Mandarin Words - A Beginner's Guide


Mandarin words are the building blocks of the language, and so learning Mandarin Chinese words efficiently is key to your success in learning Mandarin.

Whether your goal is to just learn a small collection of useful Mandarin words, phrases and such, or to go on to be a well-trained fluent master of Mandarin, you’ll find here an essential beginner’s guide to Mandarin Chinese words, including specific information and links to tools that will set you on a direct path to mastering Chinese words.

Because this is not a short article (though highly worth whatever time you invest in it), you may find the following navigation useful. This article is also meant as a stepping off point, so you may find it helpful to bookmark this page as well:

The Best Way to Learn Mandarin Chinese Words

If you want to build up an awesome vocabulary of Mandarin words, and do it with expert efficiency – then there are two habits you must cultivate.

Learn Chinese Words in Context

Don’t just learn lists of words. And, while flashcards can be great, don’t rely on flashcards completely cut-off from any examples of their usage. See them in sentences – even in multiple examples while you review.

Dialogs provide great contexts for learning words. Dialogs can be very simple and manageable for a beginning Chinese learner, and they can even be fun.

A well written dialog created for language learning will not only teach important and common Mandarin words, but can also present unique aspects of culture and keep the learning process fun.

Just take this simple conversation starter as an example of the modest joys of learning with dialogs.

Learn Mandarin Words Phrases...Using All Your Senses

You should hear the word. See the character written. See the pinyin (phonetic spelling). Hear the word or phrase in a sentence as well as spoken alone. The combination of both hearing and seeing words will aid memorization greatly.

Also, if you choose to learn to write Chinese as well as learning to speak it, writing is another kind of sensory experience that will reinforce your learning.

Finally, speaking the word aloud is yet another powerful way to activate multiple senses.

And if you can figure a way to taste and smell a word, then I’d do that too! (I think you're getting the point.)

It’s not always practical to do all of these things, and do them all the time for every new word you encounter. But if, in addition to seeing words in context, you employ as many of your senses as you can, you will maximize impact and have richer associations with the words you learn.

How Mandarin Chinese Words are Composed

Chinese words are made up of Chinese symbols, or as we commonly call them, Chinese characters. One word can be a single character, or can be multiple characters. The most common words tend to be one or two characters in length.

Here’s an example that can help us understand how characters combine to make Mandarin words:

和 (hé) : means ‘and’, or ‘together with
平 (píng) : means ‘flat’, ‘level’, or ‘calm
和平 (hé píng) means ‘peace

In this example, you can see that each single character is a Mandarin word itself, and combined with another Chinese symbol or character, creates a new meaning.

It’s not unlike what we call a compound word in English – for example ‘something’ or ‘chairman’. However, with words in Mandarin this phenomenon is much more common than it is with English words. Every two-character Chinese word has this compound-like property.

As an aside, it’s always interesting to me to see which characters are combined to form which words. One example that you may sometimes hear (usually from those who do not know Chinese) is that the word for ‘crisis’ has within it the meaning of ‘opportunity.’

This may just be a cleverly selective interpretation of the character which the two words share (see below). But it is a good example of some of the interesting mysteries that lie contained in even ordinary Chinese words when you consider their component parts.

危机 (wēi jī) : crisis
机会 (jī huì): opportunity
The shared character (机) could mean ‘opportunity’, but also could simply mean ‘occasion’; 危 means danger

How to Learn to Write Chinese Words

Do not feel, if you are just starting out with Chinese, that you must learn to write. It's not completely necessary. But, if you do add writing to your Mandarin skills set, it’s going to actually help you out more than you might have first imagined.

A Chinese word, as we said, is made up of one or more characters. So to write the words, we must know how to form the characters. Let me point out something quite interesting that all Chinese people know, but that we may never have guessed:

If you copy characters, simply recreating the lines you see, without regard to the established rules of stroke order, you will fail to make a good-looking character.

It's a mysterious truth, and I couldn't tell you the reason for it if I tried, but those rules which govern which lines you make first, second, third, and so on, will make or break your character. If you want to make a strong and balanced looking character, you've gotta' learn those rules and you've gotta' follow 'em.

It’s not necessary, by the way, to memorize the stroke order of each and every character separately. There are some principles (for example when to go left to right, top to bottom, outer to inner) that you can apply to all characters and you'll be pretty much set - though you may have to look up the order for some particularly knotty ones as you come across them.

How to Learn to Pronounce Mandarin Words

As a beginner, you must have a good grasp of pinyin as an aid to pronounce Mandarin words. What is pinyin? It is simply a system of representing Chinese words, or rather the sounds of the Chinese language, using letters of the alphabet along with a few symbols to indicate any of the four tones in the language.

Language learning geniuses aside, you really must learn this system – learn what sounds of the Chinese language the letters in the pinyin (particularly the vowels) are representing. Some are completely what you would expect (for example the letter ‘d’ in pinyin sounds just like the letter ‘d’ in English), but some are not always what you would expect (for example the letter 'x' or 'zh'). One reason for this difference is simply that some sounds in Mandarin are unique and not contained in our alphabet.

There are some links below to some resources that can help you learn pinyin in a very efficient manner. As far as mastering pinyin, the sooner the better. And you really must be thorough and tough on yourself (and, even better, get a teacher who is tough on you) when it comes to saying the sounds correctly.

Many beginning Chinese learners put in hours and hours of study and practice at the language but continue to be confounded that Chinese people cannot understand what they say. They offer all sorts of creative explanations for this problem (many of which actually place the blame on the Chinese listener!), but the truth is that they have not yet mastered pinyin – the unforgiving, but quite perfect key to pronouncing all Mandarin words.

Resources for Learning Mandarin Words

Now that you have some good practical knowledge and principles to build on, you can dive into the actual learning of Mandarin words phrases, and even sentences and dialogs. Here are resources to aid you in your quest to build a massive Chinese vocabulary.

Chinese Pinyin for Perfect Pronunciation

You can start mastering pinyin with the following video tutorials:

Learn the Four Chinese Tones
Pinyin Pronunciation – the Tricky Sounds

Beginner’s Software for Learning Words in Context

If you have a computer running Windows, then you may want to build your Chinese vocabulary according to the method I have recommended above using Mandarin Player software for learning Chinese.

This program will help you learn Chinese through dialogs – which is not so unusual. But what is special about this program is that it provides a flashcard program for testing the words you are learning which allows you to listen to example sentences of the target words as you review.

As far as I know, there is no other flashcard program that provides you with recordings of Chinese sentences to remind you of words in their proper context as you review the cards.

You can learn more about or download Mandarin Player here.

Chinese Radicals

To help you learn some more Chinese character basics that will serve you well in your quest to build your Chinese vocabulary, I suggest you start learning the most useful Chinese radicals. Chinese radicals are components of Chinese characters that give clues to either their meaning or to their pronunciation.

Chinese Pronouns

Some of the most common Mandarin words are the common Chinese pronouns such as I, you, he, she, it, etc. From the very start, you will encounter these pronouns repeatedly in the simplest dialogs and in most Chinese sentences. Listen to and learn Chinese pronouns here.

Chinese Measure Words

Another important feature of Chinese words is that nouns are often paired with measure words. This is a simple concept to learn and measure words are not difficult to master. But they are a unique feature of Chinese, so it's good to get a grasp on Chinese measure words right at the beginning of learning Mandarin.

And that rounds out our beginning discussion of Mandarin words. I hope you find the links to the related tools and articles useful. Be confident now that you have what you need to begin mastering Mandarin words phrases, sentences and dialogues. Good luck!