Essential Things to Know Before You Begin Learning Chinese
Learning Chinese is such a worthwhile pursuit. The Chinese language is a key that unlocks potential communication with an additional 1 billion fellow inhabitants on earth — a truly amazing skill. This article is an early-stage guide for those who have set off on this journey.
Here are CLI’s top 8 things to know before you start learning Chinese:
1. Learning Chinese is a worthwhile pursuit
Learning a new language takes effort, patience, and willingness to learn from mistakes. Believe it or not, it’s also a fun and fulfilling pursuit! While many people consider Chinese, or Zhōngwén (中文), to be a difficult language to grasp, it’s definitely not as tough to begin learning as people tend to believe!
In fact, after only a few months of diligent study, many students are able to order food, ask for directions, travel, talk about their interests, and even have basic conversations with other learners and native speakers.
The rewards don’t end there! The name “Standard Mandarin,” or ‘pǔtōnghuà’ (普通话), literally means ‘common language.’ This name hints at the fact that, as a national dialect of Mainland China, Mandarin is spoken by more than 900 million people globally, making it the most spoken language in the world!
This is just another reason why learning Mandarin is so rewarding. Knowing how to speak this versatile and fascinating language, even just the basics, will open doors for you when it comes to traveling around China and exploring Chinese culture.
In addition, China has become an international economic and business superstar, so being able to communicate in Mandarin will be an incredible asset and tool for you to use in your professional life.
2. Mandarin is a tonal language
Before you start learning Chinese, keep in mind that, like pitches in music, different Chinese characters have different tones. This is what we mean when we say Chinese is ‘tonal’.
Standard Mandarin has four distinct tones (five if you consider the neutral tone) which give a variety of meanings to words that otherwise consist of the same mix of consonants and vowels.
Because tones are such an important aspect of a word’s meaning, knowing the correct tones is a critical component of learning Chinese. This, in particular, is what can make Chinese a difficult language to learn, but with enough practice, and by improving your Chinese listening skills, you’ll be able to distinguish between and use the proper tones when conversing! Improving your knowledge of tones will help you avoid making common tone mistakes.
3. Chinese reading and writing is fascinating, and very different than English
Unlike English, which uses a Latin-based alphabet, Chinese is written in characters called ‘hànzì’ (汉字). Characters are fascinating, and each one has its own unique background, structure, and method of construction (which we call stroke order).
As a new Chinese language learner, reading and writing characters can be unfamiliar and can take some time and patience to learn, especially because there are over 50,000 of them (though even an educated Chinese person typically knows only around 5,000 characters)!
Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources for reading and writing Chinese (just a few of which are mentioned in section 7 of this article below). If you carve out time every day to study and practice, you’ll find yourself both understanding and being understood in no time!
4. Pīnyīn, your Rosetta Stone to the Chinese language
Pīnyīn (拼音) is the official romanization system used to teach standard Mandarin in mainland China. It is a learning tool that includes four diacritical marks denoting the tones.
Although pīnyīn is written using the English alphabet and many of its letters are pronounced the same way as in English, some pronunciations are different, which can be confusing for beginners. Review CLI’s Pinyin Chart and Cheat Sheet for further insight!
5. Chinese grammar is way easier than you think
Learning grammar structures can be tricky no matter what language you’re studying. It’s true, however, that the basic Chinese grammar structure is very similar to the grammatical structure of English in many respects. In fact, both languages use a subject-verb or subject-verb-object pattern.
For example, if you want to say “I drink water” you would say “我喝水” (wǒ hē shuǐ). 我 wǒ = ‘I’, 喝 hē = ‘drink’, and 水 shuǐ = ‘water’. It’s helpful for those who have decided to learn Chinese to understand this basic similarity in grammar structures because it can make the learning process more straightforward.
Remember, there are no verb conjugations in Chinese, something which will come as a relief to anyone who has ever tried to learn a Romance language like Spanish or French.
6. The best Chinese speakers and listeners practice all the time
If you’re new to studying Mandarin, it can often be difficult to grasp what native speakers are saying. This might be because of the speaker’s pace, their use of unfamiliar vocabulary, or both.
By the same token, if you haven’t had a chance to practice your Chinese aloud with another person, you may find, for example, that you’re using incorrect tones, which will make it difficult for your conversation partner to understand what you’re trying to say.
Therefore, it’s very important that you set aside and commit time each day to both listening and speaking Mandarin. Depending on your learning style, this can be done in a variety of ways.
If you like to learn in a group setting, you can go online to see if there are any Chinese language clubs or groups that meet regularly in or near your city.
If you prefer to practice speaking in a one-on-one setting, consider hiring a Chinese tutor, or signing up for online Chinese classes in a virtual classroom.
Outside of the classroom, there are some great listening tools such as podcasts, downloadable Chinese lessons, and more, all of which will help you improve your Chinese listening and comprehension.
7. Pick the right Chinese learning materials
As you embark on your quest to master Mandarin, you might find yourself feeling anxious about how long it will take to truly grasp the language.
While it’s true that on average Mandarin proficiency takes longer to achieve than, for instance, many popular Latin-based languages like Spanish or French, there’s an abundance of helpful techniques and resources you can use to rapidly accelerate your learning.
Although the fastest way to become fluent in Mandarin is via Chinese immersion, it’s easy to learn remotely using your computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Read on to discover some of our favorite Mandarin resources and tools!
The Chairman’s Bao (TCB)
TCB is a comprehensive and interactive news-based reading and listening website for Chinese language learners. After signing up for a paid subscription (with affordable plans available for individuals and schools), you’ll have access to over 6,000 lessons on a variety of engaging topics ranging in difficulty from HSK Level 1 through HSK Level 6.
The reason so many Chinese learners love this resource is because it incorporates a wide variety of genuinely interesting and relevant topics into the language learning process.
Beginners especially appreciate and benefit from TCB not only because they can learn at their own level and pace, but also because they’re able to hear the news stories being read aloud as they follow along. What’s more, learners can easily pause to select unfamiliar characters and see their definitions. TCB can be accessed via its website or downloadable app!
Pleco is one of the best Chinese dictionary apps out there, in our opinion! It has a variety of features, including audio to help with pronunciation, customizable and downloadable Chinese flashcards, a search feature that allows users to find characters by drawing them on their screen, and more!
We think Pleco is one of the most helpful tools that any language learner, beginner or advanced, can utilize because of its many features, ease of use, and portability. You won’t need to carry around a Chinese dictionary if you have Pleco in your pocket!
Yoyo Chinese is a great program for learners who want to take structured courses. The program includes 6 comprehensive 6-month courses, over 1000 videos with quizzes and flashcards, and it’s all presented from an English-speaker’s perspective!
Many beginners feel it’s easier to start learning a language in a more traditional, class-based setting. If you don’t have physical access to a class, you may find that taking a virtual course like Yoyo Chinese suits your needs.
Check out CLI’s review of Yoyo Chinese to learn more about this option.
If you’re ready to have a crack at learning to write some hànzì (Chinese characters), Skritter is a great tool. Simply by downloading the app to your mobile device, you can study and learn to write characters from textbooks, user-created lists, and your own lists.
You’ll learn each character’s stroke order and receive instant feedback. Many beginners find learning how to write hànzì daunting, and while the process can be challenging (and certainly requires patience), utilizing Skritter makes it much easier and will really enhance your understanding of how characters are written.
Plus, if you’re able to correctly write characters, you’ll be able to communicate with native speakers not only by conversing but also through your writing! If learning to write characters is something that interests you, learn more about this useful tool by reading what CLI has to say about Skritter!
8. Stay focused on your aim
Language learners will encounter challenges at any level—that’s part of the process. Remember that this is normal, expected, and always an opportunity to remind yourself why you’re learning the language in the first place.
Maybe you’re thinking of traveling to China. Perhaps you want to be able to communicate with Chinese friends and family. It could be that your professional life would benefit from you knowing Mandarin. You might just love to learn languages.
Your purpose could be one, none, or all of these, but whatever it is, keeping it in the forefront of your mind will help you push past any learning roadblocks you encounter, make the entire journey more meaningful, and help you accomplish your goals!
We’re just as excited as you are that you want to learn Chinese, and we hope this article has helped you as you begin your studies. If you’re looking to enhance your learning experience, even more, we hope we’ll see you at CLI! Nŭlì xuéxí (努力学习, ‘study hard’) and have fun!
Chinese Vocabulary Related to Studying Chinese
|普通话||Pǔtōnghuà||Mandarin Chinese; common language|
|拼音||pīnyīn||official romanization system for Mandarin|
|努力学习||nŭlì xuéxí||study hard|
|口语||kǒuyǔ||speaking; spoken language|
|看书||kànshū||read (a book); study|
|小学||xiǎoxué||primary school; elementary school|
|初中||chūzhōng||junior high school; middle school|
|练习||liànxí||exercise (in a book); practice|
|上课||shàngkè||attend class; go to class|