Image source: Ghost In The Shell, 1995

Doing Mandarin-English exchange online for quite a while, I’ve made some friends and collected some useful online resources. Here are what I want to share with those who are also on the path of learning foreign languages:

Tools and tips for learning Mandarin- one of the Chinese languages

1. 漢語拼音表 (The Pinyin table) might be the most ubiquitous tool for a beginning learner of Mandarin, and because it uses the Latin alphabet to form each phoneme- there are actually fewer phonemes in Mandarin than in English- it becomes an easy tool to acquire Mandarin pronunciation.

Pinyin table from Yabla Chinese     Pinyin table from Yoyo Chinese

2. Compared to the Pinyin table, 注音符號表 (the Zhuyin table) looks bizarre at the first sight, but it’s rather useful, especially for foreign learners– the fact is I didn’t know it’s so useful until recently, even though I’ve known it for over thirty years!

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by Mandarin Daily News

What makes Zhuyin most outstanding is the grouping of columns. The Zhuyin table’s first group is ㄅㄆㄇㄈ, so you should read this table from right to left. The phonemes in the same columns- containing three to four phonemes- share some similarities, which will certainly help you to memorize them.

3. Let’s talk about the tones. You probably already know that there are just four plus one tones in Mandarin, an attribute that has made Mandarin the easiest Chinese language- not like my mother language Min, one of the Chinese languages, which has seven plus one tones- so you must feel quite excited to master the tones.

Even if you don’t feel that excited yet, you still can’t fool around with the tones. Most of the sounds in Mandarin have a great deal of homonyms, so you will easily confuse people if you make errors. But to have an accent is quite alright– no one has no accent. For instance, Jay Chou, a top popular singer born in Taipei, is notorious for his unique, if not terrible, accent. So just relax and do some practice. 

1st tone: When you say “Hi” to your good friends, you always say it in a cheerful 1st tone, or you might want to reconsider your friendship.

2nd tone: A flat, calm tone. Like nothing happened after you destroyed someone’s Halloween costume. It’s lower in pitch than the 1st tone, and you don’t need to raise the pitch in the end like you do to the 3rd tone.

3rd tone: Long Sounds like “Em…,” “Er….” are similar to 3rd tone. 3rd tone is usually pronounced longer than others and ended with a rising pitch like you’re asking a question. Try to say “There?”

But how to raise the 3rd tone in the end when its next syllable is 4th or even 5th tone? Good question. Rather than rising the tone before the 4th tone, make an absent sound, a glottal stop in English. 「可是……」you said. 「Never say 可是! Say 好的!」

4th tone: “Oh,” you said, sounding disappointed. And that’s the 4th tone.

5th tone: Also called the zero tone, it sounds quite short, like “hot”, “hit”, “sit” without the Ts , and usually just acts to make the language more varied and interesting or as the English “of” to combine phrases.

4. Here are two universal language skills for you to practice: Echoing and Shadowing. To start these exercises, you need some audio or video materials in accord with you reading speed. One of my recommendations is 舌尖上的中国. It’s a series of programs, very delicious, made by a Chinese TV broadcaster. And you can try to find many more on Youtube!

To illustrate further, Echoing is about listening carefully to the vowels, consonants and tones in your material, and then repeating the sounds as accurately as possible. Shadowing, on the other hand, is focused on repeating what you just hear as quickly as possible. 

As you might have noticed, Echoing is an exercise more about pronunciation and Shadowing is more about hearing. But what is the difference between Shadowing and simple listening? If you simply listen to the materials without any repetition, you might assume you have heard every syllable clearly, but that’s hardly the case for even advanced learners. To make sure you can distinguish the sounds of your materials, try the Shadowing, and use Echoing to refine your pronunciation to the native’s level.

5. Characters

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Got Characters- a chart paint a vivid picture of life in ancient China

Chinese characters are logograms and hadn’t changed much for about two thousand and two hundred years until 1956. So once you learn to read them, you can identify characters on scripts that old without problems.

Got Characters is a fun and charming radical/strokes chart to start with. The only drawback might be there is only the Simplified Chinese version of it.

If you prefer a regular table, MDBG’s Radical/strokes lookup is good for you; except it has also only the Simplified Chinese version.

So, what’s the drawback of the Simplified Chinese? Well, let’s talk about its pros first. It usually has fewer strokes than the Traditional Chinese, and is widely used in China after being published in 1956, and later used in Singapore, Malaysia, etc. The problem is that although it was simplified from the traditional one to be easily written, some of the simplicities just don’t make sense, which can bring more confusion to reading.

Traditional Chinese users nowadays live mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, etc. The featured image of this article, which is from Ghost In The Shell, a classic Japanese anime from 1995, has mostly Traditional Chinese characters on the signboards, so I guess this anime studio took Hong Kong 九龍城 as the city model. How many characters can you identify?

6. Vocabulary

Many people use Quizlet or Memrise to learn vocabulary; either of them is good. If you also want to learn to write the words, is a nice site, and it has both Traditional and Simplified Chinese!

For those who prefer reading to writing, it’s fine to just type out Chinese on your computers, tablets or phones. Sometimes you can even type a row of phrases without troubling yourself to choose among characters- they will be right by themselves!- but most importantly: never, never, never type or write the Romanization of Mandarin in conversation. No normal Chinese person can read the Romanization of Mandarin like they read characters in local newspapers, and the Latin alphabet is always simply used as phoneme in Chinese for a language learning tool rather than the language itself.

7. Grammar

Here is a easiest rule:

♦ Subject (living, not an inanimate object) > When > Frequency > With Whom > By What > Where > Action > Object > Ending Particles(including Question Words)

  1. 我 上禮拜 常 和朋友 去運動場 打 棒球。(I last week often with friends went to the stadium to play baseball.)
  2. 你 昨天 和同事 在公司 有 看到 我 放在 桌上 的 文件 嗎?(You yesterday and colleagues in the company once saw I put on the desk file?)

♦ Noun + 的 + Noun: for those whom like to use “of” often, 的 is your friend. Exception: People + People’s identity. (E.g.: 我爺爺/ My grandfather)


Lastly, to shift freely between a phonological system and a logographic one might be a little challenging; however, it’s always a good thing to know that we still have some cultural diversity, isn’t it?

Here is an advanced website: I love Chinese

I hope you have fun!