percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people live in urban areas?
A) 10% 
B) 40%
C) 50%
D) 90%

2)China has the following number of provinces:

3)Following are three famous Chinese people. One is a famous singer, one a politician, and one a sports star. Match the person with their profession:
王菲 刘翔 胡锦涛
(Liú Xiáng)(Wáng Fēi) (athlete) 
(Hú Jǐntāo) (politician) (singer)

4) Rank in correct order the most popular travel destination in China:
Shanghai Beijing Xi’an 

5) What year did the economic reforms that transformed China’s economy into a market-oriented economy take place in?

6) Fortune cookies originated in China. True or False? Read the rest of this post »

Top 6 Must-Know Phrases (one for getting out of trouble…)

The following are 6 essential phrases guaranteed to be the best thing you ever learned in Chinese!

  1. 谢谢 (xièxie)  “Thanks.” The Chinese aren’t big on ‘please’, but they love thank you so much that they’ll often hit you with a barrage of it, ‘xiexiexiexiexiexiexiexie’.
  2. 听不懂 (tīngbùdǒng) “I don’t understand what you are saying.” This phrase is going to be your best friend, go-to and solace. 
  3. 你好 (nǐhǎo) “hello” If you don’t know it yet, we don’t know where you’ve been.
  4. 不知道 (bù zhīdào) “I don’t know.” You may hear this phrase more than use it, however learn from the Chinese how to bu zhidao every situation you wish to evade, play dumb about, or avoid.
  5. 不好意思 (bùhǎoyìsi) “Sorry.”  Buhaoyisi literally means ‘bad feeling’, and can be used to apologize to all the dainty toes your oversized foreign feet will step on in the crowded subway, to repent over some cultural faux pas you likely don’t know you’ve committed, or to just curry favor, in general.
  6. 让一下 (ràng yīxià) “Let me through.”  Buhaoyisi’s slightly stronger cousin. Use this when you’re trapped in a subway car and can’t get out, or stymied in your efforts to crowd-worm through a city of 18 million people.

There you go.  Just don’t blame us if #4 doesn’t work ;)

Top 5 MUST-Know Chinese Phrases

The following are 5 essential phrases guaranteed to be the best thing you ever learned in Chinese!

谢谢 (xièxie)  “Thanks.” The Chinese aren’t big on ‘please’, but they love thank you so much that they’ll often hit you with a barrage of it, ‘xiexiexiexiexiexiexiexie’.

听 不懂 (tīngbùdǒng) “I don’t understand what you are saying.” This phrase is going to be your best friend, go-to and solace.

你好 (nǐhǎo) “hello” If you don’t know it yet, we don’t know where you’ve been.

不 知道 (bù zhīdào) “I don’t know.” You may hear this phrase more than use it, however learn from the Chinese how to bu zhidao every situation you wish to evade, play dumb about, or avoid.

不好意思 (bùhǎoyìsi) “Sorry.”  Buhaoyisi literally means ‘bad feeling’, and can be used to apologize to all the dainty toes your oversized foreign feet will step on in the crowded subway, to repent over some cultural faux pas you likely don’t know you’ve committed, or to just curry favor, in general.

让 一下 (ràng yīxià) “Let me through.”  Buhaoyisi’s slightly stronger cousin. Use this when you’re trapped in a subway car and can’t get out, or stymied in your efforts to crowd-worm through a city of 18 million people.

We know we said top 5 phrases but all of these words are so important and usefull, we thought we would include all 6!

Learning Chinese Pronunciation Part 2

There are only six vowels used in pinyin, but they are combined to produce a lot of different sounds. we have a pinyin chart with clickable mp3 records of each of the sounds, to aid you in perfecting the pronunciation in the full lesson on

One of the more difficult Chinese vowel is the ‘u’ vowel sound. This ‘u’ sound is quite a nasal sound. It is said to be similar to the French ‘u’ and is made by pronouncing an ‘i’ when rounding the mouth.

Chinese has four different tones they are, five including the neutral tone:

  • The first tone is high and steady: ‘mā’
  • The second tone is a rising tone: ‘má’ and has intonation similar that that used in English to indicate a question, i.e. ‘huh?’
  • The third tone dips down slightly in the middle: ‘mǎ’. You can feel a slight vibration at the base of your throat when you are doing it correctly.
  • The fourth tone is falling, and falling fast. Sounds slightly angrier than the rest. ‘mà’.
  • Then we have the Switzerland of tones, being the neutral tone. Which is a relief, because it’s just… well. Neutral. No tone. ‘ma’.

There are some special circumstances that occur with certain combinations of tones that are together in a compound word or sentence. When two or more third tone characters occur in a row, the last of these remains a third tone, while the one(s) before it change to the second tone. If there are more than two third tones in a row, the final third tone in each series
remains a third tone, while the rest become 2nd tone.

Learning Chinese Pronunciation Part 1

The focus of this lesson is to learn about Chinese pronunciation.

Each Chinese character can be said to be a syllable. These syllables can be a stand-alone word, or they can be grouped together to make compound words. Each syllable, or character, in Chinese is made up of an initial and a final sound. These intials and finals can be combined to make up around 400 unique word sounds in Chinese.

Chinese uses a phonetic system called ‘pinyin’ to aid learners of Chinese in pronunciation. This pinyin uses Romanized letters to represent the sounds of Chinese. There are 21 initials in Chinese. This is the sound the word starts with. There are about 38 combinations of final sounds.

Some of the letters used to represent the sounds of Chinese are similar in pronunciation to their English counterparts. However there are some that are different. The ones that give some people trouble sometimes are as follows:

Z - the difference with the english ‘z’ is that this sound is made with your tongue touching the back of your upper teeth. This results in a more ‘dz’ sound.

C - sometimes confused with the ‘z’ sound, the ‘c’ is aspirated whereas the ‘z’ is not. Aspirated means that you let air out when producing this sound.

Zh -to make this sound the tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge. It has a similar sound to the English ‘j’, but the retroflexive nature makes it much thicker.

CH - is similar to the English ‘Ch’ however the tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge, as it is in the ‘zh’.

SH - is similar to the English ’sh’ however the tip of the tongue is raised against the back of the gum ridge, as it is in the ‘zh’ and ‘ch’.

X - it also seems similar to the English ’sh’ but it is in fact produced quite differently. You raise your tongue up and let the air squeeze out.

Q - it is in the range of the English ‘ch’ but different in that it is also produced in the same way as the x. you raise your tongue and let the air squeeze out.

R - this one is tough. Nothing like the English ‘r’, don’t be fooled by the use of the letter ‘r’. again, curled tongue, a zee-ish phenomenon.

Learn Chinese Direct from Beijing with

Dear Chinese Students,

Today we’re pleased to announce the launch of This is a joint project between Popup Chinese and the folks at Innovative Language Learning.

If you’re familiar with the Innovative Language approach to teaching, you’ll know the strength of their materials has always been tight, step-by-step progressive lessons for beginners. At Popup Chinese, we’ve historically geared our materials towards more advanced students, so when we had the chance to cooperate with the Innovative team and work together to build something that could take advantage of the powerful system they’ve already built we leapt at the chance, and began work designing a focused and stepwise program for Mandarin instruction.

Although a few hints leaked out (*ahem*), for the past few months we’ve worked somewhat stealthily to build the best team possible for the task. You’ll find our progressive beginner lessons hosted by none other than the famous Frank Fradella. Other big names on our roster are Amber Scorah and of course everyone on our existing team like Echo Yao and Brendan O’Kane. This is a great team and I can say with confidence I’ve never worked with a stronger one. With more than 100 lessons on the new site, our content is off to a good start too. As Frank said once after a marathon recording session, “our first twenty lessons here teach more than I learned in a whole year studying elsewhere.”

We think this is a great step forward and look forward to hearing your feedback and thoughts as well. It is definitely a major step forward for Chinese language education online. There’s never been a better time to learn Chinese, or a better way to learn it online. Regardless of whether you’re an advanced independent learner or a total newbie, we hope you’ll enjoy the work we’ll be doing both here and at ChineseClass101. Thanks for your support, and 加油 everyone!

Best from Beijing,

David Lancashire

Best from New York,

Amber Scorah