On Twitter I mention every now and then that I am studying Chinese during lunch time or late at night. Because of that I sometimes get mails from people asking me advice on how to best study Chinese. I am no expert in that field, but maybe it helps some readers when I explain how I do it myself. My approach is quite digital, there are a lot of tools out there nowadays that make studying a lot more easy.
Over the past years I had a lot of tutors and even spent a semester at Beijing Foreign Studies University. Right now I spend most time studying on my own at home, but I also have a private teacher about once a week. At the moment I mainly focus on reading and on listening comprehension. A lot of that you can do without a private teacher, especially with digital tools. Because of memorizing new words and characters, I spend more time on reading than on listening.
For reading I use a book with short texts and a list of new or difficult words after each text. These books are easy to find in a Chinese language book store, just make sure the level is right for you (better too low than too high). If I read with a tutor we normally discuss all the new words first; she especially gives me examples of other words in which these characters appear, so that I can remember them more easily. Then we read the text, which goes relatively quickly because she can help me if I don’t immediately recognize a character or if I don’t know the meaning of it.
When I study on my own I used to make heavy use of a dictionary, but a few weeks ago I started using the Pleco iPhone app. This new free app is fantastic, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch and study Chinese you should give it a try. I can very quickly look up characters that I don’t know, and when I go through a list of new words I can use the pinyin to quickly find other uses of a certain character. Too bad that Pleco does not have flashcards built in yet, but I understand that feature will come soon.
Another iPhone app that I use heavily for studying is the ChinesePod app. The app itself is free, but it’s only useful if you are a paid member of Chinespod.com. Of course I am, because I use Chinesepod a lot for listening comprehension. The ChinesePod app also contains a dictionary, but is not as comprehensive as the Pleco one. What I like about the ChinesePod app, is that you get several sample sentences where the character or word is used. By reading these I normally learn some other new words as well, and you get a good grasp of how the character is being used. I normally use the Pleco and ChinesePod apps at the same time, on an iPhone and on an iPod Touch because Apple still does not let you run 2 apps at the same time, and that works great for me.
For my listening comprehension I listen to about one ChinesePod lesson per week. These lessons are about 15 minutes with a 2-3 minute dialogue in it. You can listen to them without the need for a tutor, because difficult words are explained in the lesson and you can also read the dialogue online at ChinesePod.com. For me it’s the most convenient way to do listening comprehension, because you can always play the dialogue wherever you are. I often listen while running or while driving back home from work, either online on my laptop or after downloading it on my iPhone (through iTunes or with a one-click download on the site). The ChinesePod app makes the site even more useful, because all new words that you select automatically end up in your set of flashcards on your iPhone. So when I have to wait somewhere for a few minutes I can spend those minutes in a useful way by reviewing some characters.
I don’t do much writing, I used to be able to write about 1000 characters when I studied Chinese, but over the years I forgot how to write many of them. I try to focus on recognizing characters, which takes only 1/3 of the time of both reading and writing them. I have a Wacom tablet that I sometimes use with the ChinesePod Skritter application to write some characters, but only for characters that I otherwise would keep forgetting.
If you want to focus more on speaking I would advise you to give italki.com a try (full disclosure: I am a small angel investor in this company). It’s a great free site full of resources for learning Chinese, and actually also for many other languages. You can find a large number of language partners and professional teachers, who can teach you the language online (normally through Skype). If it’s difficult to find a Chinese teacher, for example because you don’t live in China, this is an easy and affordable way to find one and start regular lessons.
I hope this helps some of my readers. Chinese is not an easy language to learn, but with the right tools it will be an easier and more fun experience.