🐼 Chinese for English-Speaking Beginners
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This is a collection of Internet references as I ("爸爸丹") try to learn some Chinese.
I made this page for me but I welcome suggestions. I have additional comments below.
The definitions (in parentheses) of the 4 pinyin words provided here...
mā (妈 mother) ≠ mǎ (麻 fiber/hemp) ≠ mǎ (马 horse) ≠ mà (骂 curse/scold)
...demonstrate how the same "sound" ("mah" in this case) to an American ear with different tonal/pitch treatment can turn your mother into a horse. The proper use of these 4 tones (diacritic marks below) is crucial. To facilitate writing pinyin, here are [macron/acute/caron/grave] tone characters for each vowel to copy and paste:
A— ā á ǎ à
E— ē é ě è | ə Ə
I— ī í ǐ ì
O— ō ó ǒ ò | ö
U— ū ú ǔ ù | ü ǖ
One Chinese sound is associated with one syllable and each Chinese character has its own pinyin syllable constructed with an "initial" first letter(s), "final" last letter(s), and a crucial "tone" which seems to have both volume & pitch elements to it:
1=high (‾); 2=rising (/); 3=fall-rise (v); 4=falling (\).
Here's a list of "pinyin gotchas," which is shorter than my personal list of pinyin pitfalls or "landmines" (in Google Docs; comments are enabled in case anyone has something to contribute) that are so misleading to an English-speaking student that they seem "wrong." Apparently, pinyin was influenced by Russian (remember China and Russia are neighbors and the USA's foreign policy with China is mediocre at best) so unless there are enough Westerners wanting to learn Chinese that come up with a better system, we're stuck with this.
- ▶ basic pinyin pronunciation like the one used in my class (based on HSK; paper only); provided by Travel China Guide).
- ▶ extensive pinyin table (YoYoChinese); the "i as filler" video (link in the upper-left of this table) was helpful.I would have replaced this use of "i" with the schwa "ə" for English-speaking students to reduce confusion.
- ▶ pinyin-guide with 4 tones sorted by 23 initials; great pinyin practice through "speak-then-verify" |
- Yabla pinyin table with quick-access to tones; tone pairs practice
- Tonal changes—multisyllabic (YellowBridge)
- ✘ QuickMandarin table's pop-up is missing the 4-tone visuals
- ChineseFor.us video (15:08) helps string sounds together)
- pinyin-Yale-WG converter (Chinese Outpost)
- pinyin-WG converter (see comment #2)
- Forvo pronunciation speakers help validate/correct Google machine pronunciation
- Downloadable pinyin WAV files by lost-theory.org
- NOTE: To make the Mandarin “ü” sound, prounounce “ee” (as in "weed") but purse your lips as they would be when you are pronouncing “oo,” as in “food” or “too.” This puts your tongue in the right position.
Phrases & Words
- Google is good, with exceptions...e.g. Chinese audio mispronunciation of shí (ten) & shì (yes).
- Bing doesn't include pinyin (!) or have as much tonal emphasis in their audio files as Google does.
- DeepL does not provide pinyin but is good for reviewing related phrases/expressions.
- Cambridge .
- Ichacha.net provides related Chinese phrases with translations
- Yandex document & image translation but NO select/copy of pinyin; 👎 Voice is same as Google.
- mdbg.net provides phrases from Internet. Graphically shows components of Chinese characters and what they mean. Sometimes resorts to Bing.
- ✘ Reverso [by Collins] does NOT provide pinyin
Words Only (not phrases)
- YellowBridge English/pinyin/Chinese input
- PurpleCulture.net English/pinyin/Chinese input
- HanTrainerPro English input; native speaker sound & character stroke instructions
- ChineseConverter.com Chinese-to-pinyin & other handy tools
- ArchChinese English/pinyin/Chinese input (sound files require $$)
- English-pinyin-Chinese translator (yabla.com)
with tone pairs helpful for practicing
- Pinyin-English dictionary sorted alphabetically by pinyin; might help finding word for something you heard.
Lessons/Practice (Tip to language video producers: no loud music needed!!)
- basic greetings lessons (Loecsen); tests only work in Chrome browser
- HSK lessons (vocab list, test/practice aids)
- HSK videos (YouTube)
- HSK flash cards (YellowBridge)
- 35 basic phrases (Rypeapp)
- 45 Mandarin expressions (blog)
- 2 hours of basic greetings & phrases (Kendra)
- 100 sentence starters video (MandarinCorner.org)
- phrases to practice (StandardMandarin)
- phrases (ThoughtCo)
- basic lessons (FreeChineseLessons)
- basic lessons (DuoLingo)
- lesson series (Litaou)
- flash cards (YellowBridge)...challenging!
- colloquial phrases with pronunciation (TravelChinaGuide)
- Yabla video player / vocabulary with review tests /
- ＃/numbers/counting/shù zì/数字:
- 1-100 (blog)
- thousand/M/B/T (Omniglot)
- video (1-10; Emma)
- vocab/high-ƒ words: | Wiktionary | _ |
- video (ChineseFor.us)
- video collection (QueenyTV)
Reading/Viewing Library (improve exposure to the language)
- Chinese literature (YellowBridge)
- Fun to Read Chinese series of children's stories on YouTube w/ Chinese & English (no pinyin)
- Happy Chinese, a 7-part series of videos with English & Chinese subtitles.
📱 Phone Apps:
I can't believe "Babbel" (advertised on NPR all the time) doesn't include Chinese in their Android app!
- The Hello Chinese Android app seems like my speed. I'm using it the most right now. Very efficient.
- I'm also trying the ChineseSkill Android app, which nudges the student into learning how to write the characters. I find that interesting, but I'm not sure it's the best use of my time if I'm striving to just develop some basic conversational skills to speak with the in-laws and granddaughter. Their panda is adorable, though.
- The Mondly app appeals to me with it's introductory question: "Cannot memorize words?" I can't remember 💩, so this is getting a trial-run, too.
- Here is a pinyin app (TutorMing) I have yet to try.
Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously-used system of writing in the world. I'm fascinated by the Chinese characters, but I'm trying to focus on the spoken language rather than trying to learn the characters to any great extent. Modern Chinese has many homophones; thus the same spoken syllable may be represented by many characters, depending on meaning. A single character may also have a range of meanings, or sometimes quite distinct meanings; occasionally these correspond to different pronunciations.
- Basics (14:40 video; Litao)
No matter the format/manifestation of a tool (e.g. hand tool, technology, language), having a goal or project that is more easily accomplished with the skilled use of tools will help improve the skills. "Back in the day" I learned MS Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) inside out not because I liked word processors, but because I was going through grad school and then writing product plans for HP. Those tasks/projects were the motivation for learning the tools. Plus, I'm a nerd for tools. Now, realizing I will soon have a grandchild who will learn a language I have NO understanding of is motivating me to at least TRY to learn some Chinese.
- Compose a welcome message in Chinese (for me to say on video) to my granddaughter due at the end of May. Her mother is my son's Chinese-American wife, who is quite fluent in Chinese and speaks Enlish like an American since she grew up in California. (WIP here)
- Attempt to engage in some basic dialog with our Song family members for fun and education. (endless challenge)
- Establish Chinese name. Some funny nicknames have come up. A translation of something like my tongue-in-cheek [CyclingSalvation.com] cycling nickname "Father Tortuga" would be fun, but for now I'm rolling with 爸爸丹 (pinyin: Bàba Dān & hex: 爸爸丹) which basically means "Father Dan."
💲 Paid services I'm not quite ready to sign up for include FluentU, Quizlet, ...
Comments on the Language, Tools, Etymology, Etc:
- All Chinese references here are re: the "official" [Beijing dialect] Mandarin.Unless noted otherwise, Chinese symbols used are
simplified (modern mainland), not traditional (still used in Taiwan).
- This page is formatted for full computer screens, not mobile device displays. The page font here is Arial.
- I'm not memorizing the characters but I'm fascinated by them nonetheless.The names Song (or Sung) & Ming correspond to the Song Dynasty when a distinctive printed style of regular script was developed, and the Ming Dynasty during which that style developed into the Ming typeface style. In Mainland China, the most common name is Song. The Mainland Chinese standardized Ming typeface in Microsoft Windows is named SimSun. [source]
- My projects (noted here) provide the driving force in my learning.
- Tonal Language — Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the meaning of a word you're saying can change with the tone/pitch/inflection. Some "final" sounds combine tonal & pronunciation marks, like "ǖ" which combines a macron and an umlaut (dieresis or tréma have identical Unicode). English words for the four tonal "pitch" diacritics are as follows:
- level, high ā: looks like the symbol used to denote a long vowel, is called the "macron." ¯ (hex: ¯)
- rising á: is an acute accent, as used in Spanish (e.g. José). ´ (hex: ´)
- falling/rising (generally low/muted) ǎ: is a small v-shape called the "caron." ˇ (hex: ˇ)
- falling à: the grave accent as frequently used in French. ` (hex: `)
- The "neutral tone" lacks a tone-graph representation in writing (e.g. "bà ba" or "tā men") and often means the syllable should be short/light. The neutral tone is called 轻声/輕聲 (qīngshēng) in Chinese, which literally means “light tone” rather than “neutral tone.” The neutral tone usually occurs in the second syllable of a two-syllable word, between two stressed syllables, or in phrases (see multisyllabic tone notes). It never appears at the beginning of a word. The neutral tone is generally lower than the preceding tone. But if the preceding tone is a third tone, the neutral tone is higher. In writing where numbers (1-4) are used to denote the tone, a zero (0) or five (5) can denote a neutral tone.
- Pinyin Background & Imperfections — I need to "buck up" and get over the imperfections of pinyin (literally "spelled sounds," aka the "Hànyǔ Pīnyīn romanization system"), because it is so ingrained in Chinese now that it's the means by which a common Chinese language is entered into computers and mobile devices by a billion or two people. Just the same, to get it off my chest and leave my whiny breadcrumbs along my learning path, here are some personal comments on pinyin.
- Challenges — I find pinyin characters' accent markings very helpful with the tonal aspects of Chinese, but some aspects are misleading to the beginning English speaker. For example, "son" in pinyin is "érzi" looks like "ERRzee," but is actually pronounced more like "ERRzuh." So I need to REMEMBER these peculiarities that don't seem logical...like doing two translations simultaneously.
- This is my analogy of pinyin for a new, English-speaking student: You're given a matrix of numbers that will help you translate to a new language. Some of the numbers should be interpreted as shown. Other numbers—you need to memorize which ones—actually have different values than the ones you're used to. 7 now means 12. I'm not alone in my frustration, as you can see here and here.
- Pinyin Precursors — Non-native students studying Chinese had previously used the "Yale romanization of Mandarin" system and "Wade-Giles." A friend who studied some Chinese with both the Wade-Giles and the Yale system suggested that the Yale system is best for helping English-speaking people quickly pronounce Chinese sounds, and I completely agree with him. I'm inclined to keep references to the Yale system handy to help me remember how to say some of the "different" pinyin interpretations of English character pronunciations. As it turns out, Wade-Giles doesn't quite give the phonetic guidance I'd expect, either. Its phonetic for the Chinese translation of the English word "son" mentioned above is "o rzi" which I don't thinks looks the way this word sounds in Chinese.
- Origins of the "Challenges" — As I suspected from some of the pinyin that doesn't SOUND the way it's spelled, pinyin was NOT originally developed to help English-speaking people learn Chinese. It was developed in China for the Chinese, to help them pronounce in a more unified way because of there being so many dialects. As a tool to help an English speaking student learn Chinese, I find it a little frustrating. Pinyin was first published by the Chinese government in 1958, the year I was born. Early pinyin (1956) used a mixture of Cyrillic (Russian) and IPA letters. (My friend pointed out that Chinese-American relations were not so great back then, so the Chinese turned to their Russian neighbors during the development of pinyin. In America, during the height of the Cold War, preferring the "Communist" pinyin system over Yale romanization was considered by some to be a political statement.)
- Moving Forward, Part 1 — Some ask..."Why did English-speaking people abandon the Wade-Giles system that was in place for over a century?" In 1958, the PRC government dropped the ROC’s 1928 GR Tonal Spelling (Gwoyeu Romatzyh) in favor of a newer tone-optional romanization called Hanyu Pinyin. The truth is that Wade-Giles, a "foreign diplomatic system" created in 1867, was never officially adopted by either government, so it never had to be “dropped."
- Moving Forward. Part 2 — Here's a good summary from ChinesePod.com that helps me to stop whining and get back to learning: "It is important to remember that although pinyin uses the same letters as European languages, the sounds those letters represent are the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Thus some letters may not make the sounds you expect. It is important that you pay close attention to how each letter of pinyin is pronounced, as you cannot read pinyin as if it were English." Further encouragement can be found here.
- Moving Forward, Part 3 — Despite the challenges mentioned above, pinyin is the most popular instructional tool for students who are not trying to learn the [traditional or simplified] Chinese Han characters. Its deviation from the western-centric NAPA or International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) phonetics can be overcome with some practice and memorization, and it's a LOT easier than trying to learn the Han characters.
- Dialects — China has 56 ethnic groups, and more than 90% are the Han people who speak Chinese. But they don't speak the "same" Chinese. The characters might be the same, but the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar vary widely across the country. Wikipedia states that "the varieties of Chinese are usually considered by native speakers to be regional variants of ethnic Chinese speech, without consideration of whether they are mutually intelligible." The dialects are so different that even the word "hello" is barely recognizable, as described by Zheng Tao of Litao demonstrates here. See "How Mandarin became the official language" of China on ThoughtCo.com.
- The spoken [Mandarin] Chinese language is Hànyǔ (汉语, literally "han language"). Mandarin is by far the largest of the ~10 Chinese dialect groups.
- HSK — The lessons I'm taking are from the HSK, a standardized language proficiency test for non-native speakers. HSK (Level 1) examines candidates' daily Chinese application ability, which corresponds to Level 1 of Chinese Language Proficiency Scales For Speakers of Other Languages and Level A1 of the Common European Framework (CEF).
- Crossover — The Chinese don't seem to use as many English-origin "loanwords" as some Western languages do, especially for technology. For example, the Chinese word for computer uses the traditional Chinese characters for "electric" and "brain" rather than establishing or borrowing a new term. On the flipside, it's also interesting to learn about English words of Chinese origin (Wikipedia, including Mandarin & Cantonese).
- Currency Confusion — The renminbi (abbreviated RMB; simplified Chinese: 人民币; traditional Chinese: 人民幣; pinyin: rénmínbì; literally: 'people's currency'; symbol: 元/¥; code: CNY) is the official currency of the People's Republic of China, and one of the world's major reserve currencies. The yuan (Chinese: 元; pinyin: yuán) is the basic unit of the renminbi, but is also used to refer to the Chinese currency generally, especially in international contexts where "Chinese yuan" is widely used to refer to the renminbi. The distinction between renminbi and yuan is that renminbi is the name of the currency and yuan refers to its primary unit. One yuan is subdivided into 10 jiao (Chinese: 角; pinyin: jiǎo), and a jiao in turn is subdivided into 10 fen (Chinese: 分; pinyin: fēn). The renminbi is issued by the People's Bank of China, the monetary authority of China. BTW, "money" translates to 钱 (qián).
- “Nín” 您 (you) is too formal when speaking to your grandchild. Use ní. 你
- There are several ways of expressing "can" [/cannot; NOT related to tin cans or canning], including: ⓐ 会 / huì / can; to be possible; to be able to; will; to be likely to; to be sure to, ⓑ 䏻 / néng / (same as 能) can; to be able to, capability; talent, energy, ⓒ 能够 / nénggòu / can; to be capable of; to be able to, and
ⓓ 可能 / kěnéng / might (happen); can (happen); possible; probable; possibility; probability; maybe; perhaps.
- 官话 = Guānhuà (literally "speech of officials) = a group of Chinese languages including the Beijing dialect
- 中文 = Zhōngwén = Chinese writing/words?
This page is located at: https://goese.com/language/chinese.html
This is for my own personal organization of my learning Chinese, but if you have helpful suggestions and don't have my contact info, message me on Twitter.