Chinese for Beginners: 6 Basics You Absolutely Need to Learn First
Imagine learning a language with no cases, genders or tenses.
Believe it or not, those are just some of the many perks you’ll get when learning Mandarin Chinese!
Mandarin is often painted as one of the most difficult languages to learn.
But once you’re past a few challenges, you’ll realize that Mandarin isn’t all that challenging and that it’s actually a beautiful and logical language.
In this post, we’ll conquer six basics of the Chinese language for beginners, equipping you to take on intermediate and advanced Chinese!
- 1. Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese Characters
- 2. Pinyin
- 3. Chinese Tones
- 4. Chinese Stroke Order
- 5. Chinese Radicals
- 6. Daily Chinese Phrases
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
1. Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese Characters
There are a few factors to consider when deciding if you should learn simplified or traditional characters, such as the Chinese dialect you want to learn, who you’ll be communicating in Chinese with and where you’ll be traveling or moving to.
What Is Simplified Chinese?
Simplified Chinese is the standardized form of the Chinese script introduced in 1954. It’s used in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore.
With print media on the rise, the government implemented a script with fewer brushstrokes in the characters to increase literacy throughout the country.
Here are a few examples of Simplified characters:
这 (zhè) — this
来 (lái) — to come
爱 (ài) — to love
Mandarin speakers predominantly use Simplified Chinese, except Taiwanese Mandarin speakers who use traditional characters.
What Is Traditional Chinese?
Traditional Chinese is what the writing system looked like before it was standardized for the masses. It’s used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Traditional Chinese had been used for over a thousand years prior to its simplification in the 1950s. This writing system evolved considerably over time, but during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the script transformed into the Traditional characters we recognize today.
Here’s what the previously mentioned Simplified characters look like next to the Traditional form:
这 vs. 這
来 vs. 來
爱 vs. 愛
If you want to learn Cantonese instead—the most widely spoken Chinese dialect after Mandarin—you’ll need to learn Traditional Chinese. Cantonese is mainly spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong Province in the mainland.
Learn More About Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese
Not to be mistaken for a Chinese alphabet, pinyin is the phonetic system used as a pronunciation guide for Chinese characters. It’s also useful for typing in Chinese.
Pinyin was introduced around the time the government simplified the writing system to improve literacy rates, and it’s one of the first things you’ll learn when you start learning Chinese.
Pinyin is composed of initials and finals.
Initials are consonants that start off every single pinyin syllable, while finals are possible vowel combinations that follow the initials. Finals can be a singular vowel, a combo of vowels or a combo of vowels and consonants.
The pinyin consonants are b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, g, k, h, j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, c, s, y and w.
The pinyin vowels are a, e, i, o, u and ü.
Pinyin isn’t actually pronounced like the Latin alphabet that we recognize, but the good news is that all the pinyin sounds already exist in English. So it’s not a matter of unfamiliar sounds—it’s more about retraining your brain to read b as “bwo” instead of “bee.”
Here are the first four pinyin letters with an American pronunciation guide:
Learn More About Pinyin
3. Chinese Tones
Chinese uses tones to indicate the meaning of words.
There are only so many combinations you can make with pinyin vowels and consonants, and a lot of characters share the same pinyin spelling. Tone marks help you distinguish between those words with the same pinyin.
There are five tones:
- The first or flat tone (–), as in 妈 (mā) — “mother”
- The second or rising tone (/), as in 麻 (má) — “numb” or “hemp”
- The third or dipping tone (∨), as in 马 (mǎ) — “horse”
- The fourth or falling tone (\), as in 骂 (mà) — “to scold”
- The fifth or neutral tone (no tone mark), as in 吗 (ma) — a question particle
Most pinyin syllables will take one of the first four tone marks. The fifth one is only reserved for a small set of characters.
For pinyin syllables with one vowel, a tone mark should be placed on top of that vowel. For the pinyin shu, the tone mark would be placed above u, like in shū.
For vowel combinations, the tone mark would be placed according to this order of priority: a, o, e, i, u, ü.
So for the pinyin jiao, the tone mark would go above the a. For the pinyin jie, the tone mark would go above e.
Here’s what jiao and jie look like with the four main tones:
Pinyin might seem challenging at first, but it’s completely realistic to learn it in just one or two days.
Learn More About Chinese Tones
4. Chinese Stroke Order
At first appearance, Chinese characters—also known as hanzi—look extremely difficult to tackle. Thankfully, there’s a logical order to writing them.
Once you nail that order, you’ll know exactly how to approach every character out there.
Characters were originally created with a paintbrush, so the strokes are technically brushstrokes that you would see in Chinese calligraphy.
Generally, there are eight types of strokes. Many of these can be used together to create compound strokes:
- 丶, known as 点 (diǎn), meaning “dot”
- 一, known as 橫 (héng), meaning “horizontal stroke”
- 丨, known as 竖 (shù), meaning “vertical stroke”
- 丿, known as 撇 (piě), meaning “slant,” drawn right to left
- ⁄ , known as 提 (tí), meaning “raise,” drawn from left to right (the reverse of 撇)
- ㇏, known as 捺 (nà), meaning “forcefully pressing,” drawn from left to right
- ㇄, known as 弯 (wān), meaning “curve,” drawn from left to right
- 亅, known as 钩 (gōu), meaning “hook” (a little tick that’s normally part of a compound stroke)
Here are the basic rules of stroke order:
- Left to right, top to bottom
- Horizontal, then vertical
- Diagonal to the left, then diagonal to the right
- Draw the center structure first for vertically symmetrical characters
- Draw outside to inside before closing the frame for boxed characters
Learn More About the Chinese Stroke Order
5. Chinese Radicals
A Chinese character can be broken down into several parts or sections.
Some of these parts are known as radicals, which are building blocks of hanzi that can help you figure out a character’s pronunciation or meaning.
Radicals are also used to look up characters in a Chinese dictionary.
Let’s examine the character 妈 (mā), which means “mother.” 妈 can be broken into two parts:
女 (nǚ) — female
马 (mǎ) — horse
As you can see, the radical 女 acts as a semantic component since “female” and “mother” are related. 马 acts as a phonetic component since 妈 and 马 have the same pinyin spelling, just different tones.
Each character only has one radical, located at the left or top of the character, while the rest is comprised of components.
All in all, there are 214 radicals. But don’t panic—you don’t have to memorize them all! Most of these radicals double as simple characters you’ll learn as a beginner.
Learn More About Chinese Radicals
6. Daily Chinese Phrases
Prioritize learning words in context to see their correct usage rather than individual words from lists. This also makes learning grammar easier since you’ll better understand word order.
Plus, what’s taught in Chinese textbooks is often far too formal for regular everyday conversations.
For example, let’s talk about how you’d say “sorry” in Chinese.
An online translator and a straightforward wordlist might show the translation as 对不起 (duì bù qǐ). While technically correct, this is quite a formal way of apologizing that’s often reserved for more serious offenses.
For something minor—more of a “my bad” situation than an “I sincerely apologize” kind of circumstance—the better phrase to use is 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si).
Learn More About Daily Chinese Phrases
There might be a lot to go through here, but I promise you’re in good hands!
I hope this post gave you the jumpstart you needed to get ahead in Mandarin! If you’re ready to start studying, we’ve got tons of other guides you can read and videos you can watch on FluentU.
FluentU lets you learn Chinese with authentic videos. They each have subtitles you can click to see unknown words’ meanings, pronunciations, example sentences and add them to flashcard decks.
You’ve got everything you need to set you on the right path. Just remember to have fun and enjoy the learning process!