In Chinese, there’s a 成语 (chéngyŭ) — Chinese idiom that perfectly describes the determination of the hasty Mandarin learner: 快马加鞭 (kuài mă jiā biān).
This four-character idiom means “adding more whip to make the horse go faster.”
It’s like the English expression “giddy up!” and it can be applied to any situation where someone wants to go as fast as possible.
Mandarin may seem like a difficult language that takes years to master.
But approaching the challenge with a sense of fun will help you along your path to fluency.
Learning Mandarin also takes strategy, and there are several useful things you can do to speed up your learning journey.
Oftentimes, we try to rush the journey and find we should’ve spent more time on the basics.
So in this post, I’m going to lay out everything you need to know about Chinese language basics, and show you how mastering these will lead to smooth sailing in your Chinese learning journey.
I wish I had known about these hidden gems sooner, and I know incorporating them into your study practice is going to help you progress 快马加鞭-style!
5 Tips for Mastering Chinese Language Basics
Don’t learn words in isolation.
In other words, learn the dialogue, not the vocabulary list.
When learning Chinese language basics, you’re going to encounter vocabulary lists.
For many language learners, lists can be quite demotivating at least and intimidating at worst. Despite this, vocabulary lists are incredibly useful if used in the right way.
My tip here is simple: use vocabulary lists as a word reference and not something to memorize.
Even if you can retain vocabulary words by themselves fairly well, it’s no good if you don’t have a better feeling for the actual language and how different parts of speech fit together.
To get the best of both worlds, study the dialogue or text in-depth instead and consult the vocab list when necessary.
For example, if you’re one for writing notes, I would suggest the following structure (vocabulary word + example sentences to provide context):
明天 (míngtiān) — tomorrow
他说了明天很热 (tā shuō le míngtiān hěn rè) — he said it will be hot tomorrow.
明天有空吗? (míngtiān yŏu kòng ma?) — are you free tomorrow?
Writing down several sentences that contain the new word will help you understand its usage, and give you a better sense of basic Chinese grammar.
Learn your measure words.
I don’t hear this one discussed often, but with hindsight, it’s something I wish I had done more as a beginner.
In Mandarin, we need to use measure words (量词 — liàngcí) between a number or specifier (words like “this” and “that”) and a noun.
So to say “this book,” you’d say 这本书 (zhè běn shū) because 本 (běn) is the measure word for 书 (shū).
The most common measure word is 个 (gè) but there are quite a few that are used for specific types of nouns.
As a beginner, you quickly learn that 个 can be used as a last resort if you can’t remember a noun’s specific measure word.
To start with this is great, but it can hold you back at the more advanced stages if you want to sound more native-like in speaking and writing.
Learning measure words now is going to save you lots of time in the intermediate and advanced stages.
To get you started, here’s a list of some of the most common measure words in Mandarin:
- 条 (tiáo) is used for long skinny objects, streets and fish
- e.g. 那条鱼 (nà tiáo yú) — that fish
- 位 (wèi) is used for people (formal)
- e.g. 几位? (jĭ wèi?) — how many people (formal)?
- 张 (zhāng) is used for objects with flat surfaces
- e.g. 一张桌子 (yī zhāng zhuōzi) — a table
- 只 (zhī) is used for small animals or body parts
- e.g. 一只猫 (yī zhī māo) — a cat
- 双 (shuāng) is used for things that come in pairs
- e.g. 一双鞋 (yī shuāng xié) — a pair of shoes
- 首 (shŏu) is used for poems and songs
- e.g. 每首歌 (měi shŏu gē) — every song
- 本 (běn) is used for “volumes” of things, such as books
- e.g. 这本书 (zhè běn shū) — this book
- 部 (bù) is used for machinery, vehicles and films
- e.g. 那部电影 (nà bù diànyĭng) — that film
- 块 (kuài) is used for pieces of things
- e.g. 一块蛋糕 (yī kuài dàngāo) — a piece of cake
- 辆 (liàng) is used for wheeled vehicles (but not trains)
- e.g 这辆车 (zhè liàng chē) — this car
Don’t stress about handwriting characters.
“Do I really need to handwrite characters?”
The answer is it depends.
In the real world, I haven’t once been required to handwrite Chinese. Usually, I just type in pinyin on my laptop or phone and choose my characters as I go.
But in the beginning, so much of my time was devoted to handwriting Chinese characters repeatedly. But the ability to recall singular characters isn’t super useful in isolation as I didn’t actually improve my Chinese fluency.
Thinking about it now, all that time could’ve been put towards listening, reading, speaking and (digital) writing—skills I consistently depend on.
I should stress my point here that learning to handwrite characters isn’t always a waste of time, but it wasn’t my intent for using Mandarin.
Identify what you intend to use Mandarin for and build your practice around that to see faster results.
For example, if you’d like to become a Mandarin teacher or want to practice the beautiful art of calligraphy, then learning to handwrite characters is very helpful. Skritter is a great resource for nailing down your stroke order to conquer even the most tricky of characters.
Also, be sure to check out FluentU’s guide to mastering Chinese characters for some great and insightful tips.
Love your materials and have fun!
Human brains like to have fun.
And from personal experience, enjoying myself through using resources I’m actually interested in has helped my language skills tremendously.
Naturally, this looks different for everyone. Whether that means reading a blog about your C-Pop idol, playing a video game in Mandarin or diving into a manhua comic romance, getting lost in your favorite things means getting ahead with your Chinese.
But while you’re still acquiring the Chinese language basics, watching fun Chinese content can be a bit frustrating, since you won’t be able to understand it all.
But you aren’t out of options!
My tip is to look for adapted materials such as graded readers like those published by Mandarin Companion or adapted news stories such as in The Chairman’s Bao.
Pop songs usually contain repetitive, simple and emotive vocabulary—why don’t you try “生而为赢” (shēng ér wéi yíng) — “Born to Win” by 火箭少女 (huŏjiàn shàonŭ) — “The Rocket Girls.”
Use FluentU to learn Chinese language basics with internet videos.
Want to enjoy all Chinese media, not just those adapted for beginners?
With FluentU, you can watch the same internet videos that native speakers enjoy even as an absolute beginner.
Choose from hundreds of videos in FluentU’s library, each sorted according to level. Each video includes key vocabulary and grammar points to learn, but if you come across a word you still can’t understand, simply click on it in the subtitles to instantly see translations, images and example sentences.
But what good is learning words if you can’t remember them?
FluentU uses a spaced repetition software (SRS) flashcard system, which stores words in your long-term memory. When studying words with SRS flashcards, it’s nearly impossible to forget them!
If you’re ready to start mastering Chinese language basics (and eventually reach fluency) with your favorite internet content, sign up for a free trial today!
Chinese Language Basics: The Vocab You Need to Know Plus 5 Tips for Mastery
Now that you’re equipped with the tips and methods you need for mastering Chinese language basics, let’s learn a few!
10 Basic Chinese Greetings
- 你好 (nĭ hăo) — hello
- 您好 (nín hăo) — hello (formal)
- 再见 (zài jiàn) — goodbye
- 你吃饭了吗 (nĭ chī fàn le ma?) — generic greeting (lit: did you eat?)
- 早（上好）(zăo (shang hăo)) – good morning
- 下午好 (xiàwŭ hăo) — good afternoon
- 晚上好 (wănshang hăo) — good evening
- 晚安 (wăn ān) — good night
- 大家好 (dàjiā hăo) — hello everyone
- 下次见 (xià cì jiàn) — see you next time
- 明天见 (míngtiān jiàn) — see you tomorrow
8 Basic Chinese Survival Phrases
- 谢谢 (xièxie) — thank you
- 非常好 (fēicháng hăo) — that’s great!
- 不用谢 (bù yòng xiè) — you’re welcome (lit: don’t use thanks)
- 请问… (qĭng wèn) — may I ask…
- 你叫什么名字? (nĭ jiào shénme míngzi?) — what’s your name?
- 现在几点? (xiànzài jĭ diăn?) — what’s the time?
- 厕所在哪儿 (cèsuŏ zài năr?) — where is the toilet?
- 我明白 (wŏ míngbai) — I understand
Talking About Time
- 前天 (qiántiān) — the day before yesterday
- 昨天 (zuótiān) — yesterday
- 今天 (jīntiān) — today
- 明天 (míngtiān) — tomorrow
- 后天 (hòutiān) — the day after tomorrow
Weeks, Months and Years
- 星期 (xīngqī) — week
- 周 (zhōu) — week
- 月 (yuè) — month
- 年 (nián) — year
- 十年 (shí nián) — decade
- 世纪 (shìjì) — century
- 周末 (zhōumò) — weekend
- 工作日 (gōngzuò rì) — weekday
- 点 (diăn）— o’clock
- 一刻 (yīkè) — quarter past
- 差一刻 (chà yīkè) — quarter to
- 时钟 (shí zhōng) — clock
- 秒 (miăo) — second
- 分钟 (fēnzhōng) — minute
- 半小时 (bàn xiăoshí) — half an hour
- 小时 (xiăoshí) — hour
- 手表 (shŏubiăo) — watch
Must-know Chinese Adverbs of Frequency
- 很少 (hĕnshăo) — hardly, rarely
- 有(的)时候 (yŏu(de) shíhou) — sometimes
- 常常 (chángcháng) — often
- 平时 (píngshí) — usually
- 总是 (zŏngshì) — always
- 从来不 (cóng lái bù) — never
So there you have it!
I hope with these tips and phrases you’ll be able to quickly cover ground on some of these Chinese language basics.
Building a smarter study routine with regular practice is definitely going to help you move into more advanced content quickly and impress all of your native Mandarin friends with your unbelievable progress.
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