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How to Learn Mandarin Chinese: Four Things Beginners Should Know

So you’ve decided to learn Chinese, but you’re not sure what you’ve gotten yourself into? No problem! We have identified four things that all beginner Mandarin students should know to start learning Chinese!

1 – Chinese pinyins
You probably know that Chinese characters are the standard for written Chinese, but they are not very helpful when it comes to pronunciation for beginners. As a newbie, your best friend is pinyin. Pinyin is a system for writing the sounds of the Chinese language using the Roman alphabet. It is not a “pronunciation key”, it is a way of representing the sounds of the Chinese language phonetically. This means that reading pinyin correctly will still require you to learn some new sounds.

2 – Chinese tones
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that each syllable has a tone, and the meaning of each syllable can change, depending on the tone. This means that if you want to express yourself in Chinese and convey the correct meaning, you need to pay attention to those tones! There are four main tones in Mandarin Chinese, plus a “neutral” tone. The tones are simply called “first tone”, “second tone”, “third tone” and “fourth tone”. We could describe them here, but it is best to listen to them and keep listening until they become familiar.

3 – Chinese characters
While the casual learner of Mandarin Chinese may choose not to spend too much time learning the Chinese characters, the serious learner will want to dive right in. There are just a few main points you need to know about characters to get the most out of your studies:

a – There are two sets of Chinese characters: Simplified and Traditional. Simplified characters are used in mainland China, while Hong Kong and Taiwan still use traditional characters. Most Chinese learners will want to study simplified characters (unless they are focusing on the history of Taiwan, Hong Kong, or China).

b – All Chinese characters are made up of strokes. The stroke order used when writing a character is called the “stroke order” of that character. However, each Chinese character is not a unique “drawing”. As you learn more and more characters, you will notice that certain parts of one character reappear in other characters. These recurring components have the same stroke order every time and their use helps us make sense of Chinese characters. These components, when used to classify characters, are called “radicals”.

c – Each Chinese character has a reading of one syllable. This means that a one-character word is one syllable, a two-character word is two syllables, etc. Most Chinese characters have only one reading, but the number of Chinese characters far exceeds the total number of syllables in Mandarin Chinese. As a result, for most syllables in Chinese, there is more than one corresponding character.

d – When writing Chinese characters, there are no spaces between words. This can make it hard to tell where one word ends and the next begins. Practice is the key. Modern Chinese in mainland China runs left to right and top to bottom (just like English text), but you’ll occasionally see old texts or signs printed vertically.

4 – Standard Mandarin
You often hear about various “Chinese dialects,” such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Hokkien, and you can imagine that they are as similar to each other as American English, Australian English, and British English. Actually, they are as different as the Romance languages ​​Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian. Mandarin is by far the most common of the Chinese “dialects” mentioned above, and is the official language in both mainland China and Taiwan. (Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong). Mandarin is what is generally meant by “Chinese” in informal usage.

You will sometimes hear “standard Mandarin” mentioned in discussions of learning Chinese. China was once divided by countless dialects, and a unifying dialect helped unite the nation. Standard Mandarin, or putonghua in Chinese, was originally based on the Beijing dialect in northern China, but has long since spread throughout the country. Just as a traveler in the US will hear the difference in the local accents of Texas, New York, California, and Boston, a visitor to China will notice differences in the Mandarin of residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and Sichuan. These differences add to the richness and variety of the language.

Now that you know the 4 most important aspects of learning Mandarin Chinese, why not get started?

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