The beginning of learning such a difficult language like Chinese requires a lot of effort and self-confidence. Sometimes, I look back and remember with a smile the very start of my path as a Sinologist. I clearly remember those rainbow thoughts that it will take a year or two and I will become an absolute expert. But friends, I was wrong. Already 3 years have passed, and I understand that there are still lots of things to learn. The main point is that you should not create a storm in a teacup and instead just gradually improve. I remember well my frightened eyes when I didn't know where to start. It’s an unforgettable moment when I opened my browser and simply wrote: How to start learning Chinese?
I am sure that many readers are familiar with this situation, so I want to take on this heavy burden and explain everything to you in simple language.
In this article, I will pay attention to several things that are the most important while you just starting to learn Chinese. Firstly, I’d like to give you an explanation of how to spell tones and what they exactly are. Secondly, while you just began learning it is extremely important to highlight the Pinyin-essential thing to understand. Finally, I’d like to talk about the “old but gold” thing called radicals, why do you need to know them and how will they help you on your way.
In the Chinese language, Pinyin is specially created for writing the pronunciation of every character with its tone. It uses the Latin alphabet to show how a character should be pronounced. So if you wonder how to read Pinyin, here is the detailed answer.
Each character corresponds to one syllable of Pinyin. Syllable accordingly, consists of 3 different parts. They are called initial, final, and tone. All initials and finals are represented by Latin letters. For example, let’s take a look at a simple word 好 (hăo）that means “good”. “H” is a consonant that starts a word. It is called an initial. Accordingly “ăo” is a vowel one and it is called “final”.
In basic comparison with characters, Pinyin is extremely easy to use because you can see all letters, and the tone that character requires. However, there is another side of the coin: you should get used to Pinyin because it complicates your further learning very much.
The Chinese do not use Pinyin anywhere, they simply do not need it. It is specially created as a separate alphabet that regulates how exactly all characters must sound. He also is very helpful for foreigners who start learning Chinese, such as us for example.
So the main message is that you can use it while you’re learning without any problems, but you absolutely should NOT get used to it. Thus, you simply slow down and complicate your own learning.
As I once said, 4 tones in Mandarin are real backstabbers. Despite the fact that there are no letters in the Chinese language, but only characters, it is important to understand that each character sounds in its own specific way. Moreover, due to the limited number of sound combinations, characters often look different but sound the same. That’s why the question arises: how to distinguish them? Here is the moment when tones come into play.
There are four tones and an extra neutral one used in Chinese. You cannot even imagine how important they are. Only because of correct pronunciation you can deliver information clearly and understandably. When you confuse the tone pronunciation, you can say a totally different thing... There is even a special category of memes in the Chinese community about the pronunciation of foreigners. So, let’s take a closer look at examples and learn how to spell tones.
There is a “classic” example with the word “ma”. Depending on the tone, the meaning changes a lot. If you say “mā” with 1 tone it will mean mother. So if you’d say 他是我妈妈（Tā shì wǒ māmā）it will simply mean “she is my mother”. But, if you will make a mistake and say it with the second tone like “má” it will definitely mean “hemp”. I don’t know much about the Chinese attitude to hemp, but you will immediately find yourself in a very dumb situation with the total misunderstanding. The third tone in “mǎ” means “horse”. It will probably be funny enough if you just mix up the tone and present your mother as a horse... The fourth and the last one “mà” means “to scold”.
Therefore, be especially careful when pronouncing words. This will help to avoid ridiculous situations. But also do not forget that being wrong is not bad because you learn from your own mistakes.
Chinese radicals are the final part of the article which I like the most. Basically, there are 214 radicals numbered in а stroke count order. These symbols were created a long time ago. Over time, the Chinese language was replenished with words and it turned out that most modern hieroglyphs are a mix of several radicals. Moreover, this is not a meaningless collection of different lines. They often complement each other and create a special meaning. If you’ll figure out how to recognize and read them correctly, you will discover the vast world of Chinese calligraphy culture where each hieroglyph is completely unique and contains the history laid down by people hundreds of years ago...
My favorite one is about ”累“(lěi) which means “tired”. According to Chinese radicals, this character consists of 2 of them: 糸 (silk) and 田 (field). The most interesting part of that chemistry are attempts to figure out why exactly he is translated in that way. In fact, it means the person who is tired because of growing silk in the fields…Simply awesome! I do really feel extremely impressed when I can solve the hidden meaning of a character. I can’t be sure that you are interested in this peculiar transcript as I do, but believe me, when learning Chinese will cause you delight and wild interest, you will just enjoy such things.
Ultimately, I think every person should know the basics of what they are learning. Exactly as in mathematics, there are multiply and divide actions, so in the Chinese, there are Pinyin, tones, and radicals. In fact, you can make the same mistake as I did before: read despite the tones, didn’t pay attention to radicals, and just memorized hieroglyphs without them. But believe me, the lack of understanding of such basic things slows down the pace of your learning incredibly. For example, now, I understand that what I learned for a year, I could’ve learned in 2-3 months. Therefore, friends, a clear plan, and basic concepts are important everywhere and always. Do not disdain this.