Welcome to Particularly Good Chinese. Chinese is a difficult language to master for two reasons. One, of course, is that there are a lot of words to learn, and each word has a different character. Unlike most languages, it does not have an alphabet of 25 to 50 characters that can be used to make all the words. However, it really does have a kind of alphabet, which in English we call “radicals” and the Chinese call “bushou”, which are the little parts that make up and define Chinese characters. With a little practice, one can quickly learn to recognize the bushou and build vocabulary. Of course, there are Romanized systems to help with pronunciation. So, learning to speak Chinese is challenging, but not more so than learning to speak French or German.
The second hardest thing in learing to read and speak Chinese is learning how to correctly use sentence particles. Chinese grammar is really quite simple, compared to other languages. It really has no tenses to learn. There are no inflections, and singular and plural forms are the same. What makes Chinese possible to understand is an understanding of how to use certain words as particles that will clue you in to all sorts of things like past, present and future ideas, continuing action, relative clauses, and the like.
To begin, though, let’s learn some very simple sentences, just to get you started and show you that, yes indeed, it’s possible to speak and read Chinese.
我 是 美 国 人
wŏ shì měi guó rén.
This is an easy construction. In English, we would say that we have a predicate nominative construction. 我(wŏ) – I is the subject. 是(shì) – state of being is the verb, in this case a linking verb, and 人(ren) – person is the predicate nominative. 美国(měiguó) – America is, in this case, an adjective modifying ren – person, so an America person, an American. So, our simple sentence says:
I = American. I am an American.
You might have heard Chinese people speak and think that they have a weird sing-song pattern to their speech. It’s only weird because you are not used to it, and don’t understand it. With a little practice, you will talk that way, too, and not even think it’s weird. In Chinese, there are five 声调 (shēngdiào), which means, breaking down the characters, “tone movement” or “sound melody”. We simply call them the tones. There are four distinct tones, plus a neutral tone which changes slightly depending on which of the other four tones it follows. We will discuss tones at length in another lesson. But, for quick reference, the four tones are:  high tone,  rising tone,  falling/rising tone, and  falling tone. In the pinyin romanized system, you can see the tones represented by the accent marks as follows:
声shēng = high tone
国 guó = rising tone
我 wŏ = falling/rising tone
是 shì = falling tone
a pinyin syllable without an accent mark is a neutral tone. We’ll talk about how to handle those later, along with some other quirks of tones.
For a good introduction to the tones, check out YangYang’s first lesson.
Pronouncing the pinyin can be somewhat misleading, if you are not careful. We will also cover pronunciation more completely as we go. But, for now, just familiarize yourself with the words of our first sentence.
我 wŏ – a single final “o” is pronounced like the “o” in “often”.
是 shì – “sh” is pronounced as in English, except that the tongue is moved back in the mouth farther, which accentuates the aspiration (h sound) more than the sibilant (s sound). In this position, the following “i” sounds almost like “er”, so that 是 sounds close to “sure” or the first syllable in “Shirley”, except more aspirated.
美 měi – pronounce like the month of May
国 guó – pronounce like “gwo” with the final “o” sound.
人 rén – The Chinese “r” is difficult for English speakers. Like the “sh” sound, the r is pronounced with the tongue curled back against the top palate of the mouth, so that is almost sounds like “sion” in “explosion”. It takes some practice. But, try sounding an “r” and then moving moving your tongue back while pulling back the corners of your mouth. With a little practice, you will get it.
That will do it for today’s lesson. It’s important to take baby steps here and make sure you get familiar with tones and pronunciation. You will find that Chinese people will be impressed when you can announce to them that
我 是 美 国 人
wŏshìměi guó rén.
Copyright © 2013 by Paul R. Birsching. All Rights Reserved.
- Intro to Chinese Verbs: 4 Types (languageboat.com)
- Chineasy uses illustrations to break down and teach Chinese characters (wired.co.uk)