Asian Language School

20 August 2018

Mandarin for Beginners

Those of you who are thinking of taking Mandarin lessons may want to have a quick guide on what the language is like. Most commonly asked questions about Mandarin for beginners include: whether Mandarin is the same as Chinese or Cantonese; where exactly is Mandarin spoken; how long approximately it takes to learn Mandarin, and so on. Here are some explanations to these frequently asked questions about learning Mandarin.

Mandarin for Beginners

1. Mandarin versus Chinese

When people talk about learning Chinese, most likely they refer to Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin is one of the many dialects in the Chinese language, which is also one of the eight major dialect groups in China. Cantonese is another major dialect group in the Chinese language.

2. Where Is Mandarin Spoken?

Mandarin is spoken by 70% of the population in China. Standard Chinese, which is the official language in China, refers to Mandarin based Chinese. Mandarin Chinese is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore, albeit some differences in vocabulary use and accent. In Guangdong and Hong Kong, however, two places popular with expats, Cantonese is the main language used. In big cities, people will mostly use Mandarin Chinese to communicate with each other as there are many non-locals working in the cities. In the regional areas, however, people tend to communicate in their local dialects.

3. How Long Does It Take To Learn Mandarin in General?

Learning a foreign language takes time as learners need to build a new vocabulary bank and understand new grammatical rules. Primary school students know about 1000 words, and high school students know about 2000 words. How much and how fast can a learner absorb the vocabularies will affect their speed of learning. Mandarin courses are usually offered in different levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Foreign Service Institute Language Difficulty Ranking groups Mandarin under Category V, which is considered to be the most difficult language group to learn for English language speakers due to dissimilarities between the two languages. Firstly, Chinese language is a tonal language – users of a tonal language need to be able to distinguish different tones as they convey different meanings. Secondly, Chinese language does not use an alphabetic script, instead it is known as a logographic language. Thirdly, the grammatical rules of Mandarin Chinese largely differ from European languages. Adults tend to find it harder to learn new grammatical rules compared to children. Below we explain in greater details the first two dissimilar traits of the Chinese language.

4. Tonal Language

Chinese is a tonal language. The same syllable can be pronounced with different tones that convey different meanings. Mandarin contains four tones (called the first tone, the second tone, the third tone, and the fourth tone) and one neutral tone. Some characters can have more than one tones, and sometimes the tone for a character would change depending on the tones of the syllable before or after it. There are many Chinese tongue twisters that make good use of the language tonal property, such as the one below:

sì shì sì, shí shì shí.

十四是十四, 四十是四十。
shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí.

sì búshì shí, shí búshì sì.

shísì búshì sìshí, sìshí búshì shísì.

Four is four, ten is ten.
Fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty.
Four is not ten, ten is not four.
Fourteen is not forty, forty is not fourteen.

5. Chinese Characters

Chinese language is logographic, meaning that a symbol is used to represent a word. Each character corresponds to one syllable. Sometimes, it takes two Chinese characters to represent one word. Each character also contains a radical, which is used to classify the character in a Chinese dictionary and to provide a meaning indication. A small number of Chinese characters were formed from pictures or icons, but most of the characters were formed from a combination of these symbols. Chinese characters are written following specific stroke orders and the stroke order count is used to classify the characters in the Chinese dictionary. Chinese characters can also be found in the Japanese language (known as kanji) and the Korean language (known as hanja). Most learners who grew up learning an alphabetic language finds learning the Chinese writing a challenging aspect.

Read more about Chinese characters.

6. Traditional versus Simplified Chinese Characters

When it comes to Chinese writing, there are two types of scripts used. Simplified Chinese is used in China, whereas traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan. Originally, traditional script was also used in China until 1950s. Simplified script was developed to improve national literacy by making the characters easier to learn. Some characters are similar in both simplified and traditional scripts. The chart below shows the 100 most commonly used Chinese characters. Only 24 of these 100 characters are written differently in simplified and traditional Chinese.

这 (這) 来 (來) 国 (國) 说 (說) 们 (們)
为 (為) 时 (時)
会 (會)
过 (過) 学 (學) 对 (對) 后 (後)
还 (還) 发 (發)
当 (當) 无 (無) 开 (開)
见 (見) 经 (經) 头 (頭)
从 (從) 动 (動) 两 (兩) 长 (長)

7. Pinyin

Pinyin is the romanisation system developed in the 1950s to help teach Mandarin Chinese. It uses Latin alphabet and tone marks. Although pinyin uses Latin alphabet, just like foreign languages that are Latin based, it has its own unique pronunciation. Pinyin is used to teach Mandarin for beginners. Using pinyin enables language learners to learn speaking and listening Mandarin Chinese without learning the Chinese writing. Pinyin is also used to input Chinese characters into computers and mobile phones.

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