How to Read Chinese in 4 Steps: A Guide for Beginners

How to Read Chinese in 4 Steps: A Guide for Beginners

So you want to learn how to read Chinese? Here at Mandarin Companion, learning by reading is at the core of what we do. 

This guide is to help even the most beginning Chinese reader learn how to read Chinese. We’ve included decades of experience and research into this 4 step guide to help even beginning learners like you read Chinese.  

And before we get into it, trust me, you can learn Chinese.

1. Learn How to Read Pinyin

Pinyin is the phonetic spelling of Chinese characters termed “romanization”. It was developed in the 1950s by a group of Chinese linguists and was based on earlier systems of romanization (such as Wade-Giles and Chinese postal), traces of which can still be found in such spellings of Peking vs. Beijing. In 1958 it was adopted as the official standard by the Chinese government and today is the most common system used for romanization of Chinese characters. 

It should be noted that Taiwan uses a slightly different system called Zhuyin 注音 (a.k.a. bopomofo) which uses a small number of unique characters, called Bopomofo, to represent sounds. The sounds in Chinese are spelled out using the alphabet but sometimes different from pinyin such hsieh = xie or tsai = cai.

Here are important steps to learning Pinyin

Learn pinyin really well

Far too many learners will think that because pinyin uses the alphabet that they can jump right in and correctly pronounce the sounds it represents; not so! 

Pinyin was created for native Chinese speakers, not for second language (L2) learners like you! Therefore, it is not as intuitive as you might think.

Pinyin is used to represent all of the sounds used in standard Mandarin Chinese, many of which do not exist in English. Some of these are initial sounds such as zh, x, and c or final sounds such as -ui, -ou, and –eng

Learning the sounds of Chinese as represented by pinyin is critical. In this step, it’s not even necessary to learn words (although we wouldn’t discourage you either). Focus on the sounds and get comfortable with them. 

Get comfortable with pinyin first.

Learn what sounds do not exist in Chinese

There are all sorts of mistakes that are inherent in L2 (second language) Chinese learners. Frequently, Chinese learners will hear sounds through the filter of their native language then use the familiar sounds of their native language to approximate unfamiliar sounds in Chinese. 

For example, as a learner you may hear a sound such as ja. The problem is that there is no sound in Chinese pronounced ja, however there are sounds pronounced zha or jia

This is almost as important as knowing what sounds do exist in Chinese. Fortunately, there are only 409 unique sounds in Chinese which, in a sense, makes learning the pronunciation more defined compared to some other languages. 

A pinyin chart can be a useful reference, however there are excellent resources such as the Chinese Pronunciation Wiki that break down the sounds of Chinese into steps ranging from “easy” to “advanced”. 

Knowing this will help you head off problems early on, ensure smoother learning, and avoid mistakes that can be difficult to change later on. 

Dictate in pinyin

Now that you feel comfortable with pinyin, have your teacher, tutor, or friend say words out-loud and then write the pinyin. 

This activity helps you as a learner focus on and differentiate between the different sounds and the corresponding spellings in pinyin. You’ll quickly identify which sounds are more difficult for you and those which come easier. 

This activity is an excellent gauge to help you identify progress and puts you on a path to become a better listener and writer as your learning progresses. 

Practice typing using pinyin

In our modern days, pinyin is at the heart of all writing in Chinese. Typing out the pinyin for most basic words and common phrases, even for a surprising number of less common words used in context, will frequently bring up the correct characters. 

You know how to spell nihao? It’s time to activate that pinyin input on your phone or computer, type it in, and watch the characters pop up.

Feeling adventurous? Type out what you want to say, assume the characters that pop up are correct, and hit send. You’ll likely find out pretty quickly if you had it right or not! 

2. Begin Learning Chinese Characters

Now that you have a solid understanding of pinyin and the corresponding sounds and pronunciations of Chinese, it’s time to learn Chinese characters. 

You may be asking “should I learn simplified or traditional characters?” We recommend learning the type which you anticipate using the most. If you plan on living, interacting, or associating with Taiwan or people from Taiwan, consider learning traditional Chinese characters. For all else, we recommend learning simplified Chinese characters. For reference, 90% of all of our book sales at Mandarin Companion are for simplified character versions. 

While you may read that there are over 60,000 Chinese characters, a core group of 2,500 characters make up roughly 98% of everyday written language. It takes time, repetition, and, perhaps most importantly, context to fluently read and understand Chinese. 

Here are the steps to take. 

Know your pinyin really well

We’re serious! If you haven’t completed this first step, make sure you do it! Learn your pinyin forward and backward. 

A fundamental reason has to do with the fact that we learn to speak before we learn to read. Trying to learn characters before you learn the pronunciation will increase the mental load on your brain and slow your learning.

It is also important to note that reading and writing is not intuitive. It took thousands of years for humans to develop systems of writing, all of which require explicit instruction on how to read and write them. Learn pinyin before you learn characters. 

Learn the structure of characters

Characters have a form and a function. 

The building blocks of Chinese characters are called components. Often, these are incorrectly referred to as radicals or 部首 (bùshǒu) which are a list of graphical character components used to reference and look up characters in a Chinese print dictionary. 

Components are the individual elements of Chinese characters which are combined into distinct and unique characters. There are three main types of components

  • Meaning components – elements that provide a specific meaning, theme, or classification.
  • Phonetic / Sound components – elements that give a specific or approximate sound or pronunciation.
  • Graphic/empty component – elements that provide visual distinctness or uniqueness.

Not all characters will have all three types of components, some may have two or three, while some seemingly have none at all, yet all whole characters are distinct and unique from each other. 

Understanding different components aid in making sense of how they all fit together to form characters and provide meaning. It’s as if they become “molds” for characters to fit into. 

Learning how to handwrite can be helpful in learning characters and their components. Learning this skill is akin to dissecting a character into its most basic components then reconstructing it into its proper form. 

Caution: we do not advise spending a significant amount of time learning how to handwrite Chinese characters. Learning how to handwrite Chinese characters fluently is a skill in and of itself and requires an immense amount of time to learn. As we talk with learners across the globe, we find the need to handwrite rarely arises, restricted mainly to life in China or Taiwan such as filling out a government form or writing an address. For most Chinese learners, handwriting characters is best employed as a party trick to impress friends or relatives. 

If you are super motivated to handwrite characters, then go for it. However, don’t feel like you have to spend hours filling up notebooks with rows of characters, otherwise it can become a soul-crushing task, strangling the life out of your learning motivations. 

Don’t do this.

Get serious about learning Characters with a good resource

This may be the right time to get into a Chinese language curriculum or textbook. Some will take you through some of what we have suggested thus far but almost all programs and curriculum have their own approach. Here are our suggestions for your consideration.

Mandarin Blueprint – Top-notch curriculum to take learners from beginners to advanced literacy in Chinese.

Yoyo Chinese – 6 comprehensive courses and over a thousand videos to provide structure to your Chinese learning.

Private tutor through iTalki – If you want to go the private tutor route, iTalki is the best place to find one wherever you live.

Skritter – Offers advanced functionality for flashcards and a unique handwriting interface to help practice writing characters.

Outlier Chinese – An online course that teaches you how to master characters.

A quick note. While popular, we do not recommend using Chineasy as a method to learn Chinese characters. While it portrays Chinese characters primarily as pictographs, in reality only a minority of characters fall into this category. It is a fun book but something that we recommend for your coffee table as opposed to a serious method of learning Chinese characters. 

Find what works best for you

After interviewing so many fascinating Chinese learners for our podcast, You Can Learn Chinese, I have learned that there is no one path to proficiency. 

Your motivation is key in this area and be sure to follow what works best for you and pursue your interests. Don’t be afraid to switch to something different if you don’t feel it is working well or if you simply want to try something new. Find out what works best for you! 

3. Learn Vocabulary

You’ve learned pinyin, you’re learning characters, now it’s time to start acquiring the fundamentals of all languages, vocabulary!

Learn the words most relevant to you

You’re likely to use the word 你好 nǐhǎo more frequently than 链接 liànjiē, the word for a website link.

The reasoning is simple: saying hello is more frequently used and more relevant to your life than the word for a link on a website. That’s not to say you’ll never need the word for a link but it is of lesser relevance compared to more commonly used words. 

Learn the characters of things you frequently use. If you want to order food at a restaurant, learn the words for rice, meat, pork, beef, etc. (reading a menu is a different matter entirely). If you want to connect with that special someone you’ve had your eye on, get their WeChat and type some characters that will help you break the ice!

In the same sense, if you are following a course or curriculum and it has a chapter on going to the post office, consider skipping it. After living in China for 8 years, I think I found myself in a post office only a few times at most. Don’t spend your time learning words, phrases, and characters that you never plan to use. Get functional fast. 

A note: frequently learners will be exposed early to 成语 chéngyǔ which are a type of traditional Chinese idiomatic expressions, most of which consist of four characters. These are a hallmark of a cultured and educated Chinese speaker. In general, we recommend holding off on delving into these as they often require a more advanced and nuanced understanding of Chinese to grasp and properly use. There are common and easier to use chengyu, such as 马马虎虎, but in general we don’t recommend focusing too much on this at an early stage. 

Learn tones

There is a lot of bad advice regarding the importance of tones. We are here to tell you that tones are essential to the Chinese language and don’t let anyone tell you differently.

At this early stage, you’ll want to start matching tones to characters. To highlight the importance of tones, earlier I mentioned there are only 409 unique sounds in Chinese, however a native speaker will have a vocabulary of 9,000 words. Stated succinctly, there are seemingly infinite homonyms in Chinese.

However, with the introduction of the 4 tones of Chinese combined with 409 unique sounds, it becomes possible to produce (4*409)= 1,636 distinct sounds in Chinese. Using these unique sounds in a variety of two-syllable combinations and in a variety of contexts creates infinite possibilities of unique sound combinations involving tones. 

Mastering tones can be the subject of many articles and courses. In general, we recommend the following step-by-step approach.

  1. Learn individual tones
  2. Become familiar with tone pairs
  3. Successfully pronounce tone pairs
  4. Successfully pronounce multiple tones in a row
  5. Consistently pronounce tones correctly

Easy, right? In reality, the quest for accurate tones can be a lifelong pursuit. A piece of advice from a veteran learner I know suggests making your goal to be 100% accurate on tones. If you do, you’ll get them right 80% of the time which is actually pretty good. 

But the first step is matching those tones to individual characters. 

This is kind of par for the course.

Practice and reinforce new words

There is a saying that the most important thing to study is what you learned yesterday. Research into vocabulary acquisition shows that it takes 10-20 encounters of a word or character before it is truly learned. 

As you are learning new characters and words, be sure that you are seeing them again and again. Practice using them in written sentences and chat conversations. Many people like to use flash card apps with spaced repetition software (SRS) to reinforce characters in your memory.

Whatever you do, ensure that you are getting consistent exposure and using the new characters you are learning. 

Utilize literal translations to your advantage

Most Chinese words are a combination of two existing characters with their own distinct meaning. Sometimes identifying how the meanings of two characters combine to form a unique word can be a useful memorization technique. 

For instance, 你 (nǐ) you and 好 (hǎo) good form to combine 你好 (nǐ hǎo) hello or you good

 手 (shǒu) hand and 机 (jī) machine combine to form 手机 (shǒujī) mobile phone or hand machine.

And John Pasden’s favorite, 袋 (dài) bag and 鼠 (shǔ) rat combine into 袋鼠 (dàishǔ) kangaroo or bag rat. 

Not all characters make sense to break down in this way but when they do it can be helpful. 

4. Get Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input is language that the learner understands. It’s not a strategy, or a method, but a thing, and getting lots of it is going to accelerate your speed of learning and reading Chinese. 

We learn best when we read at a high level of comprehension. Research into applying comprehensible input into reading and language learning has revealed that the “sweet spot” for learning is reading at a 98% level of comprehension, also known as extensive reading.

Here are the ways to use extensive reading to get comprehensible input from the start. 

Read easy materials 

At the beginning, this may be as simple as sample sentences from a textbook or basic sentences written by a teacher. Have a teacher write what you can say and then offer a corrected or edited version. 

It can be difficult at beginning levels, but the more you level up, the more options that open up to you. We have an article “What If “Beginning Level” Chinese Books Are Too Hard? 10 Tips for Beginning Readers” that has proven very useful for early readers. 

Level up to graded readers

Graded readers are books that are specifically written for second language (L2) learners like you and use carefully controlled words and characters for readers at a target level. 

Once you learn around 150 characters then you’re really ready to level up with graded readers. At that level, you should be able to begin reading the Mandarin Companion Breakthrough Level of graded readers that features entire books that are written using only 150 basic characters that a learner is likely to know. 

For many learners, graded readers are a game changer. It is hard to describe the sense of accomplishment you will feel when you can read an entire book in Chinese. 

One you read one book, then read another, and then continue reading up to higher levels. At the time of this article, Mandarin Companion has up to a 450 character level, but there are also other graded reader series out there which are helpful for learners such as the Chinese Breeze, Rise of the Monkey King series by Imagin8 Press, and the Terry Waltz graded readers.

Tim Budong immediately after reading his first Chinese graded reader, circa 2013.

You Can Learn Chinese

Learning Chinese can be a lifetime pursuit but learning how to read Chinese need not take a lifetime! The length of time since you started learning Chinese is less important than the time you put into learning. 

If you follow this guide and get serious about learning to read Chinese, it is not unrealistic that you can begin reading Chinese graded readers within 3-6 months. From that point, the sky’s the limit!

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