Adafruit is learning Chinese

Nǐ hǎo 你好 Adafruit is learning Mandarin Chinese, we’ll have a longer post about “why” we’re learning Chinese (some of it is obvious, some may be surprising). Like everything we do – we wanted to share how we’re doing something that we feel is important to our business and will likely help someone else. Plus it’s fun to learn a new language, more so when we can talk to others who have learned/learning or are native speakers.

Pt 101037

Pt 101036

It won’t be easy, this chart above is intimidating…

So far we have an instructor who is stopping in each week teaching us the basics. We’ve started learning Pin-yin. This is a spelling system that uses the english alphabet to transcribe the sounds of Mandarin Chinese.

We learned the three kinds of vowels in Mandarin chinese: simple finals (also know as simple vowels), compound finals/vowels and finals with nasal endings.

1. Simple vowels: a, o, e, i, u, ü (here’s a site we found where you can listen to them, search around for other/better ones).

2. Compound finals: a, ao, ei, ia, iao, ie, iou, ou, ua, uai, üe, uei, uo

The compound finals are the ones to really really work on and memorize. Being able to instantly say them correctly and also write down which ones they are when you hear them seems to be the key to advancing.

3. Nasal finals. These have NG sounds either in the front of back of your mouth.

1) Front nasal: an, en, ian, in, uan, uen, üen, ün
2) Back nasal: ang, eng, ong, iang, iny, iong, uang, ueng

So… 35 finals/vowels in three categories…

6 simple final / vowels: a, o, e, i, u, ü
13 compound finals: a, ao, ei, ia, iao, ie, iou, ou, ua, uai, üe, uei, uo
16 nasal finals: an, en, ian, in, uan, uen, üen, ün, ang, eng, ong, iang, iny, iong, uang, ueng

That’s it for now. If you’ve learned Chinese post up your experiences, tips, suggestions and more. If we can keep this up we’ll do a wiki page and keep everyone updated on our progress! xiè xie! 谢谢

We made a quick python script that helps us quiz ourselves (you’ll need to supply the mp3s and name them properly)…

import os
import random
import subprocess

print "Lets practice pinyin finals"

files = os.listdir(".")
mp3s = []

for file in files:
	if file.find(".mp3") != -1:

while mp3s:
	#print mp3s
	#print mp3s

	for mp3 in mp3s:
		# play MP3
		answer = ""
		while not answer:
			subprocess.Popen(["/usr/bin/afplay", mp3])	
			print "What was that? ",
			answer = raw_input()
		if (answer == mp3.replace(".mp3", "")):
			print "Right!"
			print "Wrong"
		print mp3.replace(".mp3", "")


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  1. Chinese language has very easy grama.

  2. I do believe there’s a reason for people learning Japanese being told that they should learn kanji ASAP : If you try to learn Japanese using English letters your pronounciation will be pretty horribe/non-understandable by a native speaker … I’m quite confident the same applies to Chinese ^^


  3. And no need to worry about the tones too much. There are thousands of dialects in China, and each dialect has its own toning system. Like in a city named Tianjin(my home city), which is just 120 kms far from Beijing, people speak their own dialect, and the tones are different from Mandarin though. So the point is, when you speak a sentence people can always figure out what you mean even if you use American accent.

  4. Can the instructor sessions be Ustreamed? (Or would that be too much pressure?) ^^

  5. I’m using the Fluenz dvd for mandarin 1+2. It has a variety of tests built in and once you figure out the shortcut keys, it is awesome. Also my live-in speaks basic mandarin so I get some phrases and tonal corrections from him :). Fluenz isn’t immersion, it is for native English speakers learning a language (and the course uses pinyin). That said there are some immersion modes in the software quizes. Since I’m living in Germany and learned German on the street and with six weeks of an intensive course in a language school, I think my next step after the Fluenz dvd is to enroll in a local intensive Mandarin course.

  6. As for Japanese, I don’t believe there’s actually any additional value in learning Kanji vis-a-vis pronunciation — there’s little in the way of verbal cues in the character. However, this *isn’t* true with Mandarin. Subparts of the characters can frequently provide clues as to what the syllable (or at least the final) sounds like.

    It doesn’t matter what language it is — assuming that any given letter from the Roman alphabet is pronounced as it is in your own local American English is clearly the first, and by far the easiest, hurdle to get over. It doesn’t even really work for a significant part of English, if you think about it.

    How hard Mandarin is for you really depends on what it you’re trying to get out of it (reading, writing, listening, speaking), and *how* it is that you learn, personally. Parts are quite easy and parts are quite difficult. What’s easy and what’s difficult varies from language to language, as well as what will be easy or difficult for you, as an individual.

    The good news is that there’s now plenty of Mandarin-learning resources out there for DIYers. There’s probably four times as much material out there than there was just a decade ago. The situation is better now for Mandarin than it is for many Eastern or even Central European languages. The situation’s probably only better for Spanish, French, German and Italian, and about on par with Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew and Japanese.

    The first useful thing that you’ll learn is why it takes native Mandarin speakers 10 years to get "he" vs. "she" right in English.

    Good luck!

  7. I’m an intermittent student of Mandarin, and really in no position to give advice, but FWIW here are some things that worked for me (YMMV):

    1) The written language seems horribly difficult but remember, it has an underlying logic, and it just requires practice to learn. Lots of practice. If you do 30m with flash cards most days (I used to go through them on my tube commute) you’ll learn a lot of characters quite quickly. This will help immensely with studying other aspects of the language and also gives a real sense of achievement which will help motivate you.

    2) When studying the written language, look online for character frequency charts and concentrate on learning the most common characters first, as well as those your tutor asks you to learn.

    3) There are tons of online resources that can help, starting with

    4) Tones *are* important, but don’t get hung up about them. They will come with time and practice.

    5) Learn a few poems and/or songs by rote. "Ní Wá Wa" (Clay Doll) is great. Like all good children’s songs it is simple, catchy and vaguely disturbing:

    Good luck!

  8. is great for a dictionary (as stated above). If you use chrome, this extension can help a decent amount: If you have a smartphone, the best dictionary is (the company is NYC based as well).

    Finally, the best thing you can do is sign up for (and get a tablet!). It’s the best site for pretty much anything.

  9. john personna

    I think I’ve talked about China here before. Linkage, one way or another, between US makers and Chinese seems natural. If I wasn’t in my 50’s and “made” I might be doing it too – if I was brave.

    And remember, China has lots of room for Adafruit expansion. 😉

  10. I’ve been a Mandarin speaker since 1992. I found it easiest to concentrate on speaking because there are enough concepts to confuse between the sounds and tones. I didn’t learn any characters until a good year or so after I started, when I felt comfortable conversationally. By then I was ready to absorb the characters quickly and could often memorize dozens per day with excellent retention.

    I know they’re cool, but for anyone really serious about studying Mandarin I would recommend not even thinking about the writing for a while and to work hard on speaking it.

    PS One of the best benefits from reading Chinese is knowing how messed-up many of the tattoos are out there.

  11. Hands down, James Heisig’s “Remembering the Hanzi” book for characters, in two flavors, Traditional and Simplified depending on what you are doing. This approach could have saved me years of life lost to mindless and ineffective attempts to memorize characters by copying copying copying copying them. There’s a chapter 1 available for download online so you can see if you like it. You can use this together with flashcard software like Anki if you like.

    Hope you like it! Learning Chinese could and should be all kinds of fun…

  12. Hands down, James Heisig’s "Remembering the Hanzi" book for characters, in two flavors, Traditional and Simplified depending on what you are doing. This approach could have saved me years of life lost to mindless and ineffective attempts to memorize characters by copying copying copying copying them. There’s a chapter 1 available for download online so you can see if you like it. You can use this together with flashcard software like Anki if you like.

    Hope you like it! Learning Chinese could and should be all kinds of fun…

  13. Back at school, a friend of mine was learning Mandarin – I still recall the horror of this video (thou, by it’s persistent nature, it actually is effective).

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