Mandarin Chinese is quite a complex language to learn, especially for English speakers.
However, with commitment and daily practice, it is certainly possible to successfully master.
Practice alone with your textbooks, with Mandarin-speaking friends or online with the many online Mandarin schools that exist.
Keep reading for a basic overview of the most important things you need to know about learning Mandarin Chinese.
Learn Mandarin Chinese: Mastering the Basics
1. Practice using the four Mandarin tones.
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that different tones can change the meaning of a word, even if the pronunciation and spelling are otherwise the same.
It is essential to learn the different tones if you wish to speak Mandarin Chinese correctly.
Mandarin Chinese has four main tones, as follows:
- The first tone is a high, flat tone. Your voice stays flat, with no rise or dip in the way it sounds. Using the word “ma” as an example, the first tone is indicated using the symbol above the letter: “mā”.
- The second tone is a rising tone. Your voice rises from a low to middle pitch, as if you were asking someone to repeat something by saying “huh?” or “what?” The second tone is indicated using the symbol “má”.
- The third tone is a dipping tone. The pitch goes from middle to low to high, like when you say the letter “B”. When two third tone syllables are near each other, the second one retains its third tone sound while the first takes the sound of the second tone. The third tone is indicated using the symbol “mǎ”.
- The fourth tone is a lowering tone. The pitch goes rapidly from high to low as if giving a command e.g. stop! Or as if you’re reading a book and have come across something new and interesting and are saying “huh”. The fourth tone is indicated using the symbol “mà”.
- Easy enough? If not, don’t fret. It’s definitely recommended to hear the tones demonstrated by a native speaker since it’s hard to get an idea of what they sound like purely through text.
2. Memorize simple vocabulary.
No matter what language you’re learning, the more words you have at your disposal, the sooner you will become fluent.
Therefore, the next thing to do is to memorize some useful Chinese vocabulary.
- Some good vocabulary lists to start with includes: times of day (morning: zǎo shàng, afternoon: xià wǔ, evening: wǎn shàng) body parts (head: tóu, feet: jiǎo, hands: shǒu) food (beef: niú ròu, chicken: jī, egg: jī dàn, noodles: miàn tiáo) along with colors, days, months, transport words, weather, etc.
- When you hear a word in English, think about how you would say it in Mandarin. If you don’t know what it is, jot it down and look it up later. It’s handy to keep a little notebook on you for this purpose. Attach little Chinese labels (with the character, the pinyin, and the pronunciation) to items around your house, such as the mirror, the coffee table, and the sugar bowl. You’ll see the words so often that you’ll learn them without realizing it!
- Although having a wide vocabulary is good, remember that in Mandarin, accuracy is more important. It’s no good learning a word if you can’t pronounce it properly, using the correct tone, as different pronunciations could have entirely different meanings. For example, using the wrong tone (using mā instead of má) could be the difference between saying “I want cake” and “I want coke” – two completely different meanings.
3. Learn how to count.
Luckily, the Mandarin numerical system is fairly straightforward and logical, and once you have learned the first ten numbers you will be able to count to 99.
- Below you will find the numbers one to ten, written in simplified Chinese characters, followed by the Hanyu pinyin translation and the correct pronunciation. Make sure to practice saying each number using the correct tone.
- One: written as (一) or yī, pronounced [eee]
- Two: written as (二) or èr, pronounced [err]
- Three: written as (三) or sān, pronounced [saan]
- Four: written as (四) or sì, pronounced [ssuh]
- Five: written as (五) or wǔ, pronounced [woo]
- Six: written as (六) or liù, pronounced [lee-yoe]
- Seven: written as (七) or qī, pronounced [chi]
- Eight: written as (八) or bā, pronounced [baa]
- Nine: written as (九) or jiǔ, pronounced [jee-yo]
- Ten: written as (十) or shí, pronounced [sh]
- Once you have mastered numbers one to ten, you can continue counting in double digits by saying the number in the tens’ position, then the word 十, followed by the number in the one’s position. For example:
- The number 48 is written as sì shí bā (四十八), literally meaning “four tens plus eight”. Number 30 is written as sān shí (三十), literally meaning “three tens”. 19 is written as yī shí jiǔ (一十九), literally meaning “one ten plus nine” (however in most Mandarin dialects the initial yī is omitted from numbers in the teens, as it is deemed unnecessary).
- The word for hundred in Mandarin is (百) or baǐ, so 100 is written as yì baǐ, 200 is written as èr baǐ, 300 is written as sān baǐ, etc.
4. Learn some basic conversational phrases.
Once you have a basic grasp of vocabulary and pronunciation, you can move on to learning basic conversational phrases that are used in everyday Chinese speech.
- Hello– 你好- nǐhǎo, pronounced [nee how]
- What is your surname (family name)? (formal )- 您贵姓? – nín guì xìng, pronounced [neen gway shing]
- or 你姓什么？- nǐ xìng shén me (inf.), pronounced [nee shing shurn muh]
- What’s your name?– 你叫什么名字? – nǐ jiào shén me míng zì, pronounced [nee jee-ou shurn muh ming zi] 
- Yes– 是 – shì, pronounced [sh]
- No– 不是 – bú shì, pronounced [boo sh]
- Thank you– 谢谢 – xiè xiè, pronounced [shie shie]
- You’re welcome– 不用谢 – bú yòng xiè, pronounced [boo yong shee-e]
- Excuse me– 对不起 – duì bu qǐ, pronounced [dway boo chee]
- I don’t understand– 我不懂 – wǒ bù dǒng, pronounced [wuo boo downg]
- Goodbye– 再见 – zài jiàn, pronounced [zay jee-en]
Advancing Your Language Skills
1. Study basic grammar.
There is a common misconception that grammar does not exist in the Chinese language, but this is not true.
Chinese grammar rules do exist, they are just very different from those in Indo-European or other language systems.
Unlike these languages, Chinese is a very analytic language which is both good news and bad news for language learners.
- For instance, in Chinese, there are no complicated rules about conjugations, agreement, gender, plural nouns or tense. Most words consist of single syllables which are then combined to make compound words. This makes sentence construction fairly straightforward.
- However, Chinese has their own set of grammar rules which do not have an equivalent in English or other Indo-European languages. For example, the Chinese use grammatical features such as classifiers, topic-prominence, and preference for aspects. As these features are not used in English, they can be quite difficult for learners to grasp.
- However, despite the differences, Chinese does use the same word order as English mostly, i.e. subject – verb – object, making it easier to translate word for word. For example, the English phrase “he likes cats” is translated directly as “tā (he) xǐ huan (likes) māo (cats).
2. Learn how to use Pinyin.
Pinyin is a system used for writing Mandarin Chinese using the Roman alphabet.
Hanyu Pinyin is the most common form of such Romanization and is used in many textbooks and teaching materials.
- Pinyin allows students of Mandarin to focus on their pronunciation, while also enabling them to read and write, without needing to learn complex Chinese characters. Although Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, the pronunciation of its letters is often not intuitive to English speakers, which is why it must be studied carefully before it can be used.
- For example, the letter “c” in Pinyin is pronounced like the “ts” in the word “bits”, the letter “e” is pronounced like the “er” in the word “hers” and the letter “q” is pronounced like the “ch” in the word “cheap”. Due to these differences, it is essential that you learn the correct Pinyin pronunciations before using it as a guide.
- Although learning Pinyin pronunciations may seem like a pain, it can be extremely beneficial to your language learning and is still significantly easier than learning to recognize the traditional Chinese characters.
3. Practice reading and writing Chinese characters.
The final hurdle in learning Mandarin Chinese is learning to read and write traditional Chinese characters.
This can take a very long time (even years) to master, as the only way to learn them is through memorization and continuous practice.
- According to the BBC, there are over 50, 000 Chinese characters in existence, however, most of these are rarely, if ever, used. An educated Chinese person will probably know about 8000 characters, but only about 2000 of these are necessary to read a newspaper
- When writing Chinese characters, you will first need to learn each of the 214 “radicals” – which are essentially the building blocks of every Chinese character. Some radicals can stand on their own as independent characters, while others are used only within more complex characters.
- It is also important that you follow the correct stroke order when writing the characters. There is a specific set of rules you will need to follow, such as left to right, top to bottom and horizontal before vertical.
- There are many Chinese workbooks you can buy which will guide you in the correct formation of characters. These are usually intended for schoolchildren but are useful to anyone attempting to learn Chinese characters. Ideally, buy one which is designed for foreign countries, for example, you can use 快乐汉语 from Hanban as it also has the English translation.
- One of the major benefits of learning Chinese characters is that you will also have access to Cantonese, Japanese, Korean and other kinds of literature, which also use many traditional or simplified Chinese characters in their writings, even though the spoken languages are not the same.
Immersing Yourself in the Language
1. Find a native speaker.
One of the best ways to improve your new language skills is to practice speaking with a native speaker. They will easily be able to correct any grammar or pronunciation mistakes you make and can introduce you to more informal or colloquial forms of speech that you won’t find in a textbook.
- If you have a Mandarin-speaking friend who is willing to help, that’s great! Otherwise, you can place an ad in the local paper or online or investigate whether there are any pre-existing Mandarin conversation groups in the area.
- If you can’t locate any Mandarin-speakers nearby, try finding someone on Skype. They might be willing to exchange 15 minutes of Mandarin conversation for 15 minutes of English.
- If you can’t find someone on Skype, Try QQ (Just search it, you will find it in the first link), It’s a chat tool, only popular in China, in there you can find many language learning groups/rooms, Most people there are learning English. They will be glad to talk to you, Add the group (ID:229776426), Hope you can find your language partner.
2. Consider signing up for a language course.
If you need some extra motivation or feel you would learn better in a more formal setting, try signing up for a Chinese language course.
- With the growth of Asian neighborhoods around the country, many classes taught by volunteers have popped up. They range in cost from $300 to $500 or more per year, plus other costs. You can also try an online Mandarin school.
- Look out for language courses advertised at local colleges, schools or community centers.
- If you’re nervous about signing up for a class by yourself, drag a friend along. You’ll have more fun and someone to practice with between classes.
3. Watch Chinese films and cartoons.
Get your hands on some Chinese DVDs (with subtitles) or watch Chinese cartoons online. This is an easy, entertaining way to get a feel for the sound and structure of the Mandarin Chinese language.
- If you’re feeling particularly proactive, try pausing the video after a simple sentence and repeat what has just been said. This will lend your Chinese accent an air of authenticity!
- If you can’t find any Chinese films to buy, try renting them from a movie rental store, which often has foreign language sections. Alternatively, see if your local library has any Chinese films or ask if they would be able to source some for you.
4. Listen to Chinese music and radio.
Listening to Chinese music and/or radio is another good way to surround yourself in the language. Even if you can’t understand everything, try to pick out keywords to help you get the gist of what’s being said.
- Get a Mandarin Chinese radio app on your phone, so you can listen on the go.
- Try downloading Chinese podcasts to listen to while exercising or doing housework.
5. Consider taking a trip to China.
Once you feel comfortable with the basics of Mandarin Chinese speech, consider taking a trip to China, or even Taiwan. What better way to immerse yourself in the Mandarin language than a journey to its native land!
The best way to learn Mandarin, like most other languages, is full immersion. Living in or visiting China, for example, will help you learn Mandarin much faster.
6. Don’t be too harsh on yourself.
Learning a language is a gradual process – you have to keep at it. Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn, so take your time.
- If you can, taking at least an introductory course on Mandarin at your school or local college can be an excellent way to be confident and accurate in your pronunciation and tones. Getting the basics down can help you have a good springboard for further studies on your own. Make sure the course is conducted in Mandarin and not in English. English teachers who go to teach in China are expected to speak in English, not Chinese.
- By and large, Chinese people are very proud of their culture and enjoy helping people learn their language. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or practice with a native speaker.
Persistence is key! If you think you know a lot, be sure not to just stop reviewing and studying it, you will forget what you have learned.
While there is much disagreement about the romanization of Chinese and the use of such systems, learning the Pinyin system can prove invaluable if you intend to type in Chinese on a Western keyboard.
Tones and pronunciation are very important in Chinese. When learning new vocabulary, take some extra time to practice the tones.
Don’t skip a day or a few weeks just because you don’t have time. You’ll forget everything and have to start from scratch.
If you need to learn in a hurry, try a language learning software (e.g. Rosetta Stone, or the free mobile app Duolingo) or use flashcards to learn before bed. You’ll enjoy getting to learn how to speak, write, and read in the language in a fun and interactive way.
While Taiwanese Mandarin is very similar to mainland Mandarin, there are very subtle differences in terms of pronunciations, vocabulary, and grammar, much like those between the US and British English.
Taiwan uses traditional characters while the mainland uses simplified characters.