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Chinese is one of the most fascinating and important languages in the world!

Right now, about one of every five human beings uses Mandarin Chinese as their native language, and millions more have Chinese as a secondary or working language.  At Washington College, the Chinese language program can give you the skills and experience to join this vibrant community.

Why Learn Chinese?

  • Learning any new language improves brain function, improving memory and enhancing mental flexibility.[1]
  • The current economic and geopolitical position of China makes understanding China critical. This is why the U.S. Government has labeled Mandarin Chinese a “Critical Language.”[2]
  • At Washington College, our Chinese program is rigorous, giving you a firm foundation in the language, as well as the culture and social contexts of China.
  • There is no better way to understand another culture than by seeing the world through their language.
  • Learning Chinese not only allows you to communicate with billions of people, it also gives you access to centuries of Chinese literature, history, and science.
  • Washington College’s study abroad partnerships are excellently positioned to support students of Chinese language, history, and culture. In addition to other options throughout Asia, we have strong partners in Lingnan University in Hong Kong, and very soon we will begin a partnership with CSI at Peking University in Beijing. 
  • Chinese language ability will make your resume stand out from the rest!

[1] “What happens in the brain when you learn a language?”[2]


FAQs About Learning Chinese

Chinese is a difficult language for native speakers of English. However, it’s not nearly as difficult as you might think.  The aspects of Chinese that require the most time are pronunciation and characters. 

  • Pronunciation is sometimes a challenge for native English speakers because there are some sounds in Chinese that don’t occur in English. Also, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that a syllable has distinct sounds beyond what is shown in the Romanization.  For example, “ma,” can mean “horse,” “hemp,” “scold,” or “mother,” based on the tonal inflection.  This does take a while to master, but it’s certainly doable.  Some people might have told you that you can only learn the tones when you are a child.  That’s not true - Anyone can learn it! 

  • Characters are one of the most interesting parts of learning Chinese. They might look very confusing as first, but with training, students learn how the characters are put together.  As students study characters systematically, the characters retain their beauty and also gain deeper meaning.  The more you learn, the more you understand how they work, and the easier they become to learn. 

  • 中文看起來很難,可是誰都能學會!

  • 中文看起来很难,可是谁都能学会!

However, in some ways, Chinese is much easier to learn than other languages.

  • Chinese verb tenses are handled without conjugation! No verb tables or irregular conjugations to memorize!

  • There are no gendered nouns! No need to try and figure out if the computer is feminine or if your cell phone is masculine.

  • Basic sentence structure is “Subject Verb Object,” just like English

  • Pronunciation is almost totally consistent.  Unlike English, once you learn how sounds are pronounced, they don’t shift much from word to word.  

There are two main character sets used in Chinese.  Many characters are the same in both character sets, but there are many characters that are significantly different.  In our classes at Washington College, we mainly learn the simplified character set. 


Traditional Example


Simplified Example

Used mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and some places in SE Asia

You will also see them more in the older Chinatowns in the US because most people who set up the Chinatowns came before the major simplification efforts


Used in the PRC, the US government, the UN, and in almost all major international organizations.

Has rapidly become the default character set of most global business

In those areas mentioned to the left, using simplified can be a faux pas


Seen to be classier and erudite

If you want to eventually move on to studying classical Chinese, all of the primary sources are in traditional. Of course, there are reprints in simplified, but these can have errors and other problems.


Seen to be practical, business-like, and perhaps a bit political

If you want to work in government, journalism, international NGOs or the like, most writing will be in simplified.


Most people say traditional characters are harder to learn.

There are most pen-strokes to memorize, and some characters look very similar.

Once you understand the components, there are many hints within the characters that suggest the character’s meaning or how it should be pronounced


Most people say simplified characters are easier to learn.

Fewer pen-strokes means less time to memorize, and fewer pieces of the characters to confuse.


Absolutely more beautiful in almost all cases.


Sometimes the characters have been simplified to the point of being unattractive.


If you would like more information, Wikipedia has a good page about the differences here. 

Absolutely! All languages are time intensive. Taking Chinese might require a little more time studying and practicing characters, but it is absolutely doable.  

Any major can study abroad.  If you are an athlete, you will need to consider the season of your sport.  Also, talk to your advisor about the non-language classes you will be able to take while abroad so they will fit into your graduation plan.  And don’t forget the possibility of taking a summer abroad!

Chinese Learning Resources


Headstart2 is a language program designed by the Defense Language Institute.  It has twenty lessons covering the basics from pinyin and characters to ordering food.  This isn’t a deep dive into the language, but a good introduction or basic review tool. 


Get a Chinese name.  This is a very basic system, but it will give you a name that sounds Chinese (not like a transliteration of your English name).  If you are going to take Chinese at Washington College, we’ll get you a name with a little more style and meaning, but if you just want one to play with, this is a good option. 

Yabla Pinyin Guide

The chart looks daunting, but it it a good way to practice Chinese sounds by listening to the examples (with tones!) 

Basic rules for writing Chinese characters

Hello Chinese

Like Chinese Skills, this is a phone app designed to teach through a set of language quizzes.  Some say this is a more robust program with better voice recognition and character writing evaluation.

Very clever suite of language games with comics, character recognization games, etc… Their text adventure games are particularly good.  For students with a basic foundation in Chinese.  Some features require signin.  Currently in development. 

Pleco - iPhone/Android

This is the most powerful dictionary app out there.  It has a basic free version, but also a full suite of add-on dictionaries and tools.  This dictionary will serve you for as long as you learn Chinese.

Youdao - Web-based

Youdao is a great all-around dictionary.  Lots of good examples and very up-to-date.

Zdic - Web-based

Zdic is an advanced dictionary with excellent classical references and alternate character forms.

The Chairman’s Bao - iPhone/Android/Web-Based

A collection of simplified news reports with accompanying audio.  Great for reading practice.  Some functionality locked behind registration and paywall.

Pop-up Chinese - Web-Based (Downloadable for fee)

Pop-up Chinese probably has the most extensive list of freely available podcasts for learning Chinese, for introductory to advanced.  There are transcripts and other study guides.  Registration/subscription not required, but very helpful.

Slow Chinese - Web-Based

A good number of short newsy stories read slowly.  Transcripts are also available.

Anki - iPhone/Android/Mac/PC

Anki is a powerful flashcard app.  The plus side is that there are many flashcard sets that have already been written.  The down side is that the app is a bit finicky and not always easy to use.

Chinese Grammar Wiki - Web-Based

This is a fairly comprehensive wiki for Chinese grammar.  Look up grammar particles to see how they are used. 

Google Translate - iPhone/Android/Web-Based

Don’t laugh!  Google translate is super useful to check a word or phrase.  It’s more likely to have errors in meaning but it can translate from simplified to traditional and even has pretty good audio pronunciation.  Just don’t trust it to translate much beyond a word or phrase.

Jukuu - Web-Based

Jukuu is a translation pair corpus.  It’s not great as a dictionary, but if you want to triangulate how a word is used in different contexts, Jukuu is invaluable!  Beware, as some of the translations are not as accurate as you might hope.

Mandarinspot - Web-Based

Mandarinspot has a stripped down (but good) dictionary, but its real advantage is in its annotation function - paste in Chinese and it outputs the Chinese with pinyin (with tones) above.  Very good for practicing reading.  Also has mouse-over definitions for the output.

Quizlet - iPhone/Android/Web-Based

Quizlet is the flashcard app that most people here at Washington College have been using.  It works well, but some people find it a bit restrictive. 

Skritter - iPhone/Android/Web-Based

Skritter is a great app to use to practice writing characters.  It evaluates your handwriting and stroke order with a flashcard style.