I've been trying to learn Mandarin Chinese for about a year now. I've traveled to China and Taiwan a few times and I find that an understanding of the language helps me to get around better, although most of the Chinese people I have met have had an extraordinary grasp of the English language themselves.

This is a work in progress as I learn Mandarin Chinese. Expect this page to grow and grow often.....


About Mandarin Chinese
Chinese Characters
Difference Between Chinese Characters and Japanese Kanji
Pinyin and Phonetics
Two and Two (Two uses of the number “two”)
Loan Words

Of course, since I admittedly am in the process of learning Mandarin Chinese, I do not expect all of my information to be correct. So please, if you know that something I have put on this page is somehow incorrect, please feel free to email me and let me know. If I can't learn from my mistakes, I surely will not learn as much as I can.

Here are some of the tools I've used to learn Chinese:

Live MochaLiveMocha.com is a free service that provides lessons and allows you to have others grade your progress, while in exchange you help others learn English. For a small fee, you can obtain crash courses (usually $9.95) as well as download videos, PDF's and audio (typically $14.95 for 6 months of unlimited downloadas) that contain lesson material that goes with what you've been learning.

Pimsleur – Pimsleur offers a series of audio tracks that give you common English statements, like “Where would you like to go to eat?” and translates them into Mandarin Chinese. You're supposed to listen to a lesson per day, but I will listen to a lesson over and over again for a whole week before progressing to the next lesson. If I miss a day, I go back one lesson. If I miss a week, I go back three lessons. Thanks to Pimsleur, I've learned a good deal of conversational Mandarin and have a better understanding of word order in the Mandarin language. Pimsleur is available at Amazon.com for just over $250. If you think this is expensive, you can try it out by going to your local library and checking it out there.

Rosetta Stone – Rosetta Stone is the most famous of all the language learning programs, as well as the most controversial. I'd be lying if I told you that I did not benefit from Rosetta Stone, but it's often frustrating. You see, Rosetta Stone doesn't do any translation. Rosetta Stone will show you a picture and a caption in Mandarin Chinese. You then have to memorize this and then recite what you have memorized in the form of selecting the correct Chinese characters that go with the picture you're being shown, or in some cases speak into a microphone your best effort at Chinese. I will say that Rosetta Stone does help with associating different characters with their meanings and forces you to really think about what words are appropriate for certain occasions. Thanks to Rosetta Stone, I've learned colors, numbers, he, she, we, them, man, woman, boy, girl... the basics. And I'm still learning. I'm only half way through Lesson 1. Rosetta Stone is NOT CHEAP. Just one level can set you back almost $200. Getting all three levels for under $500 is a huge savings, so if you're serious and have the money, you want to consider the “three pack”. If you're not sure, start with Live Mocha and Pimsleur before pulling the trigger on just getting level 1, because after you finish level 1, it's not like you can go back and get a level 2 & level 3 bundle at a reduced price.

SPEAK E-Z CHINESE In Phonetic English - This book is invaluable... and at such a CHEAP PRICE! Speak E-Z Chinese is more or less a Chinese dictionary, but it gives you it's definitions in Pinyin as well as phonetics. You can also download audio clips from the publisher's website, but these audio clips are not very good quality and do not have the same effect as Pimsleur's audio tracks.

About Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is called "pǔ tōng huà" (普通话), which is pronounced "poo tohng hwah" and means "the common language" (the literal translation is "popular communication language"), in mainland China.  But my friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong call Mandarin Chinese "guó  yǔ" (国语), which is pronounced "gwuh yoo" (which literally translates into "state language").

There are actually 10 primarily native spoken Chinese languages (Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese, Min, Jin, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Huizhou and Pinghua), Mandarin is native to approximately 70% of the population and is the language used by the government, in media and used and taught in schools.  It is the only Chinese dialect that has a corresponding written form of the language.  Even within the population that natively speaks Mandarin, there are 8 different dialects (Northeast, Beijing, Ji Lu, Jiao Liao, Zhongyuan, Lan Yin, Jianghuai and Southwest).

Government officials considered creating a new national language after the Nationalists overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1912 by adopting a mixture of dialects; but in the end it was decided to retain Mandarin as the national language.  When the Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949, they changed the name from "guó  yǔ" to "pǔ tōng huà".

Chinese Characters

Chinese language was originally represented by "Traditional Chinese characters" since the 5th century A.D. and is still used by Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong today.  Over the years, there have been many efforts to simplify Chinese characters.  By the 50's and 60's, the People's Republic of China officially began to put together "Simplified Chinese characters" as the standard script of China.

Chinese characters evolved from pictographs created in 1400-1200 B.C. called "oracle bone script".  Each character is a sound and each sound has a meaning.  For example, , which is " mǎ", is pronounced "mah" and means "horse".  Characters can also be combined to create new words like 骑马, which combines "qí", which is pronounced "chee" and means "to sit astride", and " mǎ" to make the word "horseback".

Difference Between Chinese Characters and Japanese Kanji

I was inspired to write this section after a Chinese friend of mine, one that's been raised in the US almost immediately after birth and although speaks Mandarin, does not read or write Chinese, found a Japanese website that was "工事中". He said, "there's just a bunch of Chinese here", to which I responded, "No... it's a bunch of Japanese." He responded with "it's the same thing."

Although it is true that Japanese Kanji was originally derived from Chinese, the two have grown apart to become unique from one another, very much in the same way American English is different from English English. I do not call a trunk a boot and a truck a lorry and I would live in an apartment and not a flat.  My car uses gasoline and not petrol. I don't spell color, labor, honor and flavor with a "u" in it (colour, labour, honour and flavour).

Like America English having evolved from English English, Kanji writing evolved from Chinese into a part of the Japanese Writing System by using the borrowed ideograms to indicate pronunciation.  The characters may look very similar, the original meanings or each character are disregarded. The Japanese language itself had no written form at the time kanji was introduced. Originally texts were written in the Chinese language and would have been read as such. Over time, however, a system known as kanbun emerged, which involved using Chinese text with diacritical marks to allow Japanese speakers to restructure and read Chinese sentences, by changing word order and adding particles and verb endings, in accordance with the rules of Japanese grammar.

It is also incorrect to say "Japanese is the same as Chinese" because Kanji is only a part of what the Japanese use to write.  Characters used in Japanese that are not Kanji are called Kana.  Kana consists of Hiragana, Katakana, Hentaigana and Man'yōgana. Kana is unique to the Japanese language.

Pinyin and Phonetics

In 1958, a romanization system was developed to write Mandarin.  This system is called Pinyin, which means "phonetics".  Despite using characters most familiar to Westerners and being called "phonetic", Pinyin does use some different sounds for certain characters.  When the first letter of a Pinyin word starts with b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, s, t, w and z, the letter pretty much sound the same as they do in English. y sometimes sounds like "y", but sometimes it's just an "e" sound like "one" is "" or "yī" and is pronounced "ee".  If the word starts with "c" it's a "ts" sound, like the end of "gets".  "Tsunami" is another example of this, but I hesitate to use it since Westerners tend not to put any emphasis on the "t" at the beginning.  "q" is pronounced "ch", as in "charge".  "r" is pronounced "zhr", as in "closure".  "x" is pronounced "sh", as in "share".  And "zh" is a "j" sound, like "jar".  The second part of the Pinyin word may have quite a different sound.  For example, "" being pronounced like "eo".

A good introduction into Pinyin and the phonetic equivalents for you may be in learning the Chinese numbers....


In the following list, I provide the simplified Chinese character for each number, the Pinyin and then the phonetic pronunciation:

Zero (0) = , líng, ling

One (1) = , yī, ee

Two (2) = , èr, ar

Three (3) = , sān, sahn

Four (4) = , sì, sih

Five (5) = , wǔ, woo

Six (6) = , liù, leo

Seven (7) = , qī, chee

Eight (8) = , bā, bah

Nine (9) = , jiǔ, jeo

Ten (10) = , shí, shir

Eleven (11) = 十一, shí yī, shir ee

Twelve (12) = 十二, shí ' èr, shir ar

Twenty (20) = 二十, èr shí , ar shir

Twenty One (21) = 二十一, èr shí yī, ar shir ee

One Hunrded (100) = , bǎi, bye

Two Hundred (200) = 二百, èr bǎi, ar bye

Two Hundred and One (201) = 二百零一, èr bǎi líng yī, ar bye ling ee

Three Hundred and Twenty One (321) = 三百二十一,  sān bǎi èr shí yī, san bye ar shir ee

As you can see, once you have the basics memorized, you can do some serious counting in Chinese. You have 0 through 10, then after that your numbers, and the pronunciation of those numbers, are simply combinations of 0 through 10.  Unlike English where we have "twenty" and "thirty" and therefore "twenty one" and "thirty two", Chinese simply uses "two tens", "three tens", "two tens (and) one", and "three tens (and) two". It's not very efficient (for example, using five characters to communicate a three digit number), but it makes it easy to learn. Fortunately, if you were to write numbers down for a Chinese person to read, you can use regular arabic numbers like 20, 30, 21 and 32 and you should be fine. In fact, most English to Chinese translation programs don't bother translating arabic numbers to Chinese and will often translate numbers spelled out into English into arabic numerals when translated into Chinese.

Two and Two

Two is said two different ways in Chinese, depending on how the number is being used.  There is "", which is used in counting and when making other numbers with a "2" in it (12, "十二", 20, "二十", 200, "二百", etc.), and there is "" which is used to indicate a quantity of two.

If you are staying in room number two, you're staying in "房间二", "fáng jiān èr".   If you need two rooms, you need "两间", "liǎng jiàn".

Loan Words

Foreign words continue to enter the Chinese language by transcription according to their pronunciations. This is done by employing Chinese characters with similar pronunciations; characters in this case are usually taken strictly for their phonetic values and have nothing to do with what is being described. These are called "loan words". Literally translating these words has become a bit of a hobby of mine. I like learning the loan words early on because they sound most like their english counter parts.

Some of my favorite English loan words in Chinese:

Sandwich, "三明治", or "sān míng zhì", which is pronounced "sahn ming jir"and could literally translate into "three bright governing".  Of course, this isn't really so different than what happens when the English word is broken up into separate words.  There's certainly no "sand" in a "sandwich".

Jelly, "者喱", or "zhě lí", which is pronounced "jeh lee", sounds just like the English word jelly, but could literally translate into "person who does grain weight".

Guitar, "吉他", or "jí tā", which is pronounced "jee tah", sort of sounds like "guitar". The actual characters on their own mean "auspicious he".

Chocolate, "巧克力" or "qiǎo kè lì" sounds more like "brocolli" with a "ch" sound in front of it, actually means "coincidence cree".

Hamburger, "汉堡包" or "hàn bǎo bāo". This one is fun because "bāozi", which we in the West just call "bao" means "small bun". "Hàn" literally just means "Chinese", as in the Han ethnic group, but there's nothing Chinese about a hamburger. But "hàn" is probably the closest word to "ham". So you can think of it as "ham between two buns" (sure, hamburgers are beef, but that's a whole other webpage.)

Coffee, "咖啡" or "kā fēi", sounds just like "café".

Cappuccino, "", or "Kǎ bù jī nuò" sounds very much like cappuccino, or rather, cabuccinuo". The literal translation could be "card to announce a wonderful promise."

Sofa is another good one.  "沙发", or "shā fā", pronounced as "shah fah" literally could mean "to feel hoarse" if you were to break those syllables up into separate words.

Some words are created that actually have a meaning that does relate to what's being described.  I typically see this happen when English proper nouns are made using Chinese.  For example, "奔腾" is used for "Pentium", is pronounced "bēnténg" and means "to surge forward" and "赛百味", or Sài bǎi wèi, is used for Subway restaurants and means "better-than hundred tastes".