How to Learn Chinese: Reading, Writing & Speaking

Emma - 13 June 2016

How to learn Chinese is a very individual, personal choice based on what kind of learning suits you. Here we break down things to know when first learning Chinese, and give some advice on the best methods and products.

How to learn ChineseHow to learn Chinese

Why Learn Chinese?

Sometimes I question why I’m learning Chinese. It’s baffling, with it’s challenging tonal nature and entirely alien way of writing. Despite this, I find it a fascinating language to learn. It’s sometimes poetic, sometimes abrupt, and reveals intriguing snippets of the culture and mindset of the Chinese through history.

China is, we all know, on the ascendant. And while all educated Chinese are throwing themselves into learning English, learning Chinese is beneficial to you whether you want to wander round the hidden corners of the Middle Kingdom with a backpack and a Lonely Planet, or whether you want to end up in a Beijing boardroom.

Should I Learn to Speak AND Write?

This is a difficult question, and depends on whether how you intend to use the language. If you’re learning because you want to be able to travel in China, then you might find it useful to just learn a little of the spoken language, and just learn to recognise a few select characters that will help you (e.g. common menu characters, or those for numbers 1-10). For those who intend a much longer and in-depth study of Chinese, learning them simultaneously will be beneficial, and will prevent you using the pinyin as a crutch.

How to Learn Chinese Tones

Chinese is a tonal language, which means the inflection on a word changes it entirely. There are four tones, which I call across, down, up and down-up. There’s also arguably a non-tone, which is a staccato sound, but we won’t go into that too much. If you want to ever be able to speak Chinese, you must master these. Across is a high pitched, constant tone. Down is a command, and sounds quite abrupt. Up is sort of like the rising inflection you might put at the end of a question. And down-up is where the voice drops down, then rises high again. I imagine it sort of how you say ‘siiiiiit’ to a dog. When writing in pinyin (the phonetic writing of Chinese using the Roman alphabet), the tones are represented by symbols on top of the relevant vowel.

When trying to get the tones right, I find it helps me to move my head according to what the tone is meant to do. An unfortunate side effect of this is that you end up looking a little mad and twitchy when trying to get through a sentence, but it really does help. Speak confidently, as hesitation often changes the tone, and therefore the meaning of the words.

This is how Chinese tones look when written in pinyin (roman script Chinese)This is how Chinese tones look when written in pinyin (roman script Chinese)

How to Learn Chinese Grammar

Chinese grammar was a pleasant surprise, as it is relatively simplistic. For example, past tense is indicated by adding ‘le’ to the end of a phrase, and a question is indicated by adding ‘ma’. Compared to learning European languages, Chinese grammar has been blissfully simple.

One aspect to watch out for and make a concerted effort to master are Chinese measure words. When talking about an object, the object is preceded by a measure word. For example ‘yi ben shu’ is a book, and ‘yi ping pijiu’ is a bottle of beer and ‘yi zhi mao’ is a cat. In all of these cases, the first word means one, and the final word is the object (book, beer, cat). The middle word is the measure word. The word might be determined by the shape of the item, or by it’s purpose. For example, ‘tiao’ is used for long thin things, like fish or belts, or ‘ba’ is used for small, handheld objects such as keys or a handful of rice. It is the aspect of Chinese grammar that beginners often struggle with, as it becomes a feat of memory, trying to remember which measure word is paired with which item.

Learning Chinese Characters

These daunting squiggles may seem impossible at first, but once you start to learn they can become fascinating. Just as English words are made of letters, Chinese characters (han zi) are made of radicals. Radicals are simple characters that can be used to build a more complex character. The radical components of a character usually hint at its meaning, and sometimes also indicate the sound of the character. Most radicals start as pictograms, roughly depicting their subject, but over time most have evolved to the extent that their original visual connection is lost. Some examples that still exist are mountain (山) which looks like a mountain peak and mouth (口) which looks like a hole / opening.

Occasionally radical combinations can tell you something interesting about Chinese culture when han zi first evolved. For example, if you combine the characters for ‘woman’ and ‘child’ the character they make means ‘good’. Similarly, the character for ‘man’ is made up of ‘field’ and ‘strength’, perhaps indicating that manliness was to be a strong farmer.

How to Learn Chinese

Reading

Because han zi (Chinese characters) are not phonetic, there is an inherent separation between learning to speak and write which doesn’t exist when learning most other languages. Recognising characters is much easier than writing them, so if you want to learn to read Chinese the easiest method is probably flashcards. Pleco also offers a good interactive dictionary service when you’re first learning to read, and has incredible add-ons. Two of the best are the ability to crudely draw the character with your finger and get their suggested matches, or to take a picture of the character and it magically shows you the translation. This beats traditional dictionaries any day!

How to Learn Chinese Reading: Although it might take you a while to get up to this many characters!How to Learn Chinese Reading: Although it might take you a while to get up to this many characters!

Writing

Writing is tied in with reading, but is substantially more difficult in my opinion. There are specific stroke orders to follow. Trying to write Chinese characters feels a lot like being a pre-schooler at first. You might be able to read the word, but when it comes to writing it the letters all end up back to front and upside down. Luckily there are fantastic options out there to help you learn the stroke orders, and build up the muscle memory that will make the characters second nature.

I found Scritter to be an ingenious tool for writing, where you use your finger or stylus to write the characters on the screen. The spaced repetition keeps your memory fresh, and the physical act of writing helps build up essential muscle memory. It teaches you stroke order and memorisation techniques to really build up your bank of characters. I do, however, think that Scritter works much better on tablets or smartphones, rather than using a mouse on a computer (although you could buy a graphics pad or similar). I would also warn that you should occasionally use a pen and paper to practice, as it does feel quite different to doing it on Scritter.

How to Learn Chinese WritingHow to Learn Chinese Writing

Speaking

Speaking is always a hurdle for any language student, and the tonal nature of Chinese makes it especially troublesome to learn to speak it out of a book. Fortunately there are a whole range of ways to expose yourself to the spoken language. Podcasts are a great way to start. I’ve just started listening to Kids Chinese, which focuses heavily on tones. Another way to listen to Chinese and become used to the sounds and cadences of the language is to listen to Chinese pop-songs, which usually have simplistic lyrics. Or you could watch a film in Chinese, with English subtitles. I find Studio Ghibli films particularly good for this, as they use child-like language. While Ghibli is a Japanese studio, they offer their films dubbed into Chinese too.

Once familiar with the sounds, and building up some vocab from study, nothing can compete with having conversations with native speakers of the language. Try setting up language groups in your local area, or a language exchange, where you and a Chinese native speaker could spend 30mins talking in Chinese, then 30mins talking in English.

Fall in love with Studio Ghibli AND get used to hearing Chinese tonesFall in love with Studio Ghibli AND get used to hearing Chinese tones

My Best Method Overall

If I were to pick one method of learning Chinese, I personally would choose Rosetta Stone. For those who haven’t every heard of or used it, try their demo. The basic premise is that you learn Chinese the way you learned your native language, by seeing pictures and hearing words. Using this method they manage to teach complicated constructs, the same way that you learned to talk in past tense as a toddler. The benefit of this is that you’re not translating everything into English, which makes learning new sentence structures and concepts much easier. Another benefit of Rosetta Stone is that it makes you read, write, listen and speak. You have the choice of whether you want to learn with characters or pinyin. The latter makes you learn more quickly, but can become a crutch. Rosetta Stone also includes games to practice your vocabulary, where you can play solo or against other users. It also offers four monthly lessons via voice chat with a native speaker. It definitely works better on a computer than it does on phone or tablet apps, and it can judge your speaking much better if you have a headset. It’s a fairly expensive bit of software, but I really do recommend it.

I’m a little evangelical about Rosetta Stone, because it has been such an enormous help to me, but some people don’t like it and feel it is better suited to European languages. I’ve yet to find anything that can complete with it. On the other hand, this is probably not how to learn Chinese if you are learning with a specific goal, as you cannot choose the subject of vocabulary.

Best of luck with learning Chinese, and if you have any top tips of your own for how to learn Chinese, please let us know in the comments!

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