A Beginner's Guide to Reading Mandarin: Tips & Resources

A Beginner's Guide to Reading Mandarin: Tips & Resources

Mandarin, also known as Standard Chinese, is the most widely spoken language in the world, with over 1 billion native speakers.

Since reading is a crucial aspect of this language journal, we'll discuss the basics of the Mandarin language, from the characters to the pronunciation, and helpful tips and resources. 

Whether you're a beginner or looking to improve your skills, this guide is for you.

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Why you should learn Chinese characters

Imagine being able to read and write characters that have been around for thousands of years that hold so much history and culture. It's like having a secret code that only a select few can decipher.

And being able to read and write Chinese will make you the life of the party. Imagine all the impressed looks you'll get when you show off your skills!

But the benefits continue beyond there. Learning Chinese characters will also improve your memory and mental agility. Each character is a unique picture representing a word, so your brain must work extra hard to remember and recognize them

Once you've learned a character, you've unlocked a new vocabulary word.

1. The Mandarin character system

The Mandarin Chinese character system is a character writing system to represent words or ideas. Unlike the Latin alphabet, each Chinese character represents a word or concept. There are over 50,000 characters, but most people only need to know around 2,000 to read a newspaper.

Chinese characters are made up of a combination of lines and shapes called strokes. There are specific rules for the order and direction of the strokes and how they combine to form the character. Some characters are simple and made up of a few strokes, while others are more complex and made up of many strokes.

Mandarin characters can be written vertically or horizontally, depending on the context in which they are used. They are used in many East Asian countries, including Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

There are two writing systems: traditional and simplified characters.

It’s recommended to start with simplified Chinese characters first since they are more commonly used and easier to read. If you'd like to advance to the more complicated system, you can do so after learning the simplified system first.

Learning to read and write Mandarin characters can be a challenging task, but it is also a rewarding one. It opens up a new world of literature, history, and culture and can greatly enhance your ability to communicate with others who speak Mandarin.

2. Pinyin—the pronunciation of Chinese words

Mandarin Chinese is a tonal pronunciation language, meaning a word's meaning can change based on the tone used to say it. 

There are four main tones in Mandarin, each with its distinct pitch contour. The tones are:

  1. The first tone: high and level

  2. The second tone: rising

  3. The third tone: falling-rising

  4. The fourth tone: falling

Chinese ma tones and meanings:

How tones change one character's meaning, Discover Discomfort

It's important to pay attention to the tone used when pronouncing Mandarin words, as a small change in tone can completely change the meaning of the word. But with pinyin, it allows most Western languages to read and type in Mandarin. 

For example, the word "ma" (if pronounced with the third tone) means "horse," while (if pronounced with the fourth tone) it means "to scold."

Example reading passage on Chinese Reading Practice

Examples of neutral-toned characters, AllSetLearning

In addition to the four tones, Mandarin has neutral tones, which are used in certain grammatical situations, such as in question words and certain Chinese particles. These are pronounced with a light, flat or unstressed tone. Phrases do not start with these neutral-toned characters, as they are often the end of sentences or phrases.

Mandarin pronunciation can be difficult for English speakers, as the sounds are often different from those in English. However, with practice and exposure, it can become easier to distinguish between the different tones and sounds.

Everything can be confusing, but with time and practice, you'll be able to read words easily and accurately to impress all your Mandarin-speaking friends!

How to read Chinese characters?

Once you understand how Chinese characters are formed and the four tones, it’s time to start learning how to read them.

Learning to read Chinese characters involves recognizing each character's different components and how they are used to form words. 

It is also important to learn the vocabulary associated with each character. So when you encounter a character, you will understand the meaning of words. 

Recognizing characters can be done through memorization and practice, and there are many Chinese resources such as textbooks, online courses, and language exchange programs to help you out.

1. Practice exercises for recognizing Chinese Characters

Recognizing Mandarin words can be an exciting and fun journey.

Here are some fun ways to improve your recognition skills:

a) Play with the characters: 

Treat the characters like puzzle pieces, and have fun putting them together! Study the components of each character and practice writing them.

b) Create a memory game: 

Use flashcards to create a memory game. 

Test yourself and see how many characters you can recognize. Keep a tally and see how your recognition skills improve over time.

c) Watch and listen: 

Watch Mandarin movies or TV shows, listen to Mandarin music, and talk to native speakers. Immersing yourself in the language is a fun way to recognize the words in a real-life context.

d) Get tech-savvy: 

Use spaced repetition software to make your study sessions more fun and effective. The software will present words to you at increasing intervals, helping you to remember them for longer.

e) Play a language game exchange: 

Find a native Mandarin speaker to play a language exchange game with. You can take turns teaching each other new words and test each other's recognition skills.

2. Resources for learning to read words

Reading Chinese characters can be challenging, but with the right Chinese resources, you can master them in no time.

Here are some fantastic options to help you get started:

1. HSK Vocabulary Lists

If you're preparing for the HSK exams, this site is a great resource to help you improve your vocabulary. 

You'll get a list of words in HSK 1-6, their meanings, pinyin, and example sentences. Additionally, you can practice using the website's quiz and practice test functions.


HSK Vocabulary Lists by HSK Academy

2. Chinese Character Dictionary

This online Chinese dictionary is a great tool for looking up characters and getting more information about their meanings, pronunciation, and usage. You can see how the characters are written and practice writing them yourself.

me (我) on Chinese-Dictionary

Example of the word "me," Written Chinese Dictionary

Learning to memorize Chinese characters can be a daunting task. But once you know a few characters, it's fun trying to figure out the meaning of every sentence.

How to read Mandarin sentences?

Now, let's talk about Mandarin sentences. Unlike Mandarin characters, knowing Mandarin sentences involves understanding the meaning of words and how they are used in context.

1. Practice exercises for reading Mandarin sentences

Here are some practice exercises for Mandarin sentences:

a) Start with short sentences: 

Practice reading short sentences that contain only a few words. As you gain confidence, try reading longer sentences with more vocabulary.

b) Use context clues: 

When you encounter a new word, use the surrounding words and grammar to help you understand its meaning.

c) Study sentence patterns: 

Learn common sentence patterns and grammar in Mandarin, such as subject-verb-object, and use these patterns to help you understand the meaning of sentences.

d) Listening to Mandarin: 

Read Mandarin texts, listen to Mandarin audio materials, and practice speaking with native speakers to gain exposure to Mandarin sentences and improve your recognition skills.

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2. Resources for learning to read Mandarin sentences

Once you get the hang of reading individual characters, you can move on to more complicated sentences and paragraphs.

Chinese reading doesn't have to be a tedious task. Although it is more difficult learning how to read sentences than just words alone, you can easily make your way through Mandarin sentences and enjoy the beauty of Chinese culture with practice.

Here are some great resources to help you out:

1. Chinese Reading Practice

This website provides a fun and interactive way to practice reading Mandarin sentences. You can choose the right level for you and work your way up.

Example reading passage on Chinese Reading Practice

A reading passage by Chinese Reading Practice

In each article, they help you identify certain vocabulary words to learn and let you learn them through a short story. There are pinyin and English translations to aid your learning.

2. My Chinese Reading

If you're more of an auditory learner, My Chinese Reading is helpful. This website provides audio recordings of Mandarin passages along with the text.

example of a reading passage on My Chinese Reading

Reading passage, My Chinese Reading

You can also hover over the words to get their pinyin and translation. You can listen to the sentences and correct any sentences you have trouble pronouncing.

Additional tips for improving your Mandarin reading skills

1. Consistency and daily practice

Practice makes perfect, and this is especially true when learning a new language. Try to make reading Mandarin a daily habit, even if it's just for a few minutes. Consistency will help you progress faster and make the learning process smoother.

You can set aside a specific time each day for reading, or you can integrate it into your daily routine. For example, you can read a few sentences while having breakfast or read a chapter of a Mandarin novel before bed.

2. Understand your learning style

Everyone learns differently, so it's important to figure out your learning style. Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a kinesthetic learner who learns best by doing? 

Understanding your learning style will help you choose reading materials and study techniques that fit your strengths and make learning easier.

For example, if you're a visual learner, reading Mandarin texts with accompanying images might be a great fit for you. Or, if you're an auditory learner, listening to Mandarin podcasts might be more your speed. By choosing reading materials and study techniques that fit your learning style, you'll be able to retain the information better and make progress faster in your Mandarin reading journey.

3. Setting achievable goals

Setting achievable goals will give you a sense of direction and keep you motivated. Start with small goals and gradually increase the difficulty level as you progress.

For example, your first goal could be reading a short Mandarin article and understanding the main idea. Then, you can move on to more complex texts, such as novels or newspaper articles. Make sure to celebrate your achievements along the way, no matter how small they are.

4. Using reading materials that match your level

Reading materials that match your level will keep you from getting discouraged. If you start with too difficult materials, you'll likely lose interest and give up quickly. On the other hand, if the materials are easy, you'll get bored and progress slowly.

Try to find reading materials that challenge you, but not to the point where you get frustrated. Some resources, such as Chinese Reading Practice, have materials for different levels, making it easier to find something that's just right for you.

5. Utilize active recall

The idea behind the active recall is to test yourself after reading a passage or to summarize what you've read in your own words. Recalling information helps to reinforce the information in your memory and makes it easier to recall later.

Caption: The Active Recall Framework; Ali Abdaal

To incorporate active recall into your Mandarin reading practice, you can:

  1. Summarize what you've read in your own words, either in writing or out loud.

  2. Create flashcards with the vocabulary and phrases from the text, and quiz yourself on the content.

  3. Translate a Mandarin text into your native language and vice versa.

What are some reading resources for Mandarin learners?

There are many online resources if you're interested in learning how to read Chinese characters.

Here are a few platforms and sites that could be useful for you:

1. Learning through gamification: Duolingo

Duolingo's Chinese

Duolingo’s Chinese

Duolingo is a popular language-learning platform that offers a fun and engaging way to learn Mandarin. The app offers lessons in the form of games, making the learning process enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages.

However, it offers less depth than other platforms. While it's great for learning the basics and building a foundation, there are other Doulingo Chinese alternatives for those who want to become fluent in the language.

2. Learning through shows: Netflix

Netflixs Mandarin shows

A list of Netflix’s Mandarin shows

Netflix is a great resource for learning Mandarin through immersion. With a large selection of Mandarin-language shows and movies, you can improve your Mandarin skills while also getting a glimpse into Chinese culture.

Whether you're watching a romantic comedy, chinese horror, a historical drama, fantasy films, or a crime thriller, you'll naturally be exposed to the language and cultural nuances.

3. Learning through a structured curriculum: Pandanese

Pandanese dashboard

Pandanese’s level 2 dashboard

Pandanese is a platform that provides Mandarin lessons through interactive and personalized video lessons. The platform adapts to your learning pace and style, making the lessons tailored to your needs. With a focus on speaking and listening skills, Pandanese is a great option for those looking to improve their conversational Mandarin.

One huge benefit of using Pandanese is the personalized approach to learning, which can help you progress faster and retain information better.

Frequently asked questions

How do I start reading Mandarin?

1. Study Chinese characters with their pinyin. 2. Learn to recognize Chinese characters (their meanings and pronunciation). 3. Start reading everything in Chinese. Even if you know every single character in a sentence, you can understand it's context.

How do I read Chinese?

Today, most Chinese texts are similar to English. So, it is read from left-to-right and top-to-bottom. However, more traditional or ancient Chinese texts are written from right to left.

Is it difficult to read Mandarin?

Reading in Mandarin Chinese can be challenging if you translate every single character you encounter. To simplify reading in Mandarin, try to understand the overall context of the sentence or paragraph.

In closing: unlocking the secrets of Mandarin

Reading Chinese characters can be challenging for those who need to become more familiar with the Chinese language and culture. However, with proper guidance and practice, it is possible to master the art of reading Chinese characters and unlock the beauty of the Chinese language and culture.

The most important tip for understanding Mandarin sentences is to have fun! Immerse yourself in the language and enjoy the journey of learning to understand the meaning of Mandarin sentences.

Jing You is a Chinese native who grew up in the Fujian province and soaked in the Chinese culture while living with her grandparents. She later moved to Singapore to pursue further education. However, she has always been passionate about the Mandarin language despite being in an environment that speaks English predominantly. She was involved in multiple Mandarin and Chinese culture programmes in schools, and brought this passion forward by tutoring elementary school students Mandarin in her adulthood.

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