Learn some basic vocabulary. The first thing to do when learning a new language is to memorize some simple yet important words and start practicing with them as soon as possible. Although things like grammar and sentence structure are important, they mean nothing until you develop a basic vocabulary. Here’s a short list to get you started:

  • Hello = nǐhǎo, pronounced [nee hauw] With 2 third tones. Not “ho” or “how” somewhere in the middle. Listen to a native speaker as a reference.
  • Yes = shì, pronounced [sher]” But not as in “sure”. ALWAYS listen to a native speaker, as describing with English pronunciations in the learners minds will be difficult.
  • No = bú shì, pronounced [boo sher] look above.
  • Goodbye = zài jiàn, pronounced [zai jee-ian]
  • Morning = zǎoshàng, pronounced “[zauw-shaung-hauw]”
  • Afternoon = xià wǔ, pronounced There is almost no clear way to describe the “x” in pinyin with English pronunciations. Look it up and listen to a native speaker say it. Contrary to popular misinfomation, the “x” DOESN’T AT ALL sound like “sh”!
  • Evening = wǎn shàng, pronounced [wang shaung]
  • Head = tóu, pronounced [toe] with a 2nd tone, that goes up.
  • Feet = jiǎo, pronounced [jee-yau]
  • Hands = shǒu, pronounced [show] With a 3rd tone, this goes from neutral to lower to neutral.
  • Beef = niú ròu, pronounced [nee-o row] but not with the soft “r”, more defined “r”.
  • Chicken = jī, pronounced [jee]
  • Egg = jī dàn, pronounced [jee dan] “dan” has a 4th tone, that goes down. Slightly forceful sounding. (not too forceful sounding!) Literally “chicken egg”.
  • Noodles =miantiao pronounced [miàn tiáo]
  • Always look up pronunciations of every word spoken by a native speaker. Most Mandarin pinyins just simply cannot be described perfectly with English sounds!


Learn some basic phrases. Once you’ve built up a little vocabulary, you can start working on some basic phrases and expressions that will help you to navigate everyday conversations. Here’s a few to get you started:

  • How are you? = nǐ hǎo ma? pronounced [nee hau mah] (see above for pronunciations)
  • I’m fine = wǒ hěn hǎo, pronounced [wuh hen hau]
  • Thank you = xiè xiè, pronounced There is almost no clear way to describe the “x” in pinyin with English pronunciations. Look it up and listen to a native speaker say it. Contrary to popular misinfomation, the “x” DOESN’T AT ALL sound like “sh”! The “ie” part sounds close to “yieh”
  • You’re welcome = bú yòng xiè, pronounced [boo yong xi-yeh]
  • Sorry = duì bu qǐ, pronounced [dway boo qi] Like with the Mandarin “x” a proper pronunciation described with English letters is almost impossible. As always, I can’t stress enough the importance of looking up native speakers pronouncing the pinyin.
  • I don’t understand = wǒ bù dǒng, pronounced [wuh boo dong]
  • What is your surname (family name)? = nín guì xìng, pronounced [neen gway xing] (I’m sure you know by now why I just put “x” instead of the phonetics.)
  • What’s your name? = nǐ jiào shén me míng zì, pronounced [nee-jee-yow shen-ma ming zi]”
  • My name is _____ = wǒ jiào _____, pronounced [wuh jee-yau]


Learn the tones. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same word can mean different things depending on the tone used to express them (even if the spelling and pronunciation are the same). This can be difficult for English speakers to grasp, but learning the tones is essential if you want to speak Chinese properly. There are four major tones in Mandarin Chinese, as well as a neutral tone:

  • The first tone is a high, flat tone. It is expressed in a relatively high voice, with no rising or dipping. Using the word “ma” as an example, the first tone is expressed in writing as “mā”.
  • The second tone is a rising tone. It starts at a lower level and gets progressively higher, like when you say “huh?” in English. The second tone is expressed in writing as “má”.
  • The third tone is a dipping tone. It starts at a medium level, then dips lower before rising again, like when you say the letter “B” or the word “horse” in English. The third tone is expressed in writing as “mǎ”.
  • The fourth tone is a falling tone. It starts at a medium level and gets progressively lower, like when you are giving a command (such as telling someone to “stop”) in English. The fourth tone is expressed in writing as “mà”.
  • The fifth tone is a neutral tone. It does not rise or fall, like the first tone, but this tone is expressed in a flat voice.. The fifth tone is expressed in writing as “ma”.


Work on your pronunciation. Once you have learned the correct pronunciation of the tones by listening to native speakers (Youtube is good for this) and practicing them yourself, you need to work on applying them to words.

  • This is essential, as the same word can have a completely different meaning depending on which tone is used. For example, using the tone “mā” instead of “má” could be the difference between saying “I want cake” and “I want coke” — two completely different meanings.
  • Therefore, when you’re learning vocabulary, it is not enough to learn the pronunciation, you must also learn the correct tone. Otherwise you could use the word in the wrong context and be completely misunderstood.
  • The best way to work on your pronunciation is to speak with a native Chinese speaker who can encourage you when you get it right and correct you when you’re wrong.


Work on grammar and sentence structure. It’s a common misconception that Chinese is a “grammar-less” language. Chinese has quite a complex grammar system, it’s just very different to that of English and other European languages.

  • Luckily, when learning Chinese you will not have to learn any complicated rules involving verb conjugations, agreement, gender, plural nouns or tense. Chinese is a very analytic language, which makes it quite simple and straightforward in some respects.
  • Another bonus is that Chinese uses a similar sentence structure to English — subject-verb-object — which makes translating back and forth between the two languages somewhat easier. For instance, the sentence “he likes cats” in English is translated as “tā (he) xǐ huan (likes) māo (cats)” in Chinese even when the pronouns change!
  • On the other hand, Chinese has its own grammar structures which are very different to those used in English and can therefore be very difficult for the English speaker to grasp. These grammatical features include things like classifiers, topic-prominence and preference for aspect. However, there’s no point in worrying about these things until you’ve mastered basic Chinese.

Learn more here https://englishteacherchina.com/

Originally published on Wordpress

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