Basics of Chinese Language

There are two main Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese.

With more than 1.1 billion speakers, Mandarin is the most common language in the world. Cantonese has around 55 million speakers. Both languages are written using the same characters, but very different when spoken aloud.

This page will help you get started with learning Mandarin Chinese as quickly as possible.

Chinese Characters

There are two sets of characters (also known as hànzì, or 汉字) used for written Chinese. They are known as simplified characters and traditional characters. The pronunciation of words is the same regardless of which set of characters is used.

Simplified characters are easier and faster to read & write. They are the result of an effort by the Chinese government to improve literacy in China. Simplified and traditional characters are usually very similar. For many words, simplified and traditional characters are actually the same.


Simplified Characters Traditional Characters




Unlike letters of the alphabet in English, Chinese characters generally don't convey how they should sound when spoken. For that, there is the romanized pronunciation system known as Pinyin. Aside from representing the way Mandarin is pronounced, Pinyin is also the main way of typing Chinese.

When represented by Pinyin, each sound in the Chinese language is made up of three parts: initials, finals, and tones. Initials are the first part of a Chinese sound, and finals are the end part of a sound. Tone marks are drawn above letters when words are written with Pinyin.


Initial Final Tone Pinyin Listen





The Five Tones

Tone 1 2 3 4 5
Mark ˉ ˊ ˇ ˋ N/A
Pitch Flat Rising Low Falling Neutral
Sample ("ma")
Sample ("shi")
Note: Not all sounds in Chinese start with an initial. Some sounds can consist of just a final part.
Example: 爱 ài, the word for "love" in Chinese.


b c ch d f g h j k l m n
p q r s sh t w x y z zh


a ai an ang ao e
ei en eng er i ia
ian iang iao ie in ing
iong iu o ong ou u
ua uai uan uang ue ui
un uo ü üe

Basic Chinese Vocabulary

Listed below are some of the first words you will learn using Chinese Tutor's flashcards. Try listening to each of them and repeating what you hear. Also note the similarities and differences between the simplified and traditional characters.

Simplified Characters Traditional Characters Pinyin Listen Meaning
你好 你好 nǐ hǎo Hello
(more about this word...)
再见 再見 zài jiàn Goodbye
(more about this word...)
谢谢 謝謝 xiè xie Thanks
(more about this word...)
不用谢 不用謝 bù yòng xiè You're welcome
(more about this word...)
(more about this word...)
yuè Month
(more about this word...)
nián Year
(more about this word...)
(more about this word...)
èr Two
(more about this word...)
sān Three
(more about this word...)
(more about this word...)

Next Steps

You now know enough to start learning more words using Chinese Tutor's Chinese flashcards.

You can also start practicing your pronunciation using the Speaking Practice section of Chinese Tutor. (Google Chrome required)

Learn from Multiple Sources

The best way to learn Chinese (or any other language!) is from multiple sources, whether it's classes, reading a textbook, reading books written with beginners' in mind, or listening to podcasts. That's why we have put together a collection of many of the best materials for learning Chinese in the Chinese Tutor Store.

One textbook we recommend in particular is the Integrated Chinese book, which many universities also use.

Simplified Characters

Traditional Characters