How to read Chinese

A common question I get asked by readers is how to read Chinese. The problem is, there are thousands of characters and Chinese is not something you can sound out. So, the only way you can really learn is by rote memorization.

You must develop the vocabulary either by writing it out until you remember it or looking at it enough until you recognize it. 

Therefore, I cannot really teach you Chinese. However, I could try to teach you guys the grammar of Chinese. It is easier and it is useful to some extent.

Chinese grammar is very simple. It’s always: PERSON -> TIME -> ACTION 

For example:

I today go          我今天去
I tomorrow go 我明天去
I 3pm go            我三点去

我 = I 去 = go

The word “go” doesn’t change. (Unlike English)

I will teach you guys 2 words.

The first word is  (zai). It explains the current location of something/someone. In Chinese, we do not have words for: on, at, and in. 在 is the word we use.

Note: We do have words for above (上面), below (下面), inside (里面), and outside (外面).

Whenever someone asks you where something is or where someone is at, you respond first by saying 在 ________.

在 library (at the library)
在 sleeping (currently sleeping)
在 table (on the table)

*I used the English words so you can understand it better.

The second word is 了 (le). This word explains when an action has already taken place. It goes at the end of the sentence or after the action word.

For example:

He went to school 他去了学校

The literal translation would be: He go already school. Go is the action word. Therefore, the 了following it means “has gone” or “went”.

In Chinese, we do not have a word for “to”.

She is crying 她哭了

The literal translation would be: She cry already. Cry is the action word. Therefore, 她哭了means the girl has cried or is crying.

In Chinese, we do not have a word for: is, are.

As you can see, our grammar is very simple. However, in order to read and comprehend an article, you will first need to learn about 3000 characters. It is difficult, but if you want to learn it bad enough, perhaps you can try learning ten characters a day (300 a month). Then, perhaps by the end of the year, you will be able to read on your own.

Note: It is very difficult unless you have a teacher or at least some type of foundation. If you are determined to learn on your own, you could use a Chinese English online dictionary to help you or watch some youtube videos.

Let me know if this post has been helpful.

Note: When it comes to writing, we have Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Nowadays, only Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan use Traditional Chinese. China, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries use Simplified Chinese(correct me if I am wrong).

I was taught Traditional and personally prefer Traditional. (I went to school in Hong Kong briefly until the age of 7, and then I continued with Chinese school in Canada until my teenage years. However, I learnt mostly through karaoke and watching dramas with Chinese subtitles. Haha) It is much more meaningful compared to Simplified. However, Simplified is easier to learn as it has less strokes. Although I was never taught it, I can guess the characters and still figure out the words for the most part.

Personally, I cannot really write because I have forgotten most the strokes (because I never write it) or I have never written the characters before. Yet, I can type in Chinese because I use pinyin.

Pinyin uses Mandarin pronunciation and allows you to sound out the words. HOWEVER, you have to know what the words SOUND LIKE and LOOK LIKE or you will not be able to find the right word. There can be multiple words with the same sound. For example,  要,药,腰,咬 are all typed as “yao”, but they are different words because the intonation is different. The first yao means “want”, the second “medicine”, the third “waist”, the fourth “bite”. Therefore, you can type AS LONG AS YOU KNOW WHAT THE WORDS LOOK LIKE. If not, pinyin doesn’t help either.

It’s not impossible though. It takes time. Don’t give up if you want to learn!!!

The first step is to start.

Good luck.

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gchan7127's Thoughts

Have you ever tried learning Chinese? If so, what have you found effective?