Pinyin is the most widely-used way to express the Chinese language using the Roman (or Western) alphabet. By using pinyin, Chinese character can be taught the way they are pronounced, and it also makes it much easier to type Chinese.

Each pinyin syllable is made up of an initial and a final, for example:

Initial + Final = Pinyin
Zh ong Zhong


Chinese is a tonal language, which means the meaning of words changes depending on the tone in which it is pronounced. It is important to pay attention to tones when listening and speaking.

The 5 tones used in Mandarin Chinese along with their pitches are:


Chinese characters are the pictographic representation of Chinese that have been in use for thousands of years. Each Chinese character represents one spoken syllable and has its own meaning, pinyin and tone.
For example:

Character Pinyin & tone Meaning
(1st tone)

Chinese characters have evolved significantly over time to arrive at the modern simplified Chinese used in mainland China today. Some characters started as pictures and still bear a resemblance to the object they represent.

Words that aren’t derived from pictures usually still contain clues as to their meaning and/or pronunciation. For example the character 妈 (mother) contains the symbol meaning female 女 on the left and the symbol meaning horse 马 on the right. The 女 component contributes to the meaning of the character and the 马 component gives a hint as to the pronunciation (马 and 妈 are both pronounced as “ma”).

Unfortunately there is no standard approach to how Chinese characters are formed, therefore for each Speedy Vocab flashcard we have included relevant information about each character in the information box to help build your understanding and start to see the connections for yourself.

Creating words

Although many characters are words in themselves, many words are made up of a combination of 2 or more characters. The individual meanings of each of the characters usually contributes to the overall meaning of the word, making it easy to guess the word’s meaning.
For example:

Word 1st word meaning 2nd word meaning Pinyin & tone
中国–China 中–middle 国–kingdom Zhōngguó