4 Basic Mandarin Language Skills

 
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The four skills when learning a new language are, listening, speaking, reading and writing, or rather 听 (tīng), 说 (shuō), 读 (dú), 写 (xiě) when translated into Mandarin. They should be learned consistently and are equally important as the foundation of the Chinese language. What are some of the main tips for each skill? In this post, we will be focusing on Simplified Chinese, as it is the format taught and used in Singapore. Let’s jump right in!

 

1.     Listening

Listening helps you understand the thoughts of others and aid in decision-making. In the Mandarin language, listening also helps one get used to the speed and tones of the language. The more you listen, the better you would know where to put the tone emphasis in a particular sentence. A new language would be just noise to the ears, by listening even when you do not understand it, you can get used to how each different word sound, maybe even pick up and remember some of them. As Chinese Phonetics (Hanyu Pinyin) is the Chinese language basics, beginners generally start by referring to Hanyu Pinyin and its four tones while listening to audio tapes. If you are an intermediate or advanced learner, you can probably read some Chinese characters. Thus, a good way to build on listening skills is to watch Chinese TV series with Chinese characters and subtitles, through this way you can also learn more vocabulary.

There are a few ways to work on your listening:

·       Listen to the same content repetitively, first with the supporting text and then without. Then revisit the content and check if you are able to understand it without the text. This helps to reinforce what you have learned.

·       Expand your scale of listening materials.

· Make time to listen to Chinese each day, not just when studying. You can put on a podcast, the local Chinese radio station or an audio book as background sound to immerse yourself in it.

·       Try to differentiate between formal and informal usage.

· Each usage is suitable for different situations. Formal Chinese is used when talking to someone more senior than you and in the work environment. Informal would be used when you are with friends and family. One example would be, 您好 (nín hǎo) is considered as formal usage while 你好 (nǐhǎo) is informal, though both means “Hello”.

2.     Speaking 

This may be one of the more challenging skill to master. But once you’re good at it, it is one of the most used skill. It will help you in daily conversations and while you are traveling in any Chinese-speaking country. Speaking involves the four tones of Hanyu Pinyin, it is essential to get the right tone to bring across the accurate meaning. Let me show you how tones affect the meaning of words:

摸 (mō) – touch 
磨 (mó) – to grind something 
抹 (mǒ) – to wipe
墨 (mò) – ink 

As you can see, although they have the same Hanyu Pinyin spelling, with just a change of tone, they mean totally different things. This is the same for many other words as well. Not only that, many different words have the same pronunciation, the way to infer the correct meaning is how they are used in a sentence.

But don’t worry, practice makes perfect for speaking skills! Some ways to improve are:

•   Find a Chinese tutor - this is especially crucial for beginners, who are new to Hanyu Pinyin and do not know any Chinese characters. A professional will be the best person to help you start your Chinese language journey.

•   Talk to native speakers - Tried and tested, this is one of the most interesting and relaxing method to improve your speaking skills! Not only are they great practicing partners, you can also learn to speak naturally by using informal tone and slangs. Besides, you get to learn more vocabulary and make new friends - superb plus points!

•   Speak out loud - practice by speaking to yourself repeatedly helps to reinforce the tones and pronunciation you have learned. One way to check if you have improved is to record yourself speaking for comparison to the sample text or to your first time speaking.

 

3.     Reading

This is the skill that builds up pronunciation and vocabulary. Beginners often rely on Hanyu Pinyin to help them read, however this Romanization system will gradually be removed from the learning process to introduce Chinese characters, as in the real world, Pinyin is rarely used.

If you are a beginner or intermediate learner, flashcards are one way to practice both reading and vocabulary. These cards often come in both Pinyin and Chinese characters. You get the best of both worlds - Pinyin helps you pronounce while the characters get you familiarized with vocabulary. If you have chosen to study Mandarin in Singapore and became a Han Hai student, an app is provided which includes flashcard practices to aid your study on the go. One way to test yourself using flashcards is to read by yourself before checking the correct pronunciation.

If you are an advanced learner, you probably have built up some vocabulary and know Chinese characters. In this case, you can improve on your reading by doing something you like, for example, watching tv series with Chinese subtitles or singing a Chinese song while referring to the lyrics. While you may not know every single character, you can read along with the speaker or singer while taking note of the new vocabulary. Be sure to check the meaning of the new words too! On a more serious note, grab a paragraph from your textbook or the newspaper and to challenge yourself, rest assure you can always approach your tutor if you hit a wall.

4. Writing

The most unique but also intimidating point about Chinese characters is that they are independent and learners do not know the meaning unless they recognize the character. This is very much different from other languages which have a reference point, allowing the learner to guess the meaning. For example, if you saw the French word ‘bleu’, you can take a guess at what it means because it is spelt similarly to the word ‘blue’.

Chinese words are made by combining different characters, and characters are formed by radicals, the building blocks of the language. An interesting fact is that the radicals have their own have meanings but can be combined together to form a character of a different meaning. As more characters join together, words and sentences are born, very much like how atoms bond together to form a substance in chemistry. Here is an example:

(radical) 女 (nǚ) = female

(radical) 子 (zi) = son

女 + 子 = 好 (hǎo), which means good 

Well, a woman having a son is a good thing, isn’t it!

With the advance in technology, everyone can easily type Chinese characters using the Pinyin system on their phones and laptops. However, writing and recognizing characters is still important because actual words are used in daily life. Additionally, characters are made up of basic strokes which follow a certain order in writing. This website allows users to practice writing Chinese in the correct strokes, and also provides the meaning of the words. 

There are about 50000 characters in the Chinese dictionary, but before you raise the white flag, the good news is you only need to know a few thousand to be considered fluent. Here are a list of most commonly Chinese characters based on their frequency.

If you plan to take the highest Level 6 of the HSK Test (standardized Chinese Language Proficiency test) in the future, you need to have a mastery of 5000 to 8000 words. However, Level 1 only requires at least 400 basic Mandarin words, a much easier step to overcome with the help of Han Hai’s HSK Preparation Class.

If you have read all the way to this section of the post, you have probably noticed that the above skills are related to one another. By improving one skill, you would most likely improve the other three as well. If you are new to our little red dot and plan to learn Mandarin in Singapore, signing up for classes would be one of the top options. Han Hai language Studio offers courses from Beginner to Advanced levels, which focuses equally on the four skills. Hanyu Pinyin and Chinese Typing class is also available, which is something very crucial in today’s technological society. Visit our website to find out the best way to learn Mandarin Chinese!