The Essentials: How to Get by in Mandarin Chinese

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Are you eager to learn Mandarin, but aren’t sure where to start? You came to the right place. Rosetta Stone’s team of language experts knows exactly what you need to succeed! In this Mandarin essentials guide, you’ll find almost everything a Rosetta Stone learner masters in their first unit

With each Rosetta Stone lesson, you’ll pick up new vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation skills through a carefully structured Dynamic Immersion environment. For this guide, Mandarin elements are listed in order of utility—a quick introduction to Pinyin and basic grammar rules will help you put sentences together faster! 

  • Pinyin (Chinese Phonetic Alphabet) 
  • Grammar
  • Activities 
  • People
  • Things
  • Adjectives
  • Numbers
  • Phrases 

Check out Mandarin fundamentals below, or head over to our subscription page to find a plan that works for you! 

Pinyin: The Chinese Phonetic Alphabet 

Many widespread languages—like English, Russian, and Hindi—have alphabets, or standard sets of letters that represent specific sounds. Memorize the alphabet, and you’ve conquered a key stepping stone to written language. 

In place of an alphabet, Mandarin has a writing system, which makes learning Mandarin tricky. With over 50,000 characters, Mandarin’s writing system can feel inaccessible to beginner learners, even those fluent in spoken Chinese. 

In the 1950’s, China developed its own romanization system. Pinyin was introduced to schools to boost literacy rates—and now, we can thank Pinyin for bridging the gap between Chinese and non-native speakers. 

Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet (the same one used in English and 100+ languages) to help readers match speech sounds with a manageable set of letters and accents. Many letters and letter sets have pronunciations unique to Chinese, including the sounds associated with q, x, and zh.

Rosetta Stone’s Courses help you learn conversational Mandarin with Pinyin, and the Alphabet feature shows Pinyin and traditional Chinese characters side-by-side for a detailed look at how common characters are pronounced. 

Once you’re familiar with Pinyin, you’re ready to move onto the next level of language learning! 

Grammar

Chinese grammar differs from most languages, including English and widespread Romance languages of the West. Mandarin is characterized by: 

  • A lack of verb conjugation (changing verbs to fit a singular or plural subject) 
  • A lack of verb tenses (changing verbs to fit the past, present, or future) 
  • A tendency to omit the verb entirely (in some cases, a pronoun and an adjective build a complete sentence!) 

Remember that different and difficult aren’t synonyms! Once you dive into Mandarin, you’ll find that these rules actually make conversation easier. 

For example—imagine you start a conversation with the following: “I saw the most amazing fireworks show last night with my family.” 

You’ve set the scene perfectly for you and your conversation partner. They know it’s happened in the past and they know you were with a group of people. When discussing the details of that night, you no longer need to worry about conjugating verbs or using the right tense! When you’re free from those rules, language becomes straightforward and conversation flows quickly. 

This is why context in Chinese grammar is so important. As a beginning learner, it can help you make sense of the differences between Chinese and your native language—and it can help you appreciate them! 

We’ll take a look at two key factors to keep in mind when you’re starting out. 

Sentence Structure 

Breathe easy—if you’re familiar with English, you’ll recognize the grammar rules behind Mandarin’s basic sentence structures. Here’s a quick chart that you can reference as you build your conversation skills: 

Sentence StructureExample
Subject + Verbmǎi. (你买.)
You buy.
Subject + Verb + Object Nǐ mǎi cài. (你买菜.)You buy food.
Subject + Time + Verb + Objectjīn tiān mǎi cài. (你明天买菜.)
Today you buy food.
Subject + Verb + Object + “maNǐ jīn tiān mǎi cài ma? (你明天买菜吗?)
Do you buy food today?

Note: This sentence structure only works for yes or no questions. 

You’ll learn more intricate sentence structures as you go, but here’s a preview of the uniquely fun grammar rules to come. When describing other people, you don’t need to use verbs. Instead, you’ll use the following: 

Subject + Adverb + Adjective 

hěn gāo. (他很高.)

He is very tall. (Literal Translation: He very tall.)

Measure Words

In Mandarin, nouns don’t have a singular or plural form. Instead, you’ll use measure words alongside numbers to dictate the amount of whatever noun you’re referring to. Common measure words in English include: 

  • A pack of wolves
  • A bag of flour
  • A tank of gas

In Chinese, measure words are often paired with words that, in other languages, don’t need units—like roads, crayons, or books and magazines. In the example below, (five) and běn (the unit for books) are used together:

Wǒ mǎile běn shū

I bought five books. 

Ge (个) in Chinese is as general as it gets. It’s used in the same way English uses “of”, and it’s an easy crutch when you’re just starting out. Here’s an example: 

Wǒ yào sān Tāng

I want three of soup. 

It gets the meaning across, but it’s obvious that it’s missing a true measure word—that’s where you’ll have the opportunity to build your vocabulary over time. 

Wǒ yào sān wǎn tāng

I want three bowls of soup. 

Here’s a list of common measure words you can use when you’re starting out: 

EnglishMandarin
Cup [of coffee and tea]Bēi (杯)
Bowl [of soup]Wǎn (碗)
BottlePíng (瓶)
Share/Portion/Order [of food] or unit for newspapersFèn (份)
Unit of roads or winding objects (rivers, snakes, fish)Tiáo (条)
Unit of pencils/pens/cigarettes—long, thin objectsZhī (支)
Unit for books and magazinesBĕn (本)
Pair Shuāng (双)
Dozen Dǎ (打)
Pack Bāo (包)

Activities

When learning a language, you’ll want to be able to talk about what people are up to. The essential verbs to learn in Mandarin are ones that you use every day. 

EnglishMandarin
To readdú (读)
To writexiě (写)
To drinkhē (喝) 
To eatchī fàn (吃) 
To cookzuò fàn (做饭)
To swimyóuyǒng (游泳) 
To runpǎobù (跑步) 
To havejùyǒu (具有)
To beshi (是)
To wearchuān (穿)

People

Why are you learning Mandarin? To connect with other people, of course! There are many ways to refer to a person—by their profession, their style, their sense of humor—but the basics are easy to remember and help you communicate what you need to in a short amount of time. 

Names

While Mandarin doesn’t typically have singular and plural nouns, general names and pronouns are an exception. Take the singular form of any name and follow it with “men” to get the plural form.

EnglishMandarin (Singular)Mandarin (Plural)
A girl女孩 (nǚhái)女孩们 (nǚháimen)
A boy男孩 (nánhái)男孩们 (nánháimen)
A woman女人  (nǚrén)女人们 (nǚrénmen)
A man男人 (nánrén)男人们 (nánrénmen)
A person人 (rén)人们 (rénmen)

Pronouns

Take any singular pronoun (I/me, she/her) and follow it with “men” (们) to get the plural form (we/us, they). 

SingularPlural
I/Me, We/Us我 (wǒ)我们 (wǒ men)
YouInformal: 你 (nǐ)Formal: 您 (nín)Informal: 你 们 (nǐ men)Formal: 各位 (gè wèi)
She/Her, They他 (tā)他们 (tā men)
He/Him, They她 (tā)她们 (tā men)

Things

There are so many “things” out there! But don’t be intimidated. From food and furniture to sports and the great outdoors, nouns are easy to pick up quickly. The list of items below is a small sample of what you’d learn in Unit 1 of Rosetta Stone’s Mandarin Chinese edition. 

Food

EnglishMandarin
Egg蛋 (dàn)
Sandwich三明治 (sānmíngzhì)
Apple苹果 (píngguǒ)
Bowl碗 (wǎn)
Cup杯子 (bēizi)

Items

EnglishMandarin
Bed床 (chuáng)
Chair椅子 (yizi)
Table桌子 (zhuōzi)
Cellphone手机 (shǒujī)
Key钥匙 (yàoshi)
Flower花 (huā)
Bicycle自行车 (zìxíngchē)
Newspaper报纸 (bàozhǐ)
Book书 (shū)
Ball球 (qiú)

Adjectives

In Mandarin, you’ll often see adjectives followed by 的 (de). Keep this rule in mind: 

  • 的 (de) typically follows multi-syllable adjectives, or adjectives with modifiers (such as “very”) in English. 

Let’s take a look at the following example: 

long movie

zhǎng diànyǐng

长电影

very long movie

hěn zhǎng de diànyǐng

很长的电影

There are always exceptions, but you’ll pick those up as you go! For now, start by applying the rule when speaking about colors in Mandarin, and then branch out to more whimsical descriptors. 

Colors

EnglishMandarin
Redhóng sè (红色)
Orangejú sè (橘色)
Yellowhuáng sè (黄色)
Greenlǜ sè (绿色)
Bluelán sè (蓝色)
Purplezǐ sè (紫色)
Pinkfěnhóng sè (粉红)
Blackhēi sè (黑色)
Whitebái sè (白色)

Numbers and Phrases

Numbers and phrases round out the essentials list. You’ll need to know your numbers to discuss quantities, tell time, or inquire about costs, while a handful of simple phrases can help you get to where you need to go. 

Numbers

EnglishMandarin
One一 (yī)
Two二 (èr)
Three三 (sān)
Four四 (sì)
Five五 (wǔ)
Six六 (liù)
Seven七 (qī)
Eight八 (bā)
Nine九 (jiǔ)
Ten十 (shí)

Phrases

EnglishMandarin
My name is…我叫 (Wǒ jiào…)
How are you?你好吗? (Nǐ hǎo ma?)
Where do you want to go? 去哪里? (Qù nǎ lǐ?) 
How much is it? 这个多少钱? (Zhè ge duō shao qián?)
I’m sorry. I don’t understand.不好意思。我没听懂。(Bù hǎo yì si. Wǒ méi tīng dǒng.)

Gain a deeper understanding 

Now that you’ve had a look at the essentials, take some time to consider what you want your language learning journey to look like. Will you achieve your Mandarin dreams by learning in a traditional classroom setting or branching out on your own

Whatever environment you choose, Rosetta Stone can help you meet your Mandarin learning goals and speak confidently from the very first lesson. You’ll learn through dynamic immersion, not rote repetition, and perfect your accent every step of the way. Our courses are built by language learning experts who have refined what and how you learn to ensure you build fluency fast. 

Start learning Mandarin today at rosettastone.com!

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