There is a common frustration among Chinese learners, especially beginners: You can hold a Chinese conversation with a native speaker, but something about what you’re saying simply doesn’t feel right. No worries, we are here to help! This article shows you how to speak Chinese like a native with five helpful tips.
Focus on pronunciation
Pronunciation is the foundation of learning any language because the basic function of language is to communicate. So, in the beginning, you can go through some guides to mastering Chinese pronunciation and getting all the concepts of tones, intonations, and spelling rules clear.
1. Be careful with tones
An extremely important thing to remember when you speak Mandarin is that there are four different tones:
- The first tone: The first tone is high and level. When pronouncing the first tone, keeping your voice even (almost monotone) across the whole syllable is important. It can be represented by a horizontal line (ā) above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number “1” written after the syllable).
- The second tone: The second tone slightly rises. In English, we sometimes associate this rise in pitch with a question. The second tone is represented by an upward sign above a letter (á) in pinyin (or sometimes by a number “2” written after the syllable).
- The third tone: The third tone falls and then rises again. When pronounced clearly, its tonal “dipping” is very distinctive. It is represented by an upward and downward sign (ǎ) above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number “3” written after the syllable).
- The fourth tone: The fourth tone starts high but drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. English-speakers often associate this tone with an angry command. It is represented by a downward sign (à) above a letter in pinyin (or sometimes by a number “4” written after the syllable).
- There is also a neutral tone which means there is no tone or sign on a letter (a).
Tones matter because even if two words sound the same except for the tone, a different tone brings a different meaning. For instance, the phrase “wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ” (我想问你) means “I want to ask you something” while the very similar “wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ” (我想吻你) means “I want to kiss you.”
2. Emphasize on the right words and syllables
In general English speaking, certain words are commonly emphasized, and certain words have less emphasis. For example, when we say “Good morning!”, in most cases, the emphasis falls on “Good MORN-ing!” or “GOOD morning?” with a little rising intonation at the end of the sentence to make it more playful and fun. But we never say “Good morn-ING!” because it just sounds wrong.
The same thing happens with Chinese speaking. Here is an example: “给我一张纸 (gěi wǒ yī zhāng zhǐ)” – “Give me a piece of paper.” The words to emphasize are 给 (gěi)，一 (yī), and 纸 (zhǐ), and the words to deemphasize are 我 (wǒ) and 张 (zhāng).
Unfortunately, there are no tips or rules to determine which words are the right ones to emphasize. The best thing you can do is watch Chinese movies and TV shows and listen to as many native speakers as possible to be familiar with the emphasis.
Use filler words
Every language has its own filler words. For example, in English, we tend to say “Well,” “Um/er/uh,” “Like,” “Actually/Basically/Seriously,…”. In Japanese, they say “えーと,” which sounds like “Eeto,” or “あのう,” which sounds like “Ano…”.
The Chinese people usually say “嗯 (ēn).” Sometimes, it sounds more like a closed mouth humming the sound “Mmmm.” Here are some popular filler words:
- 那个 (nèi ge) – “That one…”;
- 我想想 (wǒ xiǎng xiǎng) – “Let me think…”;
- 怎么说 (zěn me shuō) – “How do I say this….”
The filler word is something you will need to listen to and try to adapt into your own speaking. If you can do this, you will speak Chinese way more naturally and fluently. Using Chinese filler words can also give you more time to think and choose the right words.
Learn common phrases
Learning the common phrases is extremely helpful in improving your speaking skills. These phrases are simple, common words and sentences that are used all the time in social conversation. Knowing some handy phrases will help you avoid social awkwardness, build great new connections with people, and even make your Chinese conversations more interesting.
This table gives you the everyday phrases that you will hear a lot in Chinese conversation:
|Chinese phrases||English meaning|
|Nǐ hǎo (你好)||Hello|
|Nǐ hǎo ma? (你好嗎?)||How are you?|
|Wǒ hěn hǎo (我很好)||I’m fine|
|Nǐ ne (你呢)||And you?|
|Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì? (你叫什麼名字?)||What’s your name?|
|Wǒ de míngzì shì… (我的名字是…)||My name is…|
|Hěn gāoxìng rènshí nǐ (很高興认识你)||Nice to meet you|
|Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái? (你從哪裡來?)||Where are you from?|
|Wǒ cóng … lái (我從 … 來)||I’m from…|
|Zǎoshang hǎo (早上好)||Good morning|
|Xiàwǔ hǎo (下午好)||Good afternoon|
|Wǎnshàng hǎo (晚上好)||Good evening|
|Zhù nǐ jīntiān yúkuài (祝你今天愉快)||Have a nice day|
|Chī ba! (吃吧!)||Let’s eat!|
|Xièxiè (謝謝)||Thank you|
|Bù kèqì (Boo kuh-chi)||You’re welcome|
|Wǒ bù míngbái (我不明白)||I don’t understand|
|Wǒ míngbái (我明白)||I understand|
|Duìbùqǐ (對不起)||Excuse me|
|Xièxiè (謝謝)||Thank you|
|Bié kèqì (別客氣)||You’re welcome|
|Zhù hǎoyùn (祝好運)||Good luck!|
|Lǚxíng yúkuài! (旅行愉快!)||Have a good trip!|
|Xǐshǒujiān zài nǎ? (洗手间在哪)||Where’s the restroom?|
|Zhège duōshǎo qián? (这个多少钱？)||How much is this?|
|Hĕn piàoliang (很漂亮)||Very beautiful|
|Hào chī (好吃)||Delicious|
|Hěn hào chī (很好吃)||Very delicious|
|Nǐ zěnme shuō … yòng zhōngwén? (你怎麼說 …用中文?)||How do you say …in Chinese?|
|Nǐ néng bāng wǒ ma? (你能幫我嗎?)||Can you please help me?|
|Qǐng zàishuō yīcì (請再說一次)||Please say that again|
|Nǐ néng dài wǒ qù … ma? (你能帶我去 … 嗎?)||Can you take me to…?|
|Nǐ zài zuò shénme? (你在做什麼?)||What are you doing?|
|Nǐ jǐ suì? (你幾歲?)||How old are you?|
|Wǒ bù zhīdào (我不知道)||I don’t know|
|Bù hǎo (不好)||Bad|
Learn Chinese Idioms
Chinese people start to learn 成语 (chéng yǔ) – Chinese idioms – at a young age and continue to learn them in school and beyond. As a result, many Chinese native speakers use idioms in daily conversations.
Idioms tie your speech to a specific cultural background, and learning them helps you understand Chinese culture on a deeper level. By that, using Chinese idioms in daily conversation certainly helps you speak Chinese like a native speaker.
Immerse yourself in a Chinese environment
If you are learning how to speak Chinese like a native, keep in mind that the real environment may connect you more tightly with this language. Try to immerse yourself into this language with three simple tips below!
1. Use handy flashcards
Flashcards are scientifically proven to improve your language skills, especially in learning Chinese. You can create a batch of flashcards on particular topics, such as “Daily conversation,” “Weather,” “Food and Drink,” “Travel,” and so on. Don’t forget to put the Hanzi, Pinyin, the English meaning, and even some related facts or illustrations to help you remember better.
Prepare a set of flashcards and put it in your bag. When you have a moment to spare, like drinking a coffee or waiting for the bus, pick it out and review it anywhere. By this, you can learn a lot of Chinese words to use in conversations.
Pandanese is an SRS learning platform that offers Chinese learners unlimited Mandarin lessons, divided into particular purposes: school, business, or travel. Learners can choose the best fit option and take the most advantage from that. Pandanese helps you learn over 6,000 Mandarin vocabulary and hanzi in a single year with Mandarin flashcards. From there, you can improve your vocabulary, know how to use them in conversation and lastly, know how to speak Chinese with confidence.
FYI: The Spaced Repetition System (SRS) is a systematic technique of presenting information to learn and review in set intervals to match the mind’s natural processing speed of building memories. This delay in reviewing actually helps you to retain information.
2. Practice Chinese as much as you can
You can make some stick-up cards and attach them to the stuff around you. When you see the cards, the corresponding Chinese character and meaning will show up immediately. And if you can make a goal of everyday learning, it will be much more efficient.
Another helpful way to speak Chinese like a native is to think and talk in Chinese as much as possible. This is a simple yet effective way to improve your language reflex. When you think like a Chinese person, you will be able to speak like a Chinese person. You need to practice a lot, both speaking to yourself and speaking to others.
You can also practice imitating the audio, TV shows, or movies. Listen to a phrase or sentence, then try to imitate the intonation. You can even record yourself to compare. If you get the rhythm of the language, your tone control will improve, and your choice of words will also become more native-like. If you enjoy interacting in Chinese and getting in the flow, your Chinese speaking will continue to improve.
3. Get a language partner
It is a great idea to have some Chinese learners like you. Since both of you have a desire to practice Chinese, you don’t need to consider if the conversation annoys your partner. As learners, you can understand each other’s shyness and embarrassment and help each other improve them. You make a connection with overseas students or any online or offline Chinese communities or even join a Chinese-speaking social platform.
We hope this article helps you on how to speak Chinese like a native. Don’t worry too much about mastering Chinese speaking at the beginning. To build up confidence, simply practice daily, and allow your brain to get used to the language. You shouldn’t rush this process, just speak without fear and trust your instincts, and you will reach your goal eventually.