Speak Up! 4 Tips to Improve and Learn to Speak Mandarin

Students sitting in class to learn to speak mandarin
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Speak Up! 4 Tips to Improve and Learn to Speak Mandarin

Are you feeling 难倒 (nán dǎo — stumped)  over learn to speak mandarin? That’s understandable: It’s tough enough to grasp concepts of 拼音 (pīn yīn — Chinese romanization) and the basics of Chinese traditional or simplified script. And learning how to actually understand when you hear someone speaking Chinese, or to even speak Chinese yourself, is a whole other ballpark of tough. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learn to speak mandarin and listen in Mandarin Chinese can actually be extremely easy. Here are four tips for improving your Mandarin! 

1. Gather the Right Materials

Learn to speak mandarin is different from learning how to read and write in a language, particularly when it comes to a language like Mandarin. The materials you need to learn 汉字 (hàn zì — Chinese characters) will differ somewhat from the materials you need to learn to speak mandarin

When started learning Mandarin, used two separate notebooks for practice. One was for practicing pīnyīn with the respective hànzì, and the other was for just pīnyīn sentence-building so that you could learn to speak mandarin. You can do the same. Fill this second notebook with phrases that you personally use often, along with other phrases that are commonly used in everyday life

Illustration of people sitting in group to learn to speak mandarin

So much of learning to speak Mandarin has to do with listening. The idea is to mimic the speed and accents of a native speaker—and what better way to learn is there besides watching TV? If you don’t have a Chinese-speaking friend (yet!), then watching Mandarin-language television shows and movies will be extremely helpful.

Illustration of people practicing foreign words

2. Understand Tones the Easy Way

When you learn to speak mandarin, you’ve probably heard that tones are huge issues. That’s quite the understatement. I mean, check out all these variations of ma:

 (mā) — mother

 (mà) — scold

 (mǎ) — horse

 (ma) — the equivalent of a question mark (?) for formal questions

 (má) — hemp

All of these words are said with slight tonal differences and all mean vastly different things. You definitely don’t want to accidentally call your mother a horse, so you’ll need to understand how tones work and how important they are.

English speakers are used to having words that sound phonetically very different. Mandarin has no such luxury, so we’ll have to dive into what these new tones actually sound like. Luckily, they sound just how they look.

When reading from left to right, the direction the tonal symbol moves should be mimicked in your speech:

 (mā) — mother: This variation of ma should be said flat.

 (mà) — scold: The tone begins high and ends low, meaning there should be a sharp drop in your voice.

 (mǎ) — horse: This tone starts high, drops, then goes back up again.

 (ma) — the equivalent of a question mark (?): There is no tone for this word.

 (má) — hemp: This tone starts low and rises.

This is tricky to get the hang of at first if you speak English or any other non-tonal language, but practice makes perfect.

3. Practice Speaking!

Now that you’ve got the materials and a basic understanding of tones, it’s time to get to work practicing. There are many ways you can learn to speak mandarin:

Find a tutor. If you’re really struggling to get your speech up to par, a professional tutor who speaks Mandarin fluently should be able to help. If you want an in-person tutor, check out Wyzant, which can help you find a tutor in your area (or online). Another great option for online tutors is Verbling.

Make a Mandarin-speaking friend. This is by far the best (or at least the funniest) method you can do to learn to speak mandarin. A native speaker can help you become more fluent and can point out errors in your tones. Plus, you get a new friend! Heck yeah!

Illustration displaying different english words

Language meet-ups. Tandem meetings simply involve meeting another person who speaks the language you wish to learn (usually a native speaker), and getting together to talk. You help them learn your language, and they help you learn to speak mandarin. Plus, it’s usually free.

Talk to yourself. Weird, right? Talking to yourself and repeating short passages is one of the best ways to strengthen your skills when you start learn to speak mandarin when you can’t do any of the three other methods.

At first, speaking may be uncomfortable to do regularly, especially if you’re not proud of how your Mandarin sounds. Nevertheless, it’s very much a necessity. How else will you be able to hear your progress if you don’t actually practice speaking?

And over time, as you progress and improve in your skills, you’ll likely find yourself enjoying it.

Students sitting in class to learn to speak mandarin

4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If you’re going to walk away with only one thing, let it be this: Your Mandarin will probably never be perfect, but it’s not your fault, and you definitely shouldn’t give up.

If you’re an adult learning a second language, even if you immerse yourself in that language for years, you’ll probably still have at least a slight accent or say particular things in a way that makes it clear you’re not a native speaker.

For example, native Mandarin speakers (as well as Japanese) cannot easily distinguish between “r” and “l” sound in English because they are phonemes that are incredibly difficult to change in the mature brain. Similarly, native English speakers can’t always easily learn foreign phonemes because the brain isn’t very receptive to them.

Learn to speak mandarin is going to endlessly surprise you. Even if you master sentence structures, order, and tones, you’ll still encounter phrases in Mandarin that don’t make a lick of sense. That’s alright.

Mandarin Chinese is statistically one of the hardest languages to speak, if not the most difficult of them all. It’s important to forgive yourself if you run into roadblocks—learning any language has its difficult moments!

By applying these tips to your learn to speak mandarin will be a good experience and you’ll see improvement in your speech in no time!

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