How Should Intermediate Level Students Learn Mandarin Online?

Learn Chinese Online intermediate

The Mandarin Blueprint Method (TMBM) has a format that caters to absolute beginners, but that doesn’t mean intermediate level students can’t use it to learn Mandarin online. Strap in. This article will cover the following:

  • Why life for intermediate learners is super challenging
  • How to fill the gaps in your knowledge without “starting over.”
  • Calculation of why, despite being a non-beginner, learning how to use TMBM still saves loads of time in the long run.
  • practical guide on how intermediate learners can use shortcuts to move through TMBM faster than a beginner could
  • special offer for intermediate learners

厉害, let’s get to it.

The Plight of the Intermediate Learner ​

If you already know some characters, vocabulary, and basic sentence structures, then starting from scratch isn’t appealing. Sadly, however, Mandarin learning textbooks are almost universally terrible, dull, or both, and live teachers offer no guarantee of quality (or, if they do, it’s costly).

Apart from the lack of solid materials, there’s also the problem of quality. You “know” some number of characters, but how well? Do you know the pronunciation? The tone? Are you sure? Do you understand each character individually or only in the context of how it appears in a common word?

We’ve been and known intermediate learners, and as a matter of percentages, we’d estimate that 99% of intermediate learners are answering all or most of those questions with “no” or “not sure.” It’s fair to say that there are plenty of gaps in your knowledge that you must address.

Does This Mean I Have to Start Over?

Before TMBM, the answer almost definitely would have been ‘yes.’ Now, the honest answer is “sort of, but it’s way faster than it was before.” What do we mean?

How Intermediate Level Students Should Use TMBM to Learn Mandarin Online

  • Step 1 – Understand TMBM Learning Sequence
  • Step 2 – Comprehend TMBM’s Unique Character Learning Method
  • Step 3 – Precisely Identify What “Cogs” You Must Add to your Mandarin Learning “Machine”
    • Character Components (Objects or People)
    • Pinyin Initials (People)
    • Pinyin Finals (Places)
    • Tones (Rooms)
    • Intangibles
  • Step 4 – Articulate Your Path to Cross-Referencing Your Current Knowledge with TMBM Materials
  • Step 5 – Make a Decision

Step 1 – Understand TMBM Learning Sequence – “OCLO”

TMBM follows a sequence that we call Optimized Character Learning Order or OCLO (pat. pending). The linked article goes into further detail, but the cliff notes version is that OCLO ensures that each character in the sequence relates to all previous characters through either character components, meaning, vocabulary, or a combination of these three, all while taking into account their frequency within the language as a whole.

Naturally, if a crucial aspect to OCLO is high-frequency character components, characters & vocabulary, much of the sequence will cover elements of the language you’ve previously explored. However, because of the methods we use to learn each character, we’ve solved the problem of lingering uncertainty many intermediate learners feel.

Step 2 – Comprehend TMBM’s Unique Character Learning Method – “The Hanzi Movie Method”

If OCLO is about the best sequence to learn characters, then The Hanzi Movie Method (HMM) is about the best way to learn each one. It utilizes indisputably effective mnemonic visualization techniques to learn the characters, but most importantly, these mnemonics are systemized. This is a crucial aspect to understand in your decision about whether or not TMBM is right for you as an intermediate learner.

Unlike other mnemonic systems, you assign a visual representation of each character component, Pinyin initial & Pinyin final (click here to see a demo of how it works). They are objects, people, and places that you will choose once and then use in perpetuity for every future character you memorize. Imagine these representations as cogs in a machine. After you’ve assembled all the cogs, your ability to learn characters will be as much of a boon to your study as the assembly line was to manufacturing cars.

Step 3 – Precisely Identify What “Cogs” You Must Add to Your Mandarin Learning Machine

Character Components – Objects or People

(Note: The Science on Why Visualizing Objects is Memorable: Source)

As an intermediate learner, you’ve already come across the character component’ 亻.’ Imagine that any time ‘亻’ is a part of a character you don’t already know, you choose to imagine Chuck Norris as your ‘亻 ‘representative. For example:

他 – Chuck Norris & a scorpion

信 – Chuck Norris & the Rosetta Stone

们 – Chuck Norris & the Black Gate of Mordor

什 – Chuck Norris & a Crucifix

作 – Chuck Norris & a Saw

You may already know some or all of these characters, but that doesn’t mean ‘亻’ is not a component in loads of characters you haven’t yet tried to learn. By choosing a clear (and funny) visual representation like Chuck Norris, you are simultaneously diminishing the amount of time you’ll need to memorize this component, strengthening your ability to differentiate it from similar characters (e.g., 什 and 计), and introducing silliness and levity into your Chinese study.

How Long Does it Take to Do This Unique to TMBM Task?

First of all, in the OCLO sequence, there are lessons whose sole purpose is to prompt you to choose a visual representation of a component. It is therefore not a requirement to do this all in one sitting, but suppose you did. How many hours would it take?

Before we do the calculation, let’s also start from the assumption that you are already familiar with all approximately 300 character components there are to learn. This is almost definitely not true, but by starting from this premise, we can assume that all time spent choosing mnemonics for character components is “Extra Time” that TMBM adds to your study time that you wouldn’t have to spend using traditional methods. Stack the deck against us!

Here’s how we calculate how many hours it would take:

There are approximately 300 character components that need a mnemonic object or person to represent them. There are only two steps:

1. Make the choice

2. Record the selection in your flashcards

It’s a conservative estimate to say that it would take one minute per choice, which would come out to five hours (1 min x 300 components = 300 minutes, 300 ÷ 60 mins per hour = 5 hours). The reason we say this estimate is conservative is that in each lesson you get not only the recommendations from the original course curriculum (e.g., 亻-> Chuck Norris) but also hundreds of user-generated suggestions in the comments below each lesson. It has never been easier (or required less creativity) to make your mnemonic selections, and the user-generated content is only going to grow from here.

Total “Extra Time” Counter: 5 Hours

Pinyin Initials – People

(Note: The Science on Why Visualizing Faces is Memorable: Source 1Source 2Source 3Source 4)

Example: Any character whose Pinyin starts with’ t- ‘could include someone like ‘Tom Hanks’

tā – Tom Hanks in Your Avenue A Apartment (Outside entrance)

tào – Tom Hanks in Outback Steakhouse (Bathroom)

tán – Tom Hanks in Antler Hill High School (Inside entrance)

tǎng – Tom Hanks in Bangs Hair Salon (Main salon room)

téng – Tom Hanks in English First Offices (Inside entrance)

How Long Does it Take to Do This Unique to TMBM Task?

There are 55 of these Pinyin initial “cogs,” and they are easy to choose because there are literally thousands of suggestions and triggers from our users and us. If you wanted, you could pick all 55 in under an hour, and it’s DONE.

Total “Extra Time” Counter: 6 Hours

Pinyin Finals – Places​​​​

(Note: The Science on Why Visualizing Places is Memorable: Source 1Source 2)

Did you figure out that the Pinyin finals from the Tom Hanks example are all places whose names either have the same sound or spelling as the Chinese? For example, the ‘ou- ‘in ‘outback’ sounds just like Chinese -ao.

tào – Tom Hanks in Outback Steakhouse (Bathroom)

bāo – Brad Pitt in Outback Steakhouse (Outside the Entrance)

sǎo – Steven Spielberg in Outback Steakhouse (Dining Room)

páo – Paul McCartney in Outback Steakhouse (Inside the Entrance)

How Long Does it Take to Do This Unique to TMBM Task?

You only need to choose 13 places to represent the Pinyin finals. If you did it in one sitting (not required), you could likely complete this in approximately 20 minutes.

Total “Extra Time” Counter: 6 hours 20 minutes (conservative approximation that assumes you knew all of these elements of Chinese before joining the course)

Tones – Roo​​​​ms

You’ve probably spotted the other pattern. The room represents the tone. You will never forget the tone of a character again. You’re welcome. It also doesn’t require any extra time, because the materials tell you what “room” you should go to in your memory palace.


The HMM is a method, and any methodology requires practice before you reach full speed. Former & current clients report needing to use the method on 15-50 characters before they feel they fully grasp how to do it. They then report it taking as little as 30 seconds to learn a character (Eric Brown Case StudySidney Green Case StudyMB Success Stories). Such speed can lead to things like learning 105 characters in two days or 600 characters in less than a month.

Bear in mind, however, that you aren’t starting from scratch as an intermediate learner so it may not take you as long to reach that “30 seconds a character” speed. However, let’s remain conservative and say it will take another 3 hours and 40 minutes to understand the intangibles.


Thinking About These ‘Extra’ 10 Hours

Here’s the proposition we’re making: The speed and recall improvements that you’ll “install” in your brain through these extra 10 hours will more than make up for the extra time (more on this below). We already mentioned that you would be able to learn how to read, write & pronounce a character in as little as 30 seconds, but what about the recall?

The HMM is as Much About Recall As It Is Speed

As an intermediate learner, how often do you forget characters? When you do, what do you do to remember them again? Too often, the answer is ‘start again from scratch.’ With the HMM, instead of starting from scratch, you merely tweak a pre-built foundation. What do we mean?

Have you ever walked by a place that you haven’t been to in a long time and suddenly your memory flooded with experiences you had in that place? That’s precisely what happens with the HMM.

For example, Phil once forgot whether 刹 ‘to brake’ was pronounced shā or shá, but within a couple of seconds he remembered it was shā, because he recalled that Sean Connery (sh-) was outside the entrance (1st tone) of his “Allen Ave” (-a) apartment for that character, not inside the entrance (2nd tone). If he didn’t learn through mnemonics, there’s only one option: Check the dictionary and try (again) to force it into his brain. That sucks.

Why is recalling a random set of squiggles with a Pinyin syllable on your dictionary APP screen so frustratingly hard? Because it doesn’t relate to any framework you already have. It’s just a random fact. Recalling from the HMM is simple because each aspect of your mnemonic connects directly to a framework you already have: People, places & objects from your lived experience. No wonder it’s so fast!

Is It Worth the ‘Extra’ 10 Hours to Learn TMBM?

To be able to reach literacy & fluency approaching that of a native, you must know at least 3000 characters. Traditional methods or less systemized mnemonic techniques take longer to learn in the first place and require more legwork to recall. Let’s go back to math to help illustrate the point.

Average time spent memorizing a character

HMM – 2 Minutes (Conservative – After Already Mastering the Method)

Alternate Mnemonic Techniques (AMT) – 3 minutes (Generous – Assuming No Time Requirement for Mastery of Method)

Traditional Methods (TM) – 4 minutes (Stupidly generous, although admittedly requires no mastery of a method)

Total Time Spent Learning 3000 characters

HMM – 6000 minutes – 100 hours

AMT – 9000 minutes – 150 hours

TM – 12000 minutes – 200 hours

Of course, you must review what you learn. We’ll make two BIG assumptions that each method, like TMBM, comes along with customized flashcards and that you review them in a Spaced-Repetition Software, which guarantees a 90%-95% retention rate. We’ll assume that review time is twice the amount of time spent learning.

Total Time Spent Reviewing 3000 characters

HMM – 100 * 2 = 200 hours

AMT – 150 * 2 = 300 hours

TM – 200 * 2 = 400 hours

Still, however, you have to take into account the 5%-10% rate of forgetting. If we’re generous and say that everyone forgets only 5% of what they learn (and therefore have to “re-learn” said characters), that’s 150 characters (3000*0.05).

Recalling characters is where the HMM shines. It should only take you 30 seconds to tweak your memory palace and “re-learn” the character.

AMTs are OK in this arena, but because they don’t tie your personal experience to each mnemonic nearly as profoundly as TMBM does, it’s not as fast. We’ll say it takes 1.5 minutes to recall a character via AMT.

Traditional Methods are the worst for recall. Often, if you forget a character, it takes just as long to re-learn as it did to learn, but we’ll be generous and say it takes 3 minutes to relearn a forgotten character.

Total Time Spent Re-Learni​​​​ng

HMM – 150 forgotten characters * .5 minutes  = 1.25 hours

AMT – 150 forgotten characters * 1.5 minutes = 3.75 hours

TM – 150 forgotten characters * 3 minutes = 7.5 hours

Total Time to 3000 Characters (est.)

HMM – 100 + 200 + 1.25 = 301.25 hours + 10 Hours Extra Time = 310.25 hours

AMT – 150 + 300 + 2.75 = 452.75 hours (142.5 hours slower than HMM)

TM – 200 + 400 + 7.5 = 607.5 hours (297.25 hours slower than HMM)

Conclusion: Worth It.

Step 4 – Articulate Your Path to Cross-Reference Your Current Level with TMBM Materials

Scenario: You’ve purchased your subscription to TMBM and are starting on lesson one.

1) Watch all the lessons in Level 1. It won’t include any knowledge of the language you don’t already know, but it will detail a lot about the method that you have yet to learn.

2) Make sure you understand how TMBM uses smart flashcards in general, and how to edit cards that correspond to each different type of lesson in particular. We have a shared Google Slide that gives video, written & image-based tutorials about how to do all of this. Take them seriously.

3) Follow the instructions for all lessons that prompt you to pick a face to represent a Pinyin Initial. They will be relevant across all characters, those you already know and those you don’t.

4) Same things for the lessons that prompt you to choose an object to represent a character component or place to represent a Pinyin final.

5) When you arrive at lessons to learn a full character, ask yourself: “Do I know everything about this character?” where ‘everything’ means ‘know the definition, tone, syllable, and components.’

      a.  If the answer is yes, skip the lesson and the corresponding flashcard.

      b.  If the answer is no, use the method to memorize the character

6) For vocabulary lessons, pay closer attention to them after Level 12, but if you already know a vocabulary word and can easily use it in a sentence, you can skip the lesson.

Eventually, you’ll reach the point where the gaps in your knowledge are all filled, the HMM “cogs” are all added, and you are ready to learn Mandarin at a far faster rate than before.

STEP 5 – Make a Decision!

There’s more detail we could go into about how OCLO makes learning words & grammar super easy, but those materials don’t require complementary knowledge of the HMM. Now that you understand this much, this statement will be more impactful:

The HMM requires some legwork to build “cogs,” but in the long run, your speed and quality of character learning will be so formidable that the initial time investment is well worth it. Consequently, because you can be sure that you have memorized each element of a Chinese character (meaning, tone, syllable, components, and stroke order), OCLO ensures that you aren’t wasting time on irrelevant materials and can quickly graduate to vocabulary & grammar.