Learning Chinese (What is pinyin? Tones)

Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over a billion people worldwide.

Learning Chinese

Chinese is not as difficult as you think. While the sounds and characters may be intimidating at first, Chinese grammar is actually easier than many other languages.

What is pinyin?

Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet like English. Instead of using letters to represent sounds, Chinese characters (like , which means good) represent entire words. A word can also have more than one character (for example 高兴,which means happy).

hǎo good
高兴 gāoxìng happy

To make things easier, pinyin represents the sounds of Mandarin Chinese using the Roman alphabet. The common greeting 你好 (hello)is written below using letters you will recognise.

你好 hǎo hello

Tones

A big difference between Chinese and English is the use tones*. In Chinese, the inflection you use to pronounce a syllable* can create a new word entirely.

In English, you might be shouting (Mom!), asking a question (Mom?), or complaining (Mah-ummm!), but the meaning of Mom never changes.

This is not the case for Chinese! The basic sounds that male up the word for mother can easily mean horse… if you pronounce them with a different tone!

mother
hemp
horse
to scold

*

Tone* refers to the pitch (for example, the highness or lowness) of a sound. In Chinese, tone can change the meaning of a word.

A syllable* is a sound chunk that contains one vowel. In Chinese, each character represents a syllable.

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