Chinese Starter Kit: Introduction & Orientation

Is your goal for 2018 to learn Chinese? This article is the first in our new “Chinese Starter Kit” mini-series that aims to give you the resources to start learning Chinese: all on your own and all from scratch. We’ve gathered the best free resources from around the web and organized them into four modules based on the essential skills you’ll need to get started on your Chinese journey.

But before you start bragging to your friends that you speak better Chinese than Zuckerberg, we should start by asking ourselves what exactly we want to learn and why. Of course when non-Chinese say they want to speak “Chinese”, what they usually mean is that they want to learn Standard Chinese or “Mandarin”, commonly known as 普通话 pǔtōnghuà or “common speech” in China. This makes sense given that it’s the official national language of the PRC and spoken by around 70% of the population there; moreover, the number of native speakers of some form of Mandarin– close to a billion– making it the most spoken first language in the world.

Nevertheless, it is only one of hundreds of related languages that could be called “Chinese”, including well known southern languages like Shanghainese and Cantonese (Mandarin’s pronunciation is based on northern Chinese dialects, especially that spoken in and around Beijing). Though all belonging to the same language family, speakers of many of these Chinese languages and dialects could not understand each other’s native tongues.

Even within languages differences exist; for example, Taiwanese Mandarin and the Mandarin spoken in mainland China have notable variations in vocabulary and pronunciation (although they remain close enough to understand each other, similar to UK and American English). But despite the differences between and within these languages, they are all bound together by a shared writing system allowing written communication to take place even if spoken communication cannot.

The Chinese writing system is probably the most well known but poorly understood aspect of the language. I’m sure we’ve all seen a few tattoos that can attest to this. Since Chinese characters are not directly tied to a certain pronunciation, they (more or less) must simply be memorized independently. Many potential learners are intimidated by Chinese characters, but for many veterans of Chinese language study, they become one of the most enjoyable and exciting parts about the language. They have their own fascinating logic and are an essential part of any serious study of Chinese.

Today there are two main systems for writing Chinese: the traditional system, used in China for centuries and today still the official writing system in the ROC (Taiwan) plus the PRC special regions of Hong Kong and Macau, and the simplified system, introduced in mainland China beginning in the 1950s and now the official writing system there and in Singapore. Given that simplified characters are, as you might imagine, simpler than traditional characters, most learners of Chinese choose to start there. Those interested in visiting Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau and those who want to read Chinese historical documents or learn calligraphy will also want to learn traditional characters, but keep in mind that once you’ve learned one system, it is fairly straightforward to learn the other as they share the same foundations.

Apart from where you want to use your future Chinese-speaking-superpowers, you should also think about what you will use them for; business, academics, connecting with family members, or even just traveling. Your reasons for learning Chinese will go a long way towards telling you which parts of the language to focus on. Maybe you just want to be conversational in spoken Chinese, or perhaps you want to be the next Jack Ma.

Even characters are only truly necessary when reading, and spoken Mandarin and its pronunciation can be taught independently from the written language. As such it may not be necessary to memorize thousands of Chinese characters if your ambition is just to chat with your Chinese friends (but you should, because Chinese characters are cool). There are, however, a few key skills everyone who wants to learn Mandarin needs to acquire:

  1. Pinyin: The official Romanization system for Mandarin in mainland China and increasingly used around the world. It is essential not only because it teaches you how to produce Chinese sounds, but also as it’s the most common system for typing Chinese.
  2. Tones: As most people are at least semi-aware, Chinese languages are tonal and therefore correct tones are essential for indicating the exact meaning of words in a language that’s filled with words that sound alike.
  3.  Grammar: Chinese grammar doesn’t include verb conjugations and is often flexible with sentence structure; like English, it is considered a subject-verb-object (SVO) language in terms of word order. That being said, solid fundamentals in grammar remains essential for even the most basic forms of communication.
  4. Vocabulary: What vocabulary you should learn will vary widely depending on your goals. However, for those just starting the focus should be on the most common 100 or so words first.

Check back over the next 4 weeks as we’ll be posting modules on each of these four skills full of freely available online resources that will help you get started on your Chinese journey.

Interested in learning more fundamentals to start your Chinese language learning? Check out our articles on Why Learning Chinese Isn’t As Hard As You Think or 7 Ways In Which Learning Chinese Will Turn Your World Upside Down.

Already packed and ready to go? Get in touch with our Program Consultants and begin your new Chinese adventure. Being curious doesn’t cost anything, just interested in knowing more about Hutong School, and what we can offer? Click here to get started!