The Hànzì ( Han characters ) or Chinese characters as we're gonna call them are the only writing system used in China, there is more than ten thousands of them, but studies show that about 3000 to 4000 are enough to know to have functional literacy in Chinese, which means you can fluently read most of the characters you will encounter in every day life. Each of this symbol has its own meaning and its pronunciation depends on the dialect but as we are focusing on standard Chinese, we can consider that each symbol has a unique pronunciation, and each has a phonetic value of one syllable.
To make things more complicated, there is two writing system : the traditional Chinese, used in Taiwan and most of overseas Chinese communities, and the simplified Chinese, that was brought by the People's Republic of China and its cultural revolution. So many characters can be written in two ways, traditional or simplified.
If traditional and simplified Chinese are different, we'll usually write them as such 漢字, 汉字 [hànzì] : traditional, simplified [pinyin].
People who have been studying Japanese Kanjis will find many similarities with the Chinese characters, that's because Kanji's were borrowed from China centuries ago, and have only changed a little in form since that time. So being able to read Japanese Kanjis will help you greatly in reading Chinese characters. Thus for example 猫 māo in Mandarin chinese, or neko in Japanese, is written the same in both languages, but spoken with very different pronunciation.
Pinyin is the official romanization for the chinese writing system. I won't teach you about Hanzi here, the chinese characters, in most of the case the chinese characters for a word will be written, but the main purpose of this website is to learn how to speak the language and communicate, so we'll mainly focus on pinyin rather than the chinese characters.
|a||[a]||pronounced as "a" in "father"||tā ( he, she, it )|
|e||[ɤ]||a bit like "e" in "jerk"||zhè ( this )|
|i||[ɻ̩~ʐ̩]||after z-, c-, s-, zh-, ch-, sh- or r-. is pronounced as a buzzed continuation of the consonant||shì ( to be )|
|i||[i]||as "ee" in "bee"||nǐ ( you )|
|o||[[ɔ](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-mid_back_rounded_vowel "Open-mid back rounded vowel")]||as "o" in "office", but lips more rounded||wǒ ( I )|
|u||[u]||like English "oo", after j, q, x, or y, pronounced like ü.||zhù ( to live somewhere )|
|ü||[[y]](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/Mandarin "Help:IPA/Mandarin")||pronounced as a French "u", or German "ü"||qù ( to go )|
|ai||[ai̯]||like English "eye"||zài ( to be somewhere, at )|
|ei||[ei̯]||as in "hey"||shěi ( who )|
|ao||[au̯]||pronounced as "ow" in "cow", the "a" is much more audible than "o".||yào ( to want )|
|ou||[ou̯]||as in North American English "so"||yǒu ( to have )|
|an||[an]||like British English "ban"||fàn ( rice )|
|en||[ən]||as "en" in "taken"||wǒmen ( we )|
|ang||[aŋ]||as in German "Angst"||shàng ( on )|
|eng||[əŋ]||a bit nasalized, sounds a bit like "sung".||něng ( can, be able )|
|ong||[ʊŋ]||as "ong" in "song"||Zhōng ( middle )|
|er||[aɚ̯]||similar to the sound "bar" in American English.||zhèr ( here )|
|b||[p]||in between "p" and "b"||bàba ( father, dad )|
|p||[pʰ]||strongly aspirated "p", as in "pay"||péng-yǒu ( friend )|
|m||[m]||like "m" in English||měi ( beautiful )|
|f||[f]||like "f" in English||fàn ( rice )|
|d||[t]||in between "d" and "t"||dà ( big )|
|t||[tʰ]||strongly aspirated "t" as in "take"||tiān ( day )|
|n||[n]||like "n" in English||nǎ ( which )|
|l||[l]||like "l" in English||lǎi ( come )|
|g||[(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alveolar_lateral_approximant "Alveolar lateral approximant")k]||in between "g" and "k"||guó ( country )|
|k||[kʰ]||strongly aspirated "k", as in "kill"||kàn ( see, look )|
|h||[x]||between the English "h" in "hero" and the "ch" in the Scottish "Loch"||hǎo ( good )|
|j||[tɕ]||like the sound "x", but with "d" in front. Sound almost like "j" in "jerk".||jiā ( home )|
|q||[tɕʰ]||like the sound "x" but with "t" in front. Sound almost like "ch" in "church".||qù ( to go )|
|x||[ɕ]||no equivalent in English. Like -sh y-, with the lips spread as when one says ee and with the tip of the tongue curled downwards and stuck to the back of the teeth. The sequence "xi" is similar to the Japanese pronunciation of し(シ) shi.||xiǎo ( little )|
|zh||[ʈʂ]||rather like a "j", as in "junk"||zhè ( this )|
|ch||[ʈʂʰ]||rather like a "ch", as in "church"||chī ( eat )|
|sh||[ʂ]||as "sh" in "shoe"||shénma ( what )|
|r||[ɻ~ʐ]||as an initial consonant, in the beginning of a syllable, pronounced like the French "j", or as in the "g" in the French word for "red", "rouge". as a final consonant, at the end of a syllable, usually pronounced as the English "r".||rén ( person ) nǎr ( where )|
|z||[ts]||pronounced in between "ts" and "dz", a bit like "ds" in "suds".||zài ( be somewhere, at )|
|c||[tsʰ]||pronounced as "ts" in "cats", but strongly aspirated.||cài ( food, dish )|
|s||[s]||like "s" in English.||yìsi ( meaning )|
|w||[w]||like "w" in English.||wǒ ( I )|
|y||[j]||like "y" in English.||yǒu ( to have )|
As you may already now, Mandarin has four tones that apply on every syllable, it is important to understand the difference between them, different tones means different words.
As an example 十 ( ten ) is pronounced shí ( rising tone ), but 是 ( to be ) is pronounced shì ( falling tone ).
Here is a record of the four tones used in Mandarin, in the following order : high-level tone, rising tone, low or dipping tone, falling tone.
And there is a fifth tone, called neutral tone, you pronounced it the way you would pronounced any syllable, without any sort of emphasis. It is the tone used when there is no accentuation in pinyin, such as is 我们 wǒmen ( we ).
|10 (十) +...||...*10 (十)||...*100百||..*1000千||*10 000 萬|
- Chinese doesn't have a word for million, instead to say "one million", you would write "one hundred-ten thousand" : 一百萬 [yī-bǎi-wàn].
- Compose any number from this table is quite straightforward, the best explanation is an example :
564 would be written  五百六十四 [wǔbǎi-liùshí-sì].
2 693 571 would be told or written  二百六十九萬三千五百七十一 [èrbǎi-liùshí-jiǔwàn-sānqiān-wǔbǎi-qīshí-yī].
- A word is often used instead of "two" 二 [èr] in colloquial Chinese : 兩 [liǎng] meaning two, or a pair, couple of.
- To create ordinal numbers such as "first", "second", etc... Simply add 第 [dì] in front of a number, thus "first" would be 第一 [dì-yī], 第二 [dì-èr] would be second, etc...
- "Half" is express with 半 [bàn] and behave like a number.
- When use before a noun, numbers must be followed by a classifier : to say "one person", you cannot say 一人 [yī rén], but you have to say 一个人 [yī ge rén]. We'll learn more about classifier later.
The concept of word in Chinese is not as strict as it can be in European languages, in written Chinese, there is no space between two characters, whether there are part of the same word or not.
Each character in Chinese count for on syllable, each with its own meaning, or with a meaning depending to the character associated with it, many words are formed by two or more characters.
Phrases in Chinese always have a pattern Subject-Verb-Object.
我吃米饭 [wǒ chī mǐfàn] ( I-eat-rice ) I eat rice.
For verbs that take both indirect object and direct object, the indirect object comes just after the verb, as in English :
我给她两本书 [wǒ gěi tā shū] (I-give-her/him-book) I give her a book.
As a general rule, adverbs or markers of time come before the verb :
我正在看书 [wǒ xìanzài kàn shū] (I-now-look-book) I read a book now.
There is no noun inflection in Chinese, 猫 [māo] can mean cat, the cat, a cat, cats. The word can be used as such and won't be inflected.
There is no distinction between he, she or it, there are all translated with 他 [tā], but 此 [zhè] this or 那 [nà] that will often be preferred to express "it".
There is 們, 们 [men] which is used as plural for personal pronouns, thus 我 [wǒ] is I, 我們 [wǒmen] becomes we.
Verbs are not inflected neither, the same 是 [shì] can express to be, am, are, is, was, were, will, all depending of the context.
Adjective are usually placed before the noun, using the relative marker 的 [de], even though it can be omitted.
黑馬, 黑马 [hēi mǎ] (black-horse) or 黑的馬, 黑的马 [hēi de mǎ] (black-de-horse) can both be used.
When an adjective is used not as an attribute, but as the predicate, or the object of the sentence, like "she is good-looking", there is no need to use the verb 是 [shì] to be, in this case the adjective behave much like a verb.
他好看 [tā hǎokàn] (she-good-look) she is good looking.
There is actually no proper translation for "yes" in Chinese, instead, in a yes/no question, to say yes you can repeat the verb use in the question :
你是中国人吗 [nǐ shì zhōngguó rén ma] ( you-be-chinese-person question ) Are you Chinese ?
Answer yes : 是 [shì] ( be ) Yes.
Depending on the context, you can also use the following words to say :
Classifier are a particularity of Chinese languages, that is also common with Japanese, it is a word that is placed between the number and the noun ; in Chinese to say "two cows" you would have to put a classifier between "two" and "cows". It is also used with 這, 这 [zhè] 'this' and 那 [nà] 'that'.
The most common classifier, originally meant "bamboo stalks". It became used as a classifier for things with vertical, individual or upright qualities, and eventually became a general classifier for common nouns.
"handful" - used for long, flat objects and things with handles, such as 刀 [dāo] knives, 剪刀 [jiǎndāo] scissors, 劍, 剑 [jiàn] swords, 鑰匙, 钥匙 [yàoshi] keys and also 椅子 [yǐzi] chairs.
"team, class, squad" - used for groups of people, 人 [rén], classes of pupils, 學生, 学生 [xuésheng], and scheduled services,e.g. trains and buses
"pen, pencil, brush" - used for large quantities of money, 錢, 钱 [qián], and funds 資金, 资金 [zījīn]
"volume" - used for books, 書,书 [shū], and other printed material
"unit, part, section" - used for novels, 小說,小说 [xiǎoshuō], films, 電影,电影 [diànyǐng], and TV dramas. Also used for machines and vehicles in Cantonese.
"copy" - used for volumes of books
"storey, layer" - used for storeys in buildings
"field, place" - used for public spectacles, games, 比賽,比赛 [bǐsài], dramas, 戲,戏 [xì], films, 電影,电影 [diànyǐng], etc.
"flower, earlobe" - used for flowers, 花 [huā], clouds 雲,云 [yún]
used for portions, copies, bundles, batches and servings of food
"home, family" - used for gatherings of people (families, 人家 [rénjiā], companies, 公司 [gōngsī], etc.), establishments (shops, 商店 [shāngdiàn], restaurants, 酒店 [jiǔdiàn], hotels, 飯店,饭店 [fàndiàn])
"room" - rooms, 房間,房间 [fángjiān], kitchens, 廚房,厨房 [chúfáng] and offices, 辦公室,办公室 [bàngōngshì], and for stores and companies in Cantonese
"matter" - used for matters, clothing, etc.
"sentence" - used for sentences, etc
used for trees, 樹,树 [shù], cabbages, plants, etc.
"mouth" - used for things with mouths: people, 人 [rén], domestic animals, 家畜 [jiāchù], wells, 井 [jǐng], etc.
"chunk, limp, piece" - used for pieces/slices of cake, 蛋糕 [dàngāo], pieces of cloth, 布 [bù], soap, 肥皂 [féizào], etc, and slang word for currency.
used for vehicles, 車,车 [chē]
"door" - used for courses, 課程,课程 [kèchéng], specialties, 專業,专业 [zhuānyè], languages, 語言,语言 [yǔyán], etc.
"surface" - used for flat and smooth objects: mirrors, 鏡子,镜子 [jìngzi], flags 旗子 [qízi], drums, 鼓 [gǔ], etc.
"row" - used for objects grouped in rows; chairs 座位 [zuòwèi], etc.
"mate, one of a pair" - used for horse, 馬,马 [mǎ]
"slice" - used for flat objects, cards, slices of bread, 麵包,面包 [miànbāo]
"head, chief" - used for poems, 詩,诗 [shī], songs, 歌 [gē], etc.
"pair" - used for pair of objects which naturally come in pairs, chopsticks, 筷子 [kuàizi], shoes, 鞋 [xié], etc.
"set" - used for sets and collections, e.g. books 書,书 [shū], clothes, 衣裳 [yīshang], etc.
used for people (honorific)
"sheet" - used for flat objects: paper 紙,纸 [zhǐ], tables 桌子 [zhuōzi], faces 臉,脸 [liǎn], paintings 圖畫,图画 [túhuà], tickets 票 [piào], bedsheets 床單,床单 [chuángdān], etc
one of a pair, e.g. hands, 手 [shǒu], legs, 脚 [腳] (jiǎo); or animals 動物,动物 [dòngwù], birds 鳥,鸟 [niǎo], cats 貓,猫 [māo], etc.
used for fairly long, stick-like objects: pens 筆,笔 [bǐ], candles 蠟燭,蜡烛 [làzhú], chopsticks 筷子 [kuàizi], rifles 槍,枪 [qiāng], etc.
type, kind, sort
"seat, base, stand" - used for buildings 大樓,大楼 [dàlóu], cities 城市 [chéngshì], bridges 橋,桥 [qiáo], mountains 山 [shān] and other immovable objects
Also called locative particles, the postpositions in Chinese are used to express location and are placed after the noun and not before like in English. The most common particles are :
桌子上 [zhuōzi shàng] ( table on ) on the table.
房子里 [fángzi lǐ] ( house-in ) in the house.
Chinese has various conjunctions such as 和 [hé] "and", 可是 [kěshì] "but", 或 [huò] "or". "And" and "or" are only used to join together nouns as in "dogs and cats", "life or death", etc... While "but" is used to link two sentences together.
我有一只狗和一只猫 [wǒ yǒu yīzhǐ gǒu hé yīzhǐ māo] _( I have one-_classifier _dog and one-_classifier cat ) I have one dog and one cat.
我有一只狗, 可是沒有猫 [wǒ yǒu yīzhǐ gǒu, kěshì méi yǒu māo] _( I have one-_classifier dog, but no have cat ) I have a dog but no cat.
As we saw, the [de] particle is usually used to express possession or attribute ( when placed between an adjective and a noun ), in a general way, you could classify it as a describer and can also be used to create relative clauses as in "the book that you gave me". Using [de] to express a description of the book, placed before "book", the former sentence would told : you gave me [de] book.
我读了你给我的书 [wǒ dúle nǐ gěi wǒ de shū] ( I read-le you give me de book ) I read the book that you gave me.
Comparison can be expressed with 比 [bǐ] than, it is placed before the verb/adjective.
他比我高 [tā bǐ wǒ gāo] ( he than me tall ) he is taller than me.
If there is no standard of comparison ( no "than ..." ), you can use 更 [gèng] more.
他更高 [tā gèng gāo] ( he more tall ) he is taller.
Superlative ( "the tallest" ) works in a different manner, you have to use the adverb 最 [zuì] the most, and attach it to an adjective as a noun attribute, an example will be clearer :
他是最高的(人) [tā shì zuìgāo de (rén)] ( he be most-tall de person ) He is the tallest ( person ).
Personal pronouns in Chinese are easy to remember, there are only 3 to remember, for I, you, he/she/it. You just have to add the particle 們, 们 [men] to make it plural.
|1st person||2nd person||3rd person|
|Singular||我 [wǒ] I||你 [nǐ] you||他 [tā] he, she, it|
|Plural||我們, 我们 [wǒmen] we||你們, 你们 [nǐmen] you||他們, 他们 [tāmen] they|
Possessive pronouns :
Possessive pronouns and any possessive is formed by adding the particle 的 [de] after the possessor. If multiple possessor, only the last one should be followed by [de] ( My friend's house -> I-friend-de-house)
我的老师现在很忙 [wǒ-de lǎo-shī xiànzài hěn máng] (I-de teacher now very busy) My teacher is very busy now.
我朋友的家在北京 [wǒ péng-yǒu de jiā zài běijīng] (I friend de home is/at beijing) My friend's home is in Beijing.
我们的老师 [wǒmen-de lǎo-shī] (I-plural de teacher) Our teacher.
With personal pronouns, 的 [de] is often omitted and this omission implies a proximity with the subject.
我妈妈 [wǒ mā-ma] (I-mother) my mother.
的 [de] can also be used to express possessive pronouns as mine, yours, etc...
这是你的 [zhè shì nǐ-de] (this-be-you-de) this is yours.
Demonstrative pronouns :
The two demonstrative pronouns in Chinese are :
這, 这 [zhè] this
那 [nà] that
There plural is formed by adding 些 [xiē] after the demonstrative.
When user before a noun, the demonstrative must be followed by a classifier, knowing that 些 [xiē] is consider as classifier.
这是我的朋友 [zhè shì wǒ-de péng-yǒu] (this-is-my-friend) this is my friend.
这个老师是我的老师 [zhè-ge lǎo-shī shì wǒ-de lǎo-shī] (_this-_classifier teacher be my teacher) this teacher is my teacher.
这些人是我的家人 [zhè-xiē rén shì wǒ-de jiā-rén] (_this-_plural person be my family/home-person) these people are my family.
In Chinese, for the wh- questions ( what, who, where, etc... ), the interrogative pronouns stands where the answer in the responding sentence should be. So the question of the answer "it is a book" should be "it is what ?", again an example will explain more clearly :
这是什么 [zhè shì shénme] (this be what) What is this ? ( Answer : zhè shì .... )
你的家在哪儿 [nǐde jiā zài nǎr] (your home be/at where ) Where is your house ? ( Answer : wǒde jiā zài ... )
The interrogative pronouns are :
還是, 还是 [háishì] or is used to form multiple choice question of the kind, "do you prefer this or that" ?
这是你的还是我的 [zhè shì nǐde háishì wǒde] (this is yours or mine) Is this yours or mine ?
háishì is a question word so you don't need to use anything else to indicate it is a question. If you want to use "or" in a normal sentence, there is another word for that.
To ask question without interrogative pronouns, to ask whether something is true or not, question of the kind "are you student ?", you can use 吗 [ma ] positioned at the end of the sentence.
你能说中文吗 [nǐ něng shuō zhōngwén ma] ( you can speak Chinese ma ) Can you speak Chinese ?
This can also be express by using the form A-not-A construction, like if you were saying can-cannot to ask whether you can or not ; again nothing is better than an example :
你能不能说中文 [nǐ něng bù něng zhon̄gwén] (you can-cannot speak Chinese) Can you speak Chinese ?
The first form using ma would be the more formal way, while using the A-not-A construction is more colloquial.
Verbs in Chinese cannot be inflected, the verb doesn't change according to person or tense. There are placed between the noun and the object, and when two verbs follow each other, they're just placed one after another.
我想吃 [wǒ xiǎng chī] (I want eat) I want to eat.
Continuous present ( be +ing ) can be express in Chinese with 在 [zài] ( at ) placed before the verb.
我在吃 [wǒ zài chī] (I at eat) I'm eating.
Negation in Chinese is simply said by using 不 [bù] no before the verb ( or the adjective ) :
我不知道 [wǒ bù zhīdào] I don't know.
If 不 [bù] is placed before a syllable with a falling tone, it is pronounced [bú].
我不要 [wǒ bú yào] I don't want.
There is no grammatical feature in Chinese to express future, however future can be expressed with an adverb of time, such as "tomorrow I go to Beijing", or with the verb 要 [yào] want/will before the verb.
我明天去北京 [wǒ míngtiān qù běijīng] (I tomorrow go Beijing) I go to Beijing tomorrow.
我明天要去北京 [wǒ míngtiān yào qù běijīng] (I tomorrow will/want go Beijing) I will go to Beijing tomorrow.
Coverbs in Chinese are a class of word that can be verbs or prepositions depending on which context they're used in. An example would be the coverb 幫, 帮 [bāng] that can be used either as a verb "to help", either as a preposition "for".
我帮你找到他 [wǒ bāng nǐ zhǎodào tā] (I help/for you find him/her) I find him/her for you.
One coverb that you will find very often is 在 [zài] that can be translated as "at" but is also used to translate "to be" when you're speaking about location.
他在那儿 [tā zài nàr] ( he at there ) he is there.
在家里我有一本英文书 [zài jiālǐ wǒ yǒu yīběn yīngwén shū] _( at home-inside I have one-_classifier english-language book) I have an English language book at home.
Other important coverbs are :
我从上海坐飞机到北京去 [wǒ cóng shànghǎi zuò fēijī dào běijīng qù] ( I from Shanghai sit airplane arrive Beijing go ) I go from Shanghai to Beijing by plane.
There is in Chinese is simply expressed with 有 [yǒu] which also mean "have".
这所学校有很多学生 [zhè-suǒ xuéxiào yǒu hěnduō xuéshēng] ( _this-_classifier school have/there-is many students ) There are many students in this school.
It could also be written like this :
在这所学校有很多学生 [zài zhè-suǒ xuéxiào yǒu hěnduō xuéshēng] ( at _this-_classifier school have/there-is many students ) There are many students in this school.
To negate 有 [yǒu], another word than 不 [bù] is used : 沒, 没 [méi] :
在这儿沒有鱼 [zài zhèr méi yǒu yú] ( at here not there-is fish ) There is no fish here.
Again to express past in Chinese, you can use an adverb of time, like "yesterday" or "last year", but you can also use the word 了 [le] placed after the verb, it works only for verbs that express an action, to indicate the action has been completed.
我到了那 [wǒ dàole nàr] (I arrive-le there) I arrived there.
The negative past is formed with 沒有, 没有 [méi yǒu] placed before the verb.
他没有来这儿 [tā méi yǒu lái zhèr] ( he "no-there is" come here ) he didn't come here.
From there you can also form question with the A-not-A construction :
他有没有来这儿 [tā yǒu méi yǒu lái zhèr] ( he "there is no-there is" come here ) did he come here ?
了 [le] is used to indicate that an action has been accomplished, another formulation of past it two say that something has been experienced, you can express this with 過, 过 [guò] meaning ever. As for 了 [le] it is placed just after the verb.
我去过中国 [wǒ qùguò zhōngguó] ( I go-ever China ) I've been to China.
The negation would be expressed with 不 [bù] :
我不去过中国 [wǒ bú qùguò zhōngguó] ( I no go-ever China ) I've never been to China.
Imperative is formed the same way as statements, but as in English, the subject is omitted :
给我钥匙 [gěi wǒ yàoshi] ( give I key ) give me the keys.
You can soften this using 請, 请 [qīng] please.
请给我钥匙 [qīng gěi wǒ yàoshi] ( please give I key ) please give me the keys.
You can express suggestion with 吧 [ba] placed at the end of the sentence, it could be translated as "let's".
我们去中国吧 [wǒmen qù zhōngguó ba] ( we go China let's ) Let's go to China.