Chinese language

By far, the biggest hurdle for people traveling to China is language. Unlike many languages, Chinese has little in common with Indo-European languages. There are very few words that sound alike. There's no alphabet to allow us to guess what words sound like. There are so many characters; how can anyone memorize all of them? And the tones actually having meaning is difficult to comprehend at first.

Some people travel to China without learning any Chinese at all. This is unfortunate. Just a little bit of time learning the basics pays huge dividends when you get to China. Communicating with a Chinese person, in Chinese, in China, is a huge thrill and a very significant accomplishment. Being able to share something with the people you will meet in China, without having to resort to sign language and wild gesturing, is extremely rewarding. You will also receive a lot of respect from the people you meet in China when they see you are making the effort to learn some Chinese, no matter how basic and minimal it might be. And remember, once you have visited China once, you will surely want to return, so your education in Chinese will serve you well.

Begin your Chinese language education by learning speech. Save learning to read and write for later when you have a pretty good base of knowledge in the spoken language.

While it's true that Chinese has no alphabet, we westerners have invented a kind of an alphabet, or Romanization, to make Chinese easier to learn. This system is called pinyin. You can generally read pinyin like you can read other alphabetized languages, once you learn to pronounce a few special characters, like “x”, which is pronounced with a “sh” sound, so “xin” is pronounced like “shin”.

Pinyin also has tonal indicators. A tone in Chinese is a variation of the pitch while saying a word or a syllable. Tones in Chinese are crucial; they determine meaning. Saying a word in the wrong tone completely changes the meaning, and Chinese listeners rarely can figure out what you're trying to say if you use the wrong tone. It might seem unimportant to foreigners, but it's essential. Saying a word in a wrong tone is like substituting a wrong consonant in a word. Imagine if a foreigner wanted to say “yes” but instead he said “guess”. You are not likely to realize what he is trying to say. It's the same effect when you use the wrong tone in a word in Chinese. So, the most important foundation for learning to speak Chinese is learning the tones and practicing them until you can pronounce them correctly. They are somewhat subtle, especially when people speak quickly.

Chinese has four tones, plus a “no tone” tone, which is pronounced flat, with no intonation. These four tones are numbered one through four, and can be called high tone, rising tone, falling and rising tone, and falling tone. These are indicated in pinyin by marks above the vowels: ē, é, ě, and è, respectively. It's difficult to learn these tones by yourself. You can listen to the recorded tones repeatedly to get the feel for them, but when it comes to saying them correctly, most people need some coaching to get them right. Find a native speaker of Chinese and have them help you until you can pronounce the tones accurately. This is a foundation on which you can build your Chinese language skills.

Once you have gotten comfortable with tones, you will probably already have learned a few basic words and phrases. Your repertoire of basic words and phrases should be continually expanded, as you will use them frequently in any Chinese conversation.

At the same time, you should study Chinese grammar. The word order in Chinese is somewhat different to western languages in many cases. This is easy to get used to with some practice.

Once you have a basis of pronunciation and grammar, it's simply a matter of learning new words and expressions to improve your Chinese communication skills. Start by learning the terms you will most likely need during a trip to China.

Small talk is important. Learn how to say hello and goodbye, how to ask people about their families, occupation, interests, and so forth. This is how you get to know people in China and, indeed, anywhere in the world.

Learn about numbers, counting, and bargaining on price. Most things that you can buy in China are negotiable, and if you don't know how to discuss pricing, you will surely end up paying too much for things you want.

Learn logistical terms and phrases: How to direct a taxi to where you want to go, ask the price, discuss the meter. Learn how to ask for and understand directions. Learn how to talk to hotel personnel about a room and its price.

You'll want to learn to discuss food: how to ask about restaurants, how to order food and drinks, how to ask for and pay the bill.

It's good to learn some emergency phrases to use in case of emergency: how to ask for a doctor, how to describe problems, and the like.

China has many local dialects. They are often significantly different from one another to the extent that, for example, a person from Beijing cannot understand the Shanghai dialect. You want to learn standard Mandarin Chinese, which is called pǔtōnghuà. Any educated people can understand Mandarin no matter where they live in China. Be aware that if you listen to people speaking Chinese and it seems difficult to understand, you may be listening to a local dialect that sounds much different from Mandarin. If you ask Chinese friends to help you learn Chinese, be sure to specify that you only want to learn Mandarin.

Chinese can be difficult to learn to speak and understand. But anything that is difficult to master is also equally rewarding. Once you have studied the basics, the key to mastering Chinese is practice. Find every opportunity to practice. This can include listening to recorded materials, but there is no substitute for speaking Chinese for yourself, preferably with an experienced Chinese speaker to coach you. One great way to do this outside of formal classroom training is to frequent Chinese restaurants, and practice your Chinese with the staff there while you also experience new Chinese food and improve your ability to use chopsticks.

When you're ready to learn some Chinese characters, there are two good starting points: learn to read characters that are commonly seen on signs (for example, men, women, entrance, exit), and learn to read menus, since you will often be presented with menus in restaurants that are solely in Chinese. (Don't worry too much about the menu issue, though. Just learn to ask for a few of your favorite items in Chinese. Most Chinese restaurants will do their best to prepare anything you ask for, whether or not they are on the menu.)

Consider bringing a small dictionary or phrase book with you to China. This can come in handy both in remembering words and in clarifying yourself when someone isn't able to understand you by showing them the Chinese character you're trying to pronounce. You can bring a regular pocket-sized book or an electronic dictionary. If you're concerned about the weight then you can just tear out the pages you need and leave the rest behind.

Best way to learn Mandarin Chinese

Many people planning to visit China will want to learn to speak Mandarin. Your trip to China will be much more enjoyable and rewarding if you can speak at least some Chinese.

Learning to read and write is also useful, but less important than spoken conversation. You will find many signs in English and Pinyin in China. However, it’s very useful to be able to read some basic characters, and learning one to two hundred of the most common characters can be very useful and fun as well.

Tone is very critical in spoken Chinese. For this reason I recommend that you begin your education with classroom or tutorial instruction, so that you can receive feedback on your pronunciation of the four tones and get them right early in your training. After that, you may want to consider expanding your vocabulary and grammar on your own.

I have tried many written and recorded Mandarin Chinese training materials. Again, recorded materials are much better for beginning students because of the importance of proper pronunciation of the tones. Later, you can use written materials to refine your grammar and expand your vocabulary.

The most important tools for learning Chinese are persistence and patience. Learning Chinese is not easy for westerners. Stick with it and try to learn a little bit every day. When you go to China or converse with Chinese speakers your dedication will be more than rewarded. The first time I experienced this was in an airport upon arrival in China. A man told me, in Chinese, to wait a moment. Understanding him felt like a great triumph!

Internet-based training
Websites for learning Mandarin Chinese – Learning Chinese online – Online tools for learning and using Chinese – Chinese Character dictionary – Audio tutorial of basic Chinese – Chinese characters and culture

Training programs
Recorded training programs for learning Mandarin Chinese

Pimsleur Mandarin comes in three volumes. Each volume consists of thirty half-hour sessions. The idea with Pimsleur is to learn by listening, just as children learn. Therefore, no printed materials is included with these programs. They are, in my opinion, the best way to learn to speak Chinese.

Rosetta Stone is my second program favorite Mandarin training program after Pimsleur. Rosetta Stone offers Internet-based as well as CD-based training programs.


Books have been most useful in my experience for learning to read and write Chinese characters.

My favorite book on reading and writing Chinese is Reading and Writing Chinese by William McNaughton and Li Ying.

Many good instructional books are also available. These are very helpful in learning and perfecting your grammar and learning how to correctly choose from similar words for various situations. Some of my favorites are Beginner’s Chinese and Intermediate Chinese by Yong Ho, A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese by Tian Shou-he, and Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis.

Phrase books are also very useful for learning new words and expressions and for carrying with you while traveling. Make sure your phrase book shows the Chinese words in both Pinyin and in Chinese characters so that you can show it to people who can read Chinese and they can understand your meaning.

My favorite phrase books are Rough Guides and Barrons.

Chinese / English dictionaries are also very helpful and anyone learning Chinese should have at least one. A relatively small and inexpensive one is adequate for all but the more advanced student. Make sure your dictionary shows the Chinese words in both Pinyin and in Chinese characters.

My favorite dictionaries are Oxford and Langenscheidt’s.

Visit your local or online book seller and you will find many options.

Units and conversions

China uses the metric system. Depending on what country you're from, you may need to familiarize yourself with some conversions.

Distance is expressed in meters and kilometers. One meter equals 1.09 yards or 3.28 feet; 1 foot equals 0.3 meters and 1 yard equals 0.91 meters. One kilometer equals 0.62 miles; one mile equals 1.61 kilometers.

Speed is also expressed in kilometers per hour. Again, one KPH equals 0.62 MPH; one MPH equals 1.61 KPH.

Kilograms are used to express weight. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds; one pound equals 0.45 kilograms. One jin, a unit used when selling fruits, is equal to ½ kilogram or 1.1 pounds.

Temperature is expressed in degrees Celsius (°C) in China. The formulas for conversion between Celsius and Fahrenheit are:

°C=5/9 (°F-32).

It's not easy to do these temperature conversions in your head, so it's good to memorize a few values. Water freezes at 0°C or 32°F and boils at 100°C or 212°F.10°C equals 50°F. 20°C equals 68°F. 30°C equals 86°F. And 40°C equals 104°F.

Money units in China are called yuán(元). One yuán is like one Chinese dollar. The largest note is 100 yuán. One yuán is equal to 10 jiǎo (角), so one jiǎo is like a dime or ten cents. You can find one-jiǎo notes and five-jiǎo notes. You can also find coins in one jiǎo, five jiǎo, and one yuán. The measure word for money is kuài (块), and this word is often used by itself in informal conversation.