Mandarin Chinese is not just a different language; it is a different kind of language. The things that usually make other languages difficult for English-speakers to learn do not even exist in Mandarin Chinese! Conversely, the unique characteristics of Mandarin Chinese do not exist in languages like Spanish, French and German.
To make Mandarin Chinese accessible,
we must first understand what makes it different
There are 3 key things that make Mandarin Chinese different to the kind of languages that English-speakers are familiar with:
- It has not one but two distinct forms – written and spoken
- Spoken Mandarin uses “tones” to differentiate between words simply by intonation
- Written Mandarin uses ”characters” to represent words with symbols rather than an alphabet to transcribe how the words sound
The Mandarin word for person is “rén.” It sounds like the final syllable of the English word “children.” But the pitch shifts from low to high as you say it. If instead you say “rèn,” shifting the pitch from high to low, you’re saying a different word in Mandarin: the word for ”to recognise.”
Similarly, if you say “bā”, with the pitch high and steady, you are saying the word “eight.” But if you say bǎ, with the pitch dipping down and up, then you are
By shifting the pitch of your voice like this, you can recycle the sounds of Mandarin words up to four times each. Because this is different approach to what we are used to, it can feel like tones make things unnecessarily complicated. But they are actually a genius way of keeping the language simple and giving you less to learn!
English and Mandarin Chinese both have similarly large vocabularies – around 50,000 different words. But because of tones …
There are ten times fewer sounds
to learn in Mandarin than there are in English
Here are 6 Chinese words you probably already know: Bei Jing, Shang Hai, Hong Kong, Kung Fu, Chow Mein, Dum Sum (in fact there are words from 3
different Chinese languages here – Mandarin, Cantonese and Taishanese – but the point is the same!) Do you see that each word comprises a pair of single syllable sounds? (That is why Chinese languages often sound choppy to English-speakers).
So by …
- Taking a simple syllable sound, like “shi”
- Recycling it up to 4 times with tones
- Putting it into a pair with another syllable
… Mandarin can make up to 2.7 million spoken words using just 410 sounds!
The other key difference, is that written Mandarin does not spell out the sound of the spoken word like English does; instead it uses characters to represent the word symbolically, a bit like emoji. So in Mandarin …
- “Person” is written 人, which is a stylised picture of someone walking
- “Big” is written 大, which is a picture of a person with their arms stretched out
- “Words” is written 言, which represents breath coming up out of someone’s mouth
- “Trust” is written 信, which shows a person standing by their word
Once you appreciate these distinct characteristics of Mandarin, you know what to (and what not to) focus on and you begin to discover all sorts of new possibilities.
To find out more about how perspective changes the way we feel Mandarin Chinese is difficult or easy, click here.