The best way to learn Chinese is to practice — over and over and over.
To help, we’ve compiled this extensive guide to the basics of the Chinese language. We’ve added in some cultural pointers and taboos to help everything makes sense (and help you to not embarrass yourself on a trip to China.
And, as an added bonus, we’ve included free audio files and a Chinese language workbook to download and practice offline.
Have at it, and remember — learning Chinese is a major commitment. Be willing to put in the time!
When was the last time you tried to learn something completely new? Likely, the key to getting the material or information to stick stemmed from repetition. The best way to learn Chinese is to follow this technique by immersing yourself in the language. In essence, take a sentence you are working on and say it over and over, and if you can practice with a native speaker, all the better.
When speaking Chinese, try to switch tenses. If you’re working on a present tense sentence, put it in past tense and future tense and repeat those until you can flow easily between them.
As is true in so many situations, the best way to learn Chinese is through immersion. By speaking with a native Chinese language instructor such as ours at Live Lingua, absorbing the language, and getting your mind used to processing the words and phrases, you will find yourself moving along at a much faster pace than by practicing memorization alone. Your first lesson is free!
Live Lingua has over ten years into developing the best immersive language learning platform for seniors and older language learners. Using Skype, our native French teachers work one-on-one with you and build a curriculum based around your needs. No matter your level, they will meet you there and work with you to reach your goals. There is no intimidation and no fear of moving too slowly. Here’s more info on Chinese lessons with Live Lingua.
This is especially poignant if you plan to travel to China. You must be able to ask basic questions at the airport, your hotel, and at cafes. Here is a list of common Chinese phrases to practice. Remember, it’s all about repetition — there’s no need to be self-conscious or embarrassed while you’re learning. It’s much better to get these initial steps out of the way before you land in the country than to have no idea what you’re doing once you get there.
And, if you plan to visit China for business, follow this in-depth guide on how to do business in China.
Whether it’s through Chinese media such as television or movies, music, or simply sitting in cafe in Shanghai or Beijing, absorbing the language is one of the most effective ways to pick up on the intricacies of speaking the language.
We have a secret for you — it’s called the Live Lingua Project, and it’s loaded with FREE Chinese language lessons and audio materials. Get in there and download some free language learning material — whether you’re a beginner or trying to up your game, there are lessons for Chinese learners of all abilities.
This totally non-corny tongue twister, part of our #tonguetwistertuesday series that we run on our social media channels each week, can help with pronunciation. Feel free to download it.
During my undergraduate college years, I met one-on-one with foreign exchange students to practice conversational English. One of my favorite students was a good-natured Thai woman named Oi (think of the English word boy minus the “b”). Being from Thailand, Oi was used to a tonal language. I can still remember the day she tried to explain the concept of tones. She looked at me and, sweetly and succinctly, said, “You can say my name, Oi, Oi, Oi, Oi, Oi,” as she counted off each sound on her fingers. Leaning back in her chair she radiated with satisfaction. I returned her kindness with a blank, stupid, glazed over stare. My untrained ears had basically heard the same word five times! I can assure you my complete inability to speak her language brought many hours of laughter.
It brings me comfort to know that I am not alone as many language learners struggle most with tonal languages. If you are learning a tonal language it means you will encounter words that are spelled the same and yet change meaning based on the pitch that you use when speaking.
Even though there are many tonal languages, Mandarin Chinese is arguably the most well known and studied. If you are learning Mandarin Chinese, it is crucial that you know and understand the five tones of the language. Classic examples of the importance of tones in Chinese are the words for mother “mā” and horse “mǎ”. A simple slip of the tongue and you’ve just insulted rather than identified.
Here’s a brief explanation of each tone to get you started:
The first tone is simply called a flat tone and is differentiated with a straight line as in mā. You pronounce this tone in a high, steady voice, much like singing a quick steady note.
The second tone in is called a rising tone. The tone mark to identify this tone is a rising line as in the word má . The tone mark gives you a hint to the pronunciation as your voice rises from a mid to high tone voice, similar to asking a question in English.
Falling Rising Tone
The third tone is often referred to as a Falling Rising Tone and is marked by using a curved line over the word. The word mǎ is an example of this. With this tone, your voice goes low and then bounces up again. For some, it helps to imagine a check mark when practicing.
The fourth tone is a Falling Tone and is pronounced just as it describes: your voice starts high and then falls low. The tone mark is a descending line such as the word mà.
Just because Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language does not mean that every word has an associated tone. Words that do not need a tone to differentiate the various sounds are simply called Neutral Tones. These words are pronounced in a flat voice with no special emphasis.
Now that you’ve achieved a simple understanding, the best way to continue learning is by listening to the actual tones. Here is a great video to get you started on the basics of Chinese tones:
Hello — nǐ hǎo
Excuse me — jiè guò yī xià
Thank you — xiè xie
How are you? — nǐ hǎo ma
I’m sorry — duì bu qǐ
Can you repeat that, please? — qǐng zài shuō yī biàn
I can’t understand what you’re saying — wǒ bú tài míng bai
How do you say that in Chinese? — zhè ge yòng hàn yǔ zěn me shuō?
How much is it? — zhè ge duō shao qián?
I want — wǒ yào
Just a moment, please — děng yī xià
I don’t understand — wǒ méi tīng dǒng
Where is the restroom? — xǐ shǒu jiān zài nǎ lǐ?
Do you speak English? — nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?
We’re now going to work through the Family Tree in the Chinese language. I have divided everything into specific categories, in order to make them easier to memorise.
先生 (xiān shēng) = Mr.is the right way to address a male in China. A married woman can use the same expression to mean husband. 先生 is also used when referring to very good scholars.
女士 (nǚ shì) = Ms. is the right way to address to a female in China. As for a married woman, 太太 (tài tai) = Mrs. is the best word to use when addressing her. 太太 also means wife when the husband says it. In addition to this, you can use 小姐 (xiǎo jiě), which means Miss.
Now we are (almost) done with all titles and addressing name in Chinese. As usual, please try to memorize those that you use more in your daily routine. Afterwards, you can tackle the whole list.
Here, we have several audio files that will help you take what you’ve learned and apply it to the most challenging part — actually speaking the language out loud.
Below the audio files is a workbook to help you move through the files in an orderly and productive manner. For our full collection of free Chinese learning resources, visit the Live Lingua Project.
When visiting other countries around the world it’s extremely important to be aware of the cultural differences. You wouldn’t want someone visiting your country and display inappropriate behavior or perhaps say something rude. We all know some things are unintentional, but it wouldn’t hurt to know some basic cultural rules and etiquette before jetting off to a new country. While in China, keep these points in mind so you can be sure not offend or disrespect anyone during your stay.
When Chinese people meet, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.
Xiǎojiě小姐 (little woman), Miss: Young and unmarried woman.
Tàitai太太 (Madam): Married woman. Use this after their surname.
Nǚshì女士 (Ms.): Use this after a woman’s name. This is often used when the martial status or age of the woman is unknown.
Xiānshēng先生 (born first, Mr., Sir.):Respectful term used for men
This means something along the lines of honor and respect. There are four types of ‘face’ in Chinese culture:
The main thing to remember when we talk about “face” is never cause someone to lose it and you don’t lose yours either! So yelling at someone because you are angry would be a very bad choice.
Keep calm and resolve everything in a cool and collected manner.
If you want even more insight into Chinese culture, you can also find a Skype Chinese teacher to teach you first hand.
Everybody knows when you visit a foreign country you should adapt to the new environment. Of course, there will be some “weird” customs you are not familiar with.
Let me help you to avoid naïve behavior. Among those, there is a large taboo topic. Some of them are pretty well known: for example, eating with hand, only the right hand, is common in India, the Middle East, and some African countries.
The left hand is for other, let’s say, purposes. In Thailand, the head is sacred, so never touch somebody else’s head. And again, in Korea, never give a pat on the back to someone who is not part of your family member or a good friend, he/she will feel very uncomfortable. What about China? Let’s find out together.
In Chinese language, “Green hat” is绿 帽子 (lǜ Maozi).” In China, a “green hat” means marital infidelity. There is even a saying about it: the most horrible color for a Chinese man hat is green.
Why “绿 帽子 (lǜ Maozi)” has this meaning in China?
It is in a story from ancient China. The wife of a merchant had an affair with a clothing merchant. The dealer gave a green hat to wear to her husband when he would go out for work.
In this way, the merchant of clothes would have “green light” to the house of his mistress once saw her husband wearing the green hat.
From that moment, “绿 帽子 (lǜ Maozi)” has become a cheating symbol. So it is virtually impossible to find a green hat in the Chinese market!
Everybody knows that chopsticks or “筷子 (kuàizi)” are like knives and spoons for westerners. Some taboos regarding how to use chopsticks have developed during their long history.
For example, holding your chopsticks upright in your bowl is a bad manner. Why? Because they seem burning incenses, which are strongly associated to tombs or graves of ancestors.
3.Do not bring a watch as a a gift
When they invite you to some social events, remember please to bring a gift to the host. There are several options: food, clothes, books, etc. But there are some exceptions as well. For example, never give a watch“钟 (zhōng)” as a gift.
In Chinese “钟 (zhōng)” and death “终 (zhōng)” have the same pronunciation. Let’s have a look at these 2 sentences:
“送 钟 (sòng zhōng)” to give a watch as a present
“送终 (sòngzhōng)” to attend a funeral.
Naturally, It is easy to see how these two homophonic sentences are similar in people’s minds and in their culture, so “送 钟 (sòng zhōng)” is a taboo.
At first, people gave watches as a present but elders, then they extended the practice to each person. Can you imagine the awkward moment if you send a watch as a gift? It would mean a curse.
This sentence will certainly confuse: the words “东 (Dong)” and “西 (xi)” mean east and west, right? True, but when we match them, they have a new meaning: “thing”.
For example, we can say: I bought some “东西 (Dongxi)”. But if you use 东西 (Dongxi) towards people is an insult. It is roughly translated as “I am bad”.
If somebody asks you “” 你 是 东西 吗 (nǐ shì Dongxi ma)? If the answer is “yes” that means “I am a thing.”
But, if you anwers is “我 不是 东西 (wǒ bú shì Dongxi)” you mean you are bad. Very confusing.
To be fair, this issue is not only in China. For example, 13 is a positive number in many countries. Likewise, people avoid saying the number 4 because “四 (sì)” sounds like “死 (sǐ), which means “death”.
Furthermore, Chinese people use the number 250 for a careless person. In this case, we do not say二百 五十 (èr bǎi wǔ shi) but 二百, without 十.
If you greet a Chinese woman with kiss, she will feel embarrassed and, if there is a man with her, it is better to start running away. In the western world, kisses or hugs for greeting is quite normal, but not in China. A handshake is enough!
Most of Chinese people does not change clothes every day. Although many Westerners do not take a bath every day (me neither) they do change clothes more frequently.
In China is different: many people used to wear the same clothes for 2/3 days. In my opinion, it is not a bad habit at all, but some foreigners might ask the reason. Please don’t ask. It is very impolite.
绿 帽子 (lǜ Maozi) green hat (adjective +noun)
东西 (dōngxi) thing (noun)
二百五 (èr bǎi wǔ) careless person (adjective +noun)
筷子 (kuàizi) chopsticks (noun)
送 钟 (sòng zhōng) to give a watch as a present
送终 (sòngzhōng) to attend a funeral
Let’s do a fun test:
No matter where you are, always remember that all cultures, even the most distant from yours, deserve to be respected. Without prejudice and with a lot of curiosity. It is always worthwhile.
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