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How to Learn Chinese

Getting started in Chinese is hard. How to learn Chinese is a question a lot of people ask me.

Here are a few things I wish I had known about when I started to learn Chinese!

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1. Talk from Day 1

How to speak Chinese is a question that baffles learners early in their Chinese journey. Often we wait until we think we are good enough and then start to speak Chinese. In this article I want to ask you to start communicating today – worry about the details after you make mistakes.

Chat with me!

Mindset is so important when learning a language and indeed in any prolonged and challenging endevour. Language learning in particular requires the mental toughness to make mistakes, get corrections and learn.

This requires making a fool of yourself initially. Chinese has lots of particularly wonderful ways to do this. Unfortunately if you don’t make mistakes you won’t learn – it’s as simple as that. . The trick therefore is to start making as many mistakes as possible, as soon as possible and take on corrections so that you can improve.

If you don’t find you are learning as fast as you want to it is likely because you aren’t making enough mistakes.  The quickest way to learn is to increase the frequency of your mistakes and subsequent corrections.

There’s a saying in entrepreneurship that is highly relevant here: “Fail Faster”. You are eventually going to make mistakes. So make sure that you make them fast and make them early so that you can learn and not make catastrophically large mistakes later. You can soften the blow by making your mistakes in a controlled environment with a teacher or a friend. Once you feel more comfortable making a fool of yourself in public I say go for it.

Traditional language learning might have you studying from a book, DVD or in a classroom until you feel comfortable having “real conversations”. Instead you need to start having “real conversations” as quickly as possible and get away from the textbooks.

You are (I assume) learning so that you can operate in “real” situations. This means that you need to make your mistakes in the context of these situations so you can learn. Making mistakes in a classroom of self-study context will not translate to being able to communicate.

In the UK this leads to “GCSE French” syndrome. A lot of kids study French when they are 15-16 years old but if you stick a French person in front of these kids they’ll struggle to actually talk to them. This might be after several years of study. The problem? Simply the fact that they were “studying French”, not communication in French as a language. These are two very different things.

These kids (including me) learn all about the grammar, memorize vocabulary lists for tests, perhaps rehearse and deliver a presentation in French but very rarely actually talk to a French person. The wrong skills are being taught and tested. The kids have studied French – they know a lot about the language – but they don’t necessarily know how to communicate in the language.

The very sad result of this (and most traditional language learning) is that the students then believe that they “just aren’t good at languages”. How would they know if they’ve never been taught properly and indeed perhaps never even tried to talk to a foreign language speaker in their own language!

How to Learn Chinese

Source: xkcd.com

The best day to start is today

Let’s flip this. On the first day of study I want you to go and find a Chinese speaker and say 你好. If you are not sure about the pronunciation listen here and repeat until you think you are close.

It doesn’t matter how awful your tones are. Stop worrying about it.

Chances are that the person you talk to will be delighted. They’ll likely launch into rapid-fire Chinese at this point. Relax – just say (in English or Chinese if you look up the phrase, overachiever you!)  that you are only starting to learn but you’d love them to help you a little. Start with “你好” – have them correct your tones. Move from there.

You are already leagues ahead of all those poor kids sitting in language classes never talking to a native speaker.

What if the person you talk to doesn’t respond well? Or laughs at you? So what? You probably wouldn’t want to talk to them anyway, regardless of language! Find someone else – you’re in luck with Chinese as you’ve got somewhere between 20-25% of the world’s population to choose from.

Heading Online to Talk

Still can’t find anyone in the local area? You’re in luck – we live in an online world. Head to iTalki, LiveMochaConversationExchange or any one of the countless language exchange websites out there.

Heads up – if you sign up at iTalki via this link you can get some free goodies. Basically, if you choose to get a professional teacher one day you pay $10 and get given another $10 free (=$20 of lessons – nice!). You can still use iTalki totally for free by using free conversation exchange partners but if you want a professional teacher one day it’s worth using this link.

There’s no need to be in China to learn Chinese. It can help in certain situations but it is not necessary now that there are millions of native speakers just a few clicks away.

There are literally hundreds of millions of Chinese people looking to practice a foreign language. If you are reading this chances are you speak English and are therefore in possession of an incredibly valuable asset. Set up a language exchange in person or via Skype. You are online right now reading this so no ducking out, don’t tell me you’ll do it later. Go and say 你好.

Still haven’t done it? If there’s one piece of advice to take away from this series of articles it is this : stop worrying and go and say hi. It’s so simple yet so important.

If you want to learn a language you’ll have to get over it and talk to someone. Do it now or you’ll be doing it later and will have wasted all the time in between.

Want more information about just jumping in and speaking from day 1? Check out Benny Lewis’ blog and book for a lot more “just get on with it” advice. But try not to get bogged down reading about the idea of talking from day 1 – instead go and talk!

If you really want to explore these ideas then I recommend Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Month’s package. His ideas are all focused around building up the confidence to just start talking as soon as possible, learning to embrace your mistakes and learning as fast as possible. Following this basic strategy he’s managed to get to conversational level in an impressive number of languages all whilst travelling around the world and running a blog that reaches over 100,000 people. Not bad!

He has a totally free email course which is available here.

If you want to go all in there’s also a premium package available here.

2.Work out Why you are Learning Chinese

Why learn Chinese? Specifically, why are you learning Chinese? Do you have a good reason?

Starting to learn Chinese without a good reason to do will likely end in failure. Take 5-10 minutes right now to work out why you want to learn Chinese. Write it down. Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason on a daily basis to help give you momentum.

My First Attempt

Learning Chinese is not as hard as you might think. However, it does take a long time to get to a level where you can communicate competently and even longer to get to anywhere near approaching fluency. It’s a long-haul language for sure, primarily because of the sheer number of characters that need to be learned.

The first time I tried to learn Chinese was when I was travelling and visited Hong Kong back when I was 18 – I picked up a textbook and gave a totally half-assed effort in trying to learn. Needless to say this attempt soon faltered. The reason, I know now, was that I had no great reason – no drive to learn –  Chinese at the time. I just thought it would be “cool,” which is nowhere near enough.

So What Are Your Reasons?

Because learning Chinese is a big project that will take a considerable amount of your time it’s important to know why you are learning Chinese.

This sounds simplistic – you want to learn Chinese so you can talk to Chinese people or perhaps do business in China in the future. China is about to become the world’s largest economy so learning Chinese just makes sense right?

These kind of general reasons sound fine but will not be sufficient to get you through the challenges that learning Chinese will present. You’re going to need something much more concrete and definite.

Write it Down

Take a moment away from your screen with a pen and paper and write down your reason for wanting to learn Chinese. It can be more than one but one good reason is far superior to 10 weak reasons.

The simple act of writing down your reason forces you to define your reasons much more clearly than if you keep the reason in your head. Translating your thoughts onto paper forces you to think about the particulars. Just externalizing the reason onto paper will therefore be a huge step in the right direction.

Now you’ve got the basic idea on paper take a step back and have a look at your reason. There are a couple of ways to make it better.

1. Make it Definite

First is to make it definite. Does your reason have a definable end point? A time at which you could potentially say “OK, I’ve done it”?

A non-definite reason is something like “I want to be able to talk to Chinese people”. A definite reason of the same ilk would be “I want to be able to talk to my in-laws parents in Chinese for 20 minutes without consulting a dictionary”.

One of Mark Zuckerberg’s reasons for learning Chinese was to be able to ask his girlfriend’s grandparents for permission to marry. That’s a definite reason.

How to Learn Chinese

Legitimate Reason. Good job!

2. Reasonable Time to Attainment

Second, the period of attainment. It’s important to have a reason that is attainable in the medium-term. Too short and you’ll achieve the target without having really got into Chinese properly.

An example of “too attainable” would be “learn to order food at the local Chinese restaurant”. Once you’ve learned “这个” you’ve pretty much achieved this one as you can just stab items in the menu and grunt “this one”. Job done!

Conversely, if you set a target like “be able to read the Four Classic Books of Chinese literature in classical script” when you’ve only just learned 你好 you’re in for a rough time.

How to Learn Chinese

That target will take a couple of years at least for most people, if not much longer. In the meantime you’ll likely run out of steam and give up on Chinese.

As such it’s a good idea to pick something reasonable that will take 6-12 months to achieve.

At this point you’ll be immersed in learning Chinese enough to want to keep going and can set some new targets now that you know a lot more about the language.

3. Keep Reminding Yourself

Third, make sure you are reminded of your reason for learning Chinese on a daily basis. Write your reason on paper and stick it on your wall. Set a phone reminder with your reason as the reminder text. Set your desktop wallpaper to an image containing your reason.

Whatever it takes make sure that you are reminded on a regular basis, do it.

This will also be helpful in the “dark times” when you are wondering why on earth you ever took up Chinese. Being able to see the reason written down in more rational times will help get you out of the rut and keep moving forward. 好好学习,天天向上!

To do now:

Starting to learn Chinese without a good reason to do so likely lead to failure. Take 5-10 minutes right now to work out why you want to learn Chinese. Write it down. Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason on a daily basis to help give you momentum.

3.Pronunciation and Pinyin

Update: Our free Sensible Pinyin Course is now available. First read through this article to see why Pinyin is so important and then head over to the Sensible Pinyin Course Introduction when you are ready! 

Before tackling Chinese characters make sure you have a firm grip on pinyin pronunciation and the tones. Trying to juggle pronunciation, tones AND characters all at the same time is a nightmare.

Make your first few weeks go a little smoother by nailing each skill individually and then combining them.

If you’ve started learning Chinese already you might know the horror of the first chapter of a Chinese textbook. The majority of textbooks start with a brief introduction to pronunciation and the tones and then immediately start throwing complete words and dialogues at you.

Before you can even say your first word – which will likely be 你好 – you need to understand pronunciation, tones and (depending on your book) struggle with the characters 你 and 好. Oh, and on top of that you’ve got two third tones in 你好. The third tone is already the most tricky but when you add two together we’ll have to learn some fun tone change rules too! And then the first phrase you’ll learn – 我很好 – three third tones! Surprise!

This is a lot to take in during your first ever lesson. Chinese is very front heavy in terms of difficult content. The traditional textbooks do not help to soften the blow. Some may introduce pinyin initials and finals gradually chapter by chapter but by then they’ve also been giving you words and dialogues every chapter! These first couple of weeks are rough!

Rest assured Chinese does actually get easier! However, getting through the beginner’s material of pronunciation, tones and working out the characters a bit is a struggle.

What to do?

One thing that I really wish I had done is to get a firm foundation in pronunciation. Then add the tones. With pronunciation and tones locked down it’s possible to start communicating and having a bit of fun with the language. Then, and only then, tackle the characters.

Trying to deal with pronunciation, tones and characters all at the same time is a nightmare. It’s certainly possible, and it’s the way we’ve all been learning for the most part. But it’s something that needs to be fixed to help ease the path towards learning Chinese.

First things first – Pinyin

First, get a good grasp of pinyin. There are a number of learning resources suggested in this article. In short, get yourself a pinyin chart and work on recognizing and being able to replicate all ~440 of the sounds. 440 isn’t too many because the vast majority are very simple and if you are an English speaker you already know the equivalent sounds. Instead it’ll be a small minority that will pose the majority of the difficulty.

Here’s a copy of the first three sheets from the Cheat Sheets from the Chinese Language Learning Pack – the PDF has a pinyin table, a pronunciation guide and a tone reference sheet. It’s available in Simplified and Traditional PDF. The full pack is available in the Sensible Chinese Language Learning Pack.

Here’s what it looks like:

How to Learn Chinese

Full  resolution version: Simplified and Traditional PDF.

Working with a teacher is the best way to do this. A couple of hours just drilling the pinyin table, getting corrections and improving your pronunciation is a great investment of your time and energy early on in learning Chinese. This should only take a few hours – I’m not advocating ignoring the tones and characters for weeks and weeks – this is just the first few hours of your Chinese education.

Then add the tones

Once you’ve got a grip on the basic pronunciation it is time to add the tones. The basic idea is to go through the pinyin table again (I know!) but adding the tone sounds until you can replicate them all. Again, this might take a couple of hours to really nail but it’s a wonderful investment.

After this it is time to move away from isolated sounds. This requires knowing a little about tone change rules (especially the 3rd tone) which is a stumbling block for early learners. This is just something you need to learn and practice I’m afraid. Thankfully there are only a couple of rules.

This blog article introduces the basics of Chinese tones and the idea of tone-pair drills.

It’s possible to do all of this in person with a teacher (or Chinese speaking friend) with a pinyin chart and then word lists. This is the best way to get human feedback. Without feedback there’s no way to correct your errors.

Once you have these skills nailed down you can begin to communicate with people. Communicating should be prioritized over the characters for now. Being able to have fun with the language by chatting to people, listening to music and other non-character based methods is important.

Learning the characters is a more solitary process for the most part. Just you and your paper or Spaced Repetition System, drilling and memorizing them. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the characters – don’t worry! – so enjoy your time without the characters for now and use this time to get a real feel for the language.

There are lots of other resources on this site about pronunciation and tones. For now work with a pinyin chart with a native speaker to get the basics down before worrying about all the small details.

4.Tackling the Tones

Chinese Tones are one of the most challenging aspects of Chinese. The good news is that with enough practice, like any skill, you’ll be able to master Chinese Tones.

Additionally, you already use tones in English, just in a very different way to in Chinese – we’ll look at how to transfer these existing tones to Chinese.

To really get a grip on Chinese requires spending some time up-front familiarizing yourself with the tones followed by practice specifically tailored to tone learning, especially tone-pair based practice.
A lot of textbooks cover the tones in the first couple of lessons and move on.

This hasty and inadequate approach is part of the reason Chinese is so hard to get a grip on in the early stages of learning. Getting a solid grasp on tones will make your life a lot easier in the long run.

Why are tones important?

Tones are important in Chinese because they alter meaning
at a character level. We do actually have tones in English (and other European languages) but they are used very differently to those in Chinese.
In English we generally use tone to alter meaning at a sentence level rather than the character/word level. We might call this “tone of voice” or “inflection” but the concept is basically the same.
Compare the two languages. In a ten character sentence in Chinese you have ten chances to mess up the tone and be misunderstood – in an Equivalent English sentence if you muck up the tone/inflection you may change the emphasis or the mood of the sentence but will probably still be understood.

But I will still be understood right?

You might hear the claim that even if you don’t nail the tones you’ll likely be understood because of the context of the sentence. People debate this point back and forth but I think do so misses the point.

For one, neglecting the tones is a bit irresponsible – it puts the burden of comprehension on the Chinese listener rather than on you as a speaker. That’s lazy and detrimental to your continued progress.

Even if you are understood, chances are people won’t want to speak toyou as much as if you are easy to understand. Your progress is dependent on continuing to communicate in Chinese as much as possible. If you are “that guy” who is really hard to understand people won’t engage in as many conversations and you’ll progress slower.

Second, the claim that the context of the sentence will save you depends on the assumption that you’ve got the rest of the sentence correct!

An incorrect tone may be understood by a native speaker if you get all the other tones around it correct. You need to get the rest of the context correct in the first place to save that failed tone!

Chances are, if you’ve followed the advice that tones aren’t that important, most of if not all of the other tones in the sentence will also be wrong! The context you were relying on won’t be there!

This reminds me a bit of the Morcambe & Wise comedy sketch where Eric Morcambe enthusiastically plays a Grieg piano concerto, getting everything horribly wrong and making ruining the whole orchestral performance.

When confronted about his dire performance he calmly states “I’m playing all the right notes—but not necessarily in the right order”.

Don’t be the Eric Morcambe of Chinese tones!

Tone equivalents in English

If you are reading this then chances are English is either your first language or you have learned English to a high level. These equivalencies occurs in other European languages but I’ll focus on English.

When we use tone in English we apply it on a phrase or sentence based level, rather than on an individual sound. The good news is that once we realize we use these tones already we can transport them over to Chinese and work on applying them in this new context – this is one way to get up and running with the tones quickly.

This great graphic by France Fu hits the nail on the head:

How to Learn Chinese

The first tone is like singing a musical note, high and level. Run a quick Do, Re, Mi and chances are that you’ll be using the first tone automatically.

The second tone (rising) is pronounced as a questioning tone that we would normally use at the end of a interrogative sentence in English. For example “Do you speak English?” That rise on “English” is equivalent to the second tone in Chinese.

The biggest difficulty here is divorcing that upward lilt from the concept of questioning. Some beginners will find that they inflect 吗 upwards at the end of sentence because they are so used to inflecting questions. So 你好吗 comes out as nǐhǎo má? This is a confusion of sentence level and character level tones – applying existing English intonation to Chinese.

The fourth tone (falling) is similar to the way we express annoyance in English. Like “What?” when we are angry, the tone falls sharply.
Another (highly specific!) instance is when we are whispering loudly to attract someone’s attention – like a stage whisper: “Hey, Kyle, hey, psst, hey Kyle, over here!” Imagine you are back in school and your friend is trying to get your attention, whispering but getting louder and louder and more insistent – that’s the fourth tone “stage whisper”!

Those of you paying attention may notice that I skipped the third tone. That’s because the third tone is … tricky.

For one, we don’t have an equivalent in English. Also, the traditional falling/rising conception of the third tone is a useful approximation but not quite accurate. Here is a much more detailed article about this particular problem.

Finally, the third tone is also very liable to be changed by the tone that follows it. This means that the sound of the third tone in isolation is very different how it is pronounced in words and sentences.

This means that learning the third tone will take up most of your time when learning Chinese. One piece of advice is not to worry too much about how the third tone sounds in isolation (the rising-falling conception).

Instead focus on how it sounds with other tones inside words. This is the idea behind tone-pairs.

Tone Pairs

We covered the basics of how to learn Chinese pronunciation and tones above. In short, get a pinyin chart or use a more sophisticated piece of software like Standard Mandarin or Pin Pin on iPhone/Android.

Once you’ve nailed the tones in isolation move as quickly as possible to tone-pair combinations. The vast majority of Chinese words are two characters so pairs of characters are the best method for practice.

When starting to learn Chinese I spent far too long focusing on sounds and tones in isolation. Because the vast majority of words in Chinese are two characters this practice was not as helpful as focusing on two-character words and tone pairs.

Lingomi’s blog has a useful table of tone pairs. This is taken from their website, which has lots of other useful tone and pronunciation information.

How to Learn Chinese

Source: Lingomi.com

These are all of the tone pairs possible in Chinese. You’ll never see a neutral tone preceding another tone which is the reason why this is not a 5 x 5 grid.

The basic idea behind tone-pair drills is to practice saying these phrases until your tongue (and brain) are trained. Because these are all of the possible tone pair combinations in Chinese, when you learn new vocabulary you’ll be able to hook the new pronunciation to the existing tone pair framework that you’ve been practicing.

For instance if you learn 学习 (xuéxí) it’s tone pattern is the same as 没来 (méilái) in this chart. If you know how the 2-2 pattern sounds and feels you’ll be able to transfer it from one word to another.

Pay particular attention to those that include the third tone due to the third tone change rules. For instance 3-3 你走 will be pronounced nízǒu rather than nǐzǒu.

Spending some time drilling the tone-pairs is much more worthwhile than practicing the tones in isolation. Tone-pair drills are not taught as often as they should be and are a very valuable method for achieving native-like pronunciation.

To practice tone pairs either use the chart above and repeat, repeat, repeat. Alternatively get your own vocabulary from a textbook or other source and order it by the 2 tones in each word to make lists of words to practice.

Finally, you might want to check out Sensible Chinese Pronunciation Package which contains a whole book of tone pair exercises. It’s available as part of the Sensible Chinese Language Learning Pack.

5.Getting your phone/computer set up for Chinese

A question that comes up a lot is how to type in Chinese.

I’m a big fan of Chinese typing as it allows you to start communicating in written Chinese really fast. Getting to a similar level of communicative ability using handwriting can take many months if not years.

The process of typing in Chinese generally surprises people – it is very simple. Typing in Chinese is generally called 打拼音 dǎ pīnyīn (to type pinyin).

The basic idea is that you simply type the pinyin of the characters you want to write and then select the characters as they pop on screen. This is much like predictive text in English, as you type a word like C-h-i- your phone might throw up the suggestion “Chinese”.

In Chinese if you simply type n-i-h-a-o your phone/computer will suggest 你好. In fact you can even take shortcuts and type n-h and get the same result.

The ease and speed improvement over written characters means that the vast, vast majority of written correspondence in China is typed. This makes perfect sense. Apart from note taking, signing your name, birthday cards and maybe shopping lists chances are you don’t hand-write in English all that much. And even if you do the volume of handwritten to typed is likely very low.

So – don’t be afraid of typing in Chinese. It’s how Chinese native speakers communicate via the written word and it’ll allow you to start communicating ASAP. In fact, immediately, today!

I want to cover two things:

1. How to Set up a Chinese keyboard

2. How to start using your new Chinese keyboard immediately

Setting up a Chinese keyboard

How you set up your keyboard depends on what device you are using. Also, these instructions will inevitably change over time as software updates. As such here are a couple of links to keyboard set up for the main devices. I’ll update these links as the software is updated.

iPhone (Official instructions) / iPhone Step by Step (Also applicable for iPad)

Android

Macintosh

Windows 10 / Windows 8 / Windows 7

How to start using your Chinese keyboard immediately

Now you have your nice new keyboard set up how to start using it?

If you are on iPhone/Android I’d recommend you download HelloTalk.

How to Learn Chinese

HelloTalk is totally FREE app for language exchange. Short text messages are used as the main form of communication making this a great place to start testing out your keyboard.

Most excitingly though you’ll get responses! This means you can start using the written Chinese language to actually communicate immediately. Very cool stuff indeed – not requiring weeks practicing your handwriting and having only a Chinese teacher reading your work.

Instead you can communicate with real people right now. This is how you can genuinely acquire a language fast. So don’t hang around – grab the app and you can send your first 你好 in minutes. Just type “nihao” and select the 你好 characters and you’ve started!

If you are on a PC/Mac then the best alternative right now is Lang-8. Lang-8 is another free language exchange platform that allows you to write and receive corrections from native speakers.

How to Learn Chinese

Go ahead and sign up and use your new keyboard to write your first entry – just introduce yourself using whatever Chinese you know. Copy a script from Lesson 1 of your textbook if that helps but adapt it to introduce yourself.

Whatever platform you use it’s important to start practicing with your Chinese keyboard. This will help you get a feel for how much you can type before the predictive ability of the software gives us.

In some cases you will be able to write whole sentences, in others you’ll only manage a couple of characters before having to select the correct meaning. Play around with the keyboard through actual usage and you’ll get a feel for it very quickly.

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6.Pattern based grammar

Chinese grammar is highly “pattern-based”. Learn these patterns and you’ll be able to communicate much faster than if you try to bolt together your own sentences.

 First things first – let’s deal with the idea that Chinese doesn’t have grammar. This is nonsense. Chinese does have grammar -otherwise you could put a word in a sentence in any order and be understood, which you cannot. Chinese grammar is however very different to the grammar of European languages.

 Chinese grammar does not include a lot of the elements we associate with the word “grammar” – namely verb conjugations, agreements, tenses and the like. We think of these as grammar because that’s what we spend the majority of time learning when we study a language like French or Spanish.
How to Learn Chinese

Source: Sheldoncomics.com

Chinese grammar instead relies on particles and structures that seem very foreign to us. The particle 了 is a good example. For one, it doesn’t really have a very good English translation because we don’t have anything like it. Broadly, it can be used as an aspectual particle and a modal particle.

Don’t know what a modal or aspectual particles is? This is the great thing about Chinese grammar: it doesn’t really matter. You can learn to use them by paying attention to their usage in patterns of speech and copying, as we’ll look at below.

If you are interested in grammar then AllSet Learning’s Chinese Grammar Wiki is your Shangri-La. It’s an amazing resource and well worth bookmarking.

The Chinese Sentence Magic Formula

The first (and most important) pattern to learn is that of the general Chinese sentence. There’s a relatively rigid structure that if you follow you won’t make errors.

Here it is:

Subject + When + How + Where + Negation + Auxiliary + Verb + Complement + Object

Follow that order – placing the different parts of the sentence into the right “place”- and you’ll be understood.

This is not the place to go into detail about what each of these is. This magic formula is adapted from this super useful and in-depth article over at East Asia Student. A lot more detail about what these components are is available there.

Supplemental Patterns

After the basic sentence pattern there are a number of supplemental patterns. These are the patterns you’ll find in the grammar section at the end of your textbook chapters. You know, those boring looking bits you tend to skip over?

The important thing is to realize that these patterns are very important. There are patterns in other foreign languages but they tend to be less set than in Chinese. If you learn the Chinese patterns and nail them then communicating becomes very simple – you simply replace parts of the pattern (subject, object, place, time etc.).

In European languages this would necessitate changes in verb conjugation and sometimes even in the structure of the sentence. This makes the patterns less useful, which may be why we tend to ignore them in Chinese as well! In Chinese it’s most often a matter of simply switching out a word which makes these set patterns very useful.

Want to know who is doing the action? Simply replace the subject with the word 谁 “who” and you are good to go – no further changes to the sentence required. This is what makes the patterns of Chinese grammar so powerful.

A lot of these patterns are used to cover things like conditionality (if this then that), emphasis and time concepts. These patterns take up the slack left by not having tenses (in the European sense) or conjugations. It’s just a different method to what we are used to.

You’ve probably seen some of these already: 是…的 for emphasis, 如果…就 for “if this then that”, 要是…就 for “if only this then that”, 但是…而且 for “not only this but that” etc.

How to Learn the Patterns

It’s hard to give a summary of all of these patterns so the best I can say at this time is to pay attention to them.

There are actually whole books based on learning these patterns. The best is probably Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors. Another is Common Chinese Patterns 330.

The second has more patterns but they aren’t in any particular order. Therefore it’s difficult to tell which ones are worth learning and which to ignore. Therefore it’s better as  reference book. The first book has less content but goes through the patterns in a much more sensible textbook-like fashion.

Your current textbook is also a great source of this sentence patterns. If you already make flashcards for characters and vocabulary definitely think about adding flashcards for whole patterns. Go back through your old textbooks too and pick out the example sentences.

Practice switching out the elements (subject, object, where, when, how, verb etc.) of the pattern until you can quickly and rapidly makes these changes without having to think about it. The patterns will become a framework into which you can add meaning and be very easily understood.

Get the patterns mastered and your ability to communicate in Chinese will sky-rocket.

Extra Resources

Hacking Chinese’s very in-depth discussion with experts about how best to learn Chinese grammar.

A FluentU article on the basic Chinese sentence structure

AllSet Learning’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki 

Zhongwen Browser Plugin for Chrome/Firefox (now with built-in references to the Chinese Grammar Wiki)

7.Radicals

Every single character in Chinese, both Traditional and Simplified, is made up of around 200 small “pieces” that act very roughly like an alphabet. Learn these 200 pieces and you’ll be able to easily identify and remember meanings as well as get clues about how to pronounce the character.

How to Learn Chinese

Every character! Even this monster:  How to Learn ChineseHow to Learn Chinese面 “biángbiáng” noodles.

Break it down

When first starting to learn Chinese each and every character looks utterly different.  The only similarity was that they all looked super complex and totally unlearn-able!

Thankfully this is not the case. There are in fact a limited number of “pieces” that make up each and every character in the Chinese language. Once you realize that the written language is made up of these pieces, and that there is a relatively limited number of these pieces the language becomes a lot more understandable and logical.

So what are these pieces? Let’s look at an example before getting stuck in detail.

One of the first words you will learn in Chinese is 你好 nǐhǎo meaning “hello”. This word is made up of two characters 你 (“you”) and 好 (“good”) – let’s just take the character 好.

好, as you may know, is made up of two piece – 女 and 子, “woman” and “child”. The 女 is a little bit squished up in 好 but it’s still 女.

好 is a simple example that a lot of people know so maybe this isn’t too impressive. What you may not realize though is that every single character in the Chinese language works this way and that there are only ~200 of these pieces in total.

Check out Wikipedia’s list of Radicals to find out what all of these pieces are and check the bottom of the article to find a lot more useful resources. 

Also download our Chinese Radicals Poster here (5MB PDF)

How to Learn Chinese

Example with 矿物

We could do this with any character in Chinese. Let’s go for a random yet relatively difficult one. Here’s a word I’ve picked at random: 矿物 (kuàngwù) which means “mineral”.  The traditional version is 礦物,which we’ll get to shortly, mainly to show the main differences between simplified and traditional.

The first character of 矿物 is 矿 kuàng which means “mine” or “ore”. 矿 has two pieces – one on the left and one one the right. This left-right structure is very very common in Chinese. We saw it above with 好. On the left of 矿 is 石 which means “stone” and one the left is 广 which means “wide”.

Neat! – an ORE MINE is a place with a WIDE expanse of STONE. That makes sense! So the character “mine” in Chinese is made up of the smaller pieces “stone” and “wide”.

The second character in 矿物 is 物 which generally means “thing”, especially a physical “thing”. On the left is 牛 which means “cow” and on the right is 勿 which means “must not”.

Huh. This one is a bit more tricky! COW + MUST NOT = physical THING.

Pardon the slight vulgarity (though vulgarity will help you remember!) : Hey! Guy! You MUST NOT BULL (cow) me! I want to see the real PHYSICAL THING before you get the cash!

So now we have 矿物 which means “mineral” and know that it is made up of 矿 ”ore”/”mine” and 物 “physical thing”. But by realizing that every Chinese character has further pieces we can break down “ore”/”mine” into STONE + WIDE and “physical thing” into COW + MUST NOT.

This is not because I happened to choose a word that this works with. We can do this with every single character in the Chinese language.

And here’s the thing I really wish I knew : there are only around 200 of these “pieces” that make up every single character.

It’s almost like a (albeit very complicated) alphabet. I hesitate to use the word as it is misleading but I think still a useful metaphor – each character can be decomposed into these ~200 pieces much like every English word in made of the 26 letters. Don’t take this too far though – Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet!

Radicals vs. Components vs. Pieces

Sometimes you’ll hear about Chinese radicals – these are the 214 official “pieces” set by an old Chinese dictionary. However when we are decomposing characters the pieces we get are not always these radicals, sometimes it will just be a character (which is in turn made of radicals).

The difference is not that important and only argued by people who care too much about these kind of things (I’m one of them…). The main thing to know is that every single character can be broken into smaller pieces and that there are only around 200 of these small pieces.

When you realize this and start to learn and recognize some of these pieces suddenly Chinese characters are not so scary. Even characters you don’t know you’ll be able to look at and say ‘Oh, that has “water” and “mouth” in it. I don’t know what it is but I recognize those pieces at least.”

Suddenly Chinese becomes less foreign and terrifying. Once you really get a grasp of these pieces you can unlock some very powerful tools – namely being able to guess at the meaning and, drum-roll, being able to guess at how it is pronounced. This is the topic of the next article in this series though on phono-semantic characters.

Interested in Traditional characters? If not skip ahead to where we discuss How to Learn these Pieces.

What about Traditional Chinese characters?

Here’s an aside on the difference between Simplified and Traditional characters. If you are learning Traditional then this will show how we break down 礦物 as we did with the simplified 矿物 above. Even if you aren’t learning Traditional this should be useful.

First, the 物 in 礦物 in both Simplified and Traditional is exactly the same. This happens with a lot of characters, which makes the difference between the two scripts more manageable.

The difference appears in the 礦. In Traditional there is an extra “piece” under the 广. In Simplified the word for “wide” is simply 广. In Traditional it is 廣. Therefore in the character 礦 in Traditional script the “wide” piece is different.

We can still consider this one piece with the meaning wide, so we can still think of the character as STONE + WIDE.

The piece 广 in Traditional itself has two pieces. Aha! In Traditional 广 is composed of 广 “wide” and
黄 “yellow”. All that has happened when the Chinese script was simplified was that the 黄 piece was
removed.

Simplified characters are just Traditional characters with less pieces in order to make them easier to write. Vitally important though is the fact that the pieces, even though there may be less of them used in a Simplified character, are the same.

There are a few cases where the radicals themselves are different ( 讠 in Simplified vs. 言 in Traditional) but this is a very small number that can be learned in 5 minutes.

The vast majority of variance is instead from simply having less of the same pieces per character.

Therefore if you focus on learning the pieces that make up Chinese characters you can apply this knowledge to both Simplified and Traditional scripts and also more easily transition between the two. Chinese is giving you a break for once!

How to Learn

Basically as long as you are aware that all of the characters are made of these pieces you will start to notice them more and more. For now check out these tools and websites to find out more about the structure and process of Chinese characters.

Play around with HanziCraft to prove to yourself that all the characters can be broken down.

Read this series of great articles from Hacking Chinese on building a language toolkit

Check out Wikipedia’s list of Radicals

Get our Radical WallChart to print out and stick on your wall

8. Sound Meaning Characters

If you are a native English speaker learning a European language for the most part you can look at writing in that language and make a guess about how to read it out loud. If you are lucky it may be similar enough to actually know the meaning – like “le menu” in French. This gives us more of a fighting chance when learning languages with the Roman alphabet.

How to Learn Chinese

“Tourist Hotel” – Pfft! French is Easy! I’ve got this.

First day in China? Try to do this? Haha, sorry buddy you’re illiterate! In Chinese it at first seems like this is impossible.

How to Learn Chinese

Yay! We’ve arrived at the hotel! I think…

How can you look at a sign in the street and guess its meaning and how to say it? The surprising thing is that you can.

I was so excited when I realized this as it allowed me to order totally random items on menu by being able to (more or less!) sound out the name of the menu item without knowing the characters beforehand.

Introducing the Phono-Semantic Character

Above we looked at how characters are actually composed of smaller pieces that have their own meaning. One thing I held back on was the fact that these pieces can also give us a hint about how we say the character!

What is this black magic you ask? The secret: phono-semantic characters.

Unfortunately phono-semantic characters is an awful name, making a relatively simple concept sound really difficult. Phono-semantic is a fancy way of saying Sound-Meaning, which is exactly what these characters gives us. We get both a hint to the meaning of a character as well as how to pronounce it. I think that part of the reason more people don’t know about them is the rubbish name.

So these can’t be that frequent right? Otherwise you would have heard of them. Well actually 90-95% of characters in Chinese are phono-semantic in some way. They are the single largest set of character types.

The other types include characters that look like what they are (like 木 for tree and 火 for fire) and characters that represent concepts ( like 休 “to rest” looks like a man leaning against a tree). These are the type of characters that are first learned because they are really cool!

These type of characters also makes Chinese seem really easy – it’s all just pictures right!? These characters make up only around 5% of the language though, the rest being phono-semantic. Thankfully phono-semantic characters actually make the language easier than if it was all picture-based because it allows for a more logical structure.

This actually makes sense. As the language progressed and more complicated concepts were required it must have been really hard trying to think of ways to draw the concept or try to represent it symbolically. Drawing the sun, the moon or a woman is easy – drawing things like modesty, religion and justice is much harder.

Instead a character like 谦 “modest” is phono-semantic. On the left is the semantic part – in this case 讠meaning “speech” (or 言 in Traditional) which tells us that the character has something to do with speech. In this case it is probably because modesty is considered an aspect of speech – to talk
modestly.

On the right is 兼 which means “unite”/”combine”. We’re less interested in the meaning here though than we are with its pronunciation. 兼 is pronounced jiān. 谦 “modesty” is pronounced qiān. Both contain the same final -ian and are said with the same first tone. Nice!

This can’t be common right?

This is not a fluke. Don’t trustme? Head to HanziCraft, which is a neat character decomposition tool, and try it yourself. In fact, even if you do trust me go try it out anyway to get a feel for how extensive this is.

Stick in a few characters to see if the pronunciation of the pieces of a character resemble the whole character’s pronunciation. It could be a similarity in the initial (b-,p-,m-,f- etc.), in the final (-a, -i, -o, -iao etc.) or in the tone. If you are lucky it will be more than one of these.

The phonetic (sound) piece of a character gives us a hint. When we are very lucky we’ll get lots of help – 青 is an example of this. If it appears in a character (晴,情,请,清) then chances are that the pronunciation will be qing, though it won’t tell you the tone.

Other hints are less useful but still get you in the right kind of area. Instead of guessing between 440 initial/final combinations multiplied by 5 tones (including the neutral) which is about 2,200 possibilities you’ll suddenly be in the right ballpark.

Ordering food using phono-semantics

Getting into the ballpark is all you need, especially if you know any of the characters around the character that you don’t know. This is what will allow you to really get away with bluffing! Say you are trying to order something on a menu like 干煸豆角.

This is the first thing I ordered by guessing a character. In this case I already knew 干, 豆 and 角 but not the 煸 (biǎn). I did however know that 篇 (“chapter”) was said piān and 遍 (measure word for “occurrence”) was pronounced biàn.

Recognizing the 扁 allowed an educated guess that the second character in 干煸豆角 was -ian and probably b or a p. I had no idea of the character so used a first tone (incorrectly). By using the guessed character in the context of the rest of the word though I was understood immediately and the dish was successfully ordered.

This may seem like cheating or at least fudging it a bit. And it is! But it’s a way to begin communicating in Chinese as quickly as possible. Instead of just pointing at the menu and saying “one of those please” I was able to give it a shot and be understood.

I then asked the waitress to repeat the word back for me, which allowed me to get the tone correct for next time. Much better than checking in the dictionary and disrupting the flow of communication or, much worse, not communicating at all!

I could go through lists of characters that have these phono-semantic pieces. However, because these characters make up 95% of the language I’d basically be delivering you a dictionary. I suggest you go play around in a dictionary that has decomposition abilities (Pleco or YellowBridge) or do some decompositions on HanziCraft to prove to yourself that this really exists.

As you become more familiar with using the pieces that make up Chinese characters you’ll become better and better at guessing both meaning and pronunciation. A virtuous cycle!

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