Learning Chinese: a beginner's guide

For English speakers, Chinese is a challenging language to learn, but by no means impossible. It requires a lot of patience, self-discipline, and effort, and I often look back with a wry smile at the beginning of my learning journey.

I naively believed that within a year or two, I'd master this fascinating, frustrating language. But now, after three years of constant study, I realize how wrong I was and how much I have left to learn.

Like many Chinese learners, I began by simply searching “how to learn Chinese” on Google. If you've made a similar search, you'll know I was met with a bewildering amount of information: apps, online courses, audiobooks, and techniques that “guaranteed to have me speaking within a year.”

I was overwhelmed and tried a few different “learn quickly” methods, but I soon realized that this would be a long process and resigned myself to gradually improving my skills.

I am sure many other learners have found themselves in this situation, so in this article, I cover what I believe are the essential first steps to successfully learning Chinese.

Pinyin: a beginner's best friend

Pinyin is a transliteration of Chinese into the Latin alphabet and is helpful for beginners to learn a character's tone and pronunciation.

However, as there are so many homophones in Chinese, Pinyin is virtually useless for conveying meaning, as the same Pinyin syllable can correspond with many different characters. Also, it's unusual to see Pinyin in China, and if you do, it often doesn't have tone marks, rendering it useless.

In Chinese language textbooks, Pinyin is often written under the character. However, English speakers find their eyes drawn to the familiar writing system, so they should cover it up unless absolutely necessary when reading and try to associate the character with its tone and pronunciation.

A Pinyin syllable consists of an initial sound, a final, and a tone mark, giving you the full pronunciation of a character. For example, 好 (hăo) translates as “good” or “well” in English and consists of an initial (h) and a final (ăo) with a tone mark above, in this case, a falling rising tone.

Pinyin certainly makes learning pronunciation easier, but relying on it will eventually hamper your progress. Learning the characters will enable you to read and understand Chinese text; reading Pinyin and using it when writing can quickly become confusing, especially as your vocabulary expands.

Chinese is a tonal language

Most English speakers find the tonal nature of Chinese daunting, as it's so unfamiliar. Mandarin Chinese has four tones – high and level, rising, rising falling, and falling – and a neutral tone pronounced softer than the others, usually found in the last syllable.

Tone marks are always placed over the final of a Pinyin syllable and convey meaning by changing the sound of words that would sound the same if pronounced in a flat tone. Pinyin gives you the pronunciation and tone of every Chinese character, but remember that many characters have the same pronunciation and tone.

Tones are important in Chinese, but no more important than pronunciation and word order. Chinese is a context-driven language, so even if you forget a tone, a complete sentence with correct pronunciation and grammar is likely to be understood by a native Chinese speaker. Single words are different; getting the tone right with them is essential for understanding.

Foreigners' Chinese pronunciation has given rise to many hilarious memes, and there's a genre of comedy in China that pokes light-hearted fun at the potential for misunderstanding in the language.

The classic example of how misunderstandings can occur is the word “ma,” which as “mā” (high, level tone) means mother. So 她是我的妈妈(Tā shì wǒde māmā) translates as “she is my mother” in English. However, “mǎ” (falling rising tone) means “horse,” “má” (rising tone) means “hemp,” and “mà” (falling tone) means “to scold.”

Clearly, Chinese is open to misunderstandings, and they're often hilarious.

As I said, tones are important in Chinese, but don't let them put you off learning the language. Chinese people are forever misunderstanding each other, especially if they're from different provinces. If you're uncertain which ones to use, speak in a flat tone and concentrate on word order and pronunciation, and you'll likely be understood.

All Chinese characters are formed from 214 radicals

Learning the radicals is one of my favorite things about learning Chinese. Created many years ago, there are 214, arranged in order of the number of strokes required to write. As the Chinese vocabulary grew, radicals were combined to create new characters. Most modern characters are a combination of two or more radicals, and there's often a logic to their combinations that can help you infer meaning when encountering a new character.

Written Chinese has thousands of years of history, and learning the radicals and how they were originally written can give you a fascinating glimpse into how people thought back then and is an excellent way to learn to read Chinese.

I often make up stories about characters to help me remember them, and my favorite is 累 (lěi), which means “tired.” This character combines the radicals 糸 (silk) and 田 (field), and I imagine someone tired from working to produce silk and farming in the fields.

Studying the radicals and making up stories for characters has helped me remember them and improved my reading and writing. But everyone's different, and other methods like flashcards or repeatedly writing out characters may work better for you.


If you're considering learning Chinese, I believe you need to start with the basics: Pinyin, tones, and radicals. I realize now that I made mistakes when I first started learning. I spoke without bothering with the tones and didn't learn the radicals, which made it harder to remember the characters.

This slowed my learning down, and I firmly believe that if I'd taken the steps I've outlined above, what took me a year, I could have accomplished in two or three months.