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Learning Chinese for Beginners


Learning Chinese can seem daunting at first. With unfamiliar sounds, complex characters, and cultural differences, it's normal to feel overwhelmed. However, with the right mindset and learning tools, anyone can master Mandarin Chinese.

This comprehensive guide provides everything you need to start learning Chinese. It covers the basics of the language, effective study techniques, resources for beginners, and tips for becoming fluent. Follow these steps to begin your exciting journey into the Chinese language!

Part 1: Understanding Mandarin Chinese

The Benefits of Learning Chinese

There are many great reasons to learn Chinese Mandarin:

  • Over 1 billion people speak a variety of Chinese worldwide. Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan.
  • China has the world's second-largest economy. Knowing Chinese boosts employment opportunities and business connections.
  • Chinese culture is rich with over 5,000 years of history. Learn the language to fully appreciate traditions, food, holidays and more.
  • Chinese is a tonal language with different pitches and inflections. Tones make the language musical and expressive.
  • The writing system uses intricate characters instead of an alphabet. Written Chinese connects art and language.
  • Chinese has a flexible word order and no verb conjugation, though understanding nuance can be tricky.
  • China is filled with captivating landscapes like the Great Wall, bustling megacities like Shanghai, and delicious cuisine like Peking Duck.

Dialects of Chinese

There are between 7 and 13 main regional dialects of Chinese, depending on who you ask. The most widely spoken include:

  • Mandarin - Known in Chinese as 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà), Mandarin is the official standard language of Mainland China and Taiwan. All Chinese people learn Mandarin in school.
  • Cantonese - Spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macau, and by many overseas Chinese. Cantonese can be traditional or simplified.
  • Wu - Spoken in Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Shanghainese is a major dialect.
  • Min - Includes Hokkien, Taiwanese and Teochew. Used mainly in Fujian, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and by diaspora communities.
  • Hakka - Originated in Guangdong. Significant numbers of Hakka speakers live overseas.
  • Gan - Jiangxi and surrounding regions.
  • Xiang - Spoken in Hunan Province.
  • Hui - Spoken mainly in Anhui Province.

Though mutually unintelligible in speech, most dialects use the same written characters. As the official standard language, Mandarin is the best choice for beginners to learn.

Simplified vs Traditional Characters

Chinese is written using tens of thousands of characters called hanzi (汉字). There are two main systems of characters used today:

  • Simplified - Used in Mainland China and Singapore. Has fewer strokes per character.
  • Traditional - Used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. More elaborate forms.

In the 1950s-60s, characters were simplified by reducing strokes to improve literacy rates in Mainland China. For example, 骨 is the traditional character for "bone", while 骷 is the simplified form.

Beginners should choose either simplified or traditional based on where they plan to travel. Learning one will help you recognize some of the other, but they are not completely interchangeable.

Pinying System

Since Chinese characters do not indicate pronunciation, the pinying system was invented to represent the sounds of Mandarin using the Roman alphabet. Pinyin is used to teach pronunciation and typing.

For example, the pinyin for 你好 (hello) is nǐhǎo. The four tone marks indicate pitch contours. Pinyin takes some practice but is an indispensible tool for learners.

Part 2: Getting Started with Chinese

Learn the Fundamentals First

When beginning Chinese, start by working on these fundamental skills:

Pinyin - Learn the Romanized spelling system to determine pronunciation. Focus especially on tone marks.

Speaking & Listening - Imitate and repeat words out loud. Train your ear by listening to conversations.

Characters - Learn stroke order and start recognizing some basic hanzi.

Questions - Practice key question words like 什么 (what), 哪儿 (where) and 怎么样 (how).

Vocabulary - Build up high-frequency and practical vocabulary relevant to your life.

Culture - Understand cultural differences and taboos. Learn holiday greetings.

With daily practice, these basics will quickly fall into place!

Everyday Phrases to Start Conversations

Here are some of the most common Chinese phrases for beginners:

PinyinCharactersEnglishNǐ hǎo | 你好 | Hello
Zài jiàn | 再见 | Goodbye
Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì? | 你叫什么名字? | What's your name?
Wǒ jiào... | 我叫.... | My name is...
Nǐ néng jiǎng yīdiǎnr Putonghua ma? | 你能讲一点普通话吗? | Can you speak a little Mandarin?
Duìbuqǐ, wǒ bù dǒng | 对不起,我不懂 | Sorry, I don't understand
Qǐng nín shuō màn yīdiǎn | 请您说慢一点 | Please speak more slowly
Duōshǎo qián? | 多少钱? | How much does it cost?
Xièxiè | 谢谢 | Thank you

Practice these everyday Chinese phrases by introducing yourself, asking how much things cost, and interacting using basic etiquette.

Chinese Numbers 1-10

Here are the Chinese numbers from 1-10 to help you start counting, bargaining, and telling time:

PinyinCharactersyī | 一
èr | 二
sān | 三
sì | 四
wǔ | 五
liù | 六
qī | 七
bā | 八
jiǔ | 九
shí | 十

Some guidelines when counting:

  • Two-digit numbers are spoken with the largest digit first (21 is èr shí yī).
  • In phone numbers, add 零 (líng) for 0.
  • Use 半 (bàn) for half of numbers.
  • Dates are year, month then day like America.

Practice counting people, items and giving your phone number. Challenging yourself to count higher will grow your number sense.

Greetings for Common Occasions

Here are some greetings to celebrate holidays and ask how someone is doing:

PinyinCharactersOccasionShēngrì kuàilè | 生日快乐 | Happy birthday
Shēn tiān kuài lè | 圣诞快乐 | Merry Christmas
Xīnnián kuàilè | 新年快乐 | Happy new year
Chūnyuán jié kuàilè | 春元节快乐 | Happy Spring Festival
Nǐ hǎo ma? | 你好吗? | How are you?
Wǒ hěn hǎo | 我很好 | I'm fine

Use holidays and special events as opportunities to practice vocabulary and seasonal greetings.

Survival Words and Phrases

When traveling or living in China, these essential words and phrases will help you get around:

PinyinCharactersEnglishFángjiān | 房间 | Room
Cāntīng | 餐厅 | Restaurant
Qù | 去 | To go
Mǎi | 买 | To buy
Zài nǎlǐ? | 在哪里? | Where is it?
Duōshǎo qián? | 多少钱? | How much is it?
Kěyǐ qǐng nián yī bēi...? | 可以请年一杯....? | May I have one cup of...?

Use these words when checking into a hotel, ordering food, making purchases and interacting in public.

Essential Menu Vocabulary

When dining in Chinese restaurants, these are some key menu items to know:

PinyinCharactersEnglishMiàntiáo | 面条 | Noodles
Fàn | 饭 | Rice
Jīdàn | 鸡蛋 | Egg
Nǐuròu | 牛肉 | Beef
Yú | 鱼 | Fish
Táng | 汤 | Soup
Shǔcài | 蔬菜 | Vegetables

Many Chinese dishes also have their own unique names. Learn the words for your favorite foods to dive into the cuisine.

Part 3: Mastering Pronunciation

Pronunciation is key to making progress in Chinese. Follow these essential tips:

Learn Mandarin Tones

Mandarin Chinese has 4 main tones plus a neutral tone:

ToneDescriptionSymbolExample1st tone | High and flat | - | mā (mother)
2nd tone | Rising pitch | / | má (hemp)
3rd tone | Falling then rising | / | mǎ (horse)
4th tone | Falling pitch | \ | mà (scold)
Neutral | Short tone | No symbol | ma (particle)

Tones distinguish between words and change their meaning. Using incorrect tones leads to misunderstandings!

Repeat words with each tone until you can tell them apart reliably. Listen closely to identify tones when hearing new vocabulary.

Sound Out Syllables

Mandarin Chinese has simple syllables following consonant-vowel combinations with sometimes a medial or ending.

Syllables are made up of:

  • Initials - A starting consonant like "b" or "p"
  • Finals - A vowel (with or without a medial) like "i" or "iao"
  • Tone - The pitch contour marked above each syllable

For instance, bāo (包) breaks down into:

  • Initial - b
  • Final - ao
  • Tone - 1st

Listen carefully and practice pronouncing the individual parts of each new syllable.

Learn Proper Stroke Order

Chinese characters have a set stroke order that must be followed:

  1. Horizontal before vertical strokes
  2. Diagonals go top to bottom
  3. Center before outside in box frames
  4. Enclose the outside first when enclosing

Proper stroke order improves speed and memory for writing characters.

Use grid practice paper and trace characters, looking at animated gif diagrams to confirm stroke order. Remember to be slow and deliberate when first learning.

Shadow Conversations and Audio

After learning some vocabulary, listen to audio of native speakers and try shadowing what they are saying.

Pause after each sentence and repeat it out loud trying to match their pronunciation. Imitate their tone and intonation as closely as you can.

Making Chinese sounds is the fastest way for your brain and muscles to learn proper pronunciation.

Sing Chinese Children's Songs

Children's songs are perfect for beginners because of the simple grammar and melodies that lend themselves to memorization.

Listen to songs like 两只老虎 (Two Tigers) and 我有一只小毛驴 (I Have a Little Donkey) while reading lyrics and singing along.

The catchy melodies will help you pick up proper tones and pronunciation.

Part 4: Studying Characters

Chinese has over 50,000 characters, but 2,000 of the most common ones make up 95% of daily use. Follow these tips to tackle characters:

Learn Stroke Order Mnemonics

Assigning a simple phrase to the stroke order of a character makes it much easier to memorize.

For example 人 (person) can be broken into:

  1. Down
  2. Down
  3. Left slant
  4. Right slant

The phrase "Two legs to stand, two hands to work" matches this order.

Come up with memorable stories for each new character you learn.

Recognize Radicals and Components

All characters contain key parts known as radicals that hint at meaning. For example:

  • 氵indicates water
  • 木 indicates tree or wood
  • 女 indicates female

Plus, characters are composed of common components that repeat across different hanzi. For instance, 车 shows up in words for car, truck, etc.

Identify the radicals and components to help remember new characters.

Use SRS Flashcards and Spaced Repetition

Flashcards allow you to practice writing and recalling characters on a regular basis.

Use spaced repetition software like Anki or Skritter for maximum memorization. Reviewing at increasing intervals over time leads to long term retention.

Prioritize learning high-frequency characters first to get the most value.

Write Characters from Memory

After learning a character, practice writing it from memory rather than copying.

Recalling the strokes, stroke order, and components will help improve your memory and character recognition abilities.

Be patient with yourself here - character writing takes a lot of repetition before you can produce hanzi accurately from memory.

Learn Characters in Context

Seeing characters used properly in sentences and conversations reinforces the meanings and pronunciation.

Rather than studying characters individually, learn them as part of useful words and phrases. This vocabulary will make characters easier to remember.

Read plenty of example sentences and listen to audio to pick up characters in natural use.

Part 5: Effective Study Techniques

Follow these study methods and you'll make consistent progress learning Mandarin Chinese:

Create a Regular Study Routine

  • Schedule 30-60 minutes of active study time daily. This can be broken into two sessions.
  • Treat study time as important as other obligations and stick to the routine.
  • Study first thing in the morning when your mind is fresh, not right before bed.
  • Work in focused 25 minute periods followed by 5 minute breaks to stay sharp.

Consistency leads to significant progress over weeks, months and years.

Organize Study Materials in One Place

  • Print out vocabulary lists, grammar notes, flashcards and other study aids.
  • Keep all materials together in a dedicated notebook or binder.
  • Use section dividers, tabs and highlighters to make info easy to navigate.

Staying organized saves time and keeps all resources in one handy place.

Set Specific, Achievable Goals

  • Define your motivation and objectives for learning in the short and long term.
  • Set measurable goals like "learn 20 new characters weekly" or "pass HSK Level 2 in 6 months."
  • Make goals motivating yet realistic based on other time commitments.
  • Review progress periodically and adjust goals as needed.

Goals provide focus, structure and motivation to keep advancing.

Apply the 80/20 Rule

  • 80% of daily study time should focus on active usage - speaking, listening, reading and writing.
  • Limit passive studying of grammar rules, tones drills, etc to 20% or less.
  • Using Chinese regularly is what stimulates progress, not just studying it.

Focus the bulk of effort on active skills for fluency.

Think in Chinese as Much as Possible

  • Mentally describe surroundings, daily actions and plans in Chinese.
  • When learning vocabulary, avoid translating into English. Define words in Chinese instead.
  • Make Chinese responses automatic by minimizing reliance on English.

Thinking in Mandarin instead of translating makes expression feel natural.

Immerse Yourself in Authentic Resources

  • Listen to Chinese radio, watch TV shows, read books and engage with native materials.
  • Resources made for Chinese learners like graded readers are also helpful.
  • Look up words and characters you don't know as you go to grow vocabulary.

Immersion exposes you to more vocabulary, context and proper pronunciation.

Find a Language Partner to Practice Speaking

  • Use sites like HelloTalk to locate native Chinese partners online.
  • Meet up locally with language exchange partners if possible.
  • Set goals for each session like introducing yourself, making small talk, ordering food, etc.
  • Get corrections on tones, word usage and grammar in a helpful context.

Conversations with partners provide personalized feedback.

Make an Effort to Use Chinese Daily

  • Use target phrases, vocabulary and grammar you know when opportunities arise.
  • Apps like HelloChinese provide quick daily practice with bite-sized activities.
  • Label objects around your home or office with sticky notes of Chinese characters.

Regular usage of Mandarin reinforces skills and leads to fluency.

Part 6: Advanced Resources to Improve Skills

Here are

Continuing Advanced Resources

Listen to Chinese Podcasts

  • The ChinesePod is a popular podcast for learners with hundreds of lessons.
  • Their lessons include vocabulary, dialogues, grammar and culture designed for all levels.
  • Podcasts allow you to listen on the go during your commute, exercising, chores, etc.

Podcasts provide compelling lessons that are easy to fit into your day.

Watch Chinese TV and Movies

  • Watch Chinese films and TV series with subtitles in Chinese to grow listening comprehension.
  • Pay attention to the contexts vocabulary is used in as well as cultural references.
  • Start with content made for learners like Peppa Pig before trying more advanced material.

Seeing vocabulary used naturally in shows cements meanings.

Read Simple Books and Stories

  • Purchase or borrow graded readers that match your level like the Mandarin Companion series.
  • Read children's books with limited vocabulary and clear illustrations.
  • Look up new words and characters and add them to your vocabulary notebooks.

Reading reinforces characters and helps internalize sentence patterns.

Study with a Tutor or Take a Class

  • Find a private tutor locally or use an online service like Verbling to get personalized instruction.
  • Take lessons through language schools like the Confucius Institute or local colleges.
  • Classes provide structure, accountability and a community of fellow learners.

Guided instruction accelerates progress through feedback.

Use Spaced Repetition Flashcard Apps

  • Use digital SRS flashcard programs like Anki, Pleco or Skritter to master vocabulary.
  • Flashcard apps optimize memorization through spaced repetition.
  • Add pinyin, definitions in Chinese, audio, example sentences and character breakdowns to cards.

Smart flashcards make drilling vocabulary more effective.

Practice Writing with a Language Partner

  • Find a language exchange partner to write emails, journal entries or letters with.
  • Choose fun topics to write about like your daily routine, favorite foods, happiest memories, dream vacation, etc.
  • Get your writing corrected to improve grammar, word choice, spelling and organization.

Writing with a partner provides motivation and accountability.

Sign Up for a Language Learning App

  • Try apps like ChineseSkill, HelloChinese or LingoDeer that teach via engaging bite-sized lessons.
  • Apps allow you to review vocabulary and complete quick lessons during spare moments of downtime.
  • Select an app that aligns with your level and learning goals.

Apps are convenient for practicing regularly on your smartphone.

Make Chinese Part of Your Life

  • Change your smartphone, social media, streaming services and devices to Chinese.
  • Cook authentic Chinese recipes and learn the ingredient names as you cook.
  • Join WeChat groups, follow Chinese social media influencers or read Chinese news to increase exposure.

Surrounding yourself with Mandarin makes it a natural part of life.

Part 7: Getting From Intermediate to Advanced

Once you have a solid foundation, take your Chinese to advanced levels with:

Learn Chengyu and Idiomatic Expressions

Chengyu are 4 character idiomatic expressions that represent more complex ideas. For example:

  • 一箭双雕 (yì jiàn shuāng diāo) - kill two birds with one stone
  • 纸上谈兵 (zhǐ shàng tán bīng) - be an armchair general

Chengyu add flair to your speech like proverbs in English.

Study the Nuances Between Similar Words

Many Chinese words have related meanings that require using the precisely correct term. For instance:

PinyinCharacterMeaningZhuāngbié | 装备 | equipment
Bèihu | 备胡 | preparations
Bèijù | 备局 | standby

Pay attention to the exact usage to know which word fits a context.

Learn Colloquialisms and Slang

Speaking like a true local requires learning casual Chinese terminology. For instance:

  • 面条 (miàntiáo) - noodles
  • 老公 (lǎogōng) - husband
  • 酸 (suān) - annoying

Listen to conversations and media to pick up modern vernacular.

Master Advanced Grammar Principles

Later grammar skills like giving commands, the passive voice and relative clauses require lots of practice. For example:

  • 让我看看 (Ràng wǒ kànkan) - Let me see
  • 房子被烧毁了 (Fángzi bèi shāohuǐ le) - The house was burned down
  • 昨天写的信 (Zuótiān xiě de xìn) - The letter that was written yesterday

Studying advanced grammar allows more complex communication.

Learn Calligraphy Techniques

Practice Chinese calligraphy to perfect writing skills. Key skills include:

  • Proper brush grip
  • Angle and pressure control
  • Smooth, confident strokes
  • Creating variation in thickness
  • Achieving balance and proportion

Calligraphy hones fine motor skills for better handwriting.

Discuss Abstract Topics

Holding thoughtful discussions in Chinese requires an expansive vocabulary. Abstract topics include:

  • Philosophy
  • Emotions
  • Hypotheticals
  • Morality and ethics
  • Politics and global issues

Tackling complex themes demonstrates true fluency.

Study Classical Chinese

Classical Chinese was the literary standard until the early 20th century. Features include:

  • More concise grammar and omitted subjects
  • Extensive use of literary references and allusions
  • Fixed word order dating from ancient times

Classical Chinese offers insight into traditional culture.

Mastering Chinese to an advanced level allows you to use the language for anything. Set high goals and employ effective strategies to reach fluency. With the right approach, anyone can achieve Chinese proficiency.

  1. Learning Chinese for Beginners
  2. Learning a New Language
  3. How Long to Learn Mandarin?
  4. Mandarin Blueprint