If you dream of becoming fluent in Chinese, but you have absolutely no money to spend on the endeavour, then you probably need a job.
However, I understand that times are tough, and life isn’t that simple.
That’s why I’m making this whopping list of free resources you can use to learn Mandarin Chinese!
But that’s not the only good news I’m bringing you…
Learning Mandarin Chinese to an advanced level can be done for free. Seriously. There are a few tools and resources out there worth paying for (and I mention them in other posts quite often), but many of the best, most effective resources for learning Chinese are completely free.
Don’t believe me? Let me show you.
Oh, and if you’d rather watch a video instead of read the following blog post, you can check it out below.
Free Chinese Newbie Learner Apps
To give a very brief summary, Duolingo (and a few other similar apps listed below) are a solid introduction to Mandarin Chinese for total newbies. It’s a completely free app, easy to use, and isn’t a huge time commitment.
The app might get abused by snooty polyglot headbangers and people on Reddit, but the reality is it’s a fine app for beginners to get a feel for the language and learn basic vocabulary and grammar patterns.
It won’t take you much further than that, but that’s OK.
There are plenty more suggestions for intermediate+ learners below, as well as other ideas for newbies.
Other free apps that basically do the same thing as Duolingo are:
If you’re a complete newbie to Mandarin Chinese, get started with one of the apps above.
Free Online Dictionaries
The best dictionary app (or any app for learning Mandarin Chinese) for English/Mandarin is Pleco. It’s not just an English/Mandarin dictionary app, it’s like an overlord app with many apps in one.
The dictionary is free, but with the Basic Bundle, you’ll have to pay for the add ons such as the OCR text reader, flashcard function, handwriting recogniser, document reader, and more.
If I had only 30 dollars to spend on learning Mandarin Chinese, I’d buy the Pleco Basic Bundle.
Most of the Chinese/English dictionary apps out there follow a ‘freemium’ model, but for dictionary purposes only, the following free apps will do just fine:
There are quite a few comprehensive ‘non-app’ online dictionaries, too.
SRS (spaced repetition software) flashcard apps are pretty popular among language learners these days, and although utilising SRS isn’t essential to learn Mandarin Chinese, it’s very, very useful.
Basically, SRS apps or sites will show you cards at systematic intervals, meaning you acquire information (in this case, Chinese characters or sentences) much faster than you would otherwise.
Now, some purists complain about using flashcards for language learning, as they believe flashcards of individual words don’t offer an essential context for learning new language.
I’ve even written a post about this issue myself – Flashcards in Language Learning: Are They Worth Your Time?
They might have a point. However, there are two main reasons I think SRS flashcard apps are good for learning Mandarin Chinese specifically.
- Mandarin Chinese is a pictographic language. There are thousands of different characters to learn and remember, not 20-30 letters of an alphabet. There is no alphabet in Mandarin Chinese.
- Because flashcards work. It really is that simple. They definitely shouldn’t be your only resource for learning, after all, nobody has ever become fluent in a language just by flipping through flashcards. However, if you want to acquire a lot of new language quite quickly, flashcards will help you do that.
Free SRS Apps
- Anki – Probably the best and most popular flashcard app out there due to the huge number of customisation options on cards and pre-made decks. Anki is totally free for Android, but there’s a $25 price tag for iPhone users. I have the app on my iPhone. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
- Brainscape – Some say that using Anki feels a bit like using Windows 98, but Brainscape is like using a modern app. I stay loyal to Anki, but Brainscape’s free version is totally fine. You’ll have to upgrade if you want to add images or sound to your cards.
- Quizlet – A free, basic flashcard app. You can make your own cards and decks for free (this is important) or pay for pre-made decks.
- Memrise – Memrise does things a bit differently, in the sense it tries to gamify your learning a bit more. It’ll test you on words with different types of cards and offer multiple choice style questions. It’s still very effective, but not quite the same as a regular flashcard app. Memrise has a huge database of pre-made study lists, and you can make your own for free.
There are two strategic uses for flashcards when learning Mandarin Chinese:
- Learning individual characters and words.
- Sentence mining to learn new characters, words, grammar and language patterns.
Sentence mining can be done by learners of all levels, but most learners start doing it when they reach the high-beginner phase.
Sentence mining has proven to be very useful for those crossing the huge plains of confusion and uncertainty, AKA, the intermediate level.
Basically, sentence mining is using flashcards to study sentences instead of individual words.
This has many benefits including:
- Learning new characters and words in context.
- Learning new grammar patterns.
- Improving listening and speaking (you can shadow/parrot the sentences).
- Improving general fluency.
The two best free apps for sentence mining are:
- Anki – Loads of pre-made sentence decks but very easy to create your own. I’d recommend creating your own sentences based off your current learning material.
- Speechling – Basically a free version of the overpriced Glossika. You can’t make your own cards with Speechling, but it’s still a great app if you don’t mind learning pre-made sentences.
There is a crazy amount of high-quality learning material on YouTube for Mandarin Chinese.
I’ve compiled an epic list of YouTube channels in 57 of the Best YouTube Channels for Learning Mandarin Chinese.
However, if I was only allowed to recommend one channel for learners of Mandarin Chinese, it would have to be Mandarin Corner.
Mandarin Corner has content for beginner-intermediate learners and includes HSK vocab lists, grammar lists with examples, street interviews, other interviews, and discussions about interesting topics. All of the videos are subtitled in English and Mandarin.
Seriously, you could find everything you need from this channel alone.
Free Online Courses
The free online courses available for Mandarin Chinese aren’t the best out there. However, this doesn’t matter if your desire is strong and you’re willing to learn. Many of them can still get the job done, particularly for those looking to learn the basics.
Foreign Service Institute – Definitely the most thorough and ‘meaty’ free course out there. However, it must be said it’s hardly the most riveting learning content. Still, this course could take you very far, and most importantly, it’s free.
The Defense Language Institute – These courses are similar to the FSI in the sense they won’t ‘set your world on fire’, but there’s a lot of useful learning content.
I Love Learning Chinese – The best free audio course I’ve seen/heard. Loads of material, all with free downloadable pdf transcripts, and the podcasts are downloadable for free as well. 7 levels from complete beginner to high-beginner/lower intermediate.
MIT – A database of loads of previously taught class material.
50 Languages – 100 mini lessons of vocab and basic phrases.
Coursera – Offered by Peking University through Coursera, this course has about 21 hours of learning material taking you through the very basics of Mandarin Chinese.
China Education Center – 32 lessons introducing basic dialogue and vocab.
Consuming media in your target language is one of the best ways to learn the said language. Mandarin Chinese is no different… I mean, it’s a little different, in the sense a lot of Chinese media is pretty awful.
However, if you look hard enough, you will definitely find something you enjoy. If you don’t want to look hard enough, then don’t worry. I’ve done all of the hard work for you!
The following articles contain a whopping collection of books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts in Mandarin Chinese for you to enjoy, many of which are completely free! (except for the books)
- 89 Awesome Chinese Books for Learners of Mandarin Chinese
- Learn Mandarin with Film | 101 Awesome Chinese and Taiwanese Movies
- 100+ Podcasts for Learning Chinese | Beginner to Advanced Material
- 101 TV Shows for Chinese Learners | Drama, Action, Comedy, and More!
If you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, at some point you’re going to want to practice what you’ve learned with another Chinese speaker.
Online tutors are a good choice, but you’re going to have to pay for them. The free alternative is to try language exchange.
Now, there are two main things to keep in mind when using a language exchange app:
- It’s harder to find a good quality language partner than it is to find a good online teacher. Remember, money isn’t involved with a language partner which means a lot more flaky, wish-washy partners.
- Language exchange apps are often used as dating apps. This works both ways, by the way. For every creepy guy on these apps there is definitely a curious lady who’s after something other than your native speaking abilities.
- HelloTalk – A little bit of a Facebook setup going on here, with a profile, newsfeed, and friend request function. The only part that isn’t free is the video chat feature, but there’s nothing stopping you from adding users to your Whatsapp/WeChat so you can talk there.
- Tandem – An ever-so-slightly fancier version of HelloTalk, but with the free version of Tandem you have a limited number of translations with the chat function each day (only 5). For this reason, I’d say HelloTalk provides more value as their translation function is unlimited.
An incredibly underrated and under-utilised language learning practice, shadowing is the act of repeating or ‘parroting’ audio in your target language.
The first time you try this it will likely feel incredibly strange and it will be very difficult, so slow the audio down.
Skip forward to 1:40 in the video below to see an example of what I’m talking about.
And guess what?
All of the tools you need to shadow successfully are completely free!
- Audio – this can be found anywhere. YouTube has an ocean of Mandarin learning content on it. Simply download the audio! Although a paid service, I also regularly make use of Chinesepod to do shadowing.
- Audio app – there are loads of free apps available that give you the function of slowing down audio so you can shadow it. I use AudioStretch.
As you can see from the resources suggested in this guide, learning Mandarin can be done completely for free. Although there are loads of great free learning resources out there, some of the paid ones are pretty awesome.
If you’ve got a slightly higher budget and you’re looking for more options, check out the posts below.
- 100+ MANDARIN LEARNING RESOURCES: THE FASTEST WAY TO FLUENCY
- LEARNING CHINESE: 15+ LISTENING TOOLS PERFECT FOR BEGINNERS
- THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO LEARNING CHINESE IN CHINA
- THE 24 BEST MANDARIN STUDY RESOURCES FOR BEGINNERS
- 14 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE
- IS IT EASY TO LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE?
- THE 21 BEST APPS TO LEARN CHINESE
- STUDYING MANDARIN AT A UNIVERSITY IN CHINA: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- 100+ PODCASTS FOR LEARNING CHINESE | BEGINNER TO ADVANCED MATERIAL
- 101 TV SHOWS FOR CHINESE LEARNERS