Over my years of teaching Chinese to English speakers, answering your emails, and hosting my Google Hangouts On Air, I've been asked certain questions over and over.
They are all important questions! And once you learn the answers, you'll be that much more excited to start learning more about Chinese language and culture.
I've dedicated this mega-post to answering all of the basic Frequently Asked Questions about Chinese.
Take a moment to read through and see if your question is answered.
If you know anyone else who wants to learn Chinese, share this FAQ with them. I'm sure they'd be grateful...we're all in this together! :)
The Basics: Tones and Pinyin
Mandarin is considered “standard Chinese”, and is the official language of China and Singapore. Pretty much everyone in China has to learn to speak Mandarin at school. It’s based on the dialect spoken in Beijing, but the accent and grammar are standard throughout China.
Chinese, on the other hand, is a general term. It includes Mandarin and other common regional varieties you may have heard of, like Cantonese and Shanghainese.
Since the majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin, when people talk about “the Chinese language,” they’re usually referring to Mandarin.
Learn the difference between all the ways of saying "Chinese" in Chinese:
What’s the difference between zhongwen, hanyu, putonghua, guoyu and huayu?
China is geographically diverse, so the language has fractured into many completely different-sounding varieties.
Some of these, like Cantonese, may sound familiar, but there are many more, and even some that have millions of speakers!
Taking me as an example, I was born in Hunan, China. My first language was actually Xiang, or Hunanese. My nanny spoke Hunanese, so I naturally picked it up.
After I moved to Beijing at the age of 4 though, I forgot Hunanese almost entirely, especially when I started going to school with local Beijing kids. Almost everyone in Beijing speaks Mandarin both at school and at home.
These days everyone learns to speak standard Mandarin in school—no matter where they live—because Mandarin is the official language of China. So, if your goal is to communicate with as many Chinese people as possible, Mandarin is the standard language you should learn first.
Learn more about Chinese dialects:
Chinese Dialects: Do You Need to Know Them?
Chinese Dialects: Cantonese, Shanghainese, and Putonghua
The language is the same, only the accents are different. The accent difference is comparable to British English and American English. A few words are different, the same way that “gasoline” and “petrol” are different.
Another difference is that Taiwanese writing is usually done with traditional characters, and Mainland China usually uses simplified.
Other than that, the languages are essentially the same.
When people say that Chinese is difficult to learn, they mainly refer to the written language: Chinese characters.
But the good news is that you don’t need to learn Chinese characters to learn Chinese.
The Pinyin system (see "What is Pinyin?" below for more details) helps you pronounce Chinese words early on in the learning process, so you can skip learning characters when you first start learning Chinese.
When it comes to spoken Chinese, it’s actually quite easy to learn compared to other European languages.
First of all, Chinese grammar is easy and straightforward: there’s no gender, there’s no plural, and there aren't even articles like, “a”, “an”, or “the”.
Additionally, there is NO VERB CONJUGATION in Chinese, which means the verb “to be” stays the same for “she is", "he was", "I am", or "we are”. This makes talking about time, such as what happened “yesterday”, what “will probably happen tomorrow”, what “was happening but isn’t happening anymore” really easy!
Finally, the Chinese language is based on building blocks, which means the more you learn, the easier it gets.
Chinese words are very transparent and logical. For example, in Chinese, the word for movie is 电影 (diàn yǐng), which literally means “electronic shadow”. Telephone is 电话 (diàn huà), which is literally “electronic speech” and computer is 电脑 (diàn nǎo), which literally means “electronic brain”.
So when you see the Chinese words for “movies", "telephone" and "computer”, you know they are all related to electricity and that will help you memorize the words.
In Chinese, once you learn the basic sentence structures and useful words, you can simply put together the old pieces to make up new ones.
When you start learning conversational Chinese, you need to begin with the basics: tones and pinyin, which we talk about in detail below.
Numbers 0-10 come next. What's great about learning 0-10 is that knowing those 11 numbers make it immediately possible for you to count up to 99! Can't say that about many other languages, can you?
Rap along with our Chinese numbers music video here!
After you know basic numbers 0-10, you should continue learning basic Chinese expressions that are similar to English, such as self-introductions and telling someone where you're from.
Then you'll be ready to learn Chinese expressions and parts of speech that aren't like English, such as Chinese measure words.
Our Beginner Conversational Course Study Schedule lays out the path to fluency using this exact method. Get started here.
Once you've become comfortable with the basics of Chinese, you'll have a solid foundation for understanding Chinese logic, and you're ready to begin learning Chinese characters.
Many students want to learn Chinese characters right when they first start Chinese.
This can easily overwhelm a new language learner.
Learning the basics at the same time as Chinese characters is like trying to learn two languages at the exact same time!
It's possible, depending on your learning style, but it might not be the best idea. (Tip: Read on to learn how Chinese characters and words are formed)
It really depends on your commitment level!
If you go through our courses, spending 30-45 minutes each day, you will complete both the Beginner and Intermediate Conversational Courses achieve conversational fluency in Chinese in 12 months.
However, if life gets in the way and you have to put your learning on pause, that’s no problem. Our system marks your progress, and allows to resume where you left off when you're ready.
After completing the Beginner Conversational Course, you'll be able to speak these sentences in Chinese:
All the dialogue in the video is taken from our Beginner Conversational Course.
First, you need to know that you can ABSOLUTELY learn tones and learn them well, because they’re not completely foreign to you.
If you can memorize four easy metaphors, you can apply them to all Chinese words and sound like a pro.
In my video lessons I teach tones by comparing them to tones that you've most likely made before.
For example, the first tone is a high, flat sound. When your friend asks you to help him move, you think, "Maybe". The "may" of "maybe", when you're wondering how you will answer your friend is exactly how the Chinese first tone sounds. :)
You already use the second tone in English when you ask a question—it’s the rising tone like in the word, “What?”
The same goes with the third tone—a low, flat "Uh..."— and the fourth tone which sounds like, "No!"
There are only four tones, so learning them is not the complicated part. What's tricky is memorizing which tones are in the words you use.
I know different students have developed their own unique ways of memorizing tones.
For example, students who love music treat the tones as melody. Instead of “speaking tones”, they “sing tones” or hum the melody of the sentence.
Other students memorize “tone pairs”, which is a memory device described in depth on our blog. Take two-part Chinese words and turn them into easy-to-memorize tone combinations. This way you learn the words themselves and the tones as a simple pattern that accompanies them.
Download our free Essential Tone Pairs Table!
Everyone learns differently, and finding what works best for YOU is key.
Whether or not you care about speaking perfect tones, make it your priority to memorize the proper tones for important words.
Make sure you know the tones for “I" - 我 (wǒ), “you" - 你 (nǐ), "good" - 好 (hǎo), “to be" - 是 (shì), and any other words you need to make simple sentences. They form the backbone of more complex sentences.
Of course, the more words you can get right with the correct tones, the better.
This is a very common question!
The answer is both yes and no.
If you utter just one word, you may encounter some problems if you use the wrong tone.
For example, “swimming" - 游泳 (yóu yǒng) and “useful" - 有用 (yǒu yòng) may be misunderstood if you use the wrong tones and say the words in isolation.
However, if you use the wrong tones of the word in the context of a complete, grammatically-correct sentence, you will still be understood.
No one would misunderstand you if you accidentally said: “Tomorrow I want to go useful” - 明天我要去有用 (míngtiān wǒ yào qù yǒu yòng).
The correct sentence and tones, of course, are 明天我要去游泳 (míng tiān wǒ yào qù yóu yǒng) - "Tomorrow I want to go swimming".
That’s why it’s important to learn basic Chinese grammar, so even when your tones are not perfect, you can still be understood by Chinese people.
On a side note, Chinese songs do not use tones since the musical melody overrides the word tones. However, Chinese people still understand the lyrics based on established context and the correct use of grammar.
Pinyin is the most commonly used, standardized system to ”spell” Chinese words in the Roman alphabet. This is the first thing Chinese kids learn at school.
Once you master this written system (which is not difficult at all), you can read Chinese words in “English letters” but still understand them in Chinese.
While Pinyin looks like English, two key factors make it different.
1. Pinyin represents the sounds of the Chinese language.
For example, “ben” is not really pronounced like the English name “Ben”. The Pinyin “en” sounds like the “en” in “taken”.
While that might seem confusing at first, the good news is that an English speaker can pronounce more than half of the Pinyin sounds correctly without any coaching at all.
2. Pinyin is more standardized than English.
In English, you have unlimited amount of sounds because you can create new sounds any time, like “blog” or “google”. Or you may have words with the same spelling but with multiple sounds, like the word “record”. You can “record” a sound, and you can also own a “record”.
There are only approximately 400 Chinese sounds, not including tones, and each pinyin word only matches one sound.
This means once you master pinyin, you can say EVERY sound and EVERY word in Chinese.
Check out the first ever interactive Video-based Pinyin Chart with 90+ video explanations and 400+ audio demos.
In English, words are the basic units of the language, but in Chinese, it’s characters.
Each Chinese character looks like a little picture, but this little picture has a specific sound that can be written with pinyin and meanings.
So each time you see a Chinese character, there are three elements associated with it.
- Image: What does it look like?
Pinyin: What does it sound like?
Meaning: What does it mean?
It’s different from English. In English, a word looks pretty much the same way it sounds. When you see a word, you can immediately know how to pronounce it (there are many tricky words that look differently from how they sound).
So there are two elements associated with each English word:
- Image/sound: What does it look like/sound like?
Meaning: What does it mean?
That’s why it’s hard to learn Chinese characters when you first start studying Chinese, because you have to associate the meaning with the sound AND the image.
Too much work, too early on.
We suggest delaying learning Chinese characters until you have the basics down. Use pinyin to carry you through the beginner learning stage.
Then you'll already know the "sounds" and "meanings", so you’ll only need to add the “image” element. Your learning experience will be more manageable and enjoyable this way.
Different from English, a Chinese “word” is either one Chinese character or a combination of Chinese characters used together to express one idea.
Most Chinese words consist of two characters, where each character is considered a word component.
For example, the Chinese word for “airplane” is 飞机 (fēi jī).
It contains two components 飞 (fēi) - "fly” and 机 (jī) - "machine”.
“Cell phone” is 手机 (shǒu jī).
It contains two components: 手 (shǒu) - "hand” and 机 (jī) - "machine”.
“Helicopter” is 直升机 (zhí shēng jī).
It's made up of three components: 直 (zhí) - "straight”, 升 (shēng) - "ascend”, and 机 (jī) - "machine”.
So basically, each Chinese word is made by shuffling or recycling different Chinese word components or Chinese characters.
In the case of the word component 机 (jī) - "machine", please note that it cannot be used alone as a word. As I said, most Chinese words are two characters. To really say the word “machine” in Chinese, it’s 机器 (jī qì) which consists of the word components 机 (jī) - "machine” and 器 (qì) - "instrument”.
Spaces between Chinese characters
Another difference between English words and Chinese words is that there are no spaces in between Chinese words. You have to separate the words in a sentence in your head.
我喜欢吃意大利菜. (wǒ xǐ huān chī yì dà lì cài) - "I like to eat Italian food."
If this sentence was written the English way, it would be separated by word ideas like this:
我 喜欢 吃 意大利 菜
wǒ xǐ huān chī yì dà lì cài
I like to eat Italian cuisine.
It’ll take time to get used to, but eventually you will wonder how you were so addicted to spaces in the first place! ^_^
In the beginning of your studies, you don’t need to!
With the help of pinyin, you’ll learn how to get started with all the basic words and sentence structures.
However, it’s a good idea to learn characters once you reach an intermediate level (when you have tones and pinyin down).
Chinese only has approximately 400 possible sounds, and all Chinese words must cycle through those sounds. So after you learn enough of them, they start sounding the same.
Even with four tones, the sounds become difficult to distinguish.
But when you learn the character that goes with each sound, not only can you start telling words apart, but you’ll also have lots of “a-ha moments" and remember the words longer.
Each Chinese character has a separate meaning and most words consist of multiple Chinese characters.
By learning the characters, you’ll begin to associate a deeper meaning with each word you learn.
Chinese characters are not random lines! Just like Chinese vocabulary, characters have a building block nature.
Start with strokes, then learn radicals, then learn how to position them in relation to each other in order to form increasingly complex characters!
Our YOYO 300 Chinese Character Course will teach you 300 characters that have this building block nature. With these 300 characters, you can form 64% of all written Mandarin.
You'll learn how to decode, read, write, and type Chinese characters the fun and easy way!
Traditional characters are the original set of Chinese characters that have been used since long ago in China's history. They are usually made up of many complicated strokes.
Around 1950, the People's Republic of China (PRC) began standardizing a simplified version of many of these complex characters.
This simplification began as the PRC's attempt at decreasing nationwide illiteracy, but has unfortunately become a geographical divider, since different countries use different character systems.
All you need to know right now is one major difference: simplified characters have fewer strokes.
For example, the common character 邊 (biān) - "side" has 18 strokes in traditional form, while its simplified form (边) only has 5.
The good news is, 20% of traditional and simplified characters are written exactly the same way, so you’ll automatically be able to read some of both!
If you’re planning to travel or live in either Hong Kong or Taiwan, you’ll mostly see traditional characters, so you might want to start learning those.
However, if you plan to travel mostly in Mainland China or Singapore—where simplified characters are standard—you should learn simplified characters.
Do you have more questions that we haven't answered yet?
What other aspects of Chinese language learning do you want to learn more about?