A Short Intro
New to Chinese? Let Nincha show you what you need to know to get started in Chinese.
Three things to know about a word in Chinese
Chinese is quite different from English. For starters, there is no Chinese alphabet. Instead, Chinese characters are used and form words. So, to memorize a word in Chinese, you need to learn three things about it:
What it looks like:
How it’s pronounced:
What it means:
#1 Observe the characters
Those little squiggles you see here are Chinese characters. Together, these two characters mean Hello.
Chinese characters are one of the most intriguing parts of learning Chinese. They can seem strange at first but rest assured, they are not that mysterious. In Ancient times, Chinese writing started out as simple drawings of what they represented. Then, as people wanted to describe things that weren’t as easy to draw, Chinese characters evolved into more abstract shapes over time, until they looked like what they do now. Learning about a character’s evolution tells you a lot about why it looks like that and why it means that.
Chinese characters may all kind of look the same to you at first; but don’t worry, they’ll soon start making sense. Just focus on how they look.
#2a Pronounce it in pinyin
Looking at these characters and wondering how to pronounce them? Pinyin will help you. Pinyin allows you to know how to pronounce a character using letters you know. Each character corresponds to one syllable of pinyin.
Pinyin tells you in our alphabet that this word is pronounced: Nǐ hǎo
As you just saw, you can’t easily guess a character’s pronunciation just by looking at it. So, to know how to pronounce a Chinese character, you learn its pinyin.
Pinyin is also the main method used to type Chinese on a computer, which’ll you be soon discovering how to do.
#2b When pronouncing, use tones
Now that you’ve seen this pinyin: Nǐ hǎo. Are you wondering what those tiny accents above the pinyin are?
Those are Chinese tone marks. Tones are very important in Chinese because they also give meaning to a word. A same pinyin syllable with different tones will be used by different characters – and different meanings. There are four tones in Chinese (and a neutral one) and to each tone corresponds a clearly defined pitch of voice. Here are the four tones and guides on how to pronounce each tone:
#1. the first tone is flat – it is high and level.
It is represented by a straight horizontal line above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number 1 written after the syllable). — just like walking on a flat smooth road. It sounds high and flat, like the second syllable in ta-daa!
#2. with the second tone, you raise your voice likes it’s going uphill. It is a rising tone.
The second tone is represented by a rising diagonal line above a letter in pinyin (or by a number 2 written after the syllable). Use the pitch you’d use when asking what?
#3. On its own, the third tone falls and rises.
A third tone starts low, dip and then goes back up, sort of like riding on a roller coaster. When placed with other tones, its pitch changes and it is essentially a low tone. It behaves differently depending on the tone it’s next to. We’ll tell you more about it later.
A third tone is represented by a curved dipping line above a letter in pinyin (or a number 3 after the syllable). Use a pitch like when you‘re saying really?!, like you can’t believe what the person is saying.
#4. The fourth tone starts high and quickly drops low to the bottom of the tonal range. It’s called a falling tone.
A fourth tone is represented by a falling diagonal line above the letter in pinyin (or as a number 4 after the syllable). It can sound harsh, like an angry command. Imagine a stern no!
#5. There is also a special, fifth, tone. It’s a neutral tone.
The neutral tone is pronounced quickly and lightly, without regard to pitch. It’s short and lightly spoken. It is often used for grammar words and the second character in two-character words.
Unlike the other tones, it is not represented by a tone mark. You know it’s there when you don’t see a tone over a syllable. Sometimes, you’ll see the neutral tone indicated by a dot. They are also represented by a 5 or 0 after the syllable.
When tones are combined, some rules apply. We’ll tell you more about tone change rules, also called tone sandhi, later.
You now know how to recognize a character and learn its pinyin and tone. Once you do that, you’ll be able to read and pronounce that character in Chinese.