Peeling the Chinese Onion – Practical advice on how to approach the study of Mandarin

As a student of the Chinese language, I constantly find myself searching for metaphors to describe the learning process. Metaphors — ok, similes in this case, technically speaking— not only serve as a study aid, but also as a way to describe my experience to others. One of the best explanations that I’ve come up with is that Chinese is a many-layered language. Studying it is like peeling a large onion.

And no, not because the endeavor will make you cry.

1. Exotic Phonetics — Forget what you knew

The outer layer is where you learn to speak all over again. For those of us whose mother tongue is non-tonal, this means having to de-learn most of what we learned as babies. We have to get our minds around the idea of the four tones. Also, we must teach our tongues the subtle differences between the ‘j’ and ‘zh’, ‘q’ and ‘ch’, ‘x’ and ‘sh’ consonant sounds, and so on. Listening to native speakers proves difficult at this early stage, because their speech glides along with such speed that we cannot make out the individual sounds and tones. Trying to learn phonetics from a native speaker is like trying to steal steps from a professional ballroom dancer. But that’s another simile…

But it’s important to point out that tones are not the insurmountable barrier that they are sometimes made out to be.

Every language uses tonesto differentiate statements from questions, for example, or to infuse speech with emotional qualities like excitement or surprise. Chinese just happens to use them in shorter bursts, in a way that determines the role of each syllable in the sentence.

There is no substitute for complete immersion, but regardless of where you are, find yourself a trusted instructor or native speaker friend, to guide you through this initial stage. The best teachers will slow things down, exaggerate, over-pronounce — to help you absorb and assimilate these exotic phonetic.

Early on you will have to master a Romanization system, one that matches Chinese sounds to familiar written symbols. The choice depends on several factors, like which text book you are using, and also your native tongue. Fortunately, Hanyu Pinyin, developed in Mainland China in the 1950s, has been widely adopted around the world. If you are studying in Taiwan, learning Bopomofo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) in addition will prove invaluable.

2. A Lineup of Strange Characters

The next layer is to string together the sounds and tones to make word-fragments, or syllables. Chinese calls these 字 (zì), and each one corresponds to a Chinese character.

The following step, surprisingly, is not the forming of words. Words are a somewhat vague concept in Chinese. A word, called 词 (cí), is a string of two or more 字, however, meaning often becomes clarified in the context of a larger phrase or sentence. Therefore, it is more useful to learn common phrases and expressions.

To illustrate this point, it is not enough to simply learn the character for “car”, 车 ( chē), or even the more specific term “automobile” 汽车 (qìchē). You must add to your vocabulary expressions like

  • “to drive” 开车 (kāichē)
  • “to break, while driving” 刹车 (shāchē)
  • “to park” 车(tíngchē)
  • “parking spot” 停车位 (tíngchēwèi)
  • “train” 火车 (huǒchē)
  • “train station” 火车站 (huǒchēzhàn)

This stage also leads to some interesting discoveries about how the rhythm and tone of words changes depending on how they are combined. ( tone combinations for more information on this very practical learning technique.)


At this point, you will usually learn some grammar and basic sentence structures. Compared to most Western languages, Chinese grammar seems relatively simple at first. There are no verb conjugations, no noun inflections, no use of noun gender. But this is no time to slack off — you’re still busy slicing away at the outer layers.

3. Cracking the Code

If you decide to learn to read Chinese — and this is a big if — you find yourself faced with a considerable obstacle. How do you even begin to approach this problem? You must stare at these strange-looking figures as much as possible. Your brain will start to pick up on patterns, to help you file away this new information. One such pattern is repeating radicals. Most characters have a radical that buckets them into a category, like water, person, speech, movement, etc. Slowly, your patience begins to pay off, as the characters start to look less and less intimidating.

Using this eyes-only, hands-behind-the-back method, it’s possible to learn to recognize dozens, even hundreds of characters. But to break this limit, you must also begin to draw characters, and use your hands to teach your brain. This is not writing yet, but it’s extremely useful for growing your reading vocabulary.

With a large enough vocabulary, you may begin to read entire sentences or passages. But here lies another challenge of the Chinese language. The traditional written form is a stream of characters, with no spaces to help you segment a sentence into words and phrases. To read fluently, the reader should be able to quickly scan for pronouns, prepositions and measure words, as these are the natural delimiters of the Chinese sentence.

4. Mastering the language

The remaining layers are a deeper understanding of grammar, the knowledge of Chinese sayings and proverbs, and when to use them, and of course the ability to write. Anyone who has gotten this close to the core has made an enviable accomplishment.

The unique thing about Chinese is that unlike European languages, where speaking, reading and writing are learned more or less in parallel, in Chinese these can be arbitrarily separated. While this doesn’t make for an easier language, it allows you to focus on the skills to meet your own goals. You may decide to learn to speak it but not to read it. Or if you don’t have the time or inclination to write it, you may still reach a respectable reading level.

Chinese is not for everyone. If you wish to travel to China and communicate on a basic level, English and a few basic expressions from a phrase book will serve you just fine. But if you have loftier goals, such as the ability to decipher a Chinese menu, to speak with your significant other’s family in their native tongue, or if you simply have a love of languages — roll up your sleeves and start peeling!

Joe Varadi

Joe Varadi lived and studied in Shanghai and Taiwan, in a simpler time before blogs and smartphones got big. He is the creator of Trasee! for Chinese Trasee, a mobile app for Chinese reading and handwriting that incorporates many of the techniques he developed while learning Mandarin.