Chinese Language Blog

Learning Chinese with Pinyin Posted by on Jun 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

For anyone raised on the ABCs and 1-2-3s, learning Chinese can seem to be a daunting task.  During my first few weeks in Beijing, I would often stare in disbelief at newspapers, menus, and street signs while thinking to myself, “How am I ever going to understand this language?”  Luckily for me, and other equally befuddled foreigners, there is an excellent system in place to assist us in our attempts at learning to speak Chinese (汉语  – hàn yǔ)  –  pinyin (拼音 – pīn yīn).  This is the Romanization of Chinese phonetics, and your gateway to understanding how to speak Chinese.  For beginning learners hoping to functionally speak the language, learning to master the 拼音 system should be the first step.

Get this chart down and you're set.

In my case, I moved to China on a whim, having zero experience with the language.  I also came to work (工作  – gōng zuò) as an English teacher (英语老师 – yīng yǔ lǎo shī), so I didn’t have the free time to enroll in a university (大学 – dà xué) Chinese program.  While I had aspirations to learn how to read (读 – dú) and write (写 – xiě) Chinese, I quickly realized that doing so requires a great deal of work, and is quite difficult to do on your own.  I was more concerned with being able to order food (点菜 – diǎn cài), bargain (讲价 – jiǎng jià), and chat (聊天 – liáo tiān) with taxi drivers. Learning to read and pronounce words and sentences in 拼音 helped facilitate this.

Learn how to read and understand pinyin and you can avoid calling your teacher a mouse.

Speaking of speaking Chinese, two of the most useful phrases for a person visiting China are “我不会说汉语”(wǒ bù huì shuō hàn yǔ – I can’t speak Chinese) and “你会说英语吗?”(nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma? – Can you speak English?) In my early experiences, being equipped with these two phrases saved me in many situations.  For one, I found that by simply practicing my 你好, people would take that as evidence of my stellar Chinese abilities.  This would encourage them to speak at their normal speed, which left me looking wide-eyed and confused.  Also, I noticed that if the person I was talking to didn’t speak English, there was a good chance they knew someone who did.  If you have a bit of confidence and want to practice the Chinese you do know, you can also say “我只会说一点汉语”(wǒ zhǐ huì shuō yī diǎn hàn yǔ – I can only speak a little Chinese).  Most people will be considerate and will slow down quite a bit and will repeatedly ask “明白吗?”(míng bai ma – Is it clear?/Do you get it?”)  In my experience, Chinese people are quite accommodating and understanding when it comes to a 老外s lackluster Chinese abilities.
Here is a funny little cartoon video that can help you with your pinyin.

Not only will mastery of the 拼音 system set you on your way to being able to converse in Chinese, but it will also help you begin to recognize characters.  In order to type in Chinese on a cell phone (手机 – shǒu jī) or computer (电脑 – diàn nǎo), you need to first type in the 拼音 and then choose the correct character.  I’ve found that it really helps my reading abilities when I sit down to study (学习 – xué xí) and type out my notes as I go.  This really comes in handy when traveling in and around 北京 (Beijing), as the bus/subway maps all have both the 汉字 and the 拼音.  Also, you can have fun with friends and practice your skills when you send a text message (发短信 – fā duǎn xìn) to each other in Chinese.  Who says studying a complicated foreign language can’t be fun?

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.


  1. Jack:

    I love chinese

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