How To Learn Chinese: Complete Beginners Guide


In this guide:

  • Tones
  • Pronunciation
  • Radicals
  • Basic expressions
  • 100 most common words

So you’ve decided to embark upon the great journey of
Chinese language acquisition. Well, great adventurer, it will be a great
journey indeed. Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages for an
English speaker to learn and for good reason. There are thousands of
characters, no set alphabet, four tones, and a way of expression that I like to
call ‘time efficient communication’. We won’t go into that too much right now,
because if you’re reading this I assume you are only just beginning to study
Chinese. However, in a nutshell, Chinese is like texting language. You shorten
words or omit words to get the message across more quickly. That is exactly
what Chinese is! Several words are omitted and others are shortened to get as
much information out in fewer words. Hence, ‘time efficient communication’.
I’ll talk about that in a post for intermediate/advanced learners.

So if you’re a beginner, which I assume you are, there are a
few VERY IMPORTANT things you need to know before your proceed.

1. Although there are around 50,000 characters, you
only need to know 2,000 – 3,000 to read most things (isn’t that great!)

2. It takes twice as long to learn Mandarin than it
does to learn French (estimated 2,000 teaching hours)

3. Cantonese has nine tones, Mandarin only has four
(so count yourself lucky!)

4. Many Chinese people say Mandarin has no grammar,
and for the most part they’re right. It’s very logical and makes a lot of
common sense if you think about it. All of this is to say that Chinese grammar
is very easy.

5. It is said that to consider yourself fluent you
must learn around 10,000 vocabulary words (separate from characters)

Okay, with the statistics out of the way. Here are my tips
for beginners.

1. Study the Tones Like Your Life Depends on It

It is CRUCIAL. Let me say that again. It is C R U C I A L. To
cement a firm understanding of tones in the BEGINNING of your studies. Whatever
mistakes you learn in the beginning will be VERY hard to fix later. So make
sure you drill the living hell out of them. Start with easy to pronounce words
like ‘ma’ and add the four tones on them. Also note how the tone changes the
meaning. Note the meaning changes, it may help. If you are self studying and know
a Chinese speaker, ask them to do some exercises with you. You can:

Read the tone then you guess which one (1st,
2nd ,3rd or 4th)

Read the tone and they tell you if you’re correct
or incorrect

Repeat after them when they read a tone

If you are self studying and do not know a Chinese speaker,
you can get a tutor or watch several videos online. I will list a few that I
like at the end of the post. If you are in a class, make sure to drill the tones
outside of class for a least 15 minutes a day. Listen to the tones first then
repeat after them for 15 minutes. Then try recording yourself and comparing it
to some audio. You can use YABLA chart for audio.
Because you haven’t learned pronunciation, just stick to the simple words like
ma, ba, pa, na, etc.

I can’t tell you how many people completely drop tones
because they think it’s too hard. Well, you aren’t speaking Chinese if you aren’t
using the tones so,…

2. Pronunciation

Chinese pronunciation is generally easy with a few
exceptions. Zhi and ji, chu and qu, shu and xu, and so on. These differences
are very important to remember. So make sure you drill the hell out of these
sounds once you learn them. It’s important to do pronunciation BEFORE you learn any actual vocabulary words.
So basically you will be learning every sound in the Chinese language BEFORE
even learning how to say anything. This makes it easier to remember vocabulary later
because otherwise you’d have to learn how to pronounce it, spell it, remember
the tone, it’s contextual usage (you’ll learn that Chinese has ALOT of words that are only used in certain contexts), and the English meaning. It’s just too much, man. If you look at it and already
know how to pronounce it and say the tone, you are removing two steps from the
process, thus making it infinitely easier for you. So you need to suffer quite
a bit now, for things to be easier in the future. I already know the future. Your future
self says thanks!

3. Radicals

I’ve definitely seen people try to just remember characters
by just trying to swallow it whole as opposed to taking it bit by bit. This
will bite you in the ass in the long run because you are crippling your ability
to learn and remember characters without learning radicals .In the beginning,
your textbooks or teacher should teach you some basic radicals. DO NOT LET IT
END THERE. If your teacher doesn’t teach you the radical for every single character,
look them up yourself! I mean it! Not only do radicals help you get the meaning
of a character, they help you remember them. I use Written Chinese Dictionary
to look up the radical parts of new
words. It takes apart every character and gives you the radicals and their definitions. It’s
a godsend! So do that for every single character you learn, unless you already
know the radicals. Some people like to make a little story out of the radicals
to help them remember the characters they belong to.

4. Basic Expressions

So once you know a few characters, can pronounce almost
everything and have learned the tones decently well, you can move on to
learning expressions. These should be basic like Hello, goodbye, see you later,
nice to meet you, my name is, I am from, etc. These will give you the chance to
further cement your tones and pronunciation. Make sure you are listening to how
it should be said and repeating after it a LOT.

5. 100 Most Common Words

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to learn
high frequency words or words that are commonly said and used. That way you can
understand more common dialogue and can say useful phrases. You can find a list

6. Don’t Give Up

Is Chinese hard? Yes. But so is anything worth doing in the
world. Don’t like a few obstacles keep you from moving forward and don’t be
discouraged if you feel you are progressing slowly. That is VERY normal. Just
keep going and you will see the fruits of your labor in no time! I know that’s
super cliché and that it’s cliché to say that it’s cliché, but it’s true! It’s
easy to sink into doubt and to give up, but just remember the reason you are
learning Chinese and how rewarding it will be to be able to speak with others,
understand movies or songs, or be able to tell your friends that you are fluent
in one of the hardest languages in the world!

Hope that helps! If you have any questions, don’t be scared
to ask! 😊


List of tone practice videos:

Yoyo Chinese –
How to Practice and Master Mandarin Tones

Fluent in –
The Ultimate Chinese Tones Practice Videos – First Tone Pairs


Fluent in –
The Ultimate Chinese Tones Practice Method – Second Tone Pairs

Fluent in –
The Ultimate Chinese Tones Practice Method – Third Tone Pairs

Fluent in –
The Ultimate Chinese Tones Practice Method – Fourth Tone Pairs

Fluent in – Mandarin Chinese Tones Listening Practice


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