Chinese Language Blog

Step 1: Land in China, Step 2: Learn Pin Yin, Step 3: Profit Posted by on Jul 9, 2010 in Culture

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 汉语 (hàn yǔ – Chinese)  –  拼音 (pīn yīn –  spelling sound).  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.

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

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 (re-read my first post to see my actual Chinese level at this point in time).  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

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 手机 (shǒu jī – cell phone) or 电脑 (diàn nǎo – computer), 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 学习 (xué xí – study) and type out my notes as I go.  This really comes in handy when traveling in and around 北京 (Běi jīng – 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 发短信 (fā duǎn xìn – send a text message) 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. Jessica:

    Yeah. I’ve made the teacher/mouse mistake a number of times, but usually referring to myself. It’s a confusion best cleared up quickly. 😉

  2. Duane:

    Pinyin without tone marks is almost useless for a non-native speaker of Chinese. It drives me crazy that road signs in China have pinyin but no tone marks. Unless you have the tone marks as a guide, a Chinese person will not understand you when you try to pronounce it. It is hard enough being understood by Chinese when I speak Chinese (my Chinese is not bad). But if I don’t know the tones, it is almost impossible unless the word or location is so famous that a Chinese person knows what I am saying even if I butcher the pronounciation.

    Also, it is bad practice to learn the pronounciation incorrectly for a new character when you do not know the correct tone. If you learn it wrong at the start, then you need to un-learn your mistake and then you will often mix up the pronounciation later. It would be great if pinyin is given with tone marks when given next to the actual character on any sign. It would people to learn more characters everyday by simply reading signs.

  3. Study Chinese in China:

    Yes I completely agree with the post. China is now economically as well as for doing business is more powerful than before. It is one of the most developing country in the world today.

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