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How To Speak Mandarin Chinese: Guides & Advice

Updated on February 4, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

The Mandarin Chinese language is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world.
The Mandarin Chinese language is one of the most difficult languages to learn in the world. | Source

Vocabulary for Linguists

Before we go any further lets look at some of the words you will be learning:

1. Idiom: a phrase that may have no exact translation, for example," What's up?" is am American idiom that means everything from "Hi! How are you feeling?" to "What is going on in your life today?" The correct answer to the question, "What's up?" would be "The sky.".

2. Conversational- this means the program will teach you to converse in the language rather than just translate it. It is amazing but speaking a language and translating it use very different mental processes and you can do one without necessarily being able to do the other.

3. Native Language/Native Speaker- the language that a person learns to speak form childhood. A native speaker is one who knows the language as well as one who has spoken it all his life.

4.Vocabulary- Lists of different words in a language.

5. Grammar- The way a language is written and spoken.

Why Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Mandarin is the official language spoken in China, and one of the major languages spoken in Singapore. As the globe gets smaller, and businesses find themselves with the need to communicate in many languages, learning Mandarin Chinese is a smart career move. Find out the best resources for learning this beautiful language.

Mandarin is actually a group of dialects which make up the common language used in China today. It is one of the most challenging languages to learn but once it is learned opportunities will open up that were not possible before hand.

One of the difficulties one experiences in learning Mandarin Chinese is that it is a tonal language. This means that the meaning of a word or phrase can be just by just the voice inflection or tone used. Because of this it is best to use a program that utilizes native speakers to teach the language.

The U.S. military trains it's linguists by a method called submersion. In this method a student is completely surrounded by the language being learned for the majority of his waking hours. He is communicating and interacting with native speakers and therefore picks up the language, and the nuances of the language very quickly. It is similar to the way a baby learns to talk. Within the first month the student will often find himself thinking and dreaming in the language he is learning.

Even with this method, the military gives linguists learning Mandarin Chinese a full year to become proficient.

Learn 10 Survival Words In Mandarin Chinese

The Best Language Programs

Unless you live near a community college that offers the class, or in a large city like Los Angeles or New York, you are probably going to have to learn Mandarin Chinese from an audio or computer program. There are so many programs out there that it can be confusing.

Because of the complexity of the language I recommend a computer program. This was you will have an interactive process, allowing you to hear the language but learning the grammar and written aspects of it as well.

These programs are normally created with the linguistics ability of native speakers and so you get the benefit of language that is up to date and usable rather than grammatically perfect but out of date. For example, imagine a person from another country going into a store and saying," Hello, I would like to buy some creative coloring utensils for my heir."

Now, while this might be correct it would be difficult to get into any real conversation with a person that had learned a language on this level. Yet this is what many, if not most, American are satisfied with. It would be much better if the same person just walked into a store and asked for crayons for his child, but if he did not know idioms and local language he may not be able to articulate what he wants.

A Scene from Mulan in Mandarin

Basic Chinese Mandarin Pronunciation

Computer Programs

Rosetta Stone is one of the best programs out there, in my opinion. It has two separate levels and is usable for both children (from about Jr. High) and adults. Level One consists of about 200 hours of material to help you master the intricacies of the language. It builds from a zero proficiency level so you don't have to have any language skill to learn Mandarin Chinese with this program. You progress at your own pace from words to phrases and then to complete sentences.

At any point you can stop the program where it is and practice speaking or writing the language so you are continuously building a foundation and mastering knowledge. With any language practice is imperative and this gives you plenty of practice. Rosetta Stone uses the same immersion method that was used when I was in linguistics school in the military to help you learn quickly and effectively.

Because it is for a wide age group it is created to be fun as well as challenging. You can record your own speech patterns and listen to them in comparison to a native speaker, which is especially important with a tonal language.

It is a comprehensive program, and includes everything you need for speaking, reading, writing, and listening with understanding. Once you have completed level one you can go on to level two which adds more vocabulary and a more complex sentence structure, allowing you to converse like an adult rather than a child.

Rosetta Stone is used by many homeschoolers because it is an excellent language program but it is expensive. The Mandarin Chinese program is close to $350.00 if you buy both levels together.

For younger children New Beginnings Mandarin Chinese Talk Now is an interactive program which helps children learn conversational Mandarin Chinese in a fun way. You get flashcards that can be printed on your home computer as well as other things to help your child learn easily.

The New Testament in Mandarin Chinese
The New Testament in Mandarin Chinese

Online Classes and Podcasts

With online programs like you can learn a language for free with Internet access. It works in a similar way to Rosetta Stone, although on a less intense basis. This would be a good starting place if you wanted to try out the language without an investment but unless you have a strong aptitude for linguistics you probably will need something more very soon.

Podcasts are another way that Mandarin Chinese is being taught. You tune into a new podcast daily and then practice the language and discuss the lesson with others that get the podcasts.

Map of where various languages are spoken from
Map of where various languages are spoken from
Beijing Summer Palace,Courtesy National Geographic/Photograph by Macduff Everton
Beijing Summer Palace,Courtesy National Geographic/Photograph by Macduff Everton

Study in Beijing

This is the most extreme option but for a serious learner, with the money and time, probably the best one. With this program you are immersed in the Chinese culture while you study the language. There are less than 10 students per class for individualized instruction, and, best of all, you are learning the in the context of the country. You will understand how people formulate questions and answers, you will hear the common language, and you will have a feel for how the culture thinks, or as much as any culture can have for another!

You get a personal tutor to help with all aspect of the learning process as well as help you to understand more about the culture. There are also group activities so that you get lots of practice interacting with others in your language.

This is a one month program that costs over $2,000.00, however the experience would be priceless.

Berlitz is a fast way to learn conversational Mandarin Chinese
Berlitz is a fast way to learn conversational Mandarin Chinese

Berlitz CDs

Berlitz is the grandfather of language programs. This has been around a long time! So long, in fact, that I can remember my dad learning Spanish with the Berlitz program on records in the early 1960s! Once again, Berlitz is an immersion program but the emphasis is on speaking rather than speaking/reading/writing. With Berlitz you learn to speak the language by listening to Cd's and repeating back what you hear. This is excellent if you just need conversational Mandarin so that you can travel in the country but it will not help you to communicate through the written word.

Because it is less involved it is one of the least expensive options, affordable to virtually anyone. Also, because it is focused on only the conversational aspects of the language you are able to concentrate on a smaller block of information and learn it more quickly.

Some Basic Mandarin Chinese Vocabulary

1. How are you? - Ni Hao.

2. Thank You- Xie Xie

3. Very good- Hen Hao.

This can be used with:

Ni Hao?

Hen Hao.

4. Very expensive- Hen Gui

5. Goodbye- zai jian

Understand Your Learning Syle & Needs

Learning any language is difficult and takes time, effort and commitment. Learning a language like Mandarin Chinese or Arabic is especially difficult because not only are the sounds very different, the writing is different as well.

Take your time to think about how you learn best. Do you need to find a class at a local college so that you have a person to learn from? Do you need the hands on activities that computer programs will give you? Can you get away with a book, or a set of Cd's?

If you want to learn the language plan on making time and financial commitments to doing it so you will get the very best education possible. Take time to practice into a recorder, in front of the mirror, chatting with people. Try to get a DVD in Mandarin without subtitles. All of this will help you become more proficient in speaking, reading, and communicating the Mandarin Chinese Language.


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an interesting hub because I have been involved in the learning and teaching of Chinese Mandarin since 1967. You mention that the U.S. military gives linguists learning Mandarin a full year to become proficient. There are different proficiencies in learning a language. When I started learning at the Defense Language Institute I took a 37 week intensive aural-comprehension course and was able to reach almost intermediate proficiency in listening and speaking. To become fully proficient at a 4-4 level on the ILS scale, a person needs much more than one year with a considerable amount of time spent in immersion in either China or Taiwan. I wasn't able to think and dream in Mandarin after only one month of study. It came much later. Also, there are many universities which offer excellent Chinese language and literature programs. Middlebury College has traditionally been great for listening and speaking. People learning Mandarin today are so fortunate to have programs like the Rosetta Stone and the Internet for podcasts. None of that was available when I started to study the language. Voted up and sharing.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 

      7 years ago from United States

      You have some good resource ideas in your hub. My husband and I are learning Mandarin and starting to teach our children. We are finding that it helps to do more than one method. Actually, I don't think Rosetta Stone is too good for Mandarin. Most reviewers don't like it, especially for the price.

    • Maggie.L profile image


      7 years ago from UK

      A very useful hub for those trying to find resources to learn Mandarin (me included). My children are learning at school - it has become available as part of the school curriculum in some schools in the UK. I think this is a great opportunity for them to learn a language that can be very difficult to pick up as an adult.

    • profile image

      Best Language to Learn 

      8 years ago

      Great hub! Over the last 5 years, I've had the opportunity to learn Russian in Moscow and I can say that having the right software tools made all the difference in the world. I'm sure that the same is true for Chinese. I'm planning on taking a trip to China next month and I will definitely check out your resources.

    • echineselessons profile image


      8 years ago

      That's so great detailed explaination for the Chinese resource


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