Learning how to speak Chinese is easy when you have access to the right tools! Even though the alphabet and phonetics are completely different from what you’re used to as an English speaker. Anyone can learn how to speak Mandarin through self-conversation, linguistic exchanges, language learning apps, pronunciation tables, and a few other key resources. In this article, we’ll give you our best advice on how to speak Mandarin Chinese for beginners, and how to improve your expression and listening comprehension once you’ve mastered the basics.
Methods for Learning How to Speak Chinese
Listen to native speakers… and copy them!
When you’re learning to speak Chinese, it’s important to take some time to listen first. This might seem simple, but when you’re learning a language that you don’t hear often, you have to familiarize yourself with the sounds, accents, and pronunciation, etc. The important thing is to develop a method you can follow regularly.
Practice speaking Chinese every day
Progress comes with regularity. Come up with a plan that fits into your daily schedule. This is a good idea for learning any new skill! Practice a little bit every day (10 minutes is enough), and you’ll see very quick progress. No matter what method you choose for learning Chinese, make an effort to dedicate time to it every day.
Wondering about the time commitment involved with learning to speak Chinese? ➡️ How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?
At first, set quickly attainable goals to keep yourself motivated. The more comfortable you get, the higher the level you can reach! Progress gradually to avoid becoming discouraged. Especially when you’re learning how to speak Mandarin or another language that’s particularly complex for English speakers. Concentrate on listening and speaking first, to understand the language, sentence structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It’s easy with the tools I’m going to tell you about.
What Tools Can Help Me Learn How to Speak Chinese?
The main benefit of apps? You can use them anywhere you take your phone or tablet (most places, these days). On public transit, during a workout, waiting in line. You can practice your Chinese while going about your busy day.
MosaLingua offers an app for learning Mandarin Chinese. You can use it to learn phrases and vocabulary from levels A1 (beginner) to C1 (advanced). With over 2,000 vocabulary flashcards for the most common words and expressions, you’ll be speaking Chinese quickly. The MosaLingua method is based firmly on repetition. Listen to audio clips recorded by native speakers, and repeat after them. You can even record and listen to yourself to compare your performance to the original. Try the free version of MosaLingua first if you aren’t familiar with our method.
And to stay motivated, always keep your main goal in mind, whether it’s a vacation in China, a business trip, a life change, or being able to communicate with a friend. This will help you keep going!
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If you’re particularly nervous about making mistakes while speaking, or if you’re too shy to talk with an instructor or native speaker, you can practice by talking to yourself. This might feel a little ridiculous, especially in the beginning, but self-conversation is a great way to ease into basic Mandarin Chinese speaking and listening. You just need to get a little creative: prepare a little in advance, write scripts for simple conversations, and practice in front of a mirror. The key is repetition! The more you practice speaking, the better you’ll get. And when you find yourself in a situation with a native speaker, the words will come out naturally. This is a really good technique for boosting confidence. And when you’re learning languages, confidence is about half the battle!
Find a Chinese language partner
Do you feel ready to talk with a native speaker? Then it’s time to find a language partner online! This is an excellent method for practicing and learning Chinese without leaving home. There are all kinds of language exchange platforms to help people find conversation partners. You’ll be able to have friendly, relaxed conversations that don’t feel academic. You’ll meet other people who want to learn your language, and who can help you learn how to speak Chinese. This exchange model is really effective. It’s free, helps you learn languages, and introduces you to new people. Just be aware that you should have a good base for introductory conversation before you start!
Here are a few language exchange platforms:
- Tandem: This practical web and mobile app is great for finding a language partner whose interests align with your own. This is a good bonus for finding discussion topics.
- Conversation Exchange: This site helps you find conversation partners from around the world.
Online Chinese courses
There are many websites that offer online courses taught by qualified instructors and native speakers. Find teachers based on your preferences, and book sessions that fit your schedule. The quality of your instructor (and their teaching style) will impact how much you get out of the course, so make sure you do a little research! For example, do they teach only in Chinese (immersion), or is there a mixture of Chinese and English in each session?
Mandarin is usually well represented on online course platforms. You won’t have much trouble finding an instructor who fits your needs. It’s a great bonus to have someone who can correct your mistakes and give you feedback in real-time.
Even though they’re flexible and effective, online courses do have a downside: they aren’t free. At about $20/hour for a good teacher, it can get expensive pretty fast. But many learners do find that a financial investment in their progress helps with motivation.
We recommend starting with Italki. You’ll pay a very reasonable amount for private tutoring sessions. Some instructors have teaching credentials, but others tutor in their native language more casually, and generally charge less.
Audio resources for learning how to speak Chinese
Podcasts are portable and easy to use on a daily basis. This makes them a super valuable tool for anyone learning how to speak Chinese. No matter what platform you use (like Spotify, Apple Podcast, or Google Podcast), you’ll find hundreds of podcasts to help you learn Chinese at any level. The advantage of podcasts is that the content is only audio. This makes it perfect for helping you focus on pronunciation! They are easy to listen to anywhere, whenever you want.
Here are a few of our favorite podcasts for Chinese listening practice:
- Story FM, inspired by NPR’s “This American Life” podcast. The stories can
- Young Love Play is a podcast created by two Taiwanese students who talk about their daily lives in a very casual register. This is a good tool for learning informal, conversational vocabulary.
We’re working on a full article about the best Chinese podcasts, so be sure to check back on the blog often.
YouTube is another easy-to-use resource that offers hundreds and hundreds of videos on language learning. In fact, there are lots of Mandarin teachers and autodidacts who have entire channels dedicated to teaching Chinese. Just try not to lose your way in the masses of videos available! Find a good channel to subscribe to, like Elementary Chinese or SMART Mandarin with Katrina Lee for example.
Many instructors have launched YouTube channels. It’s a good way for them to get their name out and promote their methodology. Simply search “learn Chinese” or “Chinese lesson” in the search bar to explore the other channels out there.
Mandarin Pronunciation: Resources to Practice Speaking Chinese
If you want to learn how to speak Chinese, you’ll need two major components: vocab and pronunciation. Knowing lots of words is one thing, but communicating them through great pronunciation is another! Luckily, specialized resources can help you work on your Chinese pronunciation.
Pinyin pronunciation tables
It’s important to start with learning Pinyin. This is a system of transcribing Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. So you can learn vocabulary and perfect your pronunciation before you even start to learn Chinese characters! Start with the basics: pronouncing initials, finals, and tones.
Know your initials
Pinyin is a transcription of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Each syllable contains an initial (consonant) and a final (vowel). There are full lessons on Mandarin pronunciation in the MosaLingua Learn Chinese app. This list should give you an idea of how Chinese pronunciation compares to English pronunciation:
- d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, and t sound nearly identical to their English pronunciation
- j is pronounced “dj”
- z is pronounced “dz”
- zh is pronounced “dj”
- b sounds like a mix between “p” and “b”
- g is pronounced between “k” and “gu”
- x is pronounced “sh” as in “shampoo”
- sh also sounds like the “sh” in “shampoo”
- q sounds like a mix between “tch” and “ts”
- ch is pronounced “tch”
- c is pronounced “ts”
Know your finals
In order to pronounce each syllable, you’ll also need to know the finals that come after initials. Here’s a list of Mandarin finals:
- ie is pronounced between “yé” and “yè”
- e is pronounced “uh”
- he sounds like a mix between the Chinese “e” and “a” (guttural)
- ai sounds like the word “eye”
- ei is pronounced “ay,” as in “say”
- ou is pronounced “o”
- an is pronounced “an,” as in “Taiwan”
- -ng (final ending added onto a vowel) makes the sound more nasal. Don’t pronounce the “g.
- “uei, uen, and iou following an initial are pronounced “ui,” “un,” and “iu.”
Know your tones
To learn to speak Chinese (Mandarin), you need to know that there are four tones and one neutral tone. They’re very easy to recognize in Pinyin: the accents over the finals indicate the tone.
- dā: high and constant, just like the line over the “ā.”
- dá: the accent points upward. It starts on a medium tone, then raises higher.
- dǎ: this tone “dips.” It starts high, falls, then rises again.
- dà: the accent points downward. It starts high, then falls quickly.
- da: this syllable is neutral.
Forvo: listen & learn to pronounce words and expressions
If Pinyin seems too abstract for you (especially if you’re a beginner), don’t worry! There are several pronunciation dictionaries out there. Forvo is a good example because it allows you to listen to the pronunciation of any word. Other site users from various countries and regions make the recordings, so you can explore different accents.
🌏 Which countries speak Chinese anyway? Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, as well as an official language in Singapore. People also speak Mandarin in Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, and Tibet. So there are plenty of variations in pronunciation!
Here are a few examples:
xièxie (thank you)
zǎo shang hǎo (hello)
zài jiàn (goodbye)
zěn me yàng (How are you?)
duì bu qǐ (excuse me)
Under the “Essentials” column on the Forvo homepage, you’ll find all the basics you need to start a conversation: greetings, places, colors, etc. (All of the most useful words and phrases are also available in your MosaLingua app!)
Now it’s up to you to see where Chinese learning takes you! Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like to learn Mandarin Chinese, and let us know if you’ve tried MosaLingua Learn Chinese app!
If you want to learn Chinese, read these other articles on the subject: