Mandarin Chinese Language: Complete Guide

Updated: 07. Nov, 2022

Chinese is an exotic language that attracts millions of people worldwide. Unfortunately, it has the reputation of being one of the most challenging languages to learn. Many people know this and feel discouraged from learning Chinese. They often wonder where to begin and how to go about it.

Over 15% of the world’s population speak Mandarin Chinese. It is the second most spoken language in the world. This means that you’ll most likely come across people speaking Mandarin Chinese in places around you. The language is a great way to connect to Chinese culture, equip yourself for job opportunities, and connect with other Mandarin speakers worldwide.

This article will provide a complete guide for anyone interested in learning Mandarin Chinese. We’ll cover various language aspects and offer other helpful information. So, please stick with us.

Overview of Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin refers to a group of Chinese languages and dialects native to most parts of northern and southwestern China. However, most Mandarin dialects are found in the northern region because they originated from North China. As a result, it is often called Northern Chinese.

Mandarin is undoubtedly the largest of the Chinese dialect groups in the country. These dialects are also very influential in the Chinese capital because it is within the Mandarin-speaking area. Since the 14th century, some version of Mandarin has been the official language for the government and courts. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. Also, it is one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations.

Dialects

There are four main regional varieties of Mandarin spoken within China. They are:

  • Northern Mandarin (Huabei Guanhua) includes the Beijing dialect.
  • Eastern Mandarin (Jinghuai Guanhua).
  • Northwestern Mandarin (Xibei Guanhua).
  • Southwestern Mandarin (Xinan Guanhua). 

Syllable Structure

The Mandarin syllable structure comprises an optional first consonant + vowel (typically accompanied by tone) + optional final consonant (n or ng).

Tones

For most beginners learning Mandarin, mastering the tones is usually one of the journey’s most challenging and time-consuming aspects. It’s already hard enough to remember words. When you consider using the correct intonation, it is easy to see why many people struggle to understand.

However, it is important for anyone learning Chinese to master this because the rising and falling of your voice can affect the meaning of the words you’re trying to produce. In addition, pitch makes it easier to differentiate between syllables with the same consonants and vowels.

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese:

The 1st Tone

To produce the first tone, your voice rises high and stays that way. So, for example, the syllable ‘ma’ becomes ‘mā’ (mother).

The 2nd Tone

The second tone can be described as a rising tone. It’s like when you raise your voice to ask a question. Your voice starts somewhere in the middle and rises. In this case, ‘ma’ becomes ‘má’ (hemp).

The 3rd Tone

The third tone is typically the most complicated for beginners. It is also called the “dip tone” because of the way your voice would have to drop to produce the sound. Your voice starts in the middle, drops low, and rises almost to the top. It’s similar to saying ‘uh?!’ in shock or disbelief. With the third tone, ‘ma’ becomes ‘mă’ (horse).

The 4th Tone

This tone is a falling sound. Luckily, it is effortless to produce. To produce this tone, your voice starts high, then drops low. It’s like screaming “NO!”. If you’re using the fourth tone, ‘ma’ becomes ‘mà’ (scold).

The Neutral Tone

As the name implies, your voice remains neutral when you make this tone. Similarly, in writing, there are no tone identifiers placed over words. Neutral tones are usually found at the end of sentences when asking a question or when a syllable is repeated.

Grammar

Mandarin Chinese is mainly an analytic language. This means that words in the language have a single grammatical form. Additionally, unlike Indo-European languages, its grammatical functions are indicated through particles, word order, discourse, and prepositions instead of suffixes linked to nouns or verbs. This makes it relatively easier to understand.

Vowels

Mandarin Chinese vowels are unlike the English version. There are seven vowel phonemes (significant sounds in the meaning of words): i, y, u, e, ə, o, and a.

Consonants

There are 22 consonant phonemes in Mandarin Chinese. Mastering these sounds is essential for basic words, forming short sentences, or asking questions.

Nouns

Mandarin nouns don’t have the number, case, or gender markers you’d find in English and other languages. Its most common noun markers include:

  • Classifiers:
    These refer to noun markers connected to quantifiers and demonstratives. For example, the classifier -ge appears with most nouns in the language. Many classifiers are available, and you need to know which one goes with which noun. However, it is important to note that Chinese nouns can only occur with one classifier.
  • Locative markers:
    These markers occur with prepositions and nouns to indicate location.
  • Possessive marker:
    The possessive marker -de is combined with personal pronouns to make them possessive.

Verbs

The verbs that exist in Mandarin are not designated for person and number. The most significant category is aspect. The suffix -le signifies the perfective aspected.

Sentence Markers

Sentence markers are significant in speech and writing. A group of particles is present at the end of sentences. For example, some particles such as ‘ma’ can be placed at the end of sentences to make statements become questions.

Vocabulary

Mandarin vocabulary doesn’t have so many significant differences from other Chinese dialects. To incorporate foreign words and concepts into the language, speakers create compound words that translate the idea. For example, the word telephone is ‘diànhuà,’ which translates directly to ‘electric speech.’ So, it would be best if you avoided transliteration because Mandarin characters don’t directly fit foreign sounds, and pronunciation differs amongst dialects.

The most frequently used Mandarin word-building systems include:

Compounding: Examples of compound words are fàn-wăn (rice bowl) and hŭo-chē (fire + vehicle = train).

Reduplication: This refers to repeating one word to signify plurality. For example, rén (person) and rénrén (people).

Prefixation: While this word-building device is not very common, a prefix is usually added to a verb to create an adjective. For example, you can add the prefix kă– to xiào (laugh) to form kă-xiào (laughable).

Suffixation: This means adding suffixes to words. For example, you can use the derivational suffix jiā (-ist) to form lishĭ-jiā (historian).

Borrowing: As we mentioned earlier, Chinese doesn’t borrow words from other languages. Instead, it uses existing words to express the concepts. For example, diànnao (‘electric brain’ which means computer).

Writing Mandarin

Even if you eventually become an expert at speaking Chinese, you’ll also have to familiarize yourself with written Chinese. It is an important aspect you’ll need to master if you truly want to hone your Mandarin language skills.

First off, you should know that there are two systems of written Chinese;

  • Traditional Chinese, and
  • Simplified Chinese.

These days, Simplified Chinese is the standard writing system in mainland China. However, you can still find the Traditional Chinese system being used in countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Simplified Chinese is more suitable for beginners because it is easier to learn and comprehend.

Pinyin

Many Mandarin learners outside the Chinese-speaking region typically find it challenging to learn the traditional writing style when they start learning the language. That is why they use Romanization to substitute Chinese characters. This system uses the Roman alphabet to represent the sounds of spoken Mandarin. The most prominent system of Romanization these days is Pinyin.

The good news is that writing Pinyin is similar to the English alphabet. Pinyin comprises three important components: tones, initials, and finals. As we discussed earlier, tone marks help you know how to pronounce words. Meanwhile, initials and finals indicate how to pronounce letters and specific combination sounds.

Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang developed Pinyin in the ’50s. By 1958, it was already made part of the teaching system of China as part of the government’s efforts to improve literacy in the country.

Tips for Beginner Mandarin Chinese Learners

The early stages of learning a new language like Chinese can be a bit daunting. However, if you desire to learn as fast and efficiently as possible, here are some things you need to avoid in your quest:

1. Take Chinese Tones Seriously

Tones are a very significant aspect of learning Chinese, without any doubt. As a beginner, you may want to breeze past tones and not pay so much attention to them. Unfortunately, that’s not a good idea. The only way you can understand what people say and for them to understand you is when you know the tones and use them correctly.

Mixing tones can seriously affect the meaning of words you’re trying to say. For example, as we pointed out when highlighting the Mandarin tones, a simple syllable like ‘ma’ can have up to four meanings, depending on your tone.

2. Avoid Memorizing Random Chinese Vocabulary Lists

Another common mistake people make when trying to learn a foreign language is memorizing vocab lists. The problem with this is that you may end up familiarizing yourself with words you don’t really need.

It’s a better idea if you put more effort into trying to understand relevant topics you want to be able to talk about and learn the related vocabulary.

3. Don’t Forget to Practice a Little Daily

To master Mandarin, you must be committed to your set goals and always endeavor to practice something in Mandarin daily. But, of course, you don’t have to do so much daily. Instead, you can decide to learn a simple concept for a few minutes or hours.

4. Don’t Get Tired of Repetition

As a newbie to a foreign language, it is understandable to get excited that you have a particular topic on lock and decide to move on to something else instead of repeating what you’ve learned.

However, repetition can be a good thing. It is a crucial part of learning any language. It’s like trying to build a strong foundation, so when you learn other things, they stick. Without repeating and mastering what you’ve studied, handling more complex aspects of Mandarin would be difficult.

How To Learn Mandarin Chinese Easier and Faster

You want to take the easiest path when you want to learn Mandarin. Here are some ideas and resources that can come in handy regardless of your learning goals:

1. Apps for Learning Mandarin

Turning to language learning apps is a great way to start learning Mandarin Chinese. There are several apps available on the internet. Some of these are free or may require you to pay a subscription fee. Our top recommendations are Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Busuu, and Duolingo. These apps are highly interactive and make learning fun.

2. Chinese Classes or a Private Tutor

If you’re more interested in a hands-on learning experience, you will benefit from signing up for Mandarin classes or hiring an expert tutor. A teacher provides you with an organized and professional study plan that fits your requirements and goals.

More so, tutors or teachers may help you get your pronunciations and spellings correctly faster. Although this option may be pretty pricey in some regions, it is a valuable investment if you want to be an expert in Mandarin.

3. Practice Pinyin Regularly

Another excellent way to get a grip on Mandarin is to test out your Pinyin from time to time. Not only does Pinyin help with your pronunciation, but it also makes it easier for you to write Chinese and advance to using traditional Chinese characters. So, it is like a double-edged sword. It would be best if you kept swinging from time to time so you don’t get rusty.

4. Find Learning Partners

A lot of people speak Mandarin worldwide. Unfortunately, in some areas, they are fewer than you may like. However, you should get a partner to practice your new language skills if you can. It doesn’t exactly have to be an expert or native speaker. If you can’t find either of the two, you can go ahead to practice with someone that’s just as enthusiastic as you are about learning Mandarin.

This way, you get to compliment yourselves and point out areas that need improvement. If you can’t find a physical partner, you can turn to the internet and explore forums or social media for other people worldwide who may be interested in learning with a partner.

Although self-study is good, it isn’t always as effective as a group study. So, when you have a partner, you need to create a workable schedule for frequent contact and stick to it.

5. Chinese Media

Watching or listening to native speakers and experts is another valuable way to pick up more knowledge on Mandarin. You can watch Chinese movies and shows with subtitles for listening and reading practice. Also, podcasts and news programs can help you out. However, you must ensure that they speak the standard Mandarin dialect, not variations.

Conclusion

As you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, you aren’t just learning a foreign language. You’re also immersing yourself in a unique ancient culture. This gives you some insight into various aspects of the Chinese lifestyle. Additionally, you’re equipping yourself with the ability to communicate with millions of people worldwide who also speak Mandarin.

It may seem tedious and time-consuming in the early stages, but you shouldn’t deter. All your time and effort will eventually pay off when you are so fluent in the language that friends and even employers are interested in having you around because you can speak the language. Once you find a learning method that feels natural and convenient for you, stick to it. It will help you expand your knowledge faster.

So, feel free to get started today. Don’t be wary. Stay confident and consistent!

Table of contents