Learn Chinese

Reading Chinese with English Letters.    

Chinese is written in characters, not in English letters.  However, in order to write Chinese words for people who do not know characters, several spelling systems have been invented.

The kind of English-letter spelling system now used by the Chinese on mainland China is called Pinyin (pronounced peen een, with a silent y). PInyin is used to spell the sounds of the “common language” on China, which westerners call “mandarin Chinese.”

Another, older, system used to spell mandarin,still seen in many older western reference books, is called Wade-Giles.  (The Giles is pronounced Jiles). Here’s how to tell the difference between the two::
1) Pinyin uses x’s and q’s, but Wade-Giles does not.
2) Wade-Giles uses apostrophes (to indicate more forceful pronunciation) after some letters, but Pinyin does not.

Examples: Taiwan would be spelled as T’aiwan in Wade-Giles.  If Wade-Giles uses a T with no breathmark, the “t” is to be pronounced as a d.  For example, the food product Tofu is a Wade-Giles spelling.  The T does not have a breathmark, and  so it is pronounced like a d, so the correct way to pronounce it is doe-foo.  The Pinyin spelling for it is doufu. Here is an interactive way to learn to read Chinese words in classrooms or as a family activity in 30 minutes.

ABOUT PINYIN. Zhou Youguang invented pinyin in 1958. He died January 14, 2016, at age 111.

How about Chinese at your school? Facts for school leaders

Are you teaching English?    Hints for teaching English to children   

ANOTHER WAY: There is another way to learn Chinese pronunciation based on symbols rather than English letters. The symbols are arranged in an alphabet; the first four sounds are bpmf. This system will not help you to read names in English newspapers, but will help you develop excellent pronunciation. This system is used to teach elementary school children on Taiwan. A teach-yourself handbook is found at thhis link: look for “The Chinese Alphabet.” The pages there are meant to be printed and folded, so the left hand half of each sheet goes to the back of the booklet. Go to link


After you have learned to pronounce the pinyin spellings using the interactive approach provided above, any of the learning programs on the market will serve you well. Knowing the following guidelines will smooth your path:


Chinese never uses “the” or “a.” But English requires using those words, so you would add them when translating from Chinese to English. For example, Chinese “I see bird” is correctly translated into English as “I see a bird.”

You never add a grammatical ending to a Chinese word. The word itself never changes. You would show past tense by adding a word to the sentence. For example, Chinese “I yesterday go Denver” is correctly translated into English as “I went to Denver yesterday.” To make a plural, you need to add a number, or the word for “several.”  For example, Chinese “I see 2 bird” is correctly translated into English as “I see 2 birds.”

Rather than grammatical endings, the focus in learning Chinese is on “sentence patterns.” An example of a sentence pattern is “first time, then place.” (That’s the opposite of the word order of English).  For example, Chinese “last year in Denver I meet you” would typically be translated into in English as “I met you in Denver last year.”

Chinese typically puts a “measure word” in front of a noun. We sometimes do that in English, for example, in the phrase “one loaf of bread,” “loaf” is a measure word. But Chinese has a measure word for everything. The English sentence “I see a car” becomes the Chinese “I see one car-unit car.” There are dozens of different measure words.

To show that a word is an adjective, you follow it by the word “de,”  which could be translated as “of.”  To say “my car,” you need to say in Chinese “I de car,”  which has the same meaning as “car of me.”  To say “cute child,” you would say “cute de child.”

In a long Chinese sentence, most of the words will be compound words, that is, words made of two words. This is easy to see in pinyin, because the words are touching each other. For example, the word “keshi,” means “but.”  It is made out of the “ke,” which means “could,” and the word “shi,” which means “is.” You have to memorize the combination separately as a vocabulary word. But when written in Chinese characters, there is no change in the size of the space between the characters to indicate that it is a compound word. Here is the word “but” in Chinese characters: 可是

Chinese characters occur both in traditional and simplified form. The simplified form was invented on mainland China after 1950 and is still used there. The traditional form is still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. You should probably learn simplified, unless you already know that you will be living on Taiwan.  Most of the characters are the same in both methods, and it is only the more complex words that became simplified. Here is the word for dragon, first in traditional龍and here in simplified  龙

Learning a new language       Overall Hints by Jim Found, 2-13-09: revised 6-11-16

Spend more time in review each day than you do on new material.

Take charge of your own progress – do not be limited to what is in the textbook.

Buy several beginner’s textbooks and take turns learning from all of them. One often helps you get insights that you didn’t’ clearly understand in the other.

Buy computer software or apps for that language. Find videos on youtube. Type English in the left-hand panel of Google translate and read the version in your language in the right-hand panel. Press audio icon to hear it.

Use every avenue of learning – listening, speaking, writing.

Listen to tapes, watch TV programs or DVD’s in that language.  Download youversion, which has the Bible in every language,  and read well-known verses; some versions have audio.

Organize your self-learning in terms of being able to “do things.” Examples:

Being able to ask where something is.
Being able to buy a postage stamp
Being able to order a ticket

Review words in the context of sentences – don’t just memorize individual words. Why?
It will give you an automatic review of words that are used most frequently.
It will internally give you a richer definition of each word than you get from a dictionary.
Most words change their meanings slightly according to the way they are used.
You can only get this fuller range of meaning when you read entire sentences.

If you have a language partner, you could:
Point to places on a picture and have the person say the words.
Have the person describe what’s going on in a comic strip.
Do role playing: you are the customer, the language partner is the clerk.
Record what the person is saying, and listen to it often to improve your listening ability.

Other Countries

You may find names in the newspaper that are not spelled in pinyin. For example, if you are reading about Taiwan, a person with a mandarin Chinese name will usually be spelled using the wade-giles system. For example, a news article in 2015 mentioned someone named Hung Hsiu-chu. The “hs” shows you that it is a wade-giles spelling. If it were in pinyin, it would have been spelled “xiu.”  It is impossible to know whether the “ch” is pronounced as a “ch” or a “j,” because newspapers do not always include the breath-marks.  If a name in an article about TAiwan does not seem to be in pinyin or in wade-giles, it may be in the dialect of Chinese called “Taiwanese.”

If you are reading about Chinese people in Hong Kong or southeast Asia, you may be seeing names in the Cantonese dialect. These have a spelling system of their own, neither pinyin nor wade-giles. For example, the president of Singapore is Lee Hsien loong.  The double-o is used in spelling cantonese, but never seen in piniyin or wade-giles. An opposition leader in Hong Kong in 2015 was named Lee cheuk-yan.  The use of the k at the end of a word shows it is a cantonese name, because mandarin words do not end with hard consonants (the only consonants found at the end of mandarin words are n and ng). The leader of the nationalist Chinese during world war 2 was Chiang Kai-shek.  The ‘k” at the end shows that it is a cantonese name.  The characters of his name can also be pronunced in mandarin. It would then be spelled (in pinyin) as Jiang jie-shi.  That name spelled in wade-giles would be chiang chieh-shih.

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