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Chinese Introduction - Introducing you to the Mandarin Language

Mandarin Chinese has more native language speakers than any other language on earth, over 845 million by current estimates. Mandarin is part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages and grew out of a cluster of languages spoken by the Han Chinese, who are the single largest ethnic group in the world. The origins of the language go back to Old Chinese, as early as 1122 BC. The official language of the People’s Republic of China, the total number of Mandarin speakers exceeds 1/7 of the world’s population, or over a billion people; it is outranked in total number of speakers (first and second language) by English alone. It is spoken in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau, and it is one of the four official languages of Singapore.

English speakers learning a new language often rely on similarities between the two languages, called cognates, which are abundant in many Indo-European languages—English “book” = German “Buch”; English “pork” = French “porc”, etc. One of the major challenges in learning Mandarin is that there are no cognates to be found. For example, the Mandarin word for “book” is written书 and pronounced like singing the word “shoe”. Combined with the difficulty of learning a totally new writing system based on ideographs (pictures), some people might run away to try Spanish or something more comfortable.

Many language-learning websites or books will tell you that Mandarin is one of the most difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. The good news is that learning any language, no matter how different from your own, is only a matter of consistent, diligent practice. Moreover, there are some really clever ways of helping you learn the writing system. Honestly speaking, Mandarin is no more difficult than English—remember that any four-year-old in China speaks better Mandarin than most foreigners who have studied it. If children can do it, so can you.

Here are your major obstacles to deal with:

1)    The writing system. First off, don’t scream in terror. If you only want to learn how to speak and understand Mandarin, you’ll never even have to look at a Chinese character. Chinese can be written for English speakers in a system known as Pinyin romanization, which you can read with little difficulty. However, if you really want to get into the language and become familiar with its beauty, studying the writing system can be an exercise in joy and fascination.

2)    The word for “sun” in Mandarin is written日. In fact, it used to be written , which looks pretty much like the sun. Early Chinese people wrote the word for “moon” as —looks pretty logical, doesn’t it? That changed over time to月. Put those two together and you have the word for “bright”: 明. The Chinese word for “man” looks just like a man walking: 人. The word “big” (大) is just like a fisherman saying, “You should have seen the one that got away—it was this big!” The word for “heaven” (天) can be remembered easily if you think “man, no matter how big, is still under heaven.” A Chinese tree is written木, and if you put a picture of the sun rising behind a tree, you have the word for East: 東 , which was later simplified to become东. As you can see, it’s not that scary. Naturally, many characters are more complicated than these, but every character has a story.

This brings us to one more point. The Mandarin speakers in Taiwan use the original forms of the written characters, which are more complex. In the People’s Republic of China, they simplified many of the characters to make them easier for people to read and write. Depending on where you think you’ll be using your Chinese, you can decide which version you wish to learn. Ultimately, it’s no more complex than learning to read both printed letters and script.

3)    Chinese is a tonal language. Not only does every word have a pronunciation, it also has one of four (or five, depending on whom you ask) tones, and those tones are part of the meaning. Again, don’t let this scare you. It’s no more complicated than singing. In fact, we use tones in English all the time, but we just don’t call it that—think of saying the word “yes” as an answer (the tone falls from high to low) or as a question (the tone rises from low to high). Good instructional materials or a good teacher will give you real-life examples of tones, and learning them is again just a matter of repetition.

On the plus side, Mandarin grammar is much more simple than English. There are no articles (a, an, and the); verbs do not change form (I go, he goes, we went, etc.); and for the most part there are no plural forms to learn (book/books, goose/geese). The English slang phrase “long time no see” is a direct, literal translation of 好久不见(hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn), and that’s just how you would say “I haven’t seen you in a long time” in Mandarin.

How long is learning Mandarin going to take? That will depend entirely on you—how much you study, how you study, and whether or not you’re living in among native Mandarin speakers. The easiest way to sum it up would be to say that if English equals 1 LU (Language Unit), learning Spanish would be about .7, French would be about 1.0, German would be about 1.2, and Mandarin would be about 1.5. Becoming fluent in written Mandarin would come in at about 5.0. If you really must have a number, plan on one year of intensive study for basic conversations and three years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. But know that mastery of any foreign language is a journey of a lifetime—the longer you study, the better you’ll get.

As you study Mandarin, you will learn much about Chinese culture. Whereas American culture celebrates individuality, Chinese culture celebrates harmony within the family, the group, and society. The concept of sharing favors and gaining influence with others is predominant, as is the concept of social honor—saving face and losing face.

Be aware that there are many dialects of Mandarin Chinese—at least eight by today’s count—but if you study the Beijing (standard Chinese) dialect, you should be able to communicate with almost all groups.

Examples of Words in Mandarin

horse: 马 (mă)

mother: 母亲 (mǔqīn)

father: 父亲 (fùqīn)

tea: 茶 (chá)

come: 来 (lái)

teacher: 老师 (lǎoshī)

friend: 朋友 (péngyǒu)

Useful Mandarin Sentences

Hello. 你好 (nǐ hǎo)

What is your name? 您贵姓大名?(nín guìxìng dàmíng)

My name is …我姓 ... (wǒ xìng ...)

Good morning 早安 (zǎoān)

Goodbye 再见 (zàijiàn)

Where is the toilet? 厕所在哪里? (cèsuǒ zài nǎli)

I don’t understand. 我听不懂 (wǒ tīngbùdǒng)

If you’re up for a challenge that could have immense benefits in the worlds of business or tourism, not to mention simple personal satisfaction, you might consider learning Mandarin Chinese.

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