Starting Chinese from Scratch: Tones and Characters

It’s the New Year and with a new year comes new language goals. If your goal this year is to learn Chinese, but have no idea how to go about it, here is a simple way to start. Mostly because it’s a more condensed form of my journey and things that have worked for me along the way.

First, you have to start with learning what the heck tones are, the five different tones and how they interact with each other. You usually learn these in conjunction with all the possible syllables. I find that this part of the process is important and neglected in a lot of formal class structures. Yes, it’s tedious, yes it means you can’t really say much at first, but it will make a difference later (I’ve had people mistake me for a native speaker). It’s worth it because it’s so much harder to correct mediocre or just plainly bad pronunciation later.

You also want to simultaenously start on characters. Which characters should you start off with? Well, that’s up for debate. You can start off with the HSK lists, which are based on frequency, but apparently that’s not always a good start. Olly’s video is a good way to get a feel for how to start.

So, this is the breakdown:

1. Tone Pronounciation (~3 weeks 1-2h/day): We spent the first three weeks in my First-year Chinese class just trying to pronounce the tones and sounds. There are plenty of resources available online, but of course, the best would be to practice with a native speaker or teacher, exagerate the tones and get someone to correct you.

    • [READ] about the tones, how they are written in pinyin, rules, etc. at ChinesePod.com and listen to the tones podcast at Melnyk’s Chinese.
    • [IMPORTANT] Pinyin: beware of this romanization, I recommend you not try to “read” it but instead learn the sounds that correspond to the pinyin.
    • [IMPORTANT] Note about the third tone (like in “nǐ”): people have a lot of trouble differentiating between second and third tones, I recommend, as our Chinese teacher told us, cut off the rising part from the third tone. As for the second tone, rise without a pause.
    • [PRACTICE]:
      • There are some hard sounds in Chinese for English speakers (zh, sh, ch, x, r, z, s, c, ü). You want to get them right, which means paying attention to where your tongue is. This resource is really good in general (click on the boxes for pronunciation).
      • After you get the hang of single syllables, practice all kind of tone combinations, don’t worry so much about what they mean yet. Practice and record yourself and compare with the recordings on the sites. Yeah, you’re going to feel stupid at first, but you can do this at home with headphones.
      • You should go head and practice ALL the possible sounds and for that you need one of those syllable charts. You can either print one out or download this for you computer. I suggest you print it out and keep in your pocket, purse, jacket, whatever so you can practice on the go (this is what I did). You basically just practice all the tones for each syllable.
    • Listen a lot and try to get your ear to differentiate the sounds.
    • If you don’t have a teacher try out WaiChinese, I’ve used it and found it to be really accurate and convenient since they have an app.

As you can see, you have plenty of material for 3 weeks, or more if you think you need it. In any case, pronunciation is always an ongoing process as you get to forming sentences and learning to comprehend different accents. I think Chinese, unlike connected speech in English, actually benefits from learning it in small pieces at a time that you put together later.

2. Characters (汉字): Here’s a simple method I used (You can start this along with the Tone Pronunciation). I also have some Chinese Character texts, send me a message and I’ll send you the link.

    • [FIRST] Print out some Chinese character sheets (you can just google “chinese character sheets” online, make sure they have the cross and diagonal guides on them). If you have an iPad like me I recommend a stylus and the Notability app (or a pdf writing app), you can then just import the pdf and practice (saves paper).
    • [STROKES] Learn the different type of strokes and how to write them.  Here you can find general information on the strokes and such.
    • [RADICALS] Learn about the radicals, it’s not necessary to learn to write the radicals by themselves, but it is important to know them especially when looking characters up you don’t know in a dictionary. I have my own radicals and mandarin poster (~$35 free shipping all over the world yay!), there’s just nothing like having the characters around. But you can also print out the radicals for free.

A note on myself: I write like a first-grader (A post about how you can learn to write like me), according to my friend Tian. Obviously I’m not an expert on Chinese calligraphy, but I did what my teachers taught me so I at least not write like a first-grader:

    • Learn proper stroke order
    • Keep proportions (hence the cross and diagonal guides)
    • Practice obsessively?

A note on Skritter: This is by far the best app for studying characters. I did not have access to this app when I was first learning and because it’s a paid service you might be hesitant about it. Honestly, it’s awesome, but I wouldn’t really recommend it from scratch. Give yourself some time with the method you chose and then try out the app. Getting stroke order and proportions right is really about practicing over and over and Skritter isn’t quite the best for this.

It sounds really overwhelming, I know, and the first year it was. I remember I counted how many characters I had learned the first year and I think it was around 350-500. The second year I knew about 2,000. What I’m trying to say is, it gets easier, you’ll begin to get a feel for the characters and you won’t need to check stroke order. In my opinion, learning to write the characters is probably the best way to learn characters, as in be able to read chinese (though it’s also the first thing you forget).

As for how many characters to learn daily, well, that’s up to you. I agree with Olly on this one and just choose what you like and go with that while you get those tones down.

Conclusion

I know it seems like in that time you’re starting out with tones and characters you’re not really learning Chinese, but you are! Trust me. And don’t worry if you speak slowly, seriously it’s a good way to have a clean pronunciation in the future. With Chinese, I’ve found that it’s good to take things slowly. Give yourself all the time you need to feel like you’ve got tones, syllables and writing the first 100 characters. That way when you pick up a textbook you can calmly sit down to take in the vocabulary and start speaking.

Best of luck on your new adventure and 加油!

 

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