4 Proven Tips to Master Basic Chinese

Over the National Day Holiday I’ve been hosting a few American friends who first arrived in China several weeks ago. Although they haven’t been in China for long, they already understand the vital importance of picking up Mandarin and interacting with locals. They too have realized that the further you get away from mainland China’s Eastern mega-cities, the fewer English speakers you’ll encounter and the more crucial speaking Mandarin becomes.

Despite making these critical realizations, Chinese tends to intimidate newcomers and they weren’t sure how or where to start. Here are 4 proven tips which will set you on a path to master basic Chinese.

Tip #1: Start with the fundamentals

Basic Chinese characters
three very fundamental Chinese characters

The first thing I recommended to my visiting pals was to learn Pinyin, the official method to transcribe Chinese language into roman characters. This is best taught by a Chinese person because this step involves learning how each syllable in the Chinese language is supposed to sound, and accordingly how to read and write these sounds with English letters. Without pinyin and an understanding of how each syllable is supposed to sound, you won’t be building upon a solid foundation. Learning tones at the beginning is a good idea also, although you probably won’t begin to nail the tones until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time interacting with native speakers.

Helpful links:

Pinyin.info – a guide to writing Mandarin Chinese in romanization

Pinyin Practice – Mandarin pronunciation exercises and learning components

Tip #2: Record your progress

Moleskine learning Chinese
My personal Moleskine from several years ago

The traditional way of going about this tip is to maintain a journal or a book with everything that you’ve learned. For me, I carried a handful of Moleskine notebooks across the country, recording new words, phrases and grammatical patterns. After the word list grew past the first volume, I began scrawling very poorly-proportioned characters that looks like they were written by a Chinese toddler. But over time my skills improved, and as you look back on what you’ve learned previously, your progress will definitely encourage you.

You don’t have to use a notebook, though. Many devices, like an iPod Touch or electronic dictionary, can store thousands of words in organized lists to be reviewed at any time. The choice is up to you whether you prefer the old school or new school methods. There are advantages to both and you might find, like I have, that a combination of both yields the best results.

Helpful links:

Studying Chinese with an iPhone – the Chengdu Living rough guide

Tip #3: Interact with native speakers

If you’re fortunate enough to be in China, utilize your prime advantage and make an effort to interact with locals. For those of you who aren’t in China, your task is considerably more difficult.

It doesn’t matter if you’re chatting with a taxi driver about your home town or negotiating over the price of bananas. Interaction is the key and the more time you spend hearing how native speakers communicate, the faster and more accurately you’ll be able to pick it up. First, master the basics which you’ll hear over and over throughout your time in China:

1. What country are you from?

2. Are you studying or working?

3. What do you think of this place?

Once you’ve exhausted these questions to every possible conclusion imaginable, you’ll be equipped to start getting into the interesting conversations.

Sichuan tea house
Tea houses are a great casual social atmosphere to practice your Chinese with friendly locals

One additional thing to keep in mind is regional dialects. Depending on where you’re located and the kind of people you’re surrounded by you might be subjected to a lot of whichever dialect is local to your region. In this case you can choose to speak some or much of the local dialect, or avoid it completely.

Helpful links:

ChinesePod – free and paid podcast with a lot of useful situational dialogue for all skill levels

Nciku Conversations – hundreds of situational dialogues on one of the best sites for learning Chinese

Tip #4: Find a way to enjoy it

If you can’t find a way to enjoy learning Chinese, the process will be much more laborious for you. Most people who pick it up quickly are passionate about some aspect of Chinese culture or life and it’s the language which connects them to it. For example:

  • You’re dying to learn kung fu but local masters don’t speak English. Eager to learn, you train with native speakers and quickly pick up the skills required to aid your training
  • You want to do business in China and can’t wait to feel like you aren’t getting ripped off at every turn
  • You’re compelled to learn about modern Chinese culture but want to learn first hand. When books won’t get you close enough, nothing but close interaction will do. As your language skills improve exponentially, you gain a meaningful understanding of Chinese culture
  • Chinese poetry fascinates you but when you translate it into English, it loses its elegance. Start with simple idioms and your diligence will be rewarded when you’re enjoying more challenging pieces

You get the idea. Having a passion for the language, regardless of what you want it to connect you with, goes a long way.

Mastering Chinese basics
Whatever it is that excites you about learning Chinese, use that as motivation

What has served you well in your quest for better language skills? Is there anything that you wish someone had told you years ago?

41 thoughts on “4 Proven Tips to Master Basic Chinese”

    • Indeed! Tons of tips and tricks. Everyone seems to find different methods that yield the best results for them whether it’s podcasts, books, interactive devices, conversation etc.

  1. I was dropped into Chengdu with zero Chinese knowledge and started picking it up over 6 months. Then I was in Kunming for 2 years. By the time I got to Shanghai foreigners who’d been studying were way behind me, because all their Chinese buddies spoke English.

    Not having lived in China these past few years, I think I’m losing it. But it was nice a few weeks ago to chat with my Chinese in-laws and find out that some of the basics are pretty well ingrained. Can’t wait to get back there!

    • No doubt, foreigners in West China tend to speak more and better Chinese than on the east coast mega-cities. Western culture and language is much more entrenched there and the need to learn Mandarin isn’t quite as great. As you know, in Chengdu or Kunming you won’t get too far ordering lunch in English.

      I’m sure as soon as you return to China it’ll come back to you quickly!

      • Really? Proportionally, perhaps (there are a whole lot more foreigners in Shanghai than there are in Kunming), but in sheer numbers I’d be surprised in Shanghai and Beijing weren’t tops for fluent Mandarin speakers. Yeah, it’s easy enough to get around in English, but it’s also really easy to use Chinese — once you step out of the international settlement bubble, at least.

        • True, those are totally valid points. In terms of sheer numbers I would absolutely agree – and really, I haven’t spent enough time in Beijing interacting with foreigners to be a fair judge. From my own travels I’ve noticed that very few of the foreigners I’ve run into in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai etc are very proficient in Chinese. I’m sure there are a ton that are, but it seems like a huge portion of the foreign community in those cities are there for business or aren’t there for an extended amount of time. And in Shanghai or Beijing you can get by without speaking Chinese which isn’t as easy in Chengdu or Kunming.

          • That’s true, there are a lot of people that are here (I’m in Shanghai) because their company sent them here and they have no intrinsic interest in Chinese or China. I suppose out west the number of people that are in China because they really want to be in China is a lot higher.

  2. These are great tips. I think the fourth is really the most critical, though. Learning any language is going to take some time, and if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not likely to put in the time required.

    • Very few people will be able to make it without enjoying the process. It’s too difficult and takes too long! Fortunately there are many facets of Chinese language, history and culture to draw newcomers in.

  3. 1. Carry a dictionary everywhere, pocket dictionary, electronic, iphone/itouch

    2. Don’t get discouraged when Chinese people giggle at your Chinese, it can be hard but at least your Chinese is better than their English usually, so whatever

    3. Get a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend

    4. Record/write down new words when you learn them, love my itouch flashcards with Chinese KC-dict application for this

    5. Bug Chinese people to teach you new words when you hear them, make them write down the character clearly or the pinyin, 98 out of 100, they will be glad to help

    6. review chinese words you have learned

    7. when preparing to encounter a new situation in China such as bank, doctor, post office, look up a few words you might use but don’t know and try to use them or listen for them

    8. Did I mention get a Chinese girlfriend?

    • Nice list!

      Since carrying a small dictionary sucks, having an iPod Touch or an iPhone is really the way to go (most smartphone platforms will work, including Android and Windows Mobile, too). Look up words, save them to word lists, and review them later as flash cards.

      The get a boyfriend/girlfriend tip is definitely effective as well. Make sure they don’t speak English, though, or you’ll just be improving their English all day. When your language skills are equal though the relationship will usually go in the direction of whomever is more motivated to pick up the others’ language.

  4. Good tips! I think the key is to enjoy it. The first 2,5 years went by just because I was, and am, so interested in everything Chinese. But now after half a year in China I need something new.

    My Chinese boyfriend have helped me a lot with my spoken Chinese, because that’s the language we communicate with. But I need a boost to my character learning and I think reading books for kids could be the solution as well writing short essays for my teachers.

    Good way to make learning Chinese enjoyable is also to watch Chinese movies or tv series in Chinese.

    • Do you use QQ or Douban at all? Online services targeted at the Chinese online community have dramatically improved my character recognition and grammar as well. A lot of what you’ll see, especially on QQ, is slang though so it’s best used along with other methods so you don’t think QQ chatter is normal talk. It’s a fun way to learn practical written Chinese though, and if you use the QQ web client (http://web.qq.com) along with a character pop-up plugin in your browser you can look up words and phrases that you can’t identify.

      Movies are fun also although it’s hard for me to find good Chinese movies. What I often do is watch Western movies with Chinese subtitles. That’s a good middle ground for me.

    • If you are looking for a new method for practicing characters, you could try out pinyin sudoku (http://pinyinsudoku.blogspot.com). If you hear a chinese character spoken, it can have so many different meanings because there are lots of characters with the same pinyin syllable (let alone recognizing the tones)… so to sort them out, I create these sudoku puzzles and think it’s fun. When I started, I chose the characters more or less randomly, by similar shapes etc. but no I go by the most frequently used ones to put them first (so the newer posted ones are the better ones). I print the sudoku puzzles out and use them on train rides. I hope you like it and would appreciate comments.

  5. Buy a textbook at your level, and read it like a crossword puzzle book daily. You can be as cursory or diligent as you want, and you’ll find that at the basic level, the words from your book come up all the time in daily conversation (assuming it’s an decent book), further lightening the net burden of the words and phases that come your way in daily conversation.

    Also, take interest in people. As acquaintances, Chinese people love showing interest in whatever you’re doing. When you pass the guard at your gate or lobby, you can smile and holler, “You working!” and he’ll answer, “Workin’. Going out!” and you interact back, “Goin’ out.” When you have some time, try taking interest in his schedule. He’ll tell you that his job is tiring, and then he’ll ask about yours. You should be vague with phrases like “还好” (it’s alright), so you’ll have more to talk about later.

    • Are there any textbooks which you can recommend personally? I used three volumes of the Practical Chinese Reader and liked them. I have half a dozen other books on learning Chinese though and didn’t really get into any of the others. I even have a “Teach Yourself” spoken Chinese book (like you’d find in a Borders which isn’t bad but it teaches a lot of the Pimsleur-type book Chinese which is kind of awkward sounding.

  6. I seriously read this post, these words touched me. To learn the local language, love the place and communicate honestly with people. Don’t just learn the language but master it.

  7. The best tip that there is with learning foreign languages, is just to go out there and chitchat ! Another way is to get Chinese roommates, aslong as you are surrounded by Chinese people, who are not able to speak English !

    • Right! Great thing to add. In my 5 years in China I’ve never lived with another native English speaker and it’s forced me to speak and hear Chinese all day which has really improved my Chinese.

  8. Here is a short list of books which I have found useful in my many years of studying Chinese. The newest which is just out is Deborah Fallows book.

    1.Dreaming in Chinese; Lessons in Life, Love and Language: this is a very culturally insightful book language-wise which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It answered a few questions about the cultural i didn’t even know i had! 🙂

    2. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar (A Practical Guide) which can be found on Amazon (as can most of these others as well I suppose

    3.Speaking of Chinese This book is an excellent intro to 中文. It is written by Raymond and Margaret Chang.

    4.Modern Chinese by Ping Cheng is an in-depth tome on just what the title says. It covers other langauges of China also, not just Mandarin.

    5. Oxford Chinese – English Dictionary I own a hardcover and a softcover edition. Very useful!

    And last but not least is the Rosetta Stone Mandarin Chinese program which i have used with great success in personal 司机学 (self-study).
    This is a short list for now…Later perhaps I may add to it…;)

  9. I think the key to learning Chinese is removing your ego from the struggle. This is difficult because learning Chinese is very gratifying personally and very impressive to others. But both pride in your progress and fear of your inadequacy can distract from the challenge at hand. Chinese is a mountain, and you don’t get to the top by admiring the view along the way, or by lamenting your distance from the summit.

    Personally, I have wasted far too much time comparing my Chinese that of others, trying to extract a gram of self worth, or hiding my ignorance for fear of losing others’ esteem. A teacher once told me, ‘if you want to master Chinese, you must have very thick skin on your face.’ Meaning, if you are embarrassed of being corrected, then you will continue being wrong.

    I try to avoid the mindset of competing with fellow foreigners over who has better Chinese. I have been lucky to find a circle of friends who teach me new words and correct my mistakes without judging.

    On a more practical level, I have a couple study tips to add to the useful ones listed above. 1) Tape your vocab lists up in visible locations, so that you will be reminded to review them (I used to tape them to the underside of my glass coffee table). 2) When you learn a new word, immediately make a sentence with it (the stranger the better) and confirm with a native speaker that you are using it correctly. It is easier to remember a new word within the context of a scenario you imagine, rather than by a definition abstracted from its usage.

    Good Luck

    • I’ve never seen anyone use vocab lists in the way that Eli does – that’s a very peculiar method but pretty inventive. Basically when you would walk into his house, there’d be Chinese vocabulary taped all over the place. On the walls, on the coffee table, around the desk area etc. Seeing the words over and over every day must have really drilled it into your head.

      For the last two weeks I’ve been iPod Touch-less and it’s really making it difficult for me. I basically haven’t learned any new words or phrases in that time, and at least once each day I’m wishing I could look something up or save a word to a word list.

    • Yeah man, nothing worse than the competitive foreigner. Was in Bookworm recently, and a foreign guy was speaking REALLY loudly on his phone (c’mon, Bookworm aint Babi; you can whisper in that place). I kinda got the feeling he was showing off, giving a performance to those around him. Or, could just be that i’m jealous; his chinese was ligh years ahead of mine!

      • I’ve seen that before, too. Someone speaking excessively loud around other foreigners, as if for no other reason than to demonstrate his ability. If you do that, you better have seriously impressive skills! Otherwise you just look dumb. There are a lot of foreigners who speak very good Chinese in Chengdu.

    • @ Eli
      You make a good point man. Some of the fluent Chinese speakers use it as a badge of honour, or to put down others. if you speak Chinese well, i admire you, truly. But listen; some people (myself included) don’t have any interest in mastering Chinese. Crucify me if you must, but it’s just not my priority, even though i live here. Number 1: staying healthy, which means gym 6 days a week, swimming and/or badminton twice weekly. Number 2: travel, which requires that dirty old devil $$$$. I can’t fit in chinese, and to be brutally honest, i can’t find the interest or motivation. no, I’m not in the ex-pat bubble, i don’t have an assistant or translator. i can do the shit that needs doing. Listen, i can speak with the security guards at my gate, but no offense, it’s not the most thought-provoking discussion. so yeah, i’m one of those pathetic long-termers who hasnt reached the level of zhong guo tong. You wanna put me up on that big old cross, go ahead. got plenty of 5 inch nails here…

      • In my experience few people have interest in truly “mastering” Chinese – almost everyone’s interests tapers off, eventually, as they can understand and communicate enough to accomplish their own goals.

        I think the vast majority of foreigners in China have not yet reached that level, though.

  10. It is great that so many people intrested in Chinese. I have some tips for newcomers with zero level about survival Chinese. I have introduced these to my students before, worked well.
    1 Learn the pinyin system from a textbook or learning website or a teacher or a native speaker(educated).
    2 Remember following main pionts of mandarin: 一The basic sentence pattern is SVO(eg.我学习汉语). 二There is no inflexion of verd,noun,and plural.(easy!) 三 Grammartical meaning of the sentences changed by using particles,adverbs,prepositions;and by changing word order.
    四Use prep.正在/在,particles 着,了,过 to indicate the tense. 五Same syllable with different tones could indicate different characters, words, of course different meanings.
    3 At the begining, you may need conduct from a teacher or self-study follwing a textbook to acquire the basic rules of how to construct sentences in Chinese.
    4 After that, expand your vocabulary as more as possible. 一Use the books designed for chinese kids to learn English, you could find classified words marked in pinyin and characters which are useful in daliy life(eg.food, weather, clothes, vehicle etc.) 二 Take pictures of the signs you need in public places(eg. guideboard,price table of laundry,signs in hospital/bank…); and then ask your friend or teacher to make the list of Chinese-English. 三 Take a notebook with you, record the words and expressions you heard.Also record the English sentences you want to say in Chinese. Look up in dictionary, or ask native speakers. 四Highly recommend the 2)tip from Eli.

    For others who want to study Chinese more in a systematical way instead of just suvival language, there are more things to do. 🙂

    Hope everybody enjoy the learning!

  11. When learning Chinese, more than anything else, you have really got to stick with it. Despite the difficulty, never forget that you can master it. Don’t give up or get discouraged!

  12. I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

  13. Hi ,I am in Chengdu ,lucky for finding you there. I work for a US trading company,and I have got Mandarin Chinese bachelor degree when I was in college. hoping to find friend here.just friend,who I can talk with ,and have fun with .if anyone saw my message,feel free to contact with me at my [email protected]. drift bottle


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