Let us help you learn basic Mandarin in only 10 minutes! Yes, it’s possible. Forget what you have been told about the difficulty of Mandarin Chinese as a language because in truth – it’s not that hard.
I imagine there are many people who want to start learning Mandarin but don’t know the first thing about the language. In this post, I want to run over the basics of the Mandarin language so that you feel more comfortable when beginning your studies.
Think of this article as a fast-tracked foundation course in the language – aimed to help you in learning some simple (but crucial) aspects of the Mandarin language.
If you’d like to skip to the section that interests you the most, then just click on the links below:
- A quick history of Mandarin Chinese
- Where is Mandarin Spoken?
- Mandarin Language Basics: Grammar
- The Four Tones
- Learning to Read Chinese
- Must-Know Words and Phrases
- Introduce Yourself in Mandarin
- More Words and Phrases (for FREE!)
A Quick history of Mandarin Chinese:
Mandarin Chinese is often referred to as a ‘dialect’ of the Chinese language by native speakers. Linguistically speaking, however, Chinese ‘dialects’ such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese are actually different enough to be considered separate languages.
Mandarin Chinese is based on the Beijing dialect of Chinese. China adopted Beijing as its capital during the Ming Dynasty and so Mandarin naturally became the official language of the court. It was only in the 20th century, however, that Mandarin became the official language of China.
You may hear Mandarin being referred to as ‘putonghua’ (standard language) in the mainland or ‘guoyu’ (national language) in Taiwan.
As with all Chinese languages, Mandarin is written using Chinese characters. However, the variety of characters used is different in the mainland and in Taiwan. In mainland China, simplified characters are used and in Taiwan, the traditional characters are preferred.
Where is Mandarin spoken?
Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and is spoken fluently by over 70% of the population. Mandarin is also considered an official language in Taiwan. Apart from China and Taiwan, Mandarin is also spoken to a lesser extent in Singapore, Malaysia, and parts of South East Asia.
Ok, let’s get into the meat of this post by helping you to learn basic Mandarin:
Mandarin Language Basics: Grammar
Grammar in Mandarin is relatively straight-forward (at least in the beginning). You can learn the core aspects of grammar within a relatively short time-frame. If you want to learn basic Mandarin then absorbing the following is essential:
Pronouns are minimal in Mandarin and this makes them really easy to grasp and remember. Below is a list of Mandarin language pronouns:
- 我 – I
- 你 – You
- 他 – He/him
- 她 – She/her
- 你们 – You (plural)
- 他们 – Them/they
- 我们 – We/us
For simple constructions, the word order in Mandarin is SVO (subject-verb-object). This is the same as word order in English.
- 我吃饺子 – I eat dumplings
- 她在家 – She is at home
- 他们去长城 – They are going to the Great Wall
Tenses in Mandarin don’t actually exist. Tense is usually denoted by including an expression of time in the sentence (today, tomorrow, now etc).
Commonly used expressions of time:
- 正在 – Now
- 现在 – Now
- 今天 – Today
- 明天 – Tomorrow
- 作天 – Yesterday
- 今年 – This year
- 去年 – Last year
- 明年 – Next year
You may see that the words ‘正在/zhengzai’ and ‘现在/xianzai’ both translate to now. However, there is one key difference – ‘正在/zhengzai’ is used when the action is being done right at that moment whereas ‘现在/xianzai’ is a more general form of ‘now’ – referencing the point of time as opposed to the actual process associated with it.
Let’s explore this distinction further with a few examples:
- 我正在吃饭 – ‘I’m eating now’ meaning the person is currently in the process of eating.
- 我现在学中文 – ‘I study Chinese now’ meaning the person has begun their study of Chinese but isn’t currently in the process of studying the language.
The second sentence could also be written as ‘我正在学中文’ meaning that the person is currently busy studying Chinese.
Think about it like this – ‘现在/xianzai’ equates to ‘now’ in English whereas ‘正在/zhengzai’ equates to ‘-ing’.
Asking questions in Mandarin is really easy. All you have to do is add the word ‘吗/ma’ onto the end of the sentence.
- 你喜欢中国菜吗？- Do you like Chinese food?
- 她已经到了吗？ – Has she arrived already?
- 可以进来吗？- Can I come in?
In Mandarin, the particle ‘的/de’ is used to show possession.
- 我的手机 – My cellphone
- 他的房子 – His house
Forming the negative is as easy as putting the word ‘不/bu’ before the verb or adjective.
- 我不吃肉 – I don’t eat meat
- 我不喜欢咖啡 – I don’t like coffee
Mandarin Language Basics: The Four Tones:
Part of learning basic Mandarin is learning to pronounce and distinguish between the four tones. This is often one of the most difficult aspects of the language for beginners and the reason why many people quit learning Mandarin altogether.
It’s important to realise that learning to pronounce the four tones is something that takes time, practice and a whole lot of listening. As long as you stay motivated and follow these guidelines then tones won’t be a problem for you!
What are the four tones?
Let’s quickly run over the four tones.
First tone – flat:
Second tone – rising:
Third tone – Falling and then rising:
Fourth tone – Falling:
The traditional way of learning Chinese tones:
The way that a lot of people learn tones is actually the most painful way (in my opinion). Most people learn tones by rote memorization of single syllable words. They then practice pronouncing these single syllables in isolation until their tones sound correct.
This is also the way that a lot of teachers teach tones – pure repetition of arbitrary words. I should know! If you want to read about the awful experience I had learning tones in my first Chinese class, then check out my previous article on Unfamiliar China.
An alternate approach to learning Chinese tones:
This alternate approach to learning to pronounce the Chinese tones is something I found very effective when learning Mandarin. I did not invent this approach, that’s for sure. I first learned of this approach to learning tones from Luca Lampariello’s article on the subject. I then came across similar advice from Vladimir Skultety’s blog post about learning tones. I’d suggest checking out both of those articles. However, if you don’t have time to read those, then I’ll quickly summarise this simple technique for learning Mandarin tones.
This approach is concerned with learning to pronounce short sentences or tone pairs instead of single syllable words. There are a couple of reasons why this works much better than the traditional approach.
- You’re never going to be using one-syllable words in isolation during actual conversation.
- Tones can change slightly depending on the preceding tone.
- This way, you avoid sounding like a robot when you speak.
Let me explain that last point. You see, when people learn single tones, out of context, then when it comes to producing whole sentences they tend to really emphasize each tone. This causes their speech to sound stutter and unnatural when in actual fact Mandarin is a language that flows.
What you really want is for one tone to seamlessly lead into another.
As well as the two article I mentioned above, I also speak more about this approach in my e-book, which you can check out here.
Learning to Read Chinese
When starting to learn Chinese, Pinyin is your best friend.
Pinyin is the romanized form of Chinese, which has become the standard way of writing Chinese using the Latin alphabet. Pinyin is really simple. Pinyin gives you a way to read Chinese without having to know a single Chinese character.
For a full Pinyin chart, go here.
Learn Basic Mandarin – Must know words and phrases:
你好 – Hello
早上好 – Good morning
下午好 – Good afternoon
你叫什么名字？- What’s your name?
我的名字叫。。。- My name is …
你多大了？ – How old are you?
谢谢 – Thank you
请 – Please
不客气 – You’re welcome
我要。。。- I want..
我喜欢。。。- I like …
去 – Go
来 – Come
走 – Walk
Learn Basic Mandarin – Introduce Yourself:
Learning to introduce yourself is one of the first things you should learn in any new language. Let me help you learn to introduce yourself in Mandarin Chinese. Just use this prewritten template and fill in the appropriate information:
Hello. Nice to meet you. My name is (). I am from (). I’m studying Chinese now because I want to go to China.
美国 – America
英国 – England
法国 – France
西班牙 – Spain
加拿大 – Canada
南非 – South Africa
俄国 – Russia
Congratulations, you’ve just learned how to introduce yourself in Mandarin!
More Words and Phrases (for FREE!)
Lastly, we have put together a PDF phrasebook of essential Mandarin words and phrases to get you started! I really recommend checking it out. You can download it for free by subscribing to our blog below. Enjoy!
I hope you have enjoyed this post on Mandarin language basics. Now that you know some simple Mandarin, you should have the confidence and the motivation and keep learning and reach your language goal (whether that’s fluency or conversational proficiency). If you’re serious about achieving a high level in Mandarin Chinese then check out our comprehensive guide in the form of our e-book.
By the way.. Did you know you can learn Chinese online with a personal native teacher? Register on italki now.