How to Speak Chinese

Devote yourself to studying Chinese and take it seriously.
Devote yourself to studying Chinese and take it seriously. (Image: Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

Ni Hui Shuo PuTong Hua Ma? (knee hway shwo poo toeng hwa ma?)

Do you speak Chinese?

While Mandarin Chinese might certainly seem like a hodge-podge of various inflections and a thousand different character strokes, and learning it might seem like the most daunting task since climbing Mount Everest, it is as easy as Yi, Er, San! (Ee, Are, sawn).

Clearly, the best way to learn Chinese, or any language, is to live in a country where the language is spoken.

That being said, if you cannot live in the country, and you do not have the money to hire a tutor or take a class, then the following steps are for Yu (sounds like 'you').

In Chinese, Yu means fish. The same sound, but with a different character also means prosperity.

Zhu Ni Hao Yun! (Jew Knee How Yoon) Good Luck!

Have the desire, or as they say in Spanish, the ganas; the guts; to learn a new language. To successfully master a language, your desire cannot be built on the same foundation that saw you begging for a clarinet then one month later saw it get pushed under your bed behind a growing pile of clothes and advertisements for the new skateboard you just had to have.

To honestly determine your desire, write down on a piece of paper the things you have wanted to do in your life and have done successfully. Compare them with the things you have not done. Compare all of those with the ideas that acted as a catalyst for your decision to learn Chinese. Any similiarities? Take those and learn from them. You can do it!

All you have to do is JiaYou (Zhya Yo). It means add oil in Chinese, or keep plugging away. You will do it!

Act as if you have money tied up in it. Technically you do; time is money. It has been said about writing that good ideas don't make a writer; writing makes a writer. Likewise, a desire to learn anything is only half the battle. To be successful, desire must be coupled with a strict regimen, or schedule, and this schedule must occur daily. To do this, you have to treat it like school, or work.

Give yourself at least 30 minutes a day. This is good exercise for the mind, and enough time to let a few words or principles stick. Study a half an hour as often as you eat. So, if you are like most people and you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, that's three half-hour sessions for a total of 1 1/2 hours.

Get help. This may be as simple as letting a friend or family member know you have decided to learn Chinese. Let them know how they can follow up on you, or how they can help you (by giving you tests, etc.)

Take it one step further. Who doesn't want to learn Chinese? And who wouldn't want to learn it with a friend? Ask around, find a family member or friend, or maybe even a complete stranger off of who wants to learn it with you. As you stick to your schedule you will help and sometimes force each other to keep going and be successful.

If you are lucky, you could end up with a whole group of people. At that point, you can begin to learn on your own, or pitch in and hire an instructor (again, is a great place to find local people with professional skills for side jobs).

Look online, at online bookstores, for the best selection of beginning Chinese books and tapes. A tape, or CD, is a must. Since Chinese has five tones, you will need to hear and mimic those tones. Just reading them will not help. A word that sounds like one word or sound to our untrained ears, changes in meaning depending on the tone assigned to it. Once you see the characters, they are completely different.

Example: Ma (Mah) with a first tone means mom. Ma with a second tone can mean to bother. Ma with a third tone means horse. Ma with a fourth tone means to yell. And Ma with a fifth tone signifies a question. So don't go point at someone and accidentally call her a horse!

In these books will be a myriad of exercises to help with the basics. While some may give a slight introduction to writing characters, do not concern yourself with characters yet. There is no need to write characters until you can first speak. In fact, many kids in Taiwan do not learn to write characters until they are much older.

Make flash cards. Use these to test each other. Also, make cards to tape on to things around your house or school room. On these cards write the Chinese word for the very object you taped it to.

For instance, on a door, tape a card with the word 'MenZi' (Mun Zuh), for door. Or 'XiShouJian' (She Show Jyen) for bathroom, or as it is literally translated, the wash hands room.

When you wake up in the morning and have your first lesson, take those words or sentences with you and use them constantly. Incorporate them into your routine. When you see something on a sign, or when someone says something and mentions a word you know, tell them the Chinese translation, or tell yourself. The next day use those same words, in addition to the new words for the day. You will be amazed at how fast you pick up words and how quickly you will be able to form basic sentences.

Question, question, question. This step is especially true if you have someone as a mentor or know someone who speaks Chinese fluently. As you go through your day, write down words or phrases you want to know. Look them up, ask people, learn how to say them. Don't worry about why yet. Just learn how, the why's will come as your understanding increases.

Chinese is a simple language in that its grammar is very simple (past, present, future are often determined by context and not by adding -ing, or -ed, etc. like we do in English). Also, their words are formed from several characters, or smaller words. As you know these small words, you will begin to learn more and more.

For example: the word for gas, or energy is Qi (Chee). Che (Chuh) is the word for vehicle. So if you heard someone say Dad, can I borrow your QiChe, you can assume the word is a Gas Vehicle, or a car.

ShuiLongTou (Shway Loang Toe), the word for faucet is made of three words respectively, Water, Dragon, Head. A water-breathing dragon head. Think of your faucet. Is that what it looks like?

With a little imagination you will begin to learn words at a blistering pace!

Save money. If possible, save money over the course of a year or two, and plan to make a trip to Taiwan or China as a reward for your efforts. It will be an experience you will never forget. While there, use your Chinese to get around. Many speak English and can help, but do all you can do on your own.

Prior to doing this, make a list of questions you may want to ask and learn how to say in Chinese. Questions yield answers and answers propel learning.

Possible questions to ask:

Where is...? Can you take me to...? What time is it? Who is...? What is...? How do you say...? What does this mean? Do you understand me? Do you speak English?

Tips & Warnings

  • When working on the tones of the language over-exaggerate them until they become second nature. They will soften with time. You want them to soften into the perfect tone.
  • When you do begin working on the characters, find a good set of flash cards and practice reading and writing daily. There is an order to writing the strokes that make up the characters (up to down, left to right). If you cannot find a book that teaches this, try to find someone to help tutor you through the first few characters. You'll get the hang of it.
  • You may accidentally call someone's mom a horse, or someone's horse a mom.

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