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Mandarin Chinese from scratch. 8 strategies for learning Chinese as a beginner

· Chinese Language,Learning Chinese,Learning Tips

Got a new job in China? Moving to Taiwan to study? Fell in love with the man/woman of your life?
 
All at once you have to start learning Mandarin Chinese, right now.
 
There are people who have managed to reach a decent level of Mandarin Chinese in just three month time.
 
So what are they doing differently than your average Chinese language student? One thing is that they use proven learning strategies.
 
In this blogpost, we are going to show you where to start off your Chinese learning journey and what to do in the beginning.
 
Science shows that when it comes to learning languages, the most important factor is the amount of input you receive in the target language.
 
For you, this means that simply studying, reading, and speaking is not going to be enough. You have to come up with a mixture of both active and passive learning strategies to make the most out of your time. I will talk about that at the end of this post.

Familiarize yourself with the tones

We all know that Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language: Characters, even if their pronunciation is otherwise the same, change their meaning with their tones. Familiarising yourself with tones is crucial as otherwise, you will be mispronouncing every single word!
 
Tones are basically changes in the pitch when speaking Chinese. This sounds complicated but, all spoken languages use pitch in one way or the other: Just try out the difference in English between saying “yes” in a very certain way and saying “yes” as a question or to express doubt. There you go. There is nothing to fear about tones.
 
In the beginning, focus on listening to the tones of single characters and then gradually of words and sentences. Tones sound different in context than they do in isolation. For instance, the third tone is frequently described as falling-rising. In normal speech however, it is simply a low tone. That is why in Zizzle App, we not only have audio for isolated characters, but also for words and phrases.
 
Next, try to reproduce tones yourself, that is actually speaking with tones. We think that for this part, support by a native speaker is indispensable. You will need someone to give you feedback on your pronunciation. Using tools such as iTalki and TutorMandain to find a language partner or tutor is easier than ever. Recording yourself and comparing it to native audio is another idea that works. When speaking, start out slow and exaggerate your pronunciation!

Learn how to use pinyin

To learn the rest of Mandarin Chinese pronunciation, you must understand pinyin.
 
A lot of the difficulties of Chinese comes from the language not being phonetic. The pronunciation is not related to the writing of Chinese words/characters. Pinyin overcomes this obstacle and allows you to actually write the pronunciation of Chinese characters! Pinyin is basically the alphabet for the Chinese language. From now on, you will actually know what you are trying to pronounce.
 
Besides from helping you with pronunciation, you will also need pinyin to look up unfamiliar words in a dictionary and to actually type Chinese on a computer. So study pinyin. Audio enhanced pinyin tables go a long way here: See here and here.
 
Having said that, the most important thing when studying pinyin is this: Pinyin is not English! It follows its own logic and patterns and has its own traps for the unwary. For instance, the pinyin of the character 书 (book) is shū, where the u is pronounced similar to the oe in “shoe”. However, in the character 句 (sentence) jù, the u is pronounced much like the German ü. Here is a great article about the most common inconsistencies.

Zizzle helps you remember the pronunciation of Chinese characters by adding a linkword. It’s a mnemonic tool that uses an English word which sounds similar to the Chinese characters. In the example above, “shoe” works as a linkword for 书 (book). Download the app now for Android and iOS:

Image showing a screenshot of Zizzle App with the Chinese character for book.

Chinese characters with a shortcut: structure and mnemonics

Don’t leave out Chinese characters when studying Mandarin Chinese. Some programs skip Chinese characters as they seem to be very hard. If you do, it’s going to haunt you in the future.
 
Besides, studying Chinese characters might just be the easiest part, if you know how.
 
Chinese characters are not indecipherable drawings. They are generally are made up of smaller building blocks, a little bit like lego pieces.

Image showing the building blocks of Chinese characters

Some of these building blocks are called radicals. In fact, most of the Chinese characters you will ever learn can be puzzled together from just about 200 radicals.
 
The way Chinese characters work is that a great number of them can be split into a phonetic (indicating the pronunciation) and a semantic component (indicating the meaning).
 
Take the character 妈 (ma) above, which means mother. The left part of it 女 (nü), indicates that the character has something to do with woman. And the right part of it 马 (ma) horse, is a hint for the pronunciation of the character.
 
Here are some examples of other phonetic and semantic components:
 
Phonetic component 几 (jī)

  • 机 (machine): jī
  • 饥 (starved): jī
  • 肌 (muscle): jī

Semantic component 氵(water radical)

  • 河 (river): hé
  • 海 (sea): hǎi
  • 酒 (alcohol): jiǔ

Check out this list of phonetic sets for more.
 
Adding mnemonics to the equation turns this knowledge into something incredibly powerful. Take up the example above, 妈. Now how do I remember that 女 (woman) and 马 (horse) means mother? This is what we do in Zizzle (Android & iOS):

Image showing a screenshot of Zizzle App with the Chinese character for mother

Mnemonics for learning vocabulary

Mnemonics are not only great when it comes to single characters, but they help you with words as well. Look at this example I have taken from fluentu:

矛盾 (máo dùn) – contradiction


This word is composed of the characters spear (máo) and shield (dùn). Together, they are put together to mean “contradiction.” It is easy to see how the composition of this word can create this meaning if you know the story behind this word.


In ancient China, a man was selling spears that he claimed could pierce any shield, and shields which he likewise claimed were impenetrable to all weapons. A passerby then asked him, “so, what would happen if I use one of your spears on one of your shields?” By remembering the story, you can remember the meaning of the word 矛盾 (máo dùn).

A word about HSK

Which Chinese characters should you focus on? According to research, knowing the top 1,000 most common characters allows you to understand about 90 percent of the Chinese language. The system to go for is the HSK system, which follows this structure and teaches you more frequent characters first.
 
The HSK is short for Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试), a standardized test for non-native Chinese speakers. There are six levels, from HSK 1 to HSK 6, with advancing difficulty. For reference, to study as a foreigner at a Chinese university taking classes in Mandarin, you are required to have at least HSK 4.
 
DigMandarin offers updated HSK lists.

Chinese grammar

Chinese grammar is easy. Unlike Spanish and German, there are no crazy verb conjugations. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
 
But Chinese grammar is at the same time much more difficult than you would think. The grammar is much more context-driven. What it means is that learning Chinese grammar as a stand-alone effort will not be successful. Instead, practice, immersion and actual language usage should be more of your focus than clinically learning grammatical rules.
 
Don’t skip grammatical rules altogether. Just don’t make it your primary focus and do grammar drills all day long. Chinese grammar wiki is a free online resource when you need to check up something specific.

Talk, a lot!

To speak Chinese you have to speak Chinese. Don’t aim for perfection and instead just do. Regularly meet up with conversation partners and simply try it out.
 
This is easier said than done and there are a lot of barriers in the beginning. It might happen that despite all your studies, a new language partner does not understand you. Stay and persist.
 
Even when working with a tutor, an emphasis should be put onto real life conversations. If you are doing independent study of vocabulary and grammar, having real conversations will help you more than going over fixed exercises.
 
For the practicalities, it is easier than ever to find someone speaking Chinese online. Some recommended tools are iTalki and TutorMandarin.

Passive learning strategies

Creating an immersive environment is key to maximize your learning efforts. This is where passive learning strategies come into play. Apart from language hacks such as changing your phone and browser into Chinese, listening to Chinese podcasts or watching Chinese videos and movies is very powerful.
 
A good place to start is ChinesePod. Once you are passed the beginning stages, Youku and Tudou are the Chinese equivalents of Youtube.
 
If you enjoy books, reading for pleasure in Chinese is equally a great method without having to go through grammar and vocabulary drills. Check out this blog post on what to read and how to read.

Using the above methods and hustling will rapidly improve your Chinese. What are you waiting for? It’s time to start studying!

Kevin from Zizzle

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love Zizzle App, the best way to learn Chinese with mnemonics and visual stories. Download now for iOS and Android.

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