The First Sentence

Imagine a situation deeply and personally engaging and meaningful to you, in a setting anywhere you wish, at any time, with a person profoundly important to you in that moment – whether a stranger or a person long-known – with whom you believe you might have an unforgettable conversation.

To this imagined scenario, add that you woke up that morning proficient in speaking the language you most want to learn. In this imagined, meaningful interaction with the person, you would speak this new language.

Framed to connect with the person and to invite them to join this meaningful exchange, what sentence would you most want to utter perfectly in your newly acquired language to begin this exchange?

I’m terming this “the first sentence.”

Based on my reviews of the research literature on second language acquisition in adults, initiating one’s study this way may optimize one’s gains. Under “Background” below, I have explained my thinking.

“If you woke up in the morning and could speak Mandarin Chinese fluently, what would you do?”
John Pasden

Based on my searches and experiments, Mandarin Blueprint offers the optimal online video course for learning to read and write simplified Chinese characters. “The first sentence” exercise described below requires a subscription to Mandarin Blueprint, abbreviated “MB” in subsequent text.

The following exercise is for adults interested in beginning to learn Mandarin Chinese.

The First Sentence

1. Choose a first sentence as described above that is personally meaningful to you and includes frequently used words.

2. Use a translation tool, ask for help from a native speaker, and translate the sentence into simplified Chinese characters. Look up each character. Memorize the English meaning, pinyin, pronunciation, and simplified Chinese characters to the point you can recognize them in typed and handwritten form and can handwrite them.

Suggested simplified Chinese character lookup tool: Hanzi Search

3. In the order in which they are presented in the MB course and character list, add words to the sentence and/or construct more sentences that are meaningfully related. Sustain an understandable narrative over the course of a set of sentences.

To model human conversation, to keep the sentences related, and for their later utility in working with others, consider creating dialogues. Given limited vocabulary at the beginning, the conversations may seem odd. Enjoy!

4. If in doubt about how a word is used in a sentence, type the character with this search string “____ in a sentence” into a search engine and study the results.

Reliable search results can be found using Purple Culture Chinese English Dictionary.

5. Use unknown words as infrequently as possible. When they are needed to make the sentence comprehensible, leave a blank using your best understanding of its correct position in a Chinese sentence. Blanks can be filled in and corrections made later.

6. Review the previous session’s sentences and add any new words that can complete them.

7. Be able to produce the characters recorded in the sentences on command, in any form: English, pinyin, pronounced correctly, and typed and handwritten hanzi.

8. After experimenting with this process, set a goal for how many characters you will add per day.

9. Find ways to engage with instructors and fellow students using these characters, this vocabulary, and/or these sentences.


  1. Write “the first sentence.”
  2. Learn the first set or the next set of characters using Mandarin Blueprint.
  3. Start or continue to write a dialogue that includes the characters in the first sentence, previously learned characters and/or words, and new characters.
  4. Memorize the new characters so you can answer drill questions correctly about the English, pinyin, tone, handwriting, and use of the character and/or related words in a sentence.

Recommended tools

Example sentences for a 5-characters-per-day plan

For this example, “the first sentence” is:


Day One

5 characters to add: 一 二 三 十 干

A [Begin with the first sentence.]: 请问你是中国人吗?
B: 是 ___.
A: 你干___吗?
B: ___ 问你,你 ___ ___ 一___,二___,三___ ___是十个 人 吗?

A: Excuse me, are you Chinese?
B: Yes.
A: What are you doing?
B: I ask you, do you see one, two, three, or ten people?

Day Two

5 characters to add: 半 人 从 个 入

A: ___ ___入 ___ ___ ___.
B: ___ ___.
A: 从 ___,___ ___ ___ 十个 人。
B: ___ 是 ___ ___ ___ ___ 一半!

A: Let me enter so I can see.
B: Okay.
A: From here, I see ten people.
B: That’s half of what I wanted!

Day Three

5 characters to add: 什 午 年 口 中

A: ___ ___ ___ 入口了! ___ ___ 是中国人吗?你___ ___ 个人?
B: ___ ___, 是中午!___ ___ ___ 一年!
A: ___ ___什么? ___ 是什么 ___ ___?

A: They are coming in the entrance! Are they Chinese? How many people do you want?
B: Right now, it’s noon! I have waited a year!
A: For what? What is this event?

Day Four

5 characters to add: 叫 八 只 介 儿

B: 请___ ___ ___ ___ 介___。
A: ___叫A。你___?
B: 你叫A。___ 叫B。
A: ___ ___ ___ ___ ____ 你.
B: ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ____ 你. ___ 是一个___ ___.
A: ___ ___.
B: ___ 只干了___ ___ 一半。 ___ ___ 八个儿___ ___ ___ ___。

B: Please, let’s do introductions.
A: I’m called A. And you?
B: You’re called A. I’m called B.
A: I’m glad to meet you.
B: I’m also glad to meet you. This is a party.
A: How nice!
B: I only did half the work. My eight sons helped me.

Day Five

5 characters to add: 四 兄 兑 说 计 (Suggestion: Study 兄 and 兑 carefully using MB but omit them in these sentences for now. MB includes a few characters because of their usefulness as components in later characters or as word components.)

A: 你___八个儿___吗?
B: ___. 八个儿___.
A: ___ ___ ___说中___吗?
B: 只一半。四个儿__ 说中___.
A: 你 ___ ___ ___ 儿子计___ ___ 中 ___ 吗?

A: You have eight sons?
B: Yes. Eight sons.
A: Are they able to speak Chinese?
B: Only half. Four sons speak Chinese.
A: Do your other sons plan to learn Chinese?


Perhaps the optimal scenario for learning a second language would be a social interaction-rich, full-time, extended experience living with a family who speaks that language in a country where that language is spoken. For busy adults, achieving this is an impossibility. For busy adults living during a pandemic, having even minimal contact with native speakers has been nearly impossible.

In the near-absence of interaction, what method can best simulate what is optimal?

I hypothesize, given my reviews of the research on adult second language acquisition, that for busy adults wishing optimally to learn a second language – using this definition of “optimally”: as quickly and efficiently as possible, in the least amount of time, with the least amount of effort and expense – composing and learning this sentence would be a powerful place to begin.


The sentence is:

  1. discovered with personal reflection and composed with one’s inner language, ideally feeling elemental, part of the nerves, bones, and sinews of one’s inner self;
  2. relationally aware; conscious of self, other, and the connection between them, thus based on the very purposes of communication;
  3. brief enough to memorize thoroughly so the learner makes the sentence “theirs” and “owns” it, even if they don’t understand all of it;
  4. imagined as real so it becomes memorable;
  5. expert and flawless, composed prior to the experience so it can be revised, edited, and corrected in consultation with expert native speakers, thus serving as a precise, accurate foundation for further learning.

A sentence having these traits is a subsystem of what research suggests helps adult language learners optimally learn a new language: consciously constructing an internetworked system for making individually relevant meaning in the new language. This meaning-making system is what linguists term an “interlanguage,”

In composing and learning such a sentence, I hypothesize that adult language learners can create a deeply personal, meaningful, memorable and expert “mini” interlanguage in which to meaningfully and effectively add and internetwork novel language content.

More about an interlanguage is here.

A full protocol, tentatively entitled “A Research-Informed Protocol for Adults Wishing to Begin to Learn Mandarin Chinese” is under development.


Human subjects research uses logic and experimentation to discover and report on aspects of reality that work for most people, most of the time, better than other things, and better than nothing.

  • This exercise is informed by current research but has not been tested by research methods.
  • Although desired outcomes are hoped for, zero desired outcomes may result and no guarantee is implied.


Contributors to “the first sentence” idea include George Johnstone, Tian Gan, Matheus Denezine, Benfang Wang, Amy Jiang, and others.

Inspiring my thinking include Luke Neale and Phil Crimmins, founders of Mandarin Blueprint; John Pasden, founder of AllSet Learning and the Chinese Grammar Wiki; Jared Turner, co-founder with John Pasden of Mandarin Companion graded readers and the You Can Learn Chinese podcast: Language and the Mind, by Spencer D. Kelly; Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution that Made China Modern, by Jing Tsu; The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters, by Megan Walsh; scholars interviewed on the Sinica podcast, and many others.


This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.