Manageable Mandarin: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Chinese

If I could have any superpower, I’d choose the ability to speak every language in the world. Sadly, I’ve yet to be bestowed with this power, but I can at least work toward it slowly. Since October, I’ve been taking a weekly Mandarin course here in Sydney. While I’m far (believe me, very far) from fluent, I’m thrilled that I can now at least hold basic conversations. I even had my first experience using Mandarin in the real world (however briefly) the other week! It can be an extremely challenging language to learn, so for anyone learning Mandarin or thinking of picking it up, here are a few tips I’ve acquired in my nine months of studies.

Find characters intimidating? Start with pinyin.

Pinyin is the writing system that phonetically transcribes the pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. I know some will disagree with me on this one and say that learning the characters and language should go hand in hand, but I found Chinese characters completely intimidating and was relieved that my teacher decided to focus on pinyin spelling instead. Knowing that “nǐ hǎo” (“hello”) is pronounced “nee how” is far easier for beginners than figuring out how the heck to say “你好”!

Say what? (photo credit)

Say what? (photo credit)

Don’t fret too much over tones.

Chinese is a tonal language, meaning, for example, saying the syllable “ma” like you’re asking a question has a very different meaning from saying “ma” like you’re making a statement. Mandarin has four tones (high level, rising, falling/rising, and falling), which does not come naturally to those of us who did not grow up speaking a tonal language.

And, yes, tone is essential to learn…eventually. Trying to remember tones while also recalling how each letter is pronounced, what words mean, and how grammar should be structured can be overwhelming. Slow things down for yourself by focusing on forming sentences before you worry about getting the pronunciation exactly right. That’s not to say you should disregard tones entirely, but don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Once the language starts coming to you more naturally, then you can start improving your tones.

Create mneumonic devices

I love studying Romance languages for all of their cognates with English (“Fast” translates to “rápido,” like “rapid” in Spanish? Too easy!), but, as a vastly different language, Mandarin has few English cognates. This makes memorizing vocabulary a big challenge, which can really slow down the learning process.

Here’s one that I use: “pork” in Mandarin is “zhū ròu” (roughly pronounced joo-roh), zhū ròu sounds like churro, churros remind me of Spain, and Spaniards have a serious love affair with ham. Maybe a bit of a roundabout mneumonic device, but it works for me!

Break down the meaning of words

Mandarin is full of fun etymologies, and understanding the real meaning of some phrases is another great way to get vocabulary to stick. For example, “mǎi dōngxi” means “to go shopping,” or, more literally, “to buy things.” “Dōngxi” also means “east-west,” and that’s no coincidence. Centuries ago, Chinese buildings always faced north and south for the best light, which means a town’s streets – and therefore their markets – ran east to west, hence today’s meaning!

Or, more simply, how about “tiānqì” (“weather”), which can be broken down into “tiān” (“sky”) and “qì” (“air”), or “dàishǔ” for “kangaroo,” which literally means “bag rat”? Definitely an easier way to remember words that may otherwise slip from your mind.

Bag rat?

Brush up your skills with apps

Mandarin is a bit too tricky to learn only from a mobile app, but apps are a great supplement to your classes, especially if you don’t know many native speakers with whom you can practice. The two I use most are FluentU and ChineseSkill, but I would also recommend uTalk and MindSnacks.

Practice when you can – and don’t get scared!

This is crucial to learning any language, and Mandarin is no different. Stop being shy about your Mandarin skills, and use any chance you have to practice with native speakers or fellow students. The biggest hurdle in learning a foreign language is forcing yourself to just speak without worrying that you’ll make mistakes. I promise that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself, and you’ll never improve if you don’t start somewhere!

Hope that helps you manage Mandarin! What tips do you have for learning Mandarin or other languages?

21 Responses

  1. Ashley says:

    I’m in the process of learning Mandarin too! When I was in Taiwan I remembered the work for pork as joo row because typically Jews dont eat pork so I could associate it that way haha. Whatever works!

  2. Nana says:

    Really interesting article, my polyglot granddaughter. Vicki spoke passable Chinese, of course. I am not sure whether it was Mandarin. She would have been thrilled at your interest in the language. My friend, Libby, who is visiting, is spending three weeks in China in October, so she had me read the article to her as I was sitting at the computer. Love you!

    • It probably would have been with her living in Singapore! Maybe I can practice with Rick some day (when I’m at a higher level, that is). Let Libby know that those apps I mentioned above may be a good way to learn some basic phrases before visiting. Love you too!

  3. That etymology about going shopping was SO COOL!!! Thanks for sharing that fun little tidbit about Mandarin 😀

    • Isn’t it? This thread offers up some alternative explanations, so I’m not totally sure which is right, but I like that one that my teacher shared! Cool etymologies are one of the biggest reasons I love learning new languages.

    • Nana says:

      Vicki lived in Taiwan for quite some time, working for a circuit board company before moving to Singapore. Rick would probably enjoy chatting with you, although it was Vicki who wanted the kids enrolled in Chinese School on weekends. Rick wasn’t that interested in having his kids bilingual and/or familiar with Chinese culture, or at least that’s what she said. Libby will definitely check out those apps, although, since she and four friends are doing a private tour, I don’t know when they might have the chance to try out some words! She was a French major and had some Spanish, but agrees with me that Italian isn’t that easy, so you can imagine how intimidating Chinese seems. She lived in Vietnam and Japan as a child, but went to French and American schools, so didn’t pick up any Asian languages at that time. You are such a great writer. Loves your blogs!

  4. Ashley says:

    How awesome is it that you’ve been learning Chinese! I’ve always said that I wouldn’t ever attempt learning it. but hearing that you’re doing it makes me feel like maybe I’d be able to one day as well.

    • I never expected to learn it either, and I mostly just decided to give it a try because there was a Groupon for a language school in Sydney, and Mandarin was the language I hadn’t yet studied that best fit into my schedule. It’s frustrating to learn compared to Spanish, Italian, or French, because even after all these months of study, I can say far less than I could after a few weeks of any of those languages, but it’s definitely interesting!

  5. Dorothea says:

    My, I thought Hindi would be difficult to learn, but Chinese seems like the next level. And yes, all the symbols can be really intimidating!

  6. Good on you for taking the time to learn a new language. We went to China a few years back and I wish I had the skills to engage more. As my time is very limited at the moment I am defacto learning – by sending my son to after school mandarin and hoping he can translate a bit for us on our next trip.

    • That’s a great strategy! I’m envious of how easily kids can pick up new languages. I’m ages off from having kids of my own, but I do know I will want to expose them to foreign languages at every chance I get!

  7. Monica says:

    I’ve been wanting to learn chinese fore years and you’ve upped my spirits with your post! thanks for sharing all your tips, I will keep them in mind when I finally commit to learning chinese. I also found a very interesting video once called “learn chinese in 10 minutes” on youtube, maybe it can help you 🙂

  8. Wow, Mandarin! I took a few classes and I totally see what you mean. I love languages too. What helped me learn Greek, for example, was translating songs I loved in Greek. Have you heard the saying, “You have as many lives as you speak languages…” ? 😉 Nice post!

  9. kimberly says:


    Thanks for sharing this informative piece with us, I also love to learn new languages and always interested to know something new about different languages.
    Keep posting more for us.

    Take Care

  10. Hi, Kirstie,
    Thanks for sharing this informative piece with us, I also love to learn new languages and always interested to know something new about different languages. I am sharing a calligraphy workshop here.
    Keep posting more for us.

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