Introduction to Mandarin

Disclaimer: I started learning Mandarin a year ago, so I am still a beginner. All of what is written below is simply what I have observed, as an English speaker learning Chinese as a second language. Sincerely asking me for advice on this topic is a bit like asking your grandpa (who only recently learned what an iPhone is) how to program an app. Also, see the previous post on the differences between a dialect and a language. 

Standard Mandarin is the official language in mainland China and Taiwan. This makes Mandarin is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with hundreds of millions of people speaking it. Combining the fact that so many people already speak it, with the fact that China is important when it comes to business and trade, many people want to learn this language. But, learning to speak Mandarin comes with many challenges.

Even if a language doesn’t use the alphabet of the Romance Languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc), those languages may still have their own alphabet. Take Arabic as an example. Once you learn the alphabet for Arabic and what sounds go along with it, you can read Arabic out loud. You will probably have no idea what you are saying, but you will be able to do it nonetheless.

But, Chinese characters give no indication of pronunciation. It’s another one of those things that make learning this language an absolute blast. Fortunately, there is a written system for learning how to speak Mandarin. When Westerners arrived in China during the nineteenth century, they needed to transliterate the sounds of the Chinese words into their Roman alphabet. During the 1930s, pinyin 拼音 was created. This system was adopted by the People’s Republic of China in 1958 for official publications. This is how foreigners learn how to pronounce Chinese characters. Honestly, I have no idea how they came to some of these former transliterations (shown below). They’re not anything like the actual pronunciation. How exactly did Jilin get turned into Kirin? Were those Westerners even listening to the people they were talking to?

From Understanding Contemporary China: Fifth Edition

At one point, China considered getting rid of the Chinese characters in favor of pinyin. This did not work because among other things, it would have required everyone in China to learn Mandarin, which is not very feasible.

Each word in Mandarin is one syllable, meaning that if you were to read out loud a piece of writing in Chinese, each character you read would be one syllable. This does not mean that every single word in English would translate to a one-syllable word in Mandarin.

Mandarin, like many other Chinese dialects, is a tonal language. Mandarin has four tones. There is also a fifth, neutral tone which is not counted with the other four. This tone is for grammatical particles or on the second character of repeated syllables, like bàba 爸爸 (father).

Mastering these tones is essential. Compared to other languages, Mandarin is limited in the amount of different words they have. So, most words have multiple meanings depending on the context and the tone you use. If your tone is wrong, you can change the entire meaning of what you are saying. If they are not correct, the people who you are speaking to will not understand your Mandarin. 

The example shown above is the stereotypical example that I pretty much always see, as if no one can come up with anything else. It is effective in hinting at the possible consequences of screwing up though. Don’t call your mother a horse. In writing, you can see the indicators of the tones above the pinyin, but sometimes tones are indicated with numbers. If there is no tone indicated, it is neutral.

I will mention one more thing about pinyin. This is mainly for people like me, who are self-studying Chinese. Make sure that for each word you learn by reading pinyin, you also hear it being spoken out loud. Although pinyin is a pretty good system, the way words are supposed to be pronounced isn’t always obvious for English speakers. Go back up to Table 1.1 at the top of the page. Without looking at the pronunciation column, try to pronounce the pinyin of each word. Now compare what you said to the pronunciations. How did you do? I bet you completely botched it.

Once you get the hang of the tones and pronunciation, speaking this language isn’t too difficult. For English speakers trying to master this language, a bigger barrier is being able to understand others. In my opinion, understanding what other people are saying is more difficult than learning to read the Chinese characters. In English, most words have their own definitions, making it easy to understand the meaning of what people are saying. With Mandarin, understanding what others are saying is a more involved process. You have to learn to listen to tones and decide based on context clues what the other person is saying. If you are learning by yourself (as I am at the moment), it’s important to find music and videos with people speaking Chinese for listening practice. You can also get in speaking practice with these videos, by repeating what they are saying. I’ll do a post on YouTube channels I have found with Chinese speakers in the future.

Sources:

  1. Gamer, R. E., & Toops, S. W. (Eds.). (2017). Understanding Contemporary China: Fifth Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
  2. Abraham, W. (2018). Chinese For Dummies: 3rd Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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