When first learning Mandarin, there are two significant challenges. First is obviously learning a whole range of new words, but the second is learning to understand the large number of characters. Unlike English, where we basically use 26 letters from our alphabet, Chinese is estimated to have anywhere up to about 30,000 characters. Fortunately, only about 2,500 of those are in common daily use.
To avoid the challenge of learning both a new set of words, and a new set of writing at the same time, a common starting point is to use what's called 拼音 (Pīnyīn). The first character basically means to spell, and the second character refers to sound.
Pinyin uses pretty much the same alphabet as we do, with a couple of exceptions. It doesn't use the letter "v" and it does add "ū" (which has a umlaut, and is a type of "eww" sound with a curled lip – and pretty familiar in many European languages).
Not all combinations of letters make sense. Words are based on an initial and a final, and there are a defined set of each. For example, in the word:
草 (Cǎo) which means "grass", "C" is the initial, and "ǎo" is the final.
As another example:
层 (Céng) which means "floor" (as in a building floor), has the same initial "C" but a different final "éng".
But not all words that start with "C" have the same initial. For example:
吃 (Chī) which means "eat", has the initial "Ch" and the final "ī".
Note also that the other strokes above the letters, different to the umlaut I mentioned before. These represent tones, and I'll talk more about them soon.
You might also wonder why the Chinese don't just use pinyin all the time, as the characters are easier to write, than their normal characters. The primary reason is that many words have different written characters, but the same pinyin.
马 (Mǎ) means "horse" and 码 (Mǎ) means "code" but they have identical pinyin representations, including the same tone.
In the next two posts on Learning Mandarin, I'll write about Initials, then write about Finals.
I'll write more soon on the best methods for learning Mandarin. If you want to get a taste for it in the meantime though, my current favorite site is iTalki, and my favorite teacher by far is Amy He. If you decide to try it, click here and it's cheaper for both you and me.