So you want to learn Chinese but don’t know where to start. You don’t want to spend much time, either. Well, we found the best places to learn Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) on the Internet.
Here’s the thing, though. You can’t get fluent in a language if you only study 5 minutes a day. You can, however, learn the language in multiple 5- or 15-minute bursts every day. (And we did find a school that specializes in short 5-minute lessons: Yoyo Chinese.)
I took a year of Chinese in college and at the end of the year, I was thinking in Chinese. It takes consistency, though. You can also read our ideas, suggestions, and strategies for learning a language here.
You already know the benefits of learning a foreign language like Chinese:
- Enjoying your international travels in a deeper and more meaningful way
- Gaining an advantage in the workforce and helping propel your career to greater heights
- Having better communication and rapport with people from other countries
- Impressing friends by showing off your new language
- Surprising foreign friends or family by conversing with them in their own language
- Enjoying foreign movies, books, and other entertainments that aren’t available in English
So let’s look at the specifics of learning Chinese and the best places to do it.
- 1 Pimsleur (learn naturally by listening and speaking; no grammar)
- 2 Rosetta Stone (speaking and vocabulary focused)
- 3 Yoyo Chinese (specialists; structured and quick 5-minute lessons)
- 4 Innovative Languages (tons of free stuff; upgrade to a live teacher)
- 5 Rocket Languages (the comprehensive language package)
- 6 Verdict
Mandarin vs. Cantonese
Mandarin is considered “standard Chinese” and is spoken in Beijing. It’s what most people learn when studying Chinese.
From what I’ve learned, “Cantonese is mainly spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong, the Guangxi provinces, and in most overseas Chinese communities in Australia, Europe, and North America.”
If you’re looking to learn Cantonese, you’ll have fewer options, though. (If you want to skip ahead, Cantonese Class 101 is the best.)
What makes Chinese different from English?
Learning any language is not a cakewalk, and Chinese is going to be a little tougher than, say, Spanish, for the native English speaker to learn. Why?
One, Chinese is a tonal language like Vietnamese and Thai. You can say one syllable with four different tones and it’s going to have four different meanings.
Two, the Chinese writing system is completely different from the English alphabet. With languages like Spanish or German, you don’t have the added burden of learning such a new way of writing.
However,with Chinese, the writing system is different, but I happen to like languages with alphabets and characters different from ours. It’s like learning a secret code.
With all that being said, Chinese is NOT the hardest language to learn. Its subject-verb-object structure is just like English. And Chinese grammar rules are not as complicated or as numerous as English either.
So, choose a school and study hard. Good luck and have fun, too. Having fun is important to learning anything.
Here are the top language programs and schools on the Internet for learning Chinese. Make sure to read our final verdict at the end of this article.
Pimsleur (learn naturally by listening and speaking; no grammar)
- Learn naturally by listening and speaking
- Daily 30-minute lessons
- Proven method for permanently learning new vocabulary and phrases
- Great for picking up a near-native accent
- Apps are available for learning on the go
- Hands-free learning for core lessons
- Explanation of cultural differences
- Very little to no grammar explanations
- Monthly option only has Mandarin
- Full version has both Cantonese (one level) and Mandarin (five levels) available
- Little to no instruction on reading and writing
- Pimsleur websites are disorganized and confusing
The Pimsleur Method was invented over 50 years ago by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, a linguistics professor and researcher at Ohio State University and UCLA (my alma mater—don’t hold it against me, Trojans).
He found that one of the fastest ways to acquire a new language is by hearing the language used in everyday situations and interacting with it so it easily sticks in your mind. He also found that traditional ways of learning grammar, conjugating verbs, and the like tend to slow down the learning process.
In other words, this language program focuses on the speaking and listening aspects of the language. It’s a “natural” way to learn, and it’s similar to how you learned your first language: listening and repeating until you get it right and understand what’s being said.
You might say that the Pimsleur method is the “scientific method” for learning a language. There are four parts to this scientific sequence noted on the Pimsleur websites:
- First, pick up vocabulary with “Graduated Interval Recall.” Repeating words at specific time intervals is much more effective than just repeating a phrase over and over again until your brain goes dull.
- Learn quickly, respond quickly. The audio lessons are designed to build anticipation of a response, so the answer will always be at the tip of your tongue rather than buried deep in the recesses of your mind.
- Expand your vocabulary naturally. Pimsleur teaches the core vocabulary (about 1500 words for a basic conversation and about 5000 words for fluency). Once you master those words, you’ll be expanding your vocabulary as you do with English, learning new words as you encounter them.
- Learn grammar by listening, not studying. This is how we naturally learn grammar (of course that is fine-tuned with our school lessons growing up). It’s why most people can feel something is incorrect grammatically without being able to explain why something is wrong.
Although Pimsleur does have some materials on written Chinese, it’s not the main part of the program. They have 5 levels of Mandarin Chinese and 1 level of Cantonese (the Chinese spoken in Hong Kong among other places). So you have your choice there.
But here’s the problem. The Pimsleur websites are a bit messy and disorganized. They offer a monthly payment program and a pay by level program, but they’re not on the same page. For monthly, go here. For pay by level, go here. The monthly plan does give you a free week to try it out.
And Cantonese is NOT available on their monthly program, but is available if you pay by level.
They do have apps, so you can study on your phone.
BOTTOM LINE, the Pimsleur method is great if you’re not concerned with the reading and writing part of Chinese. The Rosetta Stone is the same way: there isn’t much help for learning written Chinese.
Since pronunciation is super important for a tonal language, Pimsleur is something to consider. Although, unlike most of the other schools on this list, Pimsleur doesn’t have a way to record and check your pronunciation. At least, they don’t advertise it.
Rosetta Stone (speaking and vocabulary focused)
- Build vocabulary picture-based exercises
- Some audio-only, hands-free lessons are available
- Speaking ability is the number one focus and goal of this program
- Their software will record your voice and help you fine-tune your pronunciation and accent
- Program is designed to give you an immersive, “real life” experience
- Designed to build confidence in your speaking ability and not just following a script
- Native-speaking tutors available for some programs
- Stories where you can read along with native speakers; sometimes known as “shadowing”
- Over 25 years in the business
For a while, from my perspective, Rosetta Stone was just a glorified vocabulary builder. If you’re learning a language, you do need a vocabulary, but you also need a lot more.
Good news; these days Rosetta Stone does offer more (details listed above). At one level, you can even receive one-on-one lessons with a real live teacher over the Internet.
However, like Pimsleur, the focus is on vocabulary and speaking, so you might need some supplemental materials if you want a deeper understanding of grammar points.
They offer some assistance on writing, but it doesn’t look like they give full lessons, so you’ll have to supplement your courses with something else if learning Chinese characters is important to you.
Rosetta Stone offers ONLY Mandarin, so you’ll have to go somewhere else if you’re looking for Cantonese (Cantonese Class 101 is the best choice). They also give you the choice of a monthly payment plan or a full payment plan. A free demo is also available.
BOTTOM LINE, Rosetta Stone has improved over the years and now offer a more well-rounded experience. However, they’re still lacking some things that the others offer, like more extensive reading and writing lessons for Chinese characters.
Yoyo Chinese (specialists; structured and quick 5-minute lessons)
- 5 structured, comprehensive 6-month courses
- 800+ videos with flashcards & quizzes
- Lessons designed from an English-speaker’s perspective
- Main teacher in the videos is a former adjunct professor at Pepperdine University
- The most watched Chinese learning channel on Youtube with over 15 million views
- Short video lessons clocking in at about 5 minutes each
- Structured curriculum
- Beginner, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate Conversational Courses
- Chinese Characters I and II Courses combined will teach you 600 characters, 80% of written Mandarin.
- Mandarin only
- Pay by the course
All the other companies on this list offer many different languages. Yoyo Chinese is the only specialist in Chinese learning for English speakers on this list. Yes, all the others have good programs, but for me, there’s something about a specialist.
They don’t have any monthly options. They do, however, break up what you pay for by level. There are three conversation levels and two courses for learning Chinese Characters.
One of the best features of Yoyo for me is the structured format. You’re not going to get lost with questions like ‘which lesson should I do next?’ or ‘what do I do now?’ They have an easy-to-follow, structured path all laid out for you.
And, you were looking for that ‘learn Chinese in 5 minutes’, weren’t you? Yoyo’s video lessons are short (around 5 minutes) and designed to teach you just one important point at a time. There are plenty of free videos, too, if you want to test them out.
If you’re looking for Cantonese, however, it looks like you’re out of luck. Apparently, they only offer Standard Mandarin Chinese. Also, they only have lessons up to what they call “upper intermediate”, so no “advance” course as of now. But that something you can worry about when you’re speaking better Chinese than you are now.
Of course, if you make it to “upper intermediate” and want to keep going, you’ll have other options, including some on this list.
BOTTOM LINE, Yoyo Chinese are specialists with a structured program—two things that I really like. And unlike Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, they cover writing and grammar in some detail. They might be the “small guys” on the list, but they offer a lot.
Innovative Languages (tons of free stuff; upgrade to a live teacher)
Cantonese Class 101 for Cantonese
Chinese Class 101 for Mandarin
- New free audio and video lessons every week
- Apps for learning on the go
- Communication-focused lessons
- Teachers break down audio conversations word-by-word
- Numerous study tools and exercises to help practice your new language
- Tracking reports to keep you motivated
- Real teachers, not just a textbook
- Offers both Cantonese (Cantonese Class 101) and Mandarin (Chinese Class 101)
- Learn at your own pace with short lessons (under 30 minutes)
- Tons of free materials for studying
- Different pay levels (monthly payments available) open more materials, including live teacher sessions
- Voice recording available
- Cultural lessons
- Grammar explanations in great detail
First of all, they have a ton of free materials for the different languages they offer: many video and audio lessons, but also printable worksheets for extra practice. They cover all the language points: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
The teachers in the lessons will also explain grammar points in great detail. The sample conversation is often broken down word by word, so you know exactly what’s going on.
You can record your voice and compare it to a native’s. They have writing practices and audio podcasts. They cover all different topics, too: restaurants, family, etc.
You can even upgrade your plan to get a real live teacher for one-on-one lessons and personal feedback. Even without the one-on-one lessons, they have forums that you can ask questions on and are answered by native Chinese speakers.
They offer both Mandarin (Chinese Class 101) and Cantonese (Cantonese Class 101). I used Innovative Languages when I was studying Japanese (not Chinese) back in the day and I have to say that they’re materials are good and practical for the real world.
The only negative thing for me was that they offer so much to their students, that it can be a little overwhelming and you might not be sure what to choose next. They have courses and paths to follow, but personally, I tend to get distracted by so many options sometimes.
BOTTOM LINE, Innovative Languages have solid programs for Mandarin and Cantonese. It can be overwhelming, and it’s not as structured as Yoyo Chinese promises, but you have nothing to lose with their free lessons and materials. Upgrade anytime that you’re ready to get serious. Or use the free materials as a supplement to Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone.
Rocket Languages (the comprehensive language package)
- Used by over 1.2 million people
- More than 10 years in the business
- Tons of audio lessons at about 25 minutes each
- Detailed grammar explanations
- Exercises and activities to help you retain what you’ve learned
- Interactive audio programs to get you speaking and reacting in conversation naturally
- Writing and typing exercises in Chinese
- Quizzes for self-testing
- Record your voice and compare to a native speaker’s
- Community forums to ask any language questions
- Different language acquisition techniques are used, including “shadowing”
- Progress tracking for motivation
- Other motivational tools like badges and leaderboards
- More tools like flashcards and a phrase finder
- Cultural lessons
- App for learning on the go
- No monthly payments; pay once for lifetime access and upgrades
- 60-day money back guarantee
Rocket Languages is another full service language learning experience. However, they offer only Mandarin, no Cantonese.
Not only do they have many practical tools for learning and practice, they also integrate different scientific principles for language learning. They mainly follow Miller’s Law, which is basically learning languages in “chunks” for better retention. In addition, they have exercises for you to do like “shadowing”, a method that I really believe in.
They cover reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They also cover grammar and cultural points. Courses at Rocket Languages also include vocabulary quiz cards and instructors (and forum members) that you can ask questions to.
What makes Rocket Languages stand out is that they have everything (tools, materials, etc.) plus a great reputation in the language learning field.
They only negative here is that they don’t offer a monthly plan. It’s all or nothing with Rocket. However, like the rest of the programs on this list, they do have a free trial, so you can test them out to be sure before you buy. And they have a 60-day money back guarantee (the best that I could find).
BOTTOM LINE, Rocket Languages have everything you need to master a language. The only things they don’t have are monthly payments and Cantonese. With their offer of a free trial and 60-day money back guarantee, you can’t lose checking them out.
All these programs are highly rated and people have learned a language from all of them. Don’t forget, that with learning a language, you have to put in the effort, too.
- For the most comprehensive and well put together program, Rocket Languages is on top. They’ll give you full support, a plan to follow, and great materials to learn from. However, there’s no monthly plan if you happen to be on a tight budget.
- If you’re only learning for certain situational phrases or if you are looking for a lot of free stuff, go with Innovative Languages (Chinese Class 101 for Mandarin or Cantonese Class 101 for Cantonese). If you really like them, you can stick with them and upgrade to a paid plan. And if you’re looking for live one-on-one lessons, this would be my choice for that.
- Innovative Languages is also the best for learning Cantonese at their Cantonese Class 101 site.
- Yoyo Chinese is a strong consideration, too, for their structured learning plans. If you’re really looking to learn Chinese in 5-minute doses, Yoyo’s short video lessons are exactly what you’re looking for. And they’re the Chinese specialists. They don’t offer Cantonese, though. (Choose Innovative for that).