What is the best thing to know when starting to learn Chinese?

It’s a different ballgame. You didn’t mention your native language, so I don’t know your starting point. But first, with Chinese, there are no verb conjugations, no plurals, no tenses, and a lot of the things you are probably used to do not exist. A lot of things you are not used to do exist: 看不懂、看得到、看不清楚、看不下去、看得起。

English is my native language; along the way I studied French and Russian. This is my angle for writing this. Vocabulary functions differently. In general, English words are more specific, with a lot of different words describing one concept. Chinese combines, gathers together: 車, vehicle, in colloquial Mandarin, 我等車 could be wait (disregard tense) for bus, train, subway, taxi, or even a motorcycle. Of course there are words for these separate vehicles, but in English you wouldn’t say “I was waiting for the vehicle.” That’s fine in Mandarin. (notice there’s no article.)

Chinese will specify when necessary: your mother’s sister’s daughter who is younger than you is your 表妹 biao3mei4 and your father’s brother’s daughter who is older than you is your 堂姐 tang2jie3, but in English they are both cousins. Your mother’s sister is your 阿姨a-yi2, your father’s big sister is your 姑姑gu gu, and your father’s little brother’s wife is your 嬸嬸shen3shen, but in English they are all aunts. Have fun! whoopeee!

You will need to get way to a quite different way of expressing yourself. Let one of my old English students demonstrate this. He came to class late, and said, I slept over my head. If you don’t know Chinese, you might think he is a bat, but no, he was saying he overslept.

Chinese doesn’t have plurals, but has specific words to use with numbers. In English you say 3 books, 3 pigs, 3 dogs, 3 desks, but not in Chinese. In Chinese you say 三本書 3 root book 三頭豬 3 head pig 三隻狗 3 bird dog 三張桌子 3 open-bow desk/table, and so forth. People learning Chinese think “2 books” and often say 二書 2 book (or even 二書們 2 book plural!) but sorry, it‘s 兩本書 pair root book. Why 兩 and not=? Because.

BTW, as I write: there’s a typhoon nearby. Why hasn’t it left yet? Last night the wind was strong and it rained hard, but fortunately, everything is okay in the north. Taitung got hit hard. If I were talking, I would say, 附近有颱風,怎麼還沒走?昨晚風雨大,幸好北部沒事,臺東很慘。literally, word for word: press near have typhoon, what what still no go? yesterday night wind rain big, fortune good north section no affair, Taitung very cruel.

Does that give you an idea?

Also: learn 成語 four word expressions, use them appropriately. Knowing 成語 is like having a good vocabulary in English. You don’t want to overdo it, but using them appropriately is a sign of education and ability with the language.

Have fun! 加油!

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