Chinese language tips

Invest time and money in an intensive Mandarin program so you have a solid foundation.

This is applicable to most languages, but intensive learning at the beginning is particularly important for a language like Mandarin, which is utterly alien to an English speaker. I failed to learn Mandarin as a child because two hours a week were not enough to build the foundation. For Chinese, the basics are crucial: you must learn the four tones (which are often indistinguishable to English speakers), master the Pinyin needed to pronounce the logographic characters, and grasp other fundamentals such as the stroke order to form the characters. It takes hours of writing, listening, and speaking to master these basics. A British-Italian friend of mine studied once a week at a Confucius Institute in London for eight months with no results. After only a month of intense classes at Mandarin House in Shanghai – six hours a day, five days a week – she was writing and speaking like a Chinese five-year-old, which is progress not to be taken lightly. She then switched to a less intense daily program, but credits her “Chinese boot camp” for giving her a great foundation to work from. Even one-on-one tutoring may not be effective if it isn’t a daily ritual. Check out for a good list of schools and programs in China.

Decide whether you are going to learn traditional or simplified Chinese characters.

There are two different systems of Mandarin writing – traditional and simplified. Simplified characters were created by decreasing the number of strokes needed to write the character, changing its form. For example, compare the traditional and simplified characters for fei (to fly): Traditional:   飛 Simplified:     飞 Today, traditional Chinese characters are mainly used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. Simplified characters were introduced in China in the 1950s and 60s to increase literacy rates, and are the official system of writing in mainland China, and Singapore. This is also the form of writing taught in Mandarin courses around the world. People debate whether it’s better to learn the more complicated but beautiful traditional Chinese script, or to follow the widely used simplified version. I think it’s a personal choice, and depends on where you want to live and why you are learning Mandarin. Do you want to live in mainland China? Do business in Shanghai? Learn Chinese culture and history? Teach in Taiwan? It is possible to learn both, but as a beginner you should stick to one system to avoid confusion. I started out with teachers who used textbooks with traditional characters from Hong Kong, but I had to learn from a simplified Beijing syllabus in university. It sometimes felt like I was learning to write a new language. Personally, I wish I had always learnt the simplified script, since my goal was to live and work in mainland China.

Travel to or live in China or Taiwan

Last but not least, seriously consider making a trip to China or Taiwan. Such a trip will play huge role in your process off learning Mandarin Chinese. As a matter of fact, it is a whole different story when you learn Mandarin in a classroom or at home comparing to when you completely immerse yourself in a Chinese environment. You get to see it, hear it, and speak it every day, for as much as you want. As a result, your Mandarin will improve significantly! If you are a student, check out the study abroad programs your schools offer. In case you’re a native English speaker, teaching English in China or Taiwan can be a fun option. If you are neither, saving up money and vacation time will also do. Just go! Things to keep in mind: We specifically suggest China and Taiwan because both places have Mandarin Chinese as their only official language. Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Macau also have a significant Mandarin-speaking population as well. However, bear in mind that these countries/cities are very multilingual where English, Malay, or Cantonese are almost equally spoken as well. Therefore, they may not be as ideal of a Mandarin environment as China and Taiwan.

Ask lots of questions

Curiosity doesn’t always kill a cat, it helps you learn Mandarin too! Furthermore, when you are learning a widely different language than your native language, both in terms of intonation and writing, there must be some things that you wonder about, right? There is no such thing as a stupid question. In other words, the more questions you ask, the more you are actively observing and thinking about what you learn and the fastest you will come to learn Mandarin Chinese or any other language. Things to keep in mind: A native speaker will be a perfect person to answer your questions. Asking your other Mandarin learners (especially those who are more advanced than you) is a good idea too. Because they can understand you better from a learner perspective and you guys can exchange tips too.

Invest in a Chinese writing workbook

Since Chinese characters are entirely different than the usual alphabets, it is a good idea to invest in a writing workbook because it has boxes and dotted lines to guide you on writing the characters properly. Not to mention that if you want to memorize those Chinese characters and understand the stroke orders, hand-writing them yourself is much better than just typing or looking at them. Things to keep in mind:  There are some general rules as far as the stroke order of Chinese characters. “Unfortunately,” the stroke order matters, especially for aesthetic reasons.

  • From left to right
  • From top to bottom
  • First horizontal, then vertical
  • Initially central, then left and right “wings” for symmetrical characters
  • First frame, then content, then close frame
  • Begin with the Top or upper left dot first,
  • Inside or upper right dot last Once you remember these rules, it is not that hard to write Chinese. There are some exceptions, but when in doubt – this stroke look-up tool can help you verify!

Convert Chinese characters to pinyin

Another tip to help you with pinyin! Sometimes, when you see something in Chinese in a newspaper article or on food packaging, you may wonder how to pronounce it in Mandarin. Subsequently, we want to introduce a great tool to help you convert any Chinese characters to pinyin. All you need to do is enter the Chinese characters and click “convert.” Now you can pronounce any Chinese words you see anywhere with this tool! Goal to keep in mind: It is always a good idea to combine the learning of two areas, such as reading + pronunciation in this case, to stimulate your learning.

Learn Pinyin Through Mandarin Songs

Who doesn’t love MUSIC? Music transcends language and cultural barriers. The music industries in China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong are huge, which means you have tens of thousands of songs to choose from. (Yes, even Hong Kong produces significant numbers of Mandarin songs too). Below are some good, popular ones if you don’t know where to start: Things to keep in mind: Listening to songs is an effective way to learn Mandarin, especially pinyin and listening. It also gives you an insight into the pop culture in Chinese-speaking countries. You can easily find music videos of these songs with lyrics and pinyin on Youtube. For example, just search “月亮代表我的心 pinyin.”

Watch Chinese or Taiwanese TV shows (listening)

There are PLENTY of Chinese dramas and shows out there — from historical to modern dramas and from reality to talk shows — just choose one that appeals to you. In addition, you can choose to put on English, pinyin, or Chinese subtitles depending on your level and what you want to focus on learning (e.g., pronunciation or characters). Goal to keep in mind: When watching the TV show, feel free to pause and take notes on new words or expressions in Chinese as well as their pronunciation. Write down questions you may have; for example, how it is different than what you learned from the textbook. If you have time, you can rewatch the same episode with different focuses in mind. The English subtitles can help your brain to match what is said with the English translation (subtitles). The Chinese Subtitles can help with synchronizing your reading (character recognition) and listening (pronunciation and tones) in Mandarin.

Practice with a Native Mandarin Speaker

This is our SwapLanguage philosophy: always find native speakers to practice with because they are naturally the best teachers. Whether you are in Denmark, Germany, or France, you can easily find a Chinese language partner to practice your Mandarin with. They can teach you not only the Chinese language but also the cultural aspect of it as well. More details on SWL webpage and facebook page. Goal to keep in mind: When you meet up with your language partner, you can come with questions or little observation you have gathered in daily life to ask him/her. Also, especially if you do not live in a Mandarin-speaking environment, remember to take full advantage of those few hours you spend with the language partner and REALLY SPEAK as much as you can.

Learn the 4 Mandarin Chinese tones in phrases, not individual characters

Related to tip #2, it is better to learn the tones for phrases or compound words rather than just individual characters. Why? Because when you speak in Mandarin, you usually don’t just speak in singular words. It helps you to see how the characters sound, or even influence one another when they are together in a phrase or a sentence. That’s the reason why we gave you the tone-pair chart above. Things to keep in mind: There are some tone-changing rules in Mandarin. Take a common word as an example,「一」(“one”)  is naturally in tone 1 “yī”, but its tone changes when it is placed with other characters.

  • It changes to tone 4 (yì) when it is before another character in tone 1, 2, or 3. For example:
  • It changes to tone 2 (yí) when it is before another character in tone 4.