1. Learn how to use Pinyin
Pinyin is a system used for spelling Chinese characters in Roman alphabet. As long as you know Hanyu Pinyin, you are able to pronounce each character correctly. Also, If you need to text someoone on your phone in Chinese, you have to enter Pinyin to get the characters you want. Although Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, the pronunciation of the letters is often not intuitive to English speakers, which is why it must be studied carefully before it can be used. For example, letter “d” is pronounced like the “de” in English; letter “p” is pronounced as “po” in English. We can see that Pinyin has a completely different linguistic system than English alphabet.
2. Practice using the four Mandarin tones
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that different tones can change the meaning of a character. Sometimes, even the same character has several ways to pronounce with different tones, which is known as “polyphone”. For example, 兴 has two tones: the first and the forth (xīng/xìng). When appearing in the phrase 高兴 (xìng) with a forth tone, it means “happiness”. However, when you see the first tone (xīng) in some words such as 兴奋, it has a meaning of “excitement”.
Mandarin has four main tones, as follows:
The first tone is a flat tone. Your voice stays flat without a rise or a dip. Using the word “la” as an example. The first tone uses the symbol “ā” above the letter “a”.
The second tone is a rising tone. Your voice rises from a low pitch to a middle one, as if you are questioning someone by saying “what?” or “seriously?”. The second tone is indicated by the symbol “á” above the letter “a”.
The third tone is the hardest because it contains two parts. The pitch goes from middle to low in the first part. The second part is similar with the second tone which rises the pitch from low to high again. The third tone is indicated as “ǎ” above the letter “a”.
The forth tone is a lowering one, and the pitch typically goes from high to low, as if you are wondering about something and saying “huh”. This tone is labeled as “à” above the letter “a”.
3. Study basic grammar
Chinese has a quiet different grammar system than other European and Asian languages. There’re no complicated rules about conjunctions, gender, plural nouns, or tense. Each character is individual and phrases are made up by different combinations of characters. For example, the combination of two characters “高” and “傲” means “arrogance”; while the combination of “高” and “冷” means “distant”. There are around 5000 characters in Chinese. Of course you don’t need to remember all of them. As long as you memorize the 500 characters that appear most frequently, and know the basic combinations of these words, you can read freely in Mandarin.
4. Memorize basic vocabulary and phrases
No matter what language you're learning, the more words you have at your disposal, the sooner you will become fluent. Some good vocabulary lists to start with include: numbers (one 一 “yī”/ two 二 “èr” / three 三 “sān” / four 四 “sì” / five 五 “wǔ” / six 六 “liù” / seven 七 “qī” / eight 八 “bā” / nine 九 “jiǔ” / ten 十 “shí” / hundred 百 “baǐ”) times of a day (morning 早上 zǎo shàng / afternoon 下午 xià wǔ / evening 晚上 wǎn shàng), along with colors, food, transportation, and greetings.
Some basic conventional phrases include:
Hello 你好 nǐ hǎo
Thank you 谢谢 xiè xib
What’s your name? 你叫什么名字？nǐ jiào shén me míng zì
Goodbye 再见 zài jiàn
Learn how to use Pinyin