Where to begin learning Mandarin?

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Dylan95
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Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Dylan95 » Mon May 27, 2019 3:40 am

Hi everyone,

I'm thinking about taking Mandarin next year in a classroom setting at my university. I've wanted to learn it for years, but I've been busy with Russian and in all honesty, I find Mandarin intimidating. I'm going to be in Russia this summer doing research, but I will have plenty of free time. If I do end up deciding to take Mandarin, I think it would be a good idea to get a head start this summer and begin studying ahead of time. Does anyone have any advice on how to kickstart studying Mandarin? Particularly regarding tones? Italki? Any particular websites or programs? I've read before many times that tones are supposedly "not that hard," but I can't even pronounce words like "Qù" for the life of me. I've studied Russian, Ukrainian, French, Italian etc. and while my pronunciation has never been great, I have always been able to make myself understood without many problems. Mandarin is obviously a lot harder than that, and when I've dabbled with it before in the past, I just found myself hopelessly repeating words over and over again without any improvement. Is there something I should do differently? Or does it just require more repetition?
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Purangi » Mon May 27, 2019 4:52 am

Tones are quite tricky, but far from impossible to master. You need to learn to hear them and then produce them. This is best done in a face-to-face session with a native Mandarin speaking tutor. Using tapes, Skype sessions, etc. won't nearly be as efficient.

So I think the best way to really kick start Mandarin would be to hire a tutor and to work only on pinyin and tones for the first 4-5 hours. Forget about characters, vocab and grammar for now - you'll have plenty of time for that later. Instead, make sure you master every single pinyin syllable with the five tones. Start with monosyllabic words, than move on to two-syllable and three-syllable combinations. Have your tutor give you a ton of pinyin + tones dictations. This is critical and it will be the foundation upon which you will build everything else.

Ideally, the tutor should come from the place where you will be using your Mandarin, i.e. North China, South China, Taiwan, Sichuan, etc.

Good luck!
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Flickserve » Mon May 27, 2019 4:57 am

Support everything you wrote expect that it's going to be twenty or more hours of work.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Jean-Luc » Mon May 27, 2019 12:32 pm

The first choice (IMO) is to choose the path you want to follow...

Either the messy way of starting from scratch with Pinyin and get used to wrong pronunciations and be addicted to reading and learning pinyin or start with right Chinese pronunciations and learning to read characters the Chinese way without any pinyin at the beginning.

The difference is learning the pinyin or the Chinese language...

Bopomofo/zhuyin is far better to start with than pinyin (both are connected) and uses characters so you are directly diving in the Chinese language).

https://chinesehacks.com/study/learning ... or-zhuyin/
https://www.writtenchinese.com/pros-con ... se-pinyin/
Last edited by Jean-Luc on Fri May 31, 2019 7:18 am, edited 4 times in total.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Axon » Mon May 27, 2019 1:25 pm

I agree with Purangi but I'd put myself between them and Flickserve in terms of time required - 20 hours face to face is overkill, but 5 hours with an experienced tutor (who speaks good Standard Mandarin!) at the outset could make a huge difference. You can practice on your own and with high quality recordings for the rest of the time.

I mean, don't be scared that if you make one wrong move it'll ruin everything forever. Mandarin is a language like any other, with hard things and easy things. People speak and understand Mandarin with big varieties in pronunciation all the time. If you realize you've been pronouncing something wrong, you can change it.

That said, although you have a few advantages with Russian, the sound system of Mandarin really is quite different. In my opinion, phonetic awareness is the most important thing to cultivate early on. That means not only learning to distinguish the tones (all of which can be found in regular everyday American English prosody) but also the subtleties of consonants and vowels.

Becoming familiar with the IPA is a big help here. I strongly disagree with Jean-Luc's main point, though I think I can understand part of it - if you read Pinyin like English you'll be in for a bad time. Pinyin is an excellent system of Romanization, but you need to pay close attention to the vowels and consonants to know what they really represent in terms of the actual sounds made.

Check out this clickable Pinyin chart with IPA. And here's a good article with audio on tone pairs for later.

Once you can hear and reproduce these sounds, you will have an enormous advantage over other learners, and you will get praised for your accent left and right.

As for the rest, this is a solid guide by leosmith, who I can confirm continues to speak very good Mandarin.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Arnaud » Mon May 27, 2019 5:54 pm

At the beginning, I found very difficult to distinguish and imitate the three trio of consonants: z,c,s / j,q,x / zh,ch,sh .
I think it's important to concentrate on these sounds from the beginning and then tackle the tones.
The explanations on ChinesePronounciationWiki are interesting to learn how to place the tongue to make these sounds: basically that's the same sounds with three different tongue positions: dental, palatalized, retroflex. Once you understand how to correctly place the tongue, you start to hear the differences and you're able to reproduce them.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Jean-Luc » Fri May 31, 2019 7:34 am

Arnaud wrote:At the beginning, I found very difficult to distinguish and imitate the three trio of consonants: z,c,s / j,q,x / zh,ch,sh .
I think it's important to concentrate on these sounds from the beginning and then tackle the tones.
The explanations on ChinesePronounciationWiki are interesting to learn how to place the tongue to make these sounds: basically that's the same sounds with three different tongue positions: dental, palatalized, retroflex. Once you understand how to correctly place the tongue, you start to hear the differences and you're able to reproduce them.


the best way is to learn with characters in order not to learn the "pinyin" language... With Zhuyin, for instance, you learn the sounds not to read a foreign language named pinyin. Les petits mandarins, a new method for French speaker, introduce pinyin later in order to read dictionary or as a reminder in vocabulary list. In not doing so you get bad habits you can't get rid of it and stay "handicapped".
Pinyin has the tones written but not the expirations... So you are screwed!
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Arnaud » Fri May 31, 2019 11:33 am

Jean-Luc wrote:the best way is to learn with characters in order not to learn the "pinyin" language... With Zhuyin, for instance, you learn the sounds not to read a foreign language named pinyin. Les petits mandarins, a new method for French speaker, introduce pinyin later in order to read dictionary or as a reminder in vocabulary list. In not doing so you get bad habits you can't get rid of it and stay "handicapped".
Pinyin has the tones written but not the expirations... So you are screwed!
There are several "schools of thought". Bellassen in his little "yellow book" that was used in french universities in the 80's/90's was advocating not to use the pinyin. Then later, another book was used "C'est du chinois" where the pinyin is used and the characters are taught a few weeks later (same method in "Le chinois comme en chine" used at the Renne university).
Pinyin is a convinient way to learn the Mandarin, I know it also has its inconvenients (like not showing the expirations), but no writing system is perfect: you are no more screwed with pinyin than with another type alphabet/syllabary, imho. I'm a good listener and a good imitator, I don't generally rely a lot on the writing system when I learn a language.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Flickserve » Fri May 31, 2019 2:42 pm

Just get on and learn the pinyin and practice it. It’s a grind and needs some tenacity.

Sort it out early and practice it early. The benefits to your pronunciation will become obvious later when you hear other mandarin learners try to speak.
Last edited by Flickserve on Fri May 31, 2019 2:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Where to begin learning Mandarin?

Postby Axon » Fri May 31, 2019 2:43 pm

Jean-Luc wrote:
the best way is to learn with characters in order not to learn the "pinyin" language... With Zhuyin, for instance, you learn the sounds not to read a foreign language named pinyin. Les petits mandarins, a new method for French speaker, introduce pinyin later in order to read dictionary or as a reminder in vocabulary list. In not doing so you get bad habits you can't get rid of it and stay "handicapped".
Pinyin has the tones written but not the expirations... So you are screwed!


Are you talking about aspiration? If so, Pinyin definitely shows it.

p, t, k, ch, and c are the aspirated consonants. b, d, g, zh, and z are the unaspirated ones. This is in contrast to Wade-Giles, which more explicitly marks the aspirations: p', t', k', ch', ts' vs p, t, k, ch, ts. People used to leave off the little apostrophes when transcribing, but Pinyin solves this problem.

Don't get me wrong, Pinyin is a surprisingly complex system that takes a lot of shortcuts and requires you to learn lots of rules. But once you know how to read it, you can always read and write any Mandarin character with standard pronunciation. Chinese schoolchildren learn Pinyin first and entire books are printed with Pinyin glosses, just like what's done with Zhuyin glosses in Taiwan. In fact, you can easily convert between Pinyin and Zhuyin because they're both excellent systems.

The only thing that's missing in Pinyin, to my knowledge, is stress marking. But that's something missing from virtually every learner's Mandarin text. It could also have a separate symbol to show changed tones, like perhaps writing nĩhǎo to show that nǐ is usually pronounced in the third tone, but changed here. But then that's making it extra complicated just to reflect etymology, and if we're doing that, we might as well add silent letters to reflect older pronunciations... better not go down that road.
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