Learning Mandarin
(July 2001)

This is a huge page, and one couldn't possibly take it all in in one go!  Save it and come back to it when you want to know more!

You need to learn the "letters" before pronunciation of the words will make sense.  Just take your time and don't expect it all to make sense the first time. The entire alphabet has been listed in the green box at the bottom of this pageThe yellow boxes are for showing pronunciation.

Chinese is actually a very easy language to speak!  Its true!  (But then, I've never learnt to read it!)  However, the first two months are the hardest, then the following twelve are also not easy!  It does get easier with time.  If you're spending time with Chinese people, take note of their mistakes in English as this will give you an insight into their language.  If you want them to speak to you in Chinese, simply correct their English mercilessly.

The nice thing about the Chinese language is that it uses descriptive words, so you don't need to learn so many nouns!

Bulldozer = push dirt machine,                        telephone = electric speech

aeroplane = fly machine                                    computer = electric brain

cigarette lighter =  make fire machine                calculator = add up machine

vampire = suck blood ghost                                bicycle = self travel machine, or foot push machine

Chinese actually is a language with over 50 dialects, and hundreds of different accents.

The main dialects we encounter here in New Zealand, are
Mandarin (The national dialect of China and Taiwan),
Cantonese (The dialect commonly spoken in Hong Kong and Canton – now called Guangzhou),
Hokkien as it is called in Singapore or Malaysia – or
Taiwanese as obviously the Taiwanese call it – or
Fu Jian Hua as the people in Mainland China refer to it as.

As more and more students from Mainland China arrive here we are also hearing even more dialects spoken here like Shanghainese, from Shanghai.

As far as we are concerned, these dialects might as well be different languages, as they can sound so different from each other.

In China they refer to Mandarin as “Zhong guo hua, Pu tong hua” or “Han yu”  The Cantonese and Taiwanese, Singaporeans and Malaysians refer to it as “Guo yu” or “Zhong wen”
The term “Hua Yu” is probably the least likely to cause any misunderstanding.

For people in Beijing:

Another little problem is the use of "er yin"  like they do in Beijing.... something akin to "rolling their r's" in English.....  its quite confusing when "a little"  yi dian becomes yi diar.   Basically its added onto the ends of words that end with n.... but not always.... My feeling is that its for words that end with en and ian but not just an like man kan tan pan, etc

For People in Taiwan:

The nice thing for us in Taiwan is that the "er yin" is practically non existent, however they have another trap in store for you, they literally "drop their h's"   in pin yin.....  so for example - a piece of paper "yi zhang zhi" becomes "yi zang zi"   They put this down to  "Taiwan Guo Yu" they not being used to curling up their tongues ("juan she") as the Beijingers do.

Further below you may notice sometimes I write the Chinese pronunciation twice, the second time in Orange (?) colour  this denotes Taiwanese accent.  (Taiwan kou yin)

Taiwanese (Fu Jian hua) and Cantonese (Guang Dong Hua) both are "flat tongue" dialects which influence their Mandarin accent, hence the saying heard in Beijing: "I'm not afraid of heaven or hell, The thing I'm most afraid of is hearing a Cantonese person speaking Mandarin"

In Taiwan,  English "quite"  is expressed by the word "man"   in China they use "ting"

                                                    Quite good      =      man hao               or          ting hao

                                                        please          =       bai tuo                  or              qing

You hear the word "baituo" much more in Taiwan than in China........

These are the first eight letters of the Chinese alphabet  (try not to pronounce the 'r', just see it as a guide to the vowel sound)

bo (bor)   dial, uncle, thin 
po (por) rip, wife,   
mo (mor)  dark/black, stroke 
fo  (for)  Buddha 

de  (der) get, belonging too
te   (ter)  special
ne   (ner) a question word
le  (ler)  happy, past tense word

Useful Phrases

If you're going to be using Chinese (and why shouldn't you - after all there's over 1.2 billion other people using it,,,,) there are some phrases you can learn that will save you a lot of time later.  At first don't worry too much about the pronunciation – you will learn more with each lesson.  As for tones – intonation, that is an even more difficult problem and is a skill that can only come with time and patience.

Chinese is a very simple language and has been in use for thousands of years – making it a very pure, simple, highly efficient language.

(Direct translations have been written in green)

1  (a) I don't understand (spoken)                  = Wo ting bu dong  (I listen no understand)
   (b) I don't understand (a situation)             = Wo bu dong  (I no understand)
2  I don't know                                                     = Wo bu zhi dao  (I no know)
3 I'm sorry                                                            = dui bu qi
4 I'm sorry I don't understand                        = dui bu qi Wo (ting) bu dong
5(a) Do you have any brothers or sisters? = Ni you xiongdi jie mei ma?  (you have brother
                                                                                                                     sister sister ma?)

Chinese is a great language for toddlers to master!

Father  = ba ba          Older brother  = ge ge      younger brother  = di di
Mother = ma ma       Older sister      = jie jie     younger sister      = mei mei

hungry =e  (pronounced something like "er")

I have an older brother and a younger sister and a younger brother
Wo you yi ge ge ge, yi ge mei mei, yi ge di di
(I have one older brother, one younger sister, one younger brother)

5(b) Where do you come from?   = Ni cong na er lai? (Ni cong na li lai?)
                                                    (you from where come?)
6 I come from New Zealand          = Wo cong Xin xi lan lai (Wo cong Niu xi lan lai)
                                                    (I from New Zealand come)
                        Thailand     = Tai guo            Korea      = Han guo
                        Singapore = Xin jia po         Malaysia = Ma lai xi ya
7   person, people, man                = ren
8  I am a New Zealander                = Wo shi Xin xi lan ren (Wo shi Niu xi lan ren)

9 Could you speak a bit slower please?  = ni neng shuo man yi dian ma?
                                                             (you can speak slow a little ma?)
10 Could you say that again please?       = ni neng zai shuo yi bian ma?
                                                                (ni neng zai shuo yi ci ma?)
                                                            (you can again speak one time ma?)

More likely expressed just as:               zai shuo yi bian (zai shuo yi ci)
                                                                       (again speak one time)
                                                                              ( its ok to leave out the “could you”)

11 My Chinese is not very good                   = wo zhongwen bu tai hao
                                                                (my chinese no very good)
   more likely to be expressed as                = wo zhongwen bu hao
                                                                (my chinese no good)

One nice thing about Chinese is the use of words, immediately followed by their opposites, to ask a question

Eg  is that ok, or not?   = hao bu hao?   (good not good?)
 Are you cold or not?     = leng bu leng?  (cold not cold?)

Some two character words only use the first character for the first half

EG  do you know?       = ni zhi bu zhi dao?   (you know not know?)
     Okay?                        = ke bu ke yi?   (xing bu xing?)  (okay no okay?)
 Are you happy?          = ni gao bu gao xing?   (you happy no happy?)

12 What does this mean?                                = Zhe shi shen me yisi?  (this is what meaning?)
13 What does that mean?                                = na shi shen me yisi?    (that is what meaning?)
14 What do you mean?                                     = (ni shi) shen me yisi?  ((you is) what meaning?)
15 How do you say this (that) in Chinese?  = Zhege (na ge), Zhongwen zen me shuo?
                                                                    (this (that), chinese how say?)

Learning Mandarin 2

More letters
(again  try not to pronounce the 'r', just see it as a guide to the vowel sound)

Ge (ger) = cut, pigeon, brother
Ke (ker) = cut (carve, sarcastic), lesson
He (her) = river, and, together, peace 

a (ah) =  exclamation
o (or)= really?
e (er) = goose, hungry 

i   (ee)  = one, clothes, medical
u (pull) = crow, raven
ü (new) =  fish, jade  (this ü can be typed as v when typing pinyin)


NOTE!!  the 'e' is never ever pronounced 'ee'  OK?  That sound is denoted by i or yi

The interesting thing about the pronunciation associated with " ü ", is that it only goes with  ji qi and xi forming words written: ju qu & xu    (" jew chew & shew")

conversely, only zhi chi and shi go with the 'normal' u with no dots,
forming zhu, chu & shu ("joo choo & shoo" oo as in fool, full or pool - kiwi (NZ) accent - not Australian!)

Intonation  ( a big headache)

Basically there are 4 tones and one other "non-tone"
they are called the first, second, third and fourth tones

(high even, rising, falling rising, falling)
denoted with these shapes over the vowel:    - / v \

if there are none of these symbols over the word, then it automatically means its pronounced as the first tone.

16 Which tone is that?                                       = di ji sheng?  (which tone?)
17 I'm sorry, my tones are hopeless      = dui bu qi, wo de yin diao hen  cha de
                                                                    (sorry, my tone very bad)

More letters

ji     (gee)               = chicken, which, squeeze, nervous, tight
qi (cheese)      = air, gas, energy (life force), angry
xi (sheen)          = like, west, clean

zi    (zit)           = self, auto, written character, son
ci   (its in)       =  prick, spike, stab, thorn, magnetic
si    (sin)         =  four, death, silk,

zhi     (gin & tonic)           = know, support,
chi    (children)                 = eat, pool, late
shi    (shirt)                        = food, happening thing, ten, practical, try
ri        (river)                        = sun, Japan, day 
                                 (this r sound is like our r followed by the s in measure) 


18  What would you like to eat?                = Ni xiang chi shen me? (you like eat what?)
19  What would you like?                           =  Ni yao shen me?  (you need/want what?)
20  What do you want?                               = Ni yao shen me?  (you need/want what?)
21  (a) I would like to eat…..                       = Wo xiang chi ……..  (I like eat......)
       (b) I don't like to eat…..                        = Wo bu xiang chi …….. (I no like eat......)
22  (a) What's your favourite food?        = Ni zui xiang chi shen me? (you most like eat what?)
      (b) What's your least favourite food?         =  Ni zui bu xiang chi shen me?

23  (a) I want ……                                              =  Wo yao …….
      (b) I don't want ……                                        =  Wo bu yao …….
24  Do you want it or not?                               =  Ni yao bu yao …….  (you need no need?)

Learning Mandarin 3

More letters

ai    (eye)         = love, aunt 
ei    (abc)         = (acknowledgement, agreement sort of sound)
ui    (we/way)  = hello? 

ao  (how)   = arrogant, cocky
ou  (old)     = lotus, idol 
iu   (neon)  = (surprise)

ie    (year)             = wild, ambitious
üe   (you wear)   = moon, month
er    (eargh)         = son


25 Where is the toilet?   =            ce suo zai na li? (ce suo zai na er?) (toilet is where?)
26 Where are you going?  =    ni qu na li?  (ni qu na er?)   (you go where?)
27 What's the time?    =             ji dian zhong?

Learning Mandarin 4

More letters

an (aunt)    = peaceful, safe          ang(sung)  = brave, 
en (in)        = beneficial,kind          eng (sing)  =
in (been)    = silver, of feminine      ing (flying)  = eagle, hard
un (win)     = culture, mosquito      ong (mung) =
ün (vn) (June)   = cloud, dizzy

that's it for sounds!

Here's the whole lot together: (the Chinese "Alphabet")

Here's the whole lot together: (the Chinese "Alphabet")












ü (v)



阿  哦  額  也     愛  欸 澳  歐      安  恩  昂  X  二
一  五  語



  28  so boring      =    na ma wu liao
29a  so fat          =    na ma pang
    b so thin         =   na ma shou
30 big                 =     da
31 so big            =   na ma da
32 very big         =   fei chang da / hao da / hen da
33 really, really big    =  zhen de hen da
34 biggest          =        zui da
35 huge              =        ju da
  These sounds above while most are words in themselves, they can also be combined to make further words
  e.g. po and an can go together to make pan   To see more of this enter the word list  ... take your time - you're going to need it!

The complete list of Chinese words 1 2 3 (phonetic pin yin pronunciation) 

More thoughts on learning a new language
(with a Chinese angle)

further Chinese links
(back <)

Learn MandarinLearn Chinese
About Chinese
Mandarin Tools
Traditional Complex Character conversionTranslationSystran Babel Fish Australian Co.