Guest Post: How and Why I Learned Mandarin – by Teddy Nee

(Today I have an awesome guest post from blogger Teddy Nee, who runs the site He was nice enough to drop by and give some advice on how to learn Mandarin, which he himself learned as a third language. His bio and contact info are at the end of the article.)


You may have heard it called by a variety of names, such as Chinese, Mandarin or Chinese Mandarin. Which one is actually the correct name?

First of all, “Chinese” is not a language, so that option is out.

There are many languages that have existed in China, with the official language being called “Mandarin” or “Chinese Mandarin”. They call it 普通話 Putonghua in Mainland China and 國語 Guoyu in Taiwan. However, it is simply called 中文 Zhongwen in general.

Wangfujing Street in Beijing
By calflier001 [CC BY-SA 2.0], Image Source

As the world’s most populous country, Mainland China has made Mandarin the language with the most speakers—not only in Asia but also the world. There are more than 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers in Mainland China itself, as well as a large amount of speakers in overseas Chinese communities and among language learners.

Mainland China is the world’s second largest economy and the world’s fastest-growing economy. Therefore, learning Mandarin is absolutely a good investment in the long-run.

As I have mentioned above, Mandarin is a quite popular language in Asia, and perhaps learners learn it because they want to do business or study in China or Taiwan, or to understand about their heritage. I was put to learn Mandarin by my parents since I was a kid. I have never asked for the reason, however, I assume that it is because we are Chinese descent. As many of Chinese descents in my home country, we do not use Mandarin but Indonesian or Chinese dialects as our lingua franca. Mandarin is my second foreign language after English.

Proficiency Exam Materials

If you’re getting started, learning from exam materials is absolutely a good idea. These materials are designed by professional educators to meet learners’ needs and to help them progress. There are two kinds of Mandarin proficiency exams for non-native speakers or Chinese overseas:

  • * 汉语水平考试 Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) – The standardized Mandarin exam used in Mainland China
  • * 華語文能力測驗 Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) – The standardized Mandarin exam used in Taiwan

The major difference between the two exams and their materials is absolutely how they use the Chinese character. The China-based HSK test uses simplified Chinese characters, while the Taiwan-based TOCFL test uses traditional Chinese characters.

My sister took HSK because HSK is the only standardized Mandarin exam that is provided in my home country. On the contrary, I do not take the HSK exam because I am living in Taiwan. Instead, I take the TOCFL exam. There are 5 levels in TOCFL. I started with the 3rd level and I have passed the 4th level in 2011.

Which Mandarin proficiency exam should you choose? They’re both fine, but one may be more appropriate for your situation.

Enjoying Entertainment

Mandarin-language movies are quite competitive with English-language movies. While English-language movies are often produced only in the USA, there are Mandarin-language movies produced in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Singapore. Apart from that, there are also abundant Mandarin songs sung by Taiwanese, Malaysian, and Chinese singers.

Learning Mandarin from songs or movies may also be a good idea. This method has been proven by overseas Chinese students around me who admitted that they had significant improvement by singing in Karaoke TV (KTV).

One of my favorite TV programs is 中國好聲音Voice of China, a singing show similar to American Idol. I can learn phrases by listening to the conversations and songs. Besides, I also enjoy watching the show.

Biggest Challenge for English Speakers

The biggest challenge for English speakers will be the Chinese character and tones. Chinese characters are picture-based, and every character has gone through hundred or even thousand years of evolution. The best way to recognize the characters is to memorize them. Another challenging part will be the tones. There are 4 tones in Mandarin language and different tones have different meanings—for instance, 問 wen4 (to ask) and 吻 wen3 (to kiss).

I also face the same challenge although I am not a native English speaker. However, tones are not a big problem for me since I speak Fujianese, a Chinese dialect, as a native language. My biggest challenge is to read and write the Chinese character. There is really no shortcut to remember all of the characters without using them frequently in reading, speaking, listening, or writing. I continuously practice reading books, magazines, or newspaper to learn more vocabulary and to learn to write the characters. Fortunately, I am living in Taiwan so I need to use it everyday.

Proficiency in using Mandarin can only be achieved by frequent practice to get yourself accustomed to the tones and Chinese characters.


Written by Teddy Nee –

I love to write. I am also a website developer, a language tutor, and a language enthusiast. My native languages are Fujianese/ Hokkien and Indonesian. Apart from that, I also speak English and Chinese Mandarin as my first and second foreign language, respectively. I have been learning Spanish since 2012 and Esperanto since the end of May 2013.


  • Amy Estrada

    I am so envious that you don’t have to struggle with the tones! For me tones are definitely the most difficult part of speaking Mandarin Chinese. I hope with enough time and practice I will master them…

    • Teddy Nee

      hi Amy, practice makes perfect ! 😀 the tones are easy to remember, i have the trick. I use it to teach my student, and he likes it.

      • Amy Estrada

        What is the trick? :) You give me hope!

        • Teddy Nee

          XD, i ll let u know when we meet. I need to demonstrate for you.

          • Amy Estrada

            Thank you! I am looking forward to that!

  • Pek Jun Rong

    Hi, do you know if Singapore offers TOCFL examinations?

    • Ron G.

      I don’t know, personally. @kmin25:disqus, do you know?