How to Learn the Basics of Mandarin Chinese

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Intro (jièshào)

In this post I will be laying the foundations of how a person would go about (in my opinion and experience) learning Mandarin Chinese. I will present 3 basic points that will get the learner off on a flying start to mastering the Chinese language.

Pinyin (pīnyīn)

In my opinion, the only thing that causes people to say that Chinese is a hard language is because of the writing system. Let's take the writing system out of the equation until the lower intermediate stages.


Because the Chinese writing system (hànzì 汉字) is like another language entirely, it does not tell you how to pronounce it (not for a beginner anyway!) and there is simply too many characters to learn that it will be overwhelming to the language learner.

Needless to say, learning spoken Chinese and written Chinese is pretty like learning two different languages.

This is where pinyin comes in. Pinyin is a romanization of spoken Chinese and onces the rules are learned then progress in the language is far more rapid than if one where to learn both spoken and written Chinese.

There are 4 tones in Standard Mandarin and they are represented by tone marks on top of the vowels when writing in pinyin (again these tones are not written down in hànzì which adds yet another layer of difficulty for the learner).

However my advice here from experience in learning Chinese is to not worry about the tones, simply listen to how Chinese words and sentences are spoken and simply mimic the rhythm (more on this in a later blog).

There is a great course that teaches Mandarin Chinese through a 3-book series. The first book is taught in Pinyin, check it out here by clicking the image below:

The Spoken Language (kǒuyǔ)

A language learning 'hack' that you can employ when starting Chinese (and any other language) is to learn the set phrases most commonly used. 

Below is a set patterns in Chinese using Pinyin (I will be making a video that accompanies this blog soon, until then you can find good videos on Youtube on Pinyin pronunciation and you can also buy the above book for a more intensive learning experience):

  • níhǎo (hello)
  • níhǎo ma? (how are you?)
  • wó hén hǎo (I'm well)

This pattern is very easy to master so I will explain a bit here and give you some more words so that you can see how easy it really is.

'wó hén hǎo' - I am + adjective

All you need to do is to swap 'hǎo' with another adjective. Here is a few examples:

  • wó hěn lèi (I'm tired) 
  • wó hěn máng (I'm busy)
  • wó hěn gāoxìng (I'm happy)

With the phrase 'níhǎo ma?' you can just replace 'hǎo' with an adjective. It is as simple as that:

  • nǐ lèi ma? (are you tired?)
  • nǐ máng ma? (are you busy?)
  • nǐ gāoxìng ma? (are you happy?)

Now to say that you are not happy, just replace hěn with bù:

  • wǒ bù hǎo (I'm not good)
  • wǒ bù gāoxìng (I'm not happy)
  • wǒ bù máng (I'm not busy)

Already you can have a very basic and very brief chat with your Chinese friend (who will be impressed!):

  • nǐ máng ma? - wǒ bù máng, wó hěn lèi

Practise With a Chinese Person (gēn zhōngguórén liáotiān)

The above is only one set pattern among many that are easy to master and I will be exposing them to you in this series of articles.

The next step is to find a Chinese partner to practise these set phrases on, to play around with substituting words. For example, a conversation could go like this:

nǐmáng ma?
wǒ bù máng, wó hěn lèi. Nǐ ne? (and you?)
wó hén mǎng, wǒ bù gāoxìng

A very short conversation indeed but look again at what you are saying, you are actually speaking Chinese! You don't need to worry about the writing so you have made quite an impressive start just by learning this simple lesson.

Now of course you wouldn't ask your Chinese friend to write to you as he would write in Chinese, so this forces you to get on a Skype call with him or her and actually converse. A lot of people are afraid of speaking and it is that that hinders rapid progress in the early stages.

You can make a lot of Chinese friends by going to sites like italki and Interpals

Conclusion (jiélùn)

Now you are set to start learning Mandarin Chinese by hitting the ground running. You are going to focus on Pinyin to quickly learn the pronunciation and the basics of the language without having to learn a writing system that would take you twice as long to learn.

With the Pinyin and pronunciation in check, you are going to learn the basic patterns of Chinese and find that the grammar is actually quite simple, as you will find out in my future articles.

Then you will practise these patterns with a Chinese partner which will rapidly improve your lsitening comprehension, your pronunciation, and the speed of which you say Chinese sentences will increase exponantially.

For further assistance with learning Chinese through Pinyin then check out the book I mentioned above. Here is the link again, just click on the image to take you to it:

Remember that learning any language is about consistency and dedication. As long as you don't quit, then success will surely be yours!

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step

qiānlǐ zhīxíng, shǐyú zù xià

- lǎozǐ

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