In Part 1, I went through the reasons a cleantech advocate, entrepreneur, or investor should want to learn Chinese. Best case, worst case, and anything in between, Chinese culture isn’t going anywhere and it’s going to be a big part of the future of clean technologies. I also explained why I recommend focusing on the Mandarin dialects (they’re the most common for historical reasons). Now, it’s time to get into the meat of things. By spending just a few hours learning some basic skills, you’ll have a good foundation upon which to build your vocabulary.
Basic Mandarin Chinese Concepts To Start With
The first thing you should learn is tones. Tones may seem intimidating at first, but keep in mind that you already use tones in English. We raise the tone at ends of sentences to indicate it’s a question. We emphasize words in a sentence, and that can heavily affect the meaning. For example, here’s a sentence with the same words, but several different meanings:
- I didn’t do that! (You didn’t, but somebody did)
- I didn’t do that! (You want to make it clear that you didn’t)
- I didn’t do that! (You did something, but not that)
See? You already use tones. You just need to learn to use them a little differently than you already do, so it’s not something a committed cleantech advocate should struggle with too hard.
Mandarin words have five tones (well, four tones and the lack of a tone) that affect the meaning of the word or syllable spoken. When Chinese words are written out using letters westerners would be familiar with, the tone appears as a mark over the letters, showing how the tone changes during the syllable. The little line can be flat (and high), rising, dipping, or falling. If there’s no tone mark, the tone is “neutral.”
I could write you out a guide all about it like they did here, but it’s really a lot easier to just learn about these from videos. Here’s a great one I found for my kids:
It helps to move your hand along with the tone when you’re a new learner, kind of like a person directing music. It looks silly, but helps you visualize things at first.
If you watched that last video, you probably saw the way our alphabet could be used to spell out Mandarin words. This system is called “pīn yīn,” which literally translates to “spell sounds.” In some cases, like for “ma,” it’s pretty self explanatory. In other cases, like “shi” (pronounced like “sure”), it doesn’t make a lot of sense at first. Why would the letter I make an “errr” sound? So, before you continue learning, you need to learn how this alphabet actually works. Once again, YouTube comes to our rescue:
It’s probably a good idea to watch the above video several times to pick up what sounds the letters are supposed to make. You can also use an interactive chart of all possible sounds in Chinese to practice the different sounds and try to copy what native speakers do. There’s also a video of someone going through all of them here that you can follow along with to practice.
One final basic skill you need to learn at the beginning is STPVO, or Subject, Time, Place, Verb, Object. This is how you build a proper sentence in Chinese. You don’t say something like “I went to the park yesterday.” in Chinese. Instead, you do like Yoda does, and say “I yesterday to the park went.” Here’s another YouTube video that explains this better:
Good News & Bad News
Before we move on to picking up words, I have some great news. Chinese doesn’t have verb conjugation. If you’ve ever studied Spanish, French, and other Latin languages, you’ve probably run into the challenge of having to change the beginnings or endings of words based on when a verb happened, who did the action, and other factors. Once you learn the rules, you learn that there are many “irregular” verbs with different rules to memorize.
Chinese doesn’t make you do any of that. Yay!
The bad news? I didn’t give you everything you need to know about Chinese grammar, Pinyin pronunciation, and tones here. There’s more grammar to learn, regional variants within Mandarin, and some wacky rules for tone pairs, among other things. You don’t really need to worry about all of that right now, though. Just knowing the very basics is enough for you to move on and start learning words and phrases. You’ll run into the small things later and pick them up naturally, or someone will tell you how to do better as you continue your language journey. For now, just move forward to vocabulary building.
Drill A Few Hundred Words of Vocabulary
This is the point where language apps like Duolingo actually become helpful. With some basic understanding of pronunciation, tone, and grammar, you have a foundation to stack words and phrases onto. And you’ll need a lot of them!
When I first learned, I used flash cards. If you’re the pen-and-paper type of person, that’s a decent option, but it’s easy to lose interest and fool yourself with flash cards (“I knew what that was! I swear!”). Apps do everything flash cards do, but they hold you accountable and only let you move on once you actually get it right. They also periodically bring an old word back so that it can go into your long-term memory. Plus, they use gamification (making it feel like a game and not brutal memorization work).
Here’s a link to get started with Duolingo. I’d recommend trying that out, as it seems to be the easiest one to use consistently. There are different learning styles, though. If Duolingo isn’t for you, there are a number of alternative apps, like Memrise, Lingualift, and Rosetta Stone. Find what works for you, and continue the journey!
One other tool I’d recommend using is Google Translate. You’ll probably be curious about words and phrases that the apps aren’t teaching you, and it’s a great way to pick those up. You can also copy and paste Chinese text into it to not only get a translation, but the Pinyin for the words.
Some Terms For The Cleantech Advocate To Learn
Here’s a few cleantech-related words you can learn to be a better cleantech advocate!
- Electric Car: 電動車 (Diàndòng chē)
- NIO (A common Chinese electric car brand): 蔚来 (Wèi lái)
- Foxconn/Foxtron (Electronics Manufacturer in Taiwan and China that’s getting into EVs): 鴻海 (Hónghǎi)
- Tesla: 特斯拉 (Tè sī lā)
- Elon Musk: 伊隆馬斯克 (Yī lóng mǎ sīkè)
- New Energy Vehicle (Alternative Fuel Vehicle): 新能源汽車 (Xīn néngyuán qìchē)
- Electric Car Charging Station: 電動車充電站 (Diàndòng chē chōngdiàn zhàn)
- Solar Power: 太陽能 (Tàiyángnéng)
- Battery: 電池 (diànchí)
- Lithium Ion Battery: 鋰離子電池 (Lǐ lízǐ diànchí)
In Part 3, I’m going to discuss what you should do after you pick up a few hundred words. You’ll need to take that learning and start using it in the real world, but you don’t have to travel to China or Chinatown to do it! As a cleantech advocate, you probably already love technology, so it won’t be too hard.
Featured image: A Screenshot from Google Translate showing some popular Cleantech terms.
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