“Mandarin Chinese is the most difficult language to learn to read and write.”
Have you ever heard anyone say that before?
I have. I was eighteen when an acquaintance of mine first told me tales of Mandarin Chinese, a language I had not yet been exposed to.
“It’s impossible!” they said. “All those characters are a nightmare to learn!”
I’ll never forget that. It was my first time hearing about the difficulty of Chinese, but certainly not the last. In the nearly twenty years since, I’ve been told many times over that to learn to write in the language was a Herculean task, even when I myself was tackling the language.
Now that I’m on the other side of things, and have actually spent several years learning and studying Mandarin Chinese myself, I feel confident to address the issue of the “impossibility” of the language.
Is it impossible to learn to read and write in Mandarin Chinese?
It is surely difficult, but far from impossible. I’ve done it, and you can, too.
You see, like any other language, the writing system of Mandarin Chinese is a complex system that you learn step by step, with time, the right approach, and the right attitude.
Furthermore, the tools available to help the average language learner learn and write in Chinese characters have only gotten better with time. Nowadays, anyone with an Internet connection can learn to type and write in Chinese with relative ease, particularly when compared to the pre-Internet days.
That being said, today I want to share with you five simple tips to help you learn to read and write in Mandarin Chinese.
If you follow these tips, and use the tools that I suggest, then learning Chinese characters will be equal parts fun, exhilarating, and memorable.
Let’s get to it!
1. Learn to Read and Type in Pinyin
To learn to write in Mandarin Chinese, the first step is to download software that will allow you to type in the language using romanized (i.e. Latin) characters, known as Pinyin.
Why use Pinyin to type? Because if you know how to type on a regular QWERTY keyboard (or similar), then you already have the skills necessary to type in Pinyin, all while keeping the keyboard you’re already comfortable with.
One of the most common tools for typing Chinese characters using pinyin is known as Google Pinyin. Windows users can download Google Pinyin here. Mac users don’t have access to Google Pinyin, but can activate the built-in pinyin inputs on their computer by following the steps here.
Another benefit of learning and using pinyin to write and type in Mandarin Chinese is that it is designed to help you learn to speak and write the language without learning all of the complicated characters. Using the Latin alphabet and a series of diacritics (accent marks), Pinyin is an excellent stepping stone to using the language before getting into the specifics of hanzi, radicals, mnemonics, character readings, and more.
While it may take years to learn enough Chinese characters to be able to communicate well, Pinyin can be learned reliably in a matter of days.
Let’s take a closer look at Pinyin, using the following simple sentence:
CHINESE CHARACTERS: “我想学习普通话”
PINYIN: “Wǒ xiǎng xuéxí pǔtōnghuà” (Literally, “I want learn Mandarin Chinese”)
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: “I want to learn Mandarin Chinese.”
If you don’t know chinese characters already, the first line is impossible to read or sound out. If you know the Latin/English alphabet, however, the second line is a lot easier to at least try to read out loud. The sounds and letters of Pinyin aren’t pronounced exactly as they are in English, but they’re pronounced closely enough to give any English speaker a good head start.
Let’s return to the sentence again:
The word “我” is read “Wǒ” and means “I”
The character “想” is read “xiǎng” and means want/desire to
The combination of the two characters “学习” means “xuéxí” and means “to learn”
The combination of the three characters “普通话” is read “pǔtōnghuà”and means “Mandarin Chinese (the official language)”
By using pinyin alongside the original characters and the English (or native language) translation, you will start creating a mental bond between the chinese character, it’s pronunciation/spelling in Pinyin, and its corresponding meaning. You can then practice and reinforce the mental bond by using Pinyin typing tools to help you type out these sentences by yourself.
So, you can immediately start creating a mental bond between the character, its spelling and its corresponding meaning in your native language by listening to the audio and reading in pinyin, and you can reinforce the whole process by typing these sentences yourself on the computer.
Let’s do that now.
With Google Pinyin or another pinyin tool of your choice installed and enabled, you should be able to open any text editor and begin typing Chinese using pinyin.
Right now, we want to write this text:
To do that, you need to know the pinyin version of it, which is:
Wǒ xiǎng xuéxí pǔtōnghuà
Now all you need to do is type the pinyin text into our word processor. You can even completely ignore the accent (tone) marks above each letter.
So, you type:
wo xiang xuexi putonghua
And then something magical happens!
Once you type in the proper pinyin, your Pinyin typing tool will bring up a menu with all of the chinese characters that correspond to what you’ve written. All you need to do is select the proper option, and voilà, your pinyin letters are automatically converted into perfect Chinese characters. And all that before you even know how to read or write them.
Using Pinyin typing tools to quickly and easily type in Chinese characters is very helpful, but it’s not foolproof. The unique phonological characteristics of Mandarin require that you know how to distinguish between homonyms (words with the same pronunciation) while writing in Pinyin.
Since pinyin is a phonetic (sound-based) way of writing Chinese, any two homonyms will be written identically using the pinyin alphabet and accent rules.
For example, the characters “目的” and “墓地” are pronounced exactly the same, and written the identically in Pinyin:
目的 – mùdì
墓地 – mùdì
However, they have two entirely different meanings!
目的 = “Goal”
墓地 = “Grave”
This problem is compounded by the fact that when you type using Pinyin input, you don’t write in the tone markers. Without tone markers, the character menu will come up with all the words that contain the syllables “mu-di,” like so:
That’s a lot to choose from! However, if you don’t know how to distinguish between all the different ways to write “mu-di” in full chinese characters, don’t worry.
As long as you add context to the individual Chinese words you write, the Pinyin menu will progressively narrow your options, until you’re left with the most likely possible character for the phrase you’re trying to write.
If you want to write the “mu-di” that means “goal,” (目的) you’ll have to write a sentence that “goal” is likely to fit in, like:
Wǒ de mùdì shì… = “My goal is…”
If you want to write the “mu-di” meaning “grave” (墓地), you’ll need to change the sentence to something else, like
wǒ xiǎng qù mùdì = “I want to go to the cemetery”
Adding the rest of the sentence you intend to write will give the software enough information to narrow down all of your possible character options to the ones that will most likely be correct. Thinking of our above examples, it is very unlikely that one might say: “My graveyard is…” or “I want to go to the goal.”
To start writing in Chinese, start writing out sentences that appear in your coursebooks using Google Pinyin or a similar tool. Doing so will help you quickly learn to recognize chinese characters, and impress their sound, meaning, and written form into your long-term memory.
2. Use MandarinSpot to Create Comprehensible Chinese Texts
While language learning material for beginner Mandarin learners will likely come with heavily annotated texts with Pinyin transcriptions, such material will be harder to find once you progress past the absolute beginner stage.
Fortunately, you can use a Chinese reading tool called MandarinSpot to help you convert any sequence of Chinese characters into a comprehensible text, complete with Pinyin annotations, English translations, and other helpful information.
If you head to MandarinSpot and input our sample sentence:
- The original text (in chinese characters)
- Pinyin annotation with accent marks (above the characters, in red)
- Translations and additional information (found by hovering over individual characters with your cursor)
You can do this with any authentic Mandarin Chinese text, of any length. For ease of study and readability, MandarinSpot also provides a printable copy of any text you input, accessible by clicking the “For Printing” checkbox under the main text box.
Using MandarinSpot to annotate any text is an excellent way to start making authentic Mandarin Chinese texts comprehensible to you, even as a beginner. The faster you can begin comprehending things written in Mandarin, the more you will want to read Mandarin texts, and the sooner you will be able to start reading texts that are interesting to you, which is the backbone of any good foreign language reading habit.
3. Combine Reading in Mandarin with Listening, Always
When you’re learning to read any language, one of the best things you can do is to listen to the spoken audio of the text while you are reading it.
This goes double for Mandarin, for which most written characters provide no indication of how they should be pronounced.
Reading with your eyes while listening with your ears is an excellent way to reinforce the mental bond between sound, script, and meaning, just like I said typing does in our first step.
If you have a beginner (or even intermediate) learning course, listening and reading to Mandarin should be easy to do, as most texts are accompanied by files, CDs, or cassettes with the equivalent spoken versions.
If you’re not currently using a course backed by audio, this becomes more difficult, but not impossible. As long as you can find an authentic Mandarin text, all you need to do is have an audio version of the text made up for you.
Ideally, if you have a native speaker friend or tutor, you could ask him or her to read the text for you, and record themselves doing so. This will create the most authentic and natural version for you to learn with.
If you don’t have a native speaker to create audio recordings for you, you will then need to rely on what is called a text-to-speech (TTS) tool, which will use an automated process to create an artificially spoken version of the text.
For Mandarin Chinese, I suggest you use the Oddcast text-to-speech tool.
With Oddcast TTS, you can input any text you want, select Mandarin Chinese as your target language, and select any type of voice you wish to hear the text spoken in. The application will then “read” the text aloud to you, using a computer voice. The readings may seem strange or artificial at times, but for Mandarin, the intonation and pronunciation of the voices are surprisingly accurate.
Once you have your text, and your real or artificial audio of the text, your next step is to read and listen in a way that allows you to extract valuable information from the text/audio mix.
Here are four simple steps you can apply to any Mandarin text-audio combination:
- Listen while reading the text in pinyin
- Listen to the text by looking at the characters
- Listen to the text again in pinyin
- Just listen, focusing on how the sounds flow together. (rather than individual sounds)
Start with the first step, and do each a number of times before moving on. As with the last two tips, this helps you connect the sounds of the language with the symbols on the page, allowing for better, longer lasting memorization.
4. Focus on Learning Relevant Information First
Many learners erroneously focus on amassing knowledge of a large number of individual characters, mistakenly believing that knowledge of characters indicates how well one actually knows the language.
Mandarin has thousands and thousands of characters, and it would take a lifetime to be able to learn to read and write them all. Even if you did spend your lifetime doing that, it would be a tremendous waste of effort.
Because although there are more than 50,000 Chinese characters, you only need to know two to three thousand of them to be able to speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese well in your day to day life.
These most commonly used characters can be easily found in Mandarin Chinese word frequency lists, and will give you a good idea of the most important characters you will need to know as a speaker, reader, and writer of Chinese.
On top of that, many of the language’s most common words are made up not of single characters, but of multiple character compounds. Characters you learn can be combined and rearranged to form many words with a variety of meanings, helping you get more value out of the characters you already know, rather than forcing to you learn a new character for every new concept.
By focusing your reading and writing efforts mainly to commonly used characters and compounds, you will be able to master Chinese characters in a quicker and more efficient way.
As a last tip, I recommend that you focus not only on commonly used words and characters, but that you focus on words and characters that are relevant to you as a person. There will always be ideas and concepts that you will need to express more often than others do, simply because you are a different person with your own life story, likes, dislikes, interests, and goals. No frequency list will tell you that the words for “Scotland,” “adoption,” and “paralegal” are common words in Mandarin chinese, but if you are a Scottish adoptee who is studying to become a paralegal, these words will be high on your personal frequency list, and you will use them often.
5. Practice Both Handwriting and Typing in Chinese Characters
In the first tip I shared with you, I suggested that you learn how to type in Chinese characters using the Pinyin alphabet. Now, four tips later, you may be wondering:
When should I learn to write by hand?
The unsatisfying answer is: It’s up to you.
Since most written communication nowadays is transmitted via text messages, emails, blog posts, and printed documents, you may never actually face a time where you absolutely need to know how to write Chinese characters by hand.
So the question you need to ask yourself is:
Do I want to learn how to handwrite Chinese characters?
If you do, you’ll find that writing by hand will give you incredible insight into the Chinese culture, and the way that these symbols changed and developed over the centuries.
Additionally, writing by hand will give you yet another way to built that mental bond that I’ve so often mentioned, by helping you associate the hand-eye coordination necessary to write the characters, with what the characters actually mean.
Having said that, you have to be aware that handwriting characters is a skill which will require lots of time and effort to master. If you want to do it, you should do it from the very beginning of your Chinese learning journey, to ensure that the act of writing by hand reinforces all of the new things you are learning.
In fact, it may be even better to practice both handwriting and typing in Chinese, and alternate your practice of each. This way, you will gain equal experience with both modalities of written communication, and allow your progress with one means of writing to benefit your progress in the other.
Beyond that, if you want to learn to handwrite characters, you should:
- Select sentences or dialogues from your textbook/learning resource that you will copy out by hand.
- Find a resource that will teach you the stroke order (i.e. sequence of drawn lines that make up a character) of each individual character.
- Practice writing the sentences/dialogues out by hand, using the stroke order rules as a guide.
- Do this every day, for at least 10 minutes.
- Once you’ve handwritten a number of sentences or dialogues, test yourself to see if you can type the same texts out on a computer.
There are a lot of excellent resources available online that teach Chinese handwriting, so simply do a search online or on YouTube and see which you like the best. As long as you’re taught the correct stroke order and composition of each character, any resource will do.
(For those looking for good videos on the subject, I recommend this video on Chinese character stroke order rules, by accomplished polyglot Vladimir Skultety.
Proper mastery of Chinese handwriting will take lots of time, practice, and reinforcement, but if you start early, and dedicate time to it every day, you can make it happen sooner than you think.
The writing system of Mandarin Chinese is one of the most complex aspects of the language. Each character is unique, representing a different sound and concept, and requires a specific stroke order to be written properly.
Despite these complexities, it is not impossible to learn the Chinese script well, as many claim.
The truth is quite the contrary. Anyone can learn to write in Mandarin Chinese, so long as they approach the process with the right attitude, and the right tools.
If you wish to embark on the amazing journey of learning to write in Chinese, follow the five tips I have recommended above.
Again, these tips were:
- Learn to read and type in Pinyin
- Use MandarinSpot to create comprehensible texts
- Always combine listening and reading
- Focus on learning information that is most relevant to you
- Alternate practice of both handwriting and typing Chinese characters
These simple steps will help you take a script that often seems equal parts complex and complicated, and turn it into something that you can understand, dissect, and learn well through regular daily practice.
This way, when someone tries to tell you it is impossible to learn to read and write in Mandarin Chinese, you can respond with:
“Impossible? I do it every single day!”
Written by Luca Lampariello