Most efficient way to learn Chinese quickly

I signed up for a spring semester Mandarin course at a university and have a month or so to spare before the course begins. I am willing to spend this time with private tuition but the money should be spent efficiently, meaning:-

  1. The tutor’s prices should be fair. What are the ballpark figures for Mandarin tutor prices in the North, Center and South? How can I find a good teacher?

  2. When the Spring semester starts, whatever I have learnt up to then should merge preferably seamlessly with the curriculum we will be taught. So I guess I should aim to complete, in this time, a HSK level or so under private tuition?

  3. Do you recommend me asking the university’s Chinese course center to see if a teacher there is willing to teach me privately? I expect them to be more familiar with the syllabus and what are the more common beginner levels to reach, so that there will be a class at my level for me when the semester starts, and I won’t be put in a class that is too easy or advanced.

  4. The tempo of the private lessons should be appropriate. Not too many so that I end up saturated, and not to few that I am not challenged. Please assume I am of average aptitude at picking up languages, although I am prepared to devote all my time to whatever work the teacher gives me to do. How many lessons a week should I do, and for how long?

  5. How did you learn the language? I took a few lessons with simplified Chinese using the pinyin system abroad but do not remember much of it.

I want to learn the whole gamut of the language - reading, handwriting, typing, listening and speaking.

Well I’ve been ranting on this topic across Forumosa for a while now, to the point where I think I could make some serious money if I got in front of a camera and shouted about it on YouTube, so here are my replies:

Anywhere you look, the average has gone up in the past month or so from ~NT$650/hr for online now to more like ~NT$750/hr. Plenty of private companies are more in the ~NT$950-$1200 range. ICLP has private tutoring for NT$2,400/50 minute class, with a minimum of 20 class hours. If you go on Italki, there are plenty of people on there willing to take USD$10/hr (~NT$300)

As for how to find a good teacher, if you search anything related to “learning Chinese” on here, you will find a lot more about bad teachers than good ones.

If you know exactly what you need from your lessons and how you need to be taught to learn well, you want someone that has little to no experience. (think Italki “community tutors”) That way, you can present them with what you want to work on and guide them in how to teach you.

If you’re a total beginner, see if Terry Waltz is offering classes. If she isn’t, make sure you find someone that teachers you spoken language in a meaningful way before they start trying to get you to read and write. You will waste your time if you try doing all four skills from the very beginning. Chinese is not hard, but most teachers make it impossibly difficult by telling you that pinyin is a crutch, complaining about how your grammar structures sound too American, and that your tones are all wrong. Rather than address that by providing you with (aural) language needed to be able to produce accurate language, most teachers will tell it’s your fault, spend a lot of time explaining to you why you’re wrong (using English), and drill your language instead of giving you more opportunities to HEAR it. If your teacher focuses on inputting sufficient meaningful, spoken language before ever expecting output, you won’t have these problems.

Are you taking university classes in Chinese? If so, you’ll need to be at least at an HSK 4, if not 5 or even 6(+), to be able to read the texts in a university classroom. Being incredibly realistic with you, this cannot be accomplished in a month. If you have a teacher that actually teaches you in an effective way and really knows what they’re doing, and you read an enormous amount of texts on your own (that you can actually understand without looking up every other word), you might be able to read ~HSK 2 without too much difficulty in a month. But that would require a really competent teacher and a lot of well-implemented self-study on your own too.

If you’re taking Mandarin classes and you just have some time to burn, you’ll probably want to work through 當代中文 (A Course in Contemporary Chinese), as that’s the book that basically all the training centers use. They recently released their most recent version and each level from 1-3 is broken into three separate books (making them lots of money, but perhaps to make it more convenient for you to pop in at a higher or lower level?)

Most universities have Mandarin Centers (of various names). They will probably charge you ~NT$750/hr and the teacher will get a small fraction of that. Those teachers will probably be very familiar with the content of the Chinese textbooks and how to explain the grammar and use the vocabulary in them, but that’s very different from knowing how to teach it to you in a way that allows you to apply it in your daily life or actually acquire the language, which should be your goal. Probably anyone with 當代中文 (A Course in Contemporary Chinese) and Chinese proficiency can muddle their way through the first few chapters with you. How much of the language you will acquire will be entirely dependent on how much other input of the related language you get. As I have ranted many, many times on here, most Chinese programs involve you being handed a text that is way beyond your comprehension level and then expecting you to go and memorize all the stuff you didn’t comprehend by memorizing the vocabulary. This doesn’t work, but it’s “how it’s always been done”.

How much time you are willing to spend on Chinese is going to be up to you. Everyone is of “average” aptitude for learning a language, but if you’re being given texts that are too hard for you (more than one or two new words tops), you will think you’re an idiot while you struggle along. I find that 30 minutes daily of 1:1 class is my limit for time with a language teacher. I know I could last an hour or even do 4 hours of class a day, but at some point, diminishing returns kick in. This is especially true if you plan on doing any self-study. The more time you spend with a teacher being directed on what to do, the less time you have to explore the language on your own.

For learning on one’s own (assuming you don’t have a teacher who uses comprehensible input)
Step 1: listen to the audio recording (no text in front of you!) a few times
Step 2: listen to the audio recording while looking at the pinyin (only, no characters at this step)
Step 3: listen again, following along with the pinyin, at least 2 more times
Step 4: look up the meaning of the words you didn’t understand
Step 5: listen again, again following along with the pinyin, probably at least 5 more times.
Step 6: Find another text that has almost exactly the same content but slightly different and do the above again.
Step 7: Once you’re very familiar with the sounds of what you’ve heard from those texts, find a speaker of that language to practice only that language with
Step 8: Once that language is solidly in your brain, read the text with the characters. Do not look at the characters until you’ve made a solid sound-meaning association in your brain.

The above assumes you’re learning on your own and staring from basically zero. If you have a tutor, look up TPRS and teach your tutor how to “circle” for you. Have them ask you “yes/no”, “either/or”, and Wh+how questions about every line of text (in Chinese, obviously). Look up Terry Waltz and all her research on the topic for more information. I am excessively oversimplifying things with my above description.

Take it one step at a time. Learn to listen for understanding before speaking. Learn to speak before learning to read. Know the pinyin (because you followed along with it when you did your listening!) before you ever go near characters. Learn to read before learning to write.
If you take things in that order, you open yourself up to more opportunities than doing it in any other direction. Listening skills are necessary before you can develop speaking skills. The more you listen to the language, the better all the following skills will be. Having a sound-meaning association is necessary before you can connect the “scribbles” of Chinese characters to any meaning. Knowing what the characters look like is obviously needed before you can start to write them. And you can’t type Chinese if you don’t know the precise pinyin or zhuyin (there’s only one correct way to spell Chinese words in pinyin/zhuyin. If you’re off slightly, you won’t find the character you’re looking for.)

Best of luck!


Wow, thank you for your comprehensive reply. I just wanted to clarify this:

I am planning on taking a Mandarin course at a university. I’ve now clarified this in my OP. So the other students there would be in a similar boat to myself, and the working assumption of the teachers would be that our Mandarin is a work in progress.

There is axiom I use in Language Teaching: fast is slow … slow is fast. Pace yourself appropriately so that the language stretches you but doesn’t frustrate you. And make sure to get outside the classroom to hear it used by people every day. Most students vastly overestimate what they can accomplish in one day but fail to understand the cumulative “snowball” effects of extended learning.


Great advice. I also do this, though my listening is by far my worst skill.
I don’t have any access to listening live to people, so I use youtubes, but have to slow them down if speaking at full speed and not teaching classes.

I’m also planning to go to a uni to study Mandarin. (next month in fact)
I’ve been on there online for 6 months so far.
My goodness, the teacher speaks fast on the latest semester :joy: