Frequently Asked Questions about Mandarin Chinese
What is the difference between Mandarin and Chinese?
China is a very large and geographically diverse country. As a result, the language is fractured with completely different-sounding Chinese dialects being spoken. Some are entirely unintelligible to one another, however most people can speak Mandarin as well as their local dialect.
When people talk about the ‘Chinese language’, they are usually referring to Mandarin as it is the dialect that most Chinese people speak. Also known as ‘Standard Chinese’ or ‘Standard Mandarin’, it is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore. Children are taught in Mandarin at school, it is also spoken on TV and used in other forms of media.
Is Mandarin difficult to learn?
The Chinese characters that we are all used to seeing often put us off learning Mandarin, but it’s actually very easy compared to some other languages. You don’t need to learn to read the characters straight away. You can begin by using Pinyin, a roman letter-based system which spells out the sounds.
Chinese grammar is very straightforward when compared to European languages. There are no tenses, no plural, no gender and even no verb conjugation.
Chinese language is like a very simple, logical building block system.
How do you read Mandarin?
When you’re first learning to speak Mandarin, you’ll probably use Pinyin. This is a roman letter-based system which was created by the Chinese government in 1950s to increase literacy rates. It made the language more accessible to the west and allows us to learn the Mandarin language more quickly.
Once you’ve got to grips with the basics, you can have a go at reading Chinese characters or symbols. There are two different types of characters – simple and traditional. If you understand the simple characters, you will be able to work out at least 50% of traditional characters in everyday writing, as the differences between them are minimal. Which one you learn might depend on where you intend to use it. Mainland China and Singapore use the simplified characters, but Hong Kong and Taiwan use traditional characters.
Chinese characters are used like building blocks and most words contain two or more characters. Here are a few examples to get you started:
大人 dà rén (literally translates ‘big person’) meaning adult
火車 huǒ chē (literally translates ‘fire vehicle’) meaning locomotive or train
飞机 fēi jī (literally translates ‘fly machine’) meaning aeroplane
Are tones important?
Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that a single word can have a variety of meanings depending on the tone you use. There are four different tones to learn.
Whilst the tones are considered a very important part of the language, you’ll still be understood if you use the wrong tone for a word, provided it is used in a full sentence that is grammatically correct. For example, if you accidentally said: “Tomorrow I want to go useful” – 明天我要去有用 (míngtiān wǒ yào qù yǒu yòng) instead of 明天我要去游泳 (míng tiān wǒ yào qù yóu yǒng) – “Tomorrow I want to go swimming“. Native speakers would recognise your mistake and still be able to understand you.
How long will it take to learn?
This really depends on how much time and effort you can put in. It also depends on what type of Mandarin you want to learn. Do you want to learn how to have a basic conversation or do you want to learn business-focused Mandarin?
Here at Chinese School London, we have a number of courses, varying in length and intensity, so you can choose to go at a pace that suits you.
Putting in a little bit of practice every day will really pay off. Just 30-40 minutes a day will help you to achieve conversational fluency in one-two years, provided you’re following the advice of our top teachers.