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 quickly. 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 “sh”! 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 started: 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 pinyin. I don’t understand = wǒ bùdǒng, pronounced [wuh boo dong] What is your surname (family name)? = ní n guìxì ng, 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 languages. 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 Pinyin. 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 different. 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 characters. 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 replying. 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 you! 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 minutes. 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 go! 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!