how to learn Chinese

How to Learn Chinese
Leaning to speak Chinese isn’t rocket science. There are some
things you can do to make it painless or nearly so. You should
speak to Chinese people when you get a chance, and in their
native tongue. Doing so can improve your Chinese fluency
1/3 Learning to Speak Mandarin Chinese
1) Learn some basic vocabulary
The first thing to do when learning a new language is to
memorize some simple yet important words and start
practicing with them as soon as possible. Although things like
grammar and sentence structure are important, they mean
nothing until you develop a basic vocabulary. Here’s a short
list to get you started:
Hello = nǐhǎo, pronounced [nee hauw] With 2 third tones. Not
“ho” or “how” somewhere in the middle. Listen to a native
speaker as a reference.
Yes = shì
, pronounced [sher]“ But not as in "sure”. ALWAYS
listen to a native speaker, as described with English
pronunciations in the learners minds will be difficult.
No = búshì
, pronounced [boo sher] look above.
Goodbye = zài jiàn, pronounced [zai jee-ian]
Morning = zǎoshàng, pronounced “[zauw-shaung-hauw]”
Afternoon = xiàwǔ, pronounced There is almost no clear way
to describe the “x” in pinyin with English pronunciations.
Look it up and listen to a native speaker say it. Contrary to
popular misinformation, the “x” DOESN’T AT ALL sound like
Evening = wǎn shàng, pronounced [wang shaung]
Head = tóu, pronounced [toe] with a 2nd tone, that goes up.
Feet = jiǎo, pronounced [jee-yau]
Hands = shǒu, pronounced [show] With a 3rd tone, this goes
from neutral to lower to neutral.
Beef = niúròu, pronounced [nee-o row] but not with the soft
“r”, more defined “r”.
Chicken = jī, pronounced [jee]
Egg = jī dàn, pronounced [jee dan] “dan” has a 4th tone, that
goes down. Slightly forceful sounding. (not too forceful
sounding!) Literally “chicken egg”. When speaking of eggs in
general, use this. Specify the egg type by using the animal’s
name and then dàn.
Noodles =miantiao pronounced [miàn tiáo]
Always look up pronunciations of every word spoken by a
native speaker. Most Mandarin pinyin just simply cannot be
described perfectly with English sounds!
2) Learn some basic phrases.
Once you’ve built up a little vocabulary, you can start working
on some basic phrases and expressions that will help you to
navigate everyday conversations. Here’s a few to get you
How are you? = nǐ hǎo ma? pronounced [nee hau mah] (see
above for pronunciations)
I’m fine = wǒ hěn hǎo, pronounced [wuh hen hau]
Thank you = xièxiè
, pronounced There is almost no clear way
to describe the “x” in pinyin with English pronunciations.
Look it up and listen to a native speaker say it. Contrary to
popular misinformation, the “x” DOESN’T AT ALL sound like
“sh”! The “ie” part sounds close to “yieh”
You’re welcome = bú yòng xiè, pronounced [boo yong xi-yeh]
Sorry = duìbu qǐ, pronounced [dway boo qi] Like with the
Mandarin “x” a proper pronunciation described with English
letters is almost impossible. As always, I can’t stress enough
the importance of looking up native speakers pronouncing the
I don’t understand = wǒ bùdǒng, pronounced [wuh boo dong]
What is your surname (family name)? = ní
n guìxì
pronounced [neen gway xing](I’m sure you know by now why
I just put “x” instead of the phonetics.)
What’s your name? = nǐ jiào shé
n me mí
ng zì
pronounced [nee-jee-yow shen-ma ming zi]“
My name is _____ = wǒ jiào _____, pronounced [wuh jeeyau]
3) Learn the tones.
Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same word
can mean different things depending on the tone used to
express them (even if the spelling and pronunciation are the
same). This can be difficult for English speakers to grasp, but
learning the tones is essential if you want to speak Chinese
properly. There are four major tones in Mandarin Chinese, as
well as a neutral tone:
The first tone is a high, flat tone. It is expressed in a relatively
high voice, with no rising or dipping. Using the word "ma” as
an example, the first tone is expressed in writing as “mā”.
The second tone is a rising tone. It starts at a lower level and
gets progressively higher, like when you say “huh?” in English.
The second tone is expressed in writing as “má”.
The third tone is a dipping tone. It starts at a medium level,
then dips lower before rising again, like when you say the
letter “B” or the word “horse” in English. The third tone is
expressed in writing as “mǎ”.
The fourth tone is a falling tone. It starts at a medium level
and gets progressively lower, like when you are giving a
command (such as telling someone to “stop”) in English. The
fourth tone is expressed in writing as “mà”.
The fifth tone is a neutral tone. It does not rise or fall, like the
first tone, but this tone is expressed in a flat voice. The fifth
tone is expressed in writing as “ma”.
4) Work on your pronunciation.
Once you have learned the correct pronunciation of the tones
by listening to native speakers (YouTube is good for this) and
practicing them yourself, you need to work on applying them
to words.
This is essential, as the same word can have a completely
different meaning depending on which tone is used. For
example, using the tone “mā” instead of “má” could be the
difference between saying “I want cake” and “I want a coke” –
two completely different meanings.
Therefore, when you’re learning vocabulary, it is not enough to
learn the pronunciation, you must also learn the correct tone.
Otherwise, you could use the word in the wrong context and be
completely misunderstood.
The best way to work on your pronunciation is to speak with a
native Chinese speaker who can encourage you when you get it
right and correct you when you’re wrong.
5) Work on grammar and sentence structure.
It’s a common misconception that Chinese is a “grammar-less”
language. Chinese has quite a complex grammar system; it’s
just very different to that of English and other European
Luckily, when learning Chinese you will not have to learn any
complicated rules involving verb conjugations, agreement,
gender, plural nouns or tense. Chinese is a very analytic
language, which makes it quite simple and straightforward in
some respects.
Another bonus is that Chinese uses a similar sentence
structure to English – subject-verb-object – which makes
translating back and forth between the two languages
somewhat easier. For instance, the sentence “he likes cats” in
English is translated as “tā (he) xǐ huan (likes) māo (cats)” in
Chinese even when the pronouns change!
On the other hand, Chinese has its own grammar structures
which are very different to those used in English and can,
therefore, be very difficult for the English speaker to grasp.
These grammatical features include things like classifiers,
topic-prominence, and preference for aspect. However, there’s
no point in worrying about these things until you’ve mastered
basic Chinese
2/3 Learning to Read and Write in Chinese
1) Learn pinyin
Pinyin is a Chinese writing system which uses letters from the
Roman alphabet instead of Chinese characters.
It is useful for Chinese language learners as it allows you to get
started with reading and writing Chinese without the time
involved in learning traditional characters. There are many
Chinese textbooks and learning materials available in Pinyin.
However, it is important to be aware that even though Pinyin
uses letters from the Roman alphabet, its pronunciation is not
always intuitive to the English speaker. Therefore, it is
important to use a proper pronunciation guide when learning
2) Learn to read some Chinese characters.
Although the ability to read traditional Chinese characters is
not necessary for learning Chinese, the idea appeals to many
people and makes them feel more in touch with traditional
Chinese culture.
Learning to recognize and read Chinese characters is no easy
task. In order to read a newspaper, the average Chinese reader
will need to be familiar with about 2000 different characters –
and that’s just the beginning. It is believed that there are over
50,000 Chinese characters in total (though many of them are
no longer in use).
The major benefit of learning to read Chinese characters is
that you will have access to a broad array of other literature,
including Cantonese, Japanese and Korean – all of which use
Chinese characters (or a simplified version of them) in their
writings, despite the fact that the spoken languages are very
3) Learn to write some Chinese characters.
Once you have learned to read Chinese characters, you may be
interested in learning how to form them yourself. Writing
Chinese characters is a complex skill, which requires patience
and a touch of artistry.
The first step in learning how to write Chinese characters is to
learn the “radicals” – these are the individual brush strokes
that form the building blocks of each character. There are 214
radicals in total – some can stand on their own as individual
characters, while others are only used as part of a more
complex character.
When writing Chinese characters, the order of the brush
strokes is very important and you must follow a specific set of
rules – such as top to bottom, left to right and horizontal
before vertical. If the stroke order is incorrect, the completed
character will not be accurate.
4) Read Chinese texts.
If you want to improve your Chinese reading skills, you’ll need
to practice a little reading for at least 15 to 20 minutes a day.
To begin with, you could try using some children’s readers or
workbooks (which are nearly always written in Pinyin) to
practice your basic reading skills. You should also be able to
find some good resources for reading Chinese online.
You can also try to incorporate your Chinese learning into
your everyday life. You can do this by reading the Chinese
labels on food products at the Asian supermarket, or asking
your server for the Chinese language menu at a restaurant.
Once your reading becomes more advanced, you could try to
get your hands on a Chinese newspaper (which are printed
using traditional Chinese characters) and do your best to read
the articles. This is also a good way of familiarizing yourself
with Chinese culture and current affairs.
5) Write a little Chinese every day.
In order to practice your Chinese writing skills, you should try
to write a little every day, whether in Pinyin or in Chinese
One option is to keep a small personal diary in Chinese, where
you write down simple things like a description of the weather,
how you are feeling that day, or what you did. If you’re not to
say about it, you could ask a Chinese-speaking friend or
acquaintance to look it over and check for any mistakes.
Alternatively, you could try to find a Chinese pen-pal to write
letters to. This could be mutually beneficial, as you could get
some practice writing in Chinese, while your pen-pal could
practice their English. You could also ask your pen-pal to
include the corrected version of your original letter when
The last way of practicing your writing is to make simple lists
in Chinese, like your shopping list, or to make Chinese labels
for items around the house.
3/3 Immersing Yourself in the Chinese Language
1) Practice with a native Chinese speaker.
The absolute best way to learn Chinese is just to speak it with
a native speaker – this will force you to think on your feet,
help with your accent and expose you to more informal or
colloquial forms of speech that you won’t find in a textbook.
If you have a Chinese-speaking friend, ask them if they’d be
willing to sit down with you for an hour or two each week.
They’d probably be happy to help – as long as the coffee’s on
If you don’t know any Chinese speakers personally, you could
try placing an ad in your local paper or online forum.
Alternatively, you could look into finding a Chinese
conversation group or oral Chinese class in your local area.
If all else fails, you could try to connect with a Chinese speaker
on Skype, one who’d be willing to learn Chinese online in 30
2) Listen to Chinese tapes/CDs.
Listening to Chinese podcasts or CDs is a great way to
immerse yourself in the language – even when you’re on the
It doesn’t matter if you can’t follow everything that’s being
said – just try to be an active listener and attempt to pick out
keywords and phrases. Slowly but surely your overall
comprehension will improve.
This is a great option for people who have long commutes as
they can simply stick a Chinese CD on in the car or listen to a
Chinese podcast on the train. You could also try listening while
exercising or doing housework.
3) Watch Chinese films and cartoons.
Watching Chinese films and cartoons is a more fun, relaxed
way of immersing yourself in the language, however, it will
still help to expose you to the sounds and structure of Chinese.
Try watching short cartoons or clips on YouTube, or rent a
full-length Chinese film from your local movie store. You may
need to use subtitles at first, but try not to rely on them too
much – see how much of the dialogue you can understand on
your own.
If you’re feeling particularly proactive, you could pause the
film after particular words or phrases and try to repeat them –
this will help your accent to sound more authentic.
4) Don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
The biggest obstacle that will stand in your way of learning
Chinese is your fear of making mistakes.
You need to try to overcome this fear – and even embrace it –
if you are to reach your goal of fluency.
Remember that everyone makes mistakes when they are
learning a new language, and you are bound to have your fair
share of embarrassing mistakes and awkward moments, but
this is all part of the process.
Remember that you are not aiming for perfection when you
are learning Chinese, you are aiming for progress. So go ahead
and make as many mistakes as you like – as long as you learn
from them and continue to improve.
5) Consider taking a trip to China.
Can you think of a better way to immerse yourself in
the Chinese language than a trip to its native land?
China is an amazingly diverse country – from the busy,
bustling streets of Beijing to the ancient majesty of the Great
Wall. There is something for every traveler – whether you’re
looking to immerse yourself in traditional ethnic cultures, to
sample the many delicious Chinese delicacies or to travel to
the sites of ancient ruins and epic battles.
Alternatively, you could take a tour of other places with large
Chinese-speaking populations, like Taiwan, Malaysia,
Singapore and the Philippines. Just make sure that you are
prepared for differences in dialect (not all are mutually
intelligible) before you book your flight!