How to start learning Chinese for absolute beginners – HSK 1 – HSK 3

How to start learning Chinese for absolute beginners – HSK 1 – HSK 3

It recently occurred to me that I’ve been studying Chinese for just around two years now, with a one year hiatus in-between. Although I’ve still got a long way to go before I’m close to being fluent, I feel proud of what I’ve learned — not only about learning Chinese, but learning languages in general.

I’ve written this post to share everything I’ve learned about going from zero to what I’ll call an “advanced beginner.” I’m probably still shy of even having lower intermediate proficiency, but I I think I’ll likely get there towards the end of this year. With all that said, let’s jump into it!

Reasons for learning Chinese

This is arguably the most important thing to reflect on before getting into specific techniques, tactics, and learning strategies. Learning Chinese takes a lot of time, is very frustrating, and also incredibly rewarding if you can stick with it. Although there’s nothing wrong with jumping into it and seeing how you like it, it’s also useful to reflect on what your reasons for learning are. Here are my top four.

It’s fun and magical

This is probably my number 1 reason. Beyond any practical outcome, the process of slowly deciphering a language that’s totally alien to you is magical! This is especially true for Chinese which has no alphabet, four tones (we’ll get into this later), and a few other attributes that are significantly different from what you see in English.

The ability to understand Chinese media

There’s a parallel universe of Chinese content that you can progressively access more of, as you continue to develop your language proficiency. This includes movies and TV shows, news, social media apps, and distinctly Chinese parallels to just about everything in the Western media landscape.

Related: How I entered a Mandarin Singing contest and won a “Best Stage and Appearance” award

Novelty and undeserved credit

Speaking Mandarin is still a relatively uncommon skill in the West, so you’ll frequently receive a lot of credit for knowing literally anything. When I spoke two words of Mandarin at a Chinese restaurant (before I’d ever taken a lesson), the staff there seemed amazed. If I could speak two words and receive that kind of reception, what would it be like if I could speak Mandarin fluently? This was the thought that eventually propelled me to sign up for my first formal class of Mandarin Chinese.

Preparing for a shift in power to the East

At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that America is being contested for the position of the world’s most powerful country by China. I’m not sure of exactly how the world will be different in the next 5-10 years, but I know it will be. Learning Chinese is a long-term investment to be at least somewhat prepared for that.

Breaking down the Chinese language

There are a few important points that differentiate Chinese from English. It’s important to keep these in mind, because they have a huge impact on the approach you’ll take to start learning.

Unlike English, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Each word is made up of one or more characters that you need to memorize. In order to achieve a baseline of conversational fluency, you’ll need to learn around 2,500 words.

There’s also a romanization system for Mandarin called Pinyin, which is used to teach Mandarin pronunciation for beginners. For example, the character for the word “beautiful”, 漂亮, can be expressed in Pinyin as piàoliang.

If you’re wondering what the mark above the “a” is, that brings us to the next point! Each character in Mandarin has one of 4 tones (plus the “no tone” silent tone). These tones are denoted by the marks you see above the words. Consider all of the possible tones for “ma” — mā, má, mǎ, mà, ma. The tones you use matter! For examples, 问 (wèn) means “to ask” while 吻 (wěn) means “kiss”.

This video covers the 5 basic Chinese tones.

Creating a learning path

Although there are a few different systems for learning Chinese, the most popular one is the HSK system. Created by China’s Ministry of Education, the HSK breaks down the path to fluency into six clearly defined stages. Here’s a chart that outlines the different levels and what they mean.

New HSK levels for learning Chinese - GoEast Mandarin
There are 6 HSK levels, each roughly corresponding to a certain fluency level.

Each level corresponds to a certain level of language proficiency. To pass each test you need to not only memorize the vocabulary for that level, but also apply it through a series of reading, listening, and (eventually) writing exercises. As you pass each level, reaching the next one becomes progressively more difficult. Going from HSK 1 to HSK 2 requires learning 150 new words, while going from HSK 5 to HSK 6 demands that you learn 2500 new words.

Although the HSK tests are great goal posts to shoot for, I wouldn’t call the HSK system a perfect curriculum by any means. The most notable deficiency is that it has zero emphasis on actually speaking Mandarin. You heard that right! Even the HSK tests themselves don’t have a speaking component. While the HSK system is great for developing vocabulary and reading ability, it’s lacking when it comes to speaking. There’s a separate series of tests called the HSKK exams to test your speaking ability, but they don’t fully line up with the curriculum outlined in the HSK system. Instead of levels one to six, you have three different levels — beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

Following the HSK curriculum to a tee is essentially the textbook way of learning Chinese. Although you’ll learn a lot, you’ll also miss out on developing an understanding of the culture, communicating naturally, learning to read longer texts, and in general, having fun with the process of learning.

If I had to peg my HSK level, I’d say that I’m somewhere between HSK 3 and HSK 4 for vocabulary, and somewhere between HSK 2 and HSK 3 for reading and speaking. I wrote (and passed) practice exams from previous years for HSK 1 and HSK 2, but stopped after that. After that point, I felt like I couldn’t fully rely on the HSK system to develop a deep, comprehensive understanding of the language in all key areas (reading, speaking, listening, writing).

For the rest of this blog, I’ll focus on the most efficient way to study HSK levels 1 to 3, which takes you from absolute beginner to someone that can communicate with basic sentences, and even read simple Chinese books!

Going from beginner to beginner-ish

I started learning Chinese the way a lot of people do — through a formal university class. In my case, at The University of British Columbia where I was completing my undergraduate degree in finance. Although taking classes was awesome for meeting friends and taking on fun challenges (i.e the Mandarin singing contest), I’m now fairly confident that this is not the best way to start learning Chinese. Here’s why:

  1. University Chinese classes have a lot of emphasis on learning how to write characters by hand. This is incredibly time consuming and frankly unnecessary, given that typing (on a pinyin keyboard) is sufficient for handling 98% of tasks that will come your way. In the beginning, learning vocabulary, speaking, and reading is a better use of your time.
  2. The methods used to absorb vocabulary in traditional classes are fairly slow. The target for the end of my first semester (4 months) was learning 150 words. I’m now fairly certain that you can learn the same amount of vocabulary in two weeks if you self-study efficiently.
  3. Nearly all of your learning will follow a textbook like Integrated Chinese or the HSK Standard Course, which blends vocabulary building, reading practice, speaking practice and listening practice into chapter-by-chapter exercises. This combined approach results in learning each piece of the language (speaking, writing, listening, reading) in a suboptimal way.

Instead, I’d recommend creating your own curriculum.

Building vocabulary and learning to read

For learning vocabulary, I use It is by far the fastest way to effectively build, and retain your Chinese vocabulary. They use a SRS- based method (spaced repetition system) to help you drill your vocabulary. This method has widely been reported as the most efficient ways to memorize anything. By spending just 10 to 20 minutes per day on HackChinese, you should have no problem learning 5-10 words per day.

Reviewing vocabulary with HackChinese.

After you’ve gotten to 150 words, rather than parsing textbook dialogues to improve your reading skills, I’d recommend that you start reading simple Chinese novels. Wait, what? How can you do that with a 150 word vocabulary? Fortunately, this is a case where things aren’t too good to be true!

Mandarin Companion publishes graded reader novels that help beginners learn Chinese by reading real stories, written completely in Chinese! Some of my favorites include The Misadventures of Zhou Haisheng and Xiao Ming, Boy Sherlock. Each book starts with a fixed vocabulary that you’re expected to know, and introduces new words along the way (complete with English definitions).

A page from The Misadventures of Zhou Haisheng, one of my favorite Mandarin Companion novels.

The novels for the first level (breakthrough, or level 0) only require a vocabulary of 150 words, while level 1 requires 300 words and level 2 requires 450 words. These levels are made to correspond to the various HSK levels, so HSK 1 = breakthrough level, HSK 2 = level 1, HSK 2.5 (halfway between HSK 2 and HSK 3) = level 2.

As you’re reading the breakthrough level books, you’ll want to continue learning new characters through HackChinese. As you’re reading the breakthrough level novels, you’ll be studying words 151 – 300 to prepare for level 1 books, and as you’re reading level 1 books, you’ll be studying words 301 – 450 to prepare for reading the level 2 books.

If you follow this system, you’ll scale your vocabulary quickly, immediately put it to use, and naturally absorb a lot of the grammar points along the way. That said, I’d still recommend familiarizing yourself with the grammar points for each HSK level. If you arrive at particular sentence and you have no idea what it means despite knowing all of the words, you should refer back to the AllSet grammar wiki hyperlinked above. Textbooks like Integrated Chinese and HSK Standard Course can be also be very useful here, since they cover grammar points in-depth complete with numerous examples and detailed explanations.You can also use Google Translate when you get stuck, but I’d recommend sitting on anything that doesn’t make sense before immediately trying to translate it.

Speaking and listening

Developing your skill in these two areas is (in my opinion) more difficult than learning to read. Whereas building vocabulary and reading can be developed in isolation, learning to speak requires working with others. I’ve found my ability to listen to others is now satisfactory, but my speaking still needs a lot of work. Keeping in mind that i’m not an expert, here are my recommendations on what you can do to improve your speaking and listening skills.

Tandem is an awesome, free app that allows you to find language learning partners. If you’re fluent in English and want to learn Mandarin Chinese, you’ll be matched people looking for the opposite. Tandem also has an excellent set of features that allows you to translate, or transliterate (convert Chinese characters to Pinyin) any message in-app. When you come across a message or character you don’t fully understand, you can use these features to bridge your gap in understanding, without bouncing back and forth between Google Translate.

A screenshot of one of my conversations on Tandem.

Tandem is awesome because it allows you to have real conversations with real people. Although a lot of folks use Tandem purely for texting, it’s also pretty common to have conversations over voice notes. If you’re interested in practicing your speaking skills but are hesitant about doing live calls right away, voice note chats are an excellent in-between method. If you don’t know how to respond to a particular message (or have difficulties pronouncing it), you can use Google Translate to look it up before responding with a voice note.

The other resource that I’d strongly recommend is a teacher! Teachers have experience actually teaching the language to people, as opposed to Tandem partners who are just native speakers trying their best. There’s no shortage of independent Mandarin teachers out there on websites like iTalki, but I’ve had my best experience with a teacher from LTL Language School. They’re one of the most well known Mandarin schools for foreigners, and they were personally recommended to me by the founder of, Daniel Nalesnik.

For my lessons, I focused exclusively on speaking. With reading and vocabulary-building covered through and Mandarin Companion, I didn’t feel the need to spend time during my lessons reviewing these areas. I initially started out with two lessons per week (1 hour each), but gradually transitioned to 1 per week as other commitments made it more difficult to carve out two evenings per week. I took lessons for about 3 months, and thought the experience was very positive.

My Chinese listening skills improved dramatically, largely due to my Mandarin teacher speaking at a normal pace that I eventually adapted to. I also grew more comfortable with speaking, but found that I frequently had trouble constructing proper sentences or felt that my vocabulary was too limited to express what I really wanted to say. At the end of those three months, I decided to take a pause on additional lessons until I could expand my vocabulary.


I don’t have any great advice to provide here, given that outside of limited texting on Tandem, I haven’t practiced writing too much. Part of this is because I haven’t found a fun way to do it (yet)! While speaking can be practiced with a teacher, reading can be practiced with Mandarin companion novels and building vocabulary can be fun if you’re using HackChinese, I haven’t yet found the equivalent set of exercises for writing. Like speaking practice, this is an area where working closely with a teacher might be the best option.

Closing thoughts

I wrote this post as a way to share everything I’ve learned about learning Chinese, from zero until now. My hope is that some (or a lot) of this advice helps you learn the language more efficiently. Within a year, I’m also hoping to push out another post on going from HSK 4 – 5 (intermediate), and another post on HSK 5 to 6 (advanced) one year after that. If you have any questions or would like to connect, please feel free to email me at [email protected]!

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