Are you beginning your journey through Mandarin Chinese?
It feels pretty overwhelming, right?
There’s the whole tone thing and the scary spoken speed of native speakers (say that ten times fast!).
Then you’ve got the wildly unfamiliar terrain of 汉字 (hàn zì), or the Chinese alphabet.
Even the most hardcore beginner might find themselves quickly overwhelmed and lost soon after they’ve made the decision to learn Chinese.
But don’t fret, newbie!
It doesn’t have to be a complicated journey at all.
In fact, the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese is, quite simply, to learn the language step by step.
It’s important to realize that to native English speakers, learning Chinese isn’t like learning, say, Spanish.
Most new Spanish learners already know how tones, basic sentence structure and other aspects of the Spanish language work because a pretty big portion of modern English comes from Romance and Latinate influences.
But Chinese? Chinese is a completely different ballpark of sentence structure, tones, slang, alphabet, writing and everything in between.
Before you get discouraged, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll find learning Chinese more “difficult” (or less fun!) than any other language, just that there are certain practical factors you need to take into account.
To put it simply, you’ll absolutely need to break down your language learning plan into steps to avoid being overwhelmed.
There are several reasons why.
The Benefits of Step-by-step Chinese Learning
- Learning Chinese in steps ensures you won’t just pick and choose what to learn. Sure, you can decide to just learn how to speak Mandarin Chinese. But in order to fully understand Mandarin speech, you’ll need to understand 拼音 (pīn yīn), or Chinese romanization. And if you want to learn how to write in Chinese, you’ll need to learn how to speak it as well. Mandarin Chinese is a full package—not just bits and pieces.
- You have to learn a whole new set of rules. Like we mentioned above, Chinese is a whole different ballpark of a language for native English speakers. When you have to unlearn what you know about sentence structure, the concept of an alphabet and tones, learning Chinese with a specific plan is much more effective.
- It’s a less overwhelming approach. Learning any new language can be overwhelming, especially a language like Chinese.
- If you really want to learn the language, it’s necessary to get a full education in Mandarin Chinese (pīn yīn, hàn zì and speech) rather than just cherry picking certain parts of the language for travel. Whether you want to travel briefly and have a working knowledge of Chinese or you want to become a professional fluent Mandarin speaker, you’ll need to learn all aspects of Chinese in a step-by-step fashion to really absorb and retain the necessary knowledge and understanding.
Learn Mandarin Chinese Step by Step: The Newbie’s Road Map
1. Gather your essentials
There are several different things you’ll need in order to start your Chinese learning journey (and along the way):
- An internet connection. If you’re not taking a formal class in school, then the internet will be your teacher. Many of the best resources you can use for learning Chinese (such as most of those below) can be found online.
- A Chinese-English dictionary. You should be able to find a dictionary at your library or online.
- A notebook and pencil. In order to practice Chinese traditional or simplified characters, you’ll need to get your writing on. And a lot of it.
- Worksheets. Worksheets are a helpful tool for practicing speech as well as writing, so they’re good to have on hand for working on specific topics. Teachers Pay Teachers, despite the name of the site, offers plenty of free Chinese language worksheets that students can download and use on their own.
- E-books. There are many Chinese e-books out there, whether textbooks or literature, for practicing hàn zì reading, and they’re often cheaper and more convenient than print materials. You can find many e-books for various Chinese language levels and focuses on VitalSource, a site where you can save money by renting or buying e-books on many subjects, including Mandarin Chinese.
- Apps and other practice resources. Applications for your smartphone or tablet are extremely helpful for casual language practice. FluentU’s Chinese blog and Chinese immersion program (and there’s an app for that at the iTunes and the Google Play stores) are excellent resources as well.
- A comfortable, quiet place to learn. Find a place where you can be unbothered, away from distractions, where you can verbally practice your Chinese without being interrupted.
2. Gain a basic understanding of how tones work
Ah, tones. They’re one of the main hurdles of learning Chinese that throws new learners off. However, tones are rather simple once you understand how they work.
Unless you’re completely tone deaf (and even if you are!) you can and should use tones to speak.
Here’s one example of how using correct tones makes a difference:
- 妈 (mā) — mother
- 骂 (mà) — scold
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
- 吗 (ma) — equivalent of a question mark (?) for formal questions
- 麻 (má) — hemp
All of these may sound like “ma” to the untrained ear, but they all are pronounced completely differently and mean completely different things. This is why some may perceive Chinese speakers as speaking at a louder volume in casual conversation; because Chinese is so tonal, each syllable must be easy to hear and decipher.
Okay, so how do you learn them? Start with this great video, which demonstrates the differences between tones when spoken well.
The Chinese Language Institute’s Pinyin Cheat Sheet is also very useful for figuring out tones.
Don’t move on until you really get tones. If you’re not a pro at using them, that’s just fine. Practice makes perfect! Just be sure that you can at least grasp how they work before moving on.
3. Start gaining an understanding of how the Chinese alphabet works
The Chinese alphabet, in both its simplified and traditional forms, is a very lovely visual language. It’s also quite a complicated one. Time to get that pencil and paper ready, because you’re going to be doing a lot of written practice.
First, it’s necessary to understand pīn yīn. Pīn yīn is the romanization of Chinese words. Each individual syllable represents its own Chinese character. As we mentioned above, the tones determine exactly how the word is spoken.
Chinese characters, or hàn zì, are the real deal Chinese alphabet. Hàn zì are often broken up into “components,” also known as “radicals.” These components can be characters by themselves or can be part of two or three other components that compose a single character. Each character can represent part of a word or an entire word.
It’s tricky to get how they work, but eventually, components can become really helpful. If you see a new character and are unsure of its meaning, but you understand the common meanings of one of its components, you can use context clues to figure out what word the new character represents.
You can start learning pīn yīn with the tips and resources in this post. There are many resources out there that can break down the stroke patterns of hàn zì so you can practice writing more efficiently. I recommend “Simplified Chinese Characters – Book 1″ for stroke order, and “Tian Zi Ge Paper Notebook” for Chinese writing practice.
Below we’ll get into how to integrate Chinese writing into a regular learning and practice routine.
4. Start learning some common phrases and vocabulary
Passing Chinese phrases can be helpful to know if you’re already traveling in a Chinese-speaking area, so it’s good to start with the basics.
Here are a few of the big ones:
- 你好! (nǐ hǎo!) — Hi!
- 你好吗? (nǐ hǎo ma?) — How are you?
- 早安! (zǎo ān!) — Good morning!
- 回头见! (húi tóu jiàn!) — Goodbye! / See you later!
- 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?) — What is your name?
- 我叫… (wǒ jiào…) — My name is…
- 我听不懂 (wǒ tīng bù dǒng) — I don’t understand
- 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào) — I don’t know
- 对不起 (duì bù qǐ) — I’m sorry
- 谢谢 (xiè xie) — Thank you
- 不客气 (bú kè qi) — No problem / (A response to an apology or a “thank you”)
- 厕所在哪里? (cè suǒ zài nǎ li?) — Where is the bathroom? (Trust us, you’ll be glad you know this one)
- 生日快樂! (shēng rì kuài lè!) — Happy birthday!
You can find a Mandarin phrasebook with many more useful everyday phrases to continue your practical Chinese studies on the Lonely Planet website, along with an audio CD to help you practice your pronunciation as you’re learning and picking up vocabulary.
5. Using your newfound knowledge and resources, begin practicing Chinese writing, reading and speech regularly
Learning a language takes time. Because of this, you’ll need to really stick to a schedule if you wish to become fluent. Most learners that aren’t part of a formal class will need around 30 minutes of lesson time a day, five days a week, plus another 15 minutes a day of practice. And that’s at a minimum!
There is where downloading a Chinese language app can be a great way to fit in practice time if your schedule doesn’t really permit.
Follow this regimen to fit in a continuation of all the steps above during your 45-minute lesson and practice time:
- Keep all your study materials in a quiet, undisturbed area.
- Start with picking up new words or phrases in pīn yīn and practice their pronunciation out loud and on paper. You can pick out a lot of words and phrases from your dictionary or phrasebook, or just a few to keep the lesson less intense.
- Practice writing the hàn zì patterns for each word in your notebook or on a worksheet. You want to be able to associate the pīn yīn of a word with its hàn zì translation.
- Review phrases and words from your previous lesson to refresh your memory and work on characters you were struggling with.
But what about fluency? The best way to kick up your studies and become fluent in any language is to bite the bullet and make some Chinese-speaking friends. You’ll also want to stop binge-watching English-language television for a while and get into Chinese television. By exposing yourself to Chinese cinema and therefore fluent Chinese dialogue regularly, you’ll begin to get a feel for how real fluent Chinese sounds. What’s better than learning something and being entertained at the same time?
As you can see, Chinese doesn’t have to be so tough to learn, especially when you have an in-depth lesson plan to follow step by step.
Go out there and learn Chinese the organized way!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.