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How to Learn Mandarin Chinese – Four Things the Beginner Needs to Know
So you’ve decided to learn Chinese, but not quite sure what you’ve gotten yourself into? No problem! We have identified four things that all beginner Mandarin learners need to know to start learning Chinese!
1 – Chinese Pinyins
You probably know that Chinese characters are the standard for written Chinese, but they’re not very helpful when it comes to pronunciation for beginners. As a newbie, your best friend is pinyin. Pinyin is a system for writing out the sounds of the Chinese language using the Roman alphabet. It’s not a “pronunciation key,” it’s a way of representing the sounds of the Chinese language in a phonetic way. This means reading pinyin correctly will still require you to learn some new sounds.
2 – Chinese Tones
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that every syllable has a tone, and the meaning of each syllable can change, depending on the tone. This means that if you want to express yourself in Chinese and get the correct meaning across, you have to pay attention to those tones! There are four main tones in Mandarin Chinese, plus one “neutral” tone. The tones are simply referred to as “first tone,” “second tone,” “third tone,” and “fourth tone.” We could describe them here, but the best thing to do is to listen to them, and keep listening until they become familiar.
3 – Chinese Characters
While the casual learner of Mandarin Chinese may opt not to spend too much time on learning Chinese characters, the serious student will want to dive right in. There are just a few main points you should know about characters to make the most out of your studies:
a – There are two sets of Chinese characters: simplified and traditional. Simplified characters are used in mainland China, whereas Hong Kong and Taiwan still use traditional characters. Most students of Chinese will want to study simplified characters (unless they are focused on Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Chinese history).
b – All Chinese characters are composed of strokes. The order of the strokes that is used when writing a character is called that character’s “stroke order.” Each Chinese character is not a unique “drawing,” however. As you learn more and more characters, you will notice that certain parts of a character appear again in other characters. These recurring component parts have the same stroke order every time, and their use helps us to make sense of Chinese characters. These component parts, when used to classify characters, are called “radicals.”
c – Every Chinese character has a one-syllable reading. This means that a one-character word is one syllable, a two-character word is two syllables, etc. Most Chinese characters have one reading, but the number of Chinese characters far outnumbers the total number of syllables in Mandarin Chinese. As a result, for most syllables in Chinese, there is more than one corresponding character.
d – When writing in Chinese characters, there are no spaces between words. This can make it difficult to tell where one word ends and the next begins. Practice is the key. Modern Chinese in mainland China runs left to right, top to bottom (just like English text), but you will occasionally see old texts or signs printed vertically.
4 – Standard Mandarin
You often hear about various “Chinese dialects,” such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Hokkien, and you may imagine that they are as similar to each other as American English, Australian English, and British English. In actuality, they are as different as the Romance languages Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian. Mandarin is by far the most common of the Chinese “dialects” mentioned above,and is the official language in both mainland China and Taiwan. (Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong and Guangdong.) Mandarin is what is usually meant by “Chinese” in casual usage.
You will sometimes hear mentions of “standard Mandarin” in discussions about learning Chinese. China was once fractured by innumerable dialects, and a unifying dialect helped bring the nation together. Standard Mandarin, or putonghua in Chinese, was originally based on the Beijing dialect in northern China, but has long since spread throughout the country. Just as a traveler in the USA will hear the difference in the local accents of Texas, New York, California, and Boston, a visitor to China will notice differences in the Mandarin of the residents of Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and Sichuan. These differences add to the richness and variety of the language.
So now you know the 4 most important aspects of learning Mandarin Chinese – so why not get started!
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