3 Things to Do When Getting Started with Mandarin Chinese

So recently, I began learning Mandarin Chinese, knowing full well that it would be a challenging language to learn. I was less worried about my ability to speak (as arrogant as that sounds), and more about my ability to read and write. To be perfectly honest, the hard part of Mandarin, and I suppose Cantonese and Japanese as well, is reading and writing the language, as there’s a point where you can remember words in speech more easily than in text. With thousands of characters with unique meanings and overlapping pronunciations, Mandarin is truly a beast of its own caliber. However, there are a few things I’ve found helpful to making headway into the language. As you read this article, I’m assuming you know a few basic things about Mandarin.

1. Learn tones in pairs as they are spoken in speech.

I can’t stress this enough as it threw off my pronunciation for an entire month until I realized what I was doing wrong. Knowing the tones in isolation is somewhat helpful, but it is much better to learn them in pairs, as this is the most basic level at which tones change. The reason I say in speech is because of the third tone specifically. The third tone is NOT a falling-rising (“bouncing”) tone as many textbooks and online sources will tell you. Most of the time, anyway. The third tone is actually more along the lines of a low flat tone, almost the opposite of the first tone, which is a high flat tone. The only time that the third tone is pronounced as falling-rising is in isolation and when stressed. Hacking Chinese’ explanation of the third tone is also quite helpful. There are probably regional variations in how people pronounce the tones, but standard Mandarin pronunciation is usually your best bet, unless you have your own reasons for learning a regional variety.

Yangyang Cheng’s video on tone pairs is extremely helpful (linked here). She has a lot of other videos on pronunciation and phrases as well, so be sure to take advantage of those, as well her website: https://www.yoyochinese.com/. Here’s a useful link on tone changes as well: http://www.trinity.edu/sfield/chin1501/ToneChange.html.

2. Do not learn characters by rote!

I swear, if you study the characters only one way, do not let it be rote memorization! This is an extremely bad idea as you will not only overload your brain with hundreds of characters but also you won’t be able to remember as many. Hacking Chinese has a very apt metaphor for this:

There are an untold number of combinations of character components, and studying only the multitude of end-results is horrendously inefficient. This would be a little bit like learning maths by studying thousands of examples, but never actually looking at the underlying equations.

Hacking Chinese has a very good guide for getting started in learning the language in its written form. Radicals are very important, as they help you understand the components of the written language, and it helps you develop an intuition for what a new character might mean. Here’s the link to the first part of the Hacking Chinese method.

3. Get a textbook and use it.

Despite what Hacking Chinese points out about Chinese textbooks on the third tone, that is not to say that Chinese textbooks are bad at teaching the language. In fact, they provide a good source of exercises for you to work with and a place to practice your reading (this goes for most if not all languages, really). I’m currently using Modern Chinese: Learn Chinese in a Simple and Successful Way by Vivienne Zhang. My only issue with this book is that it does not actually tell you how to pronounce the tones at all. Therefore, I highly suggest going through tones somewhere before purchasing the book, as otherwise it is pretty good for supplementary exercises and some grammar reference. I prefer most online Chinese grammar sources personally, and two of the most useful ones I’ve found are Chinese Grammar Wiki and Chinese Grammar Boost.