Can You Learn Chinese In 5 Minutes?

a man wondering if he can learn chinese in 5 minutes

You know how it is. You want to learn the Chinese language. You are committed to becoming fluent in it. So you’ve made a plan to devote yourself to your studies. Only, life gets in the way. Your family, your job, even your dog — everything is vying for your attention. You can never find the time to get through your lessons, and you feel like you are falling further and further behind. And then you come across the meme promising that you can learn Chinese in 5 minutes. Is this even possible?

Is the “Learn Chinese in 5 minutes” meme true?

So what is the “Learn Chinese in 5 minutes” meme all about? Is this Chinese for busy people? Can it teach you the language that quickly?

Not quite.

Unfortunately, the “translations” are a nonsense form of Cantonese, which, while funny, will not teach you one word of Mandarin. Here are a few examples from the meme; try reading them out loud if you don’t get the joke.

Learn Chinese in 5 minutes meme

Needless to say, this is not authentic Chinese. Not even close. Mention these phrases to your Chinese friends, and you’re likely to be met with puzzlement. You might even offend somebody.

Putting the memes aside, however, is it possible to learn at least a little Chinese in five minutes or less?

7 ways to learn Chinese in 5 minutes a day

Luckily, there are many ways to make progress when you have only a few minutes to study. While five minutes might not be sufficient to puzzle out the deeper nuances of Chinese grammar, it’s certainly long enough to learn a new word or two. And while studying for five minutes might not make you fluent in Mandarin, it’s certainly better than not studying at all.

This article will explore some fun ways to learn and some of the resources you can use when you don’t have that much free time.

1. Watch a Youtube video

Watching a short video on your favorite YouTube channel whenever you have a few minutes free is a fun way to learn some new vocabulary or practice your listening skills.

YouTube is full of excellent free resources, whether you’re looking for lessons on correct Chinese grammar and sentence structure, tutorials on how to cook Sichuan food, or videos about traveling in China or elsewhere around the world. Some of the best videos are only a few minutes long.

Your computer or smartphone is a gateway to a wealth of great resources on the web. While it’s true that free language lessons and videos online are never going to replace a complete course in learning Chinese, they’re a fun way to learn a little bit of Chinese during a busy day.

You’ll get more out of watching a video if you can understand it – comprehensible input, as always, is critical. But even if you only understand a little bit, you can learn a phrase or two, and the more exposure you get to native Chinese speakers, the better.

Of course, there is no substitute for actually living in China, but the more time you spend listening to native speakers, the more you will tune your ear to the music of Chinese.

Avoid videos with English subtitles, as these will distract you from the Chinese (unless, of course, you are watching lessons with explanations of Chinese grammar.)

Try searching the web in Chinese to find videos in Mandarin. Alternatively, head on over to the Chinese web and look at some of the Chinese video hosting platforms, for example, Youku and Tudou. These sites are full of fun videos to watch whenever you have a few minutes free.

2. Chat with a language exchange partner

Five minutes might not be enough to discuss the finer points of Chinese grammar, but it’s certainly time enough for a quick chat with a native speaker.

Apps such as HelloTalk are great for connecting language learners worldwide by text, voice, or video. Best of all, most of them won’t cost you a penny.

Look for a native speaker, preferably someone in China (especially if you’re not in China yourself.) Find yourself a Chinese friend.

Use Chinese social media apps like WeChat to connect with native Chinese speakers. WeChat’s inbuilt translation tool, while not consistently accurate, can be a great help in keeping a conversation going without having to stop to look things up in the dictionary.

Think of these as informal language lessons. Use that to your advantage if your partner doesn’t speak much English. Let them try to use the little English they know, even if it’s only a few words, while you focus on speaking Chinese.

While your colleagues at the office are out on their five-minute cigarette break, you can learn Chinese by interacting with a language exchange partner in China. Even if you don’t have time to schedule a call, you can always keep up the conversation by text.

young man chatting with chinese language exchange partner

3. Use speech shadowing technique

Shadowing means repeating out loud after a native speaker while imitating their pronunciation as closely as possible.

Getting in some sentence repetitions every day provides the practice necessary to train the tongue — and the mind — to produce fluent Mandarin at a natural tone and speed. But, of course, it works best when you understand what you are saying.

While shadowing is helpful for all language learners, it is most useful for beginners, especially those learning Chinese. This is because Mandarin, unlike English, is a tonal language, and mastering Chinese tones is one of the biggest challenges new learners face.

If you’ve struggled with Chinese tones — and who hasn’t? — imitating a native speaker is one of the easiest things you can do to make progress. Even if you only have five minutes to spare, a little bit goes a long way.

With that said, it’s important to remember what shadowing is a substitute for, that is, actually speaking with someone in Chinese. Speech shadowing can be an excellent way to improve your confidence — it’s easier to say something if you’ve said it fifty times before — but it’s no substitute for real conversation.

But when you don’t have anyone to speak Chinese with, imitating native speakers is the best way to familiarize yourself with the sounds of the language and practice producing the correct tones.

4. Puzzle out a new Chinese character

Five minutes might not be long enough to work your way through much of a textbook, but it’s certainly long enough to study a new character or two. And if you learn a few new characters each day, you’ll be surprised how many new words you can read after a month or two.

Look up the character in a dictionary, break it down into its structural components. Do they provide clues as to its meaning or pronunciation? Is there a semantic component, a radical that relates to the definition? Create a mnemonic or picture to help you memorize the character. The sillier, the better.

Now take up a pen — or a brush — and write the character by hand, paying attention to the stroke order. Notice how it feels, how it flows. If you don’t have a pen, try writing it with your finger or painting it in the air. Make it tactile.

Try to connect it all: the structure, meaning, and pronunciation (including the tone), along with how to write it. Create a picture of it in your head, some sign to help you remember. Make a visual flashcard and add it to your deck.

Look up words that include the character and examples illustrating their use. Write out some of the words to familiarize yourself with the hanzi that commonly appear alongside the one you are learning. Try an example sentence or two.

Create spaces in your day when you can learn a character or two. You can make flashcards and keep them in your pocket, where you can flick through them whenever you have five free minutes.

Even if you only learn two or three hanzi daily, you can still memorize over a thousand within a year.

chinese character written on a flag

5. Listen to a Chinese song

Preferably twice, if it’s a short song, and once with the lyrics in front of you. An easy song with a catchy tune might worm its way into your head for a whole day, providing a whole lot of practice for a few minutes’ work.

If you understand the words — great! Sing it to yourself on your way to work, or, for those living in China, sing it with your friends the next time you’re invited out for KTV (Video Karaoke).

If the words elude you, try to puzzle it out. Start with the feeling of the song: how does it sound? Happy and uplifting? Sad and slow? Focus on the rhythm, the lyrics, and the rhymes. How much do you comprehend? Invent your own lyrics (in Chinese), follow the rhythm, and keep the same rhyme scheme.

Try making translations of Chinese songs into English (or your native language.) Try listening to a song a day, whenever you have a free few minutes.

As well as providing a glimpse into Chinese culture and trends, songs are superb for training the ear to the music of Mandarin Chinese, to its tones and rhythm.

Even if you have to do it alone in the shower, singing along is a great way to model your pronunciation. And songs are easier to remember than passages in a textbook.

Think of some of your favorite songs. You might not be able to remember the lyrics off-hand, but once the music starts, they bubble up inside your head as if by magic.

For those of you living in China, pay attention to popular songs. Once you do, you’re likely to hear them everywhere: on the giant video screens displayed in public squares, in movies and dramas, at work or school, in advertisements, at KTV, and on the lips of schoolchildren when they march out of the gates at the close of the day.

Investing five minutes in learning a song helps to tune in your attention for when you hear it again, training the ear to find meaning in the babble of language around you, which is what learning a language is all about.

Learn To Meow by Xiao Pan Pan & Xiao Feng Feng [Lyrics & English Translation]

6. Use Spaced Repetition Software (SRS)

Spaced repetition means that you review the words you are learning at spaced intervals, the frequency of which will depend on how well you recall the vocabulary in question. It allows you to maximize your practice time by focusing on the flashcards you are liable to forget, rather than wasting valuable studying time going over words you already know.

And if a particular word is proving troublesome, using Spaced Repetition Software (SRS) ensures that you will see that word enough times to commit it to memory.

Love it or hate it, there’s a lot of research out there to suggest that Spaced Repetition Software such as Anki or the flashcard function on popular Chinese dictionary app Pleco can do wonders for your memorization.

Modern SRS uses sounds and images to help you remember the tone of the word and its pronunciation and see how it is used in an example sentence.

SRS has its limits, but there’s no denying its usefulness for learning vocabulary. Sometimes, when you hit a barrier in your language learning journey, the software’s statistics and graphs provide a much-needed sign of progress: I learned eighty-nine new words this week! I know almost three thousand words now!

Sure, there are better ways to learn Chinese than scrolling through decks of digital flashcards, but it’s possibly the best way to ensure you don’t forget what you already know.

It’s difficult to imagine a more efficient method of cramming for an exam than grinding through an electronic flashcard deck tailored perfectly for the test. Lists of vocabulary required for any of the six levels of the HSK (pinyin: Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, the standard Chinese Proficiency Test) come to mind.

But just as passing the HSK has little to do with your actual fluency in Chinese — the official test doesn’t even have an oral component — the number of words you can recognize does not equate to the number of words you know.

In other words, SRS may be the most time-efficient way to review your flashcards, but it shares many of the same flaws and limitations.

Though for most people, the tediousness of spaced repetition practice is enough to ensure it is not overly relied on, there is a tendency among some users to overdo it while neglecting better study methods.

Drilling flashcards is a terrible way to learn new vocabulary, but it can be useful in reinforcing what you’ve already learned. And when time is of the essence, incorporating five minutes of spaced repetition practice into your day is a great way to ensure you don’t forget what you already know.

woman learning chinese on her phone

7. Learn a Chengyu

Chengyu (成语 chéngyǔ) are fixed idiomatic expressions or basic phrases in Chinese, most of which consist of four characters. Derived from classical Chinese literature, history, and mythology, they remain an essential part of today’s language.

There are at least 5,000 chengyu in the Chinese language, with some dictionaries listing over 20,000. These idioms represent the collected wisdom of Chinese culture, proverbs, and allegorical sayings passed down through the ages.

As well as providing essential insights into Chinese culture and thought, chengyu are also very easy to memorize. The basic phrases follow the rules of literary Chinese, meaning they can convey a lot of information in a compact four-character form.

You don’t need to be immersed in Chinese classical literature to make sense of a chengyu, just as you can learn to use expressions such as “sour grapes” or “it’s raining cats and dogs,” without knowing the stories from which such idioms originated.

Learning the stories behind the chengyu, however, will improve your memorization, as well as your appreciation for Chinese literature.

Let’s look briefly at an example. 井底之蛙 (pinyin: jǐngdǐzhīwā) is a chengyu used to describe someone short-sighted, naive, or narrow-minded. But the literal translation is more along the lines of “a frog (蛙 ) at the bottom (底 ) of a well (井 jǐng).”

The image of a frog inside a well looking up at a tiny circle of the sky is a poetic metaphor for a person of limited outlook and experience, and it comes right out of a traditional Chinese story.

The frog in the fable cannot imagine anywhere more beautiful than the dirty old well in which he lives because he has never been outside it. He tells a passing sea turtle as much (how a sea turtle comes to be passing by an abandoned well remains unexplained), but after investigating the well, the sea turtle asks the frog: Have you ever seen the sea?

How is this supposed to help busy people learn Chinese? Well, the chengyu’s compact form makes it an ideal subject for short study periods. Learning a new idiom provides an insight into Chinese history or mythology, as well as a useful new word or phrase.

There’s no getting around the fact that learning Chinese — or any new language, for that matter — requires a more significant investment than five minutes a day. The how to learn Chinese in 5 minutes joke is just that — a joke. It’s not going to teach you how to learn Chinese in 5 minutes.

Watching a few videos on YouTube, scrolling through some flashcards on your phone, or singing your favorite song is not going to make you fluent in Mandarin, at least not without other tools.

Becoming fluent in any language, especially one as difficult as Mandarin Chinese, requires a great deal of effort and a great deal of time.

But sometimes you are just too busy. It’s hard to find an hour, or even thirty minutes, to put aside for serious study. At those times, breaking down your study into five-minute mini-tasks is a great way to squeeze in your learning throughout the day.

Learn a new word or phrase, watch a video in Chinese, listen to a song. With a bit of honest work, it’s remarkable what you can accomplish in just a few minutes.

And, of course, it’s always better to do a little bit than to do nothing at all.

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