There is no language in the world as widely spoken or as ancient as Mandarin. With a written history dating back more than 3,000 years, Mandarin is the oldest written language still commonly spoken today, with around 917 million native speakers throughout the world.
But despite its commonality, the potential for heinous mispronunciation and a complicated writing system has made Mandarin a notoriously difficult language to learn. This reputation is undeserved, however, as many people will find that the grammar is a breeze.
Learning the basics of Mandarin could be well worth your time — around a seventh of the world population speaks Mandarin, so grasping the basics of language will introduce you to a world of possibilities. Whether you’re looking to make human connections during your travels, want to be able to find your way in China’s hectic cities, or simply want to know how to order hot pot, this guide will help get to grips with Mandarin.
Why learn Mandarin?
Open yourself up to almost one billion people
Mandarin is by far the most predominant language in China and Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora spans the entire world. Millions of Mandarin speakers live in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the United States, Canada, and Peru, so almost everywhere you go, you can find people to converse with.
Ease your travel pains
Few locals in China can speak English fluently. Heavily touristed areas will have signs in English or at least pinyin — the phonetic writing of Mandarin — but beyond that it’s all written Mandarin.
Calling a cab, taking the metro, or even figuring out how to buy tickets to the Forbidden City can get confusing, so it’s useful to be able to ask for help when you need it. Additionally, haggling culture is still very prevalent, and depending on where you are, vendors can mark-up prices tenfold for foreigners. Knowing numbers can certainly help with getting the right price for your souvenirs.
The basics: Why it’s easy and why it’s hard
What’s easy about learning Madarin
Mandarin has the reputation of being a difficult language for Westerners to speak — and in many regards, rightly so. But what many overlook is how astoundingly easy the grammar can be. There’s no changing of verbs to match the subject (as in “I speak” vs. “he speaks”) and past or future tenses are made by simply adding a syllable. There’s also no splitting between male or female, and plurals are given through context.
Let’s take the sentence “he/she ate noodles” to compare between languages:
In Mandarin phonetics, this is ta chi le miantiao (他吃了面条).
Instead of conjugating the verb chi to the past tense, in Mandarin you can simply add the syllable le after the verb to denote that it was in the past. Other verb tenses are also expressed in a similarly simple way. Also note that when speaking, there is no he/she but rather a singular “they.” A similar structure is also used for plural subjects: Ta men chi le miantiao (他们吃了面条).
Likewise, the verb chi did not change. To denote “they” as a plural, a simple men was added.
What’s hard about learning Mandarin
The beast of the Mandarin language has two heads: one is pronunciation, the other writing.
Each syllable can be spoken with four intonations, and to the untrained ear, these are difficult to distinguish, let alone speak with ease. Each intonation gives a different meaning to a word. Luckily, however, if you get the intonations, wrong people can infer the meaning based on context.
Writing in Chinese is also a burden — Chinese is written with characters, with each character representing a syllable. Most characters can stand on their own as words, but oftentimes, they’re combined to make new words. For example the individual characters in miantiao (面条) are flour thread, but together, they mean noodles.
A typical Chinese dictionary will have 20,000 to 40,000 characters, but most schoolchildren will need to memorize around 8,000. You’ll need to know about 3,000 to read a newspaper, and the way Chinese kids learn is by picking up vocabulary sheets and just memorizing.
Pinyin is the phonetic guide to Mandarin using the Latin alphabet. This is incredibly helpful when you have a grasp of how to speak the language but haven’t memorized thousands of characters. Included within pinyin are the four main intonations. Here’s the word ma as an example:
- Mā (mother) — This tone is flat and level.
- Má (numb) — This intonation inflects upwards, a little like when you’re asking a question in English.
- Mă (horse) — Like the symbol above the letter “a” indicates, this intonation dips downward and rises back up.
- Mà (yell/shout/express anger) — This intonation is spoken with a quick expulsion of air, a little like you got punched in the gut.
A couple more notes on pronunciation
- “X” is pronounced like sh, as in shin.
- ”Q” is pronounced like ch, as in chin.
- ”C” is pronounced like ts, as in tsunami.
- Words ending in “-ang” are pronounced with a soft “a,” more similar to “awn” than a hard “ang.”
- Similarly, words ending in “-ong” have a long “o” sound. The word long, meaning “dragon”, for instance, sounds more like “low-ng” than the English word “long.”
Getting oriented in Mandarin
You’ll find the cardinal directions everywhere in China. In Mandarin they are:
- Běi (北) — North
- Nán (南) — South
- Xī (西) — West
- Dōng (东) — East
Combining a direction with one of these common landmarks can help you find your way around:
- Mén (门) — Gate
- Qiáo(桥) — Bridge
- Kǒu (口) — Entrance, exit
- Jiē (街) — Street
For example, you may be looking for the Beijing subway stop Huìxīnxījiē Běikǒu. Huìxīn is the name of the location, xījiē indicates that it’s on the west side of the street, and běikǒu means it’s the north entrance.
If you’re looking for a specific spot, you can say the place you’re looking for followed by zài nǎlǐ, which literally translates to “is where?”
If you’re looking for Tiananmen Square, you would ask, Tiānān mén zài nǎlǐ? (天安门在哪里?)
Wèishēngjiān (卫生间), the bathroom, is one to remember. If you wanted to ask where the bathroom is, you’d ask wèishēngjiān zài nǎlǐ? Most public washrooms don’t come equipped with toilet paper, so don’t forget to bring your own.
If you happen to find something you like while shopping, ask zhège duōshǎo qián? (这个多少钱), which literally translates to, “This how much money?” If the vendor responds with an amount you deem too high, you can respond with tài guìle (太贵了), meaning, “It’s too expensive.”
And, the most important of all, express your gratitude when you receive help or service by saying xièxiè (谢谢), or thank you.