Let this be the year you master Chinese
China is a country steeped in ancient history and rich culture. With diverse climates and landscapes spanning a significant portion of East Asia, China has the largest population of any country in the world. Chinese is spoken by roughly 1.2 billion native speakers, making it one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and is an umbrella term to include all varieties and dialects of Chinese, known as 方言 (fāngyán), such as Cantonese, Suzhounese, Fuzhounese, Teochew, and Hainanese, to name but a few.
With Mandarin Chinese (standard Chinese), being the most popular, this variety will be the focus of this article.
Motivation in the long term is central to language learning success. Having a clear cut reason why you want to learn Chinese will help sustain your efforts and give you the push to keep going when you might feel out of your depth. While you may have personal reasons to learn Chinese, here are a few you might consider when starting out on your language learning journey:
1. Meeting New People: China has a huge non-English-speaking population so learning Chinese opens up the possibility to communicate with over a billion people, as well as with diaspora around the globe. That’s 14.6% of the world's population! And let’s be real, being able to communicate with others in their native language can open up a whole new world of perspectives and ideas to you.
2. Understanding Chinese Culture and Media: The Chinese internet is full of its own unique multimedia and other content virtually unknown to the rest of the world. The key to accessing these spaces is Chinese fluency, allowing you to delve deeper into China’s cultural riches.
3. Business: Currently, China is the single most powerful actor in the global economy. Their economy is booming and China is shaping the future of global technology. With Mandarin being very much needed in business though very scarce, knowing the language will make you a leading candidate for a professional opportunity both within China and at home.
4. Traveling: Learning Mandarin allows you to discover the mesmerizing country of not only China but countries across Asia. Even with basic Chinese language skills, you can unlock so many more opportunities to see places off the beaten path, try new food, and experience the country from a different perspective.
The real beauty of the language is revealed in the writing
The real beauty of the language is revealed in the writing. Chinese characters have a system to their design, and understanding that system makes it much easier to learn new characters.
Mandarin has two types of writing systems: Traditional and Simplified. The majority of Mainland China uses Simplified Chinese characters while Taiwan, for example, adopts traditional characters. There is an ongoing politicized debate about the two writing systems, and Mandarin learners can be faced with a difficult choice of choosing which one to learn.
The Chinese writing system is roughly logosyllabic, meaning that a character generally represents a sound or syllable of spoken Mandarin. It can be useful to think of Chinese as building blocks. The individual bricks are the components (or radicals as they are commonly known) and putting these components together builds the characters. Building these characters together then make words. The best way to understand this is by looking at an example:
晴 (qíng) means clear/fair with regards to the weather. This character is composed of the radical 日 meaning “sun", indicating the semantic category, and 青 meaning "blue/green", which indicates its pronunciation. Clues about pronunciation appear in 95% of all Chinese characters, which is a huge help when learning how to speak the language.
Logograms are another aspect of Chinese characters. This means the character itself is a graphical depiction of the object or represents abstract notions. For example, 田 (rice field), 人 (person), 木 (tree), and 三 (three).
The below examples will demonstrate how Chinese is extremely logical and consistent:
汽车 — car (汽 meaning “gas”, and 车 meaning “vehicle”)
车库 — garage (车 meaning “vehicle”, and 库 meaning “warehouse”)
Chinese characters can also transfer new, extended, or more abstract meanings to existing logograms. This is called Transference or 轉注/转注 (zhuǎnzhù). A good example of this is 网 (wǎng), the character for “net.” This character depicts a fishing net, however, over time, it has taken on an extended meaning, covering any kind of webbing or criss-cross structure such as a computer network (电脑网络).
In case all of that information has gotten you slightly overwhelmed, take solace in the fact that you don’t necessarily need to know how to write Chinese characters to write and communicate in Chinese. Skip to “Pronunciation and Basic Chinese Phrases” to find out about Pinyin.
Take a deep breath, it’s not all bad!
There is no doubt that written Chinese is difficult to learn (even for the Chinese themselves!), however, it’s the Mandarin grammar that makes it a much more approachable language to learn.
Articles don't exist in Mandarin, meaning that there is no real equivalent of the English "a" or "the." A noun may stand alone to represent what would be expressed as "the" and the word 一 (yī) meaning "one" may be used as the equivalent of "a" or "an” in English.
Mandarin also has no noun declensions to indicate number (singular/plural), case (nominative/accusative/genitive/dative) or gender (masculine/neuter/feminine). There is a plural marker 们 (men) which is sometimes used with personal pronouns, as in 我们/wǒmen (meaning "we" or "us") and with nouns representing humans like in 朋友们/péngyoumén (meaning "friends"), from 朋友/péngyou (meaning "friend").
The basic sentence structure of Chinese is the same as it is in English. Both languages use a subject-verb or subject-verb-object (SVO) formula for making simple sentences.
|I eat meat.|
|You drink water.|
|He speaks Chinese.|
As sentences get more complex, you'll note that Chinese word order does, in fact, diverge significantly from English word order.
Simple sentences can be turned into yes/no questions by adding 吗 (ma) to the end of a statement. For example, 他 是 老师/tā shì lǎoshī (meaning "he is a teacher") becomes 他 是 老师 吗？/tā shì lǎoshī ma? (meaning "is he a teacher?").
Chinese handles numbers in a very consistent and logical way. You just have to memorize numbers one to ten:
Eleven, twelve, and the teens are formed with 十 (shí) followed by the digit. For example, eleven is 十一 (shíyī), twelve is 十二 (shí'èr) and thirteen 十三 (shísān), etc.
Twenty is 二十 (èrshí), thirty is 三十 (sānshí), and so on with units being simply added on the end. For example, twenty-one is 二十一 (èrshí-yī), forty-four is 四十四 (sìshí-sì), and ninety-eight is 九十八 (jiǔshí-bā). One hundred is simply 百 (yībǎi).
Chinese does not use the concept of formal tenses or verb conjugation. This means that verbs stay the same, regardless of when the action takes place or who performs it. Instead, it employs what is called "grammatical aspect."
To indicate where the verb sits in relation to time i.e. past/present/future, three particles can be used: 了 (le) to indicate the past, 过 (guo) to indicate the present, and 着 (zhe) to indicate a continuous state (though not commonly used). Other expressions can also indicate time such as 昨天/zuótiān (meaning "yesterday") and 在/zài (meaning "now") or can be simply inferred from the context.
I eat an apple: 我吃一颗苹果 (Wǒ chī yī kē píngguǒ)
I ate an apple: 我吃了一颗苹果 (Wǒ chīle yī kē píngguǒ)
I want to eat an apple tomorrow: 我明天想吃蘋果 (Wǒ míngtiān xiǎng chī píngguǒ)
If you want to master Mandarin Chinese, it’s necessary to lay a solid foundation from the beginning. That foundation is Chinese pronunciation.
Mandarin Chinese is a very tonal language. This means that pronunciation directly affects the meaning of what is said. Mandarin’s tones give the language a very distinctive quality, though are oftentimes a source of miscommunication when not used correctly.
There are four main tones and one neutral tone in mandarin Chinese, each having a distinctive pitch. Let’s take a closer look at each of them below:
|First tone||High and level sound, naturally prolonged||A straight horizontal line||mā (mother)|
|Second tone||Rising tone, from low to high||A rising diagonal line||má (hemp)|
|Third tone||First falling and then going up again||A curved or dipped line||mǎ (horse)|
|Forth tone||Total falling tone which starts out very high and falls short and strong||A dropping diagonal line||mà (to abuse/curse)|
|Neutral tone||Pronounced very light and quick||No tone mark||ma (particle to make a question)|
The examples given in the table above are written in Pinyin. Pinyin, literally translating to “spell sound,” is a standard system of romanized spelling for transliterating Chinese characters that is becoming increasingly prevalent, even among native Chinese speakers.
An important thing to note with Pinyin is that the pronunciation is still very different to the sounds of the English alphabet. For example, “xi” and “si” look like they rhyme, however, “xi” is pronounced a little like “see/shee,” whereas “si” is pronounced closer to “sih/suh.”
Improper usage of the tone can result in completely different words. If you struggle to recognize the tone, you might find it difficult to understand spoken Mandarin. To help get you started, let’s take a look at some basic phrases in Mandarin!
Immersion has a long-standing reputation for being the most efficient way to learn a language. One way to immerse yourself in the Chinese language and culture is through language exchange.
Tandem Language Exchange connects language learners with native Chinese speakers all over the world through our web and mobile app. With millions of members, you will have a pretty easy time finding a language exchange partner who matches your interests and language learning goals. Through two-way, open, and direct communication with your language partner, you are given a unique insight into the Chinese cultural identity.
Practice your Cantonese, Mandarin (simplified and traditional), or Chinese sign language on Tandem via text, voice notes, and video calling. Oh, did we mention it's for free?