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Mandarin (Chinese) 

Huānyíng- Welcome

Mandarin (pŭtōnghuà, guóyŭ, huáyŭ) is the most widely spoken of all Chinese dialects spoken as a first language in a vast area of northern and southwestern mainland China. There is also a huge diaspora of Mandarin speakers in Brunei, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, USA, and Viet Nam. With close to 850 million speakers, Mandarin Chinese  is by far the world’s largest language.

→Click on the MLA Interactive Language Map to find out where Chinese (all dialects) is spoken in the United States.map

Status
  • Mainland China and Taiwan
    Standard Mandarin is the official language of mainland China and of Taiwan where it serves as a lingua franca for speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects. Standard Mandarin is used in all spheres of informal and formal communication. It serves as the medium of instruction at all educational levels as well as in all media. The use of Standard Mandarin has facilitated communication among people who speak a variety of mutually unintelligible dialects and languages. As a result, Standard Mandarin is now spoken with varying degrees of fluency and with differences in pronunciation by most people in mainland China and in Taiwan.
  • Singapore
    Standard Mandarin is one of the four official languages of Singapore along with English, Tamil and Malay. Although English is the primary medium of instruction in elementary schools, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay are taught in schools of the respective language communities. Schools in the Chinese community receive extra funding to teach Mandarin and to use it as a medium of instruction since the majority of ethnic Chinese in Singapore are speakers of Min Nan Chinese and have to learn Mandarin as a second dialect.

 

Dialects

Mandarin is the major dialect of China both in terms of number of speakers (about 70% of the total population) and political importance.The term Mandarin is an English translation of guān-huà ‘official language’, i.e., the dialect spoken in Beijing. The Beijing dialect has been the standard for the official language of China for many centuries. Because of geographical and political considerations, the language came to be known by different names: in the People’s Republic of China it is called pŭtōnghuà ‘common speech’, in Taiwan it is called guóyŭ ‘national language’, and in Singapore and Malaysia it is called huáyŭ ‘Chinese language.’ Although pŭtōnghuàguóyŭ and huáyŭ are all technically based on the Beijing dialect, they differ from the dialect spoken in Beijing. They also differ from each other mostly in pronunciation and vocabulary.

Mandarin spoken in mainland China is usually divided into four main regional varieties that, for the most part, are mutually intelligible (Ethnologue).

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

 

Structure

Sound system

The pronunciation of Mandarin varies widely along geographical and social lines. People use elements of their native dialect when they speak it. By contrast, television and radio announcers usually attempt to emulate an idealized version of Standard Mandarin. Below is a short description of the phonology of Standard Mandarin usually heard on television and on the radio.

Syllable structure
The syllable structure in Mandarin consists of an optional initial consonant + vowel (accompanied by tone) + optional final consonant (n or ng).

Vowels
Mandarin Chinese has 7 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. The number of vowel phonemes in Mandarin is not universally agreed upon.

Close
i
y
u
Mid
e
ə
o
Open
a
  • /y/ is similar to second vowel in statue
  • /ə/ = a in about

 

Consonants
Mandarin has 22 consonant phonemes which are presented in the table below.

Alveolopalatal
Stops unaspirated
p
t
k
aspirated
Fricatives
f
s
ʂ
 ɕ  
Affricates unaspirated
ts

aspirated
tsʰ
tʂʰ
tɕʰ
Nasals
m
n
ŋ
Lateral
l
Approximants
w
ɻ
  • Mandarin Chinese does not have a contrast between voiceless and voiced stops and affricates such as between /p – b/,/ or /ts – dz/, etc. Instead, there is a contrast between voiceless unaspirated and voiceless aspirated consonants, e.g., /p – pʰ/, ts – tsʰ/, even though In Pīnyīn, voiceless unaspirated /p/, /t/, /k/ are written as b, d, g. Aspirated consonants are produced with a strong puff of air. In the table below they are marked with a raised ‘h’.
  • Only the nasal consonants /n/ and//ŋ/ can appear at the end of syllables.
  • Retroflex consonants /ʂ/, /tʂ/, /tʂʰ/ are produced with the tongue curled, so that its underside comes in contact with the roof of the mouth.
  • /ɕ/ similar to h in hue
  • /tɕ/ is similar to ch in cheese
  • /ŋ/ = ng in song
  • /ɻ/ = in red

 

Tones
Every syllable in Mandarin Chinese has a pitch that is an integral part of its pronunciation. Pitch distinguishes one syllable from another syllable that consists of the same consonants and vowels. The romanization system adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China, called Pīnyīn, represents tones by diacritical marks over vowels. Thus, for Mandarin which has four tones, the syllable ma can be written in the following four ways that indicate tones. As you can see, tones make a difference in the meaning of these otherwise identical syllables.

1st tone high-level ‘mother’
2nd tone rising ‘hemp’
3rd tone falling-rising ‘horse’
4th tone falling ‘scold’

 

Grammar

Mandarin, like all other Chinese languages, is predominantly an isolating, or analytic, language, meaning that for the most part, words have only one grammatical form. Grammatical functions are expressed through word order, particles, prepositions, and discourse, rather than by suffixes attached to nouns or verbs, such as in Indo-European languages. Because of the lack of inflections, Chinese grammar may appear quite simple compared to that of Indo-European languages.

Nouns 
Mandarin nouns are not marked for number, gender or case. Below are some of the most frequent noun markers.

  • Classifiers
    Classifiers are noun markers that are attached to quantifiers and demonstratives. There is one general classifier –ge  which occurs with most nouns, e.g., sān-ge chēzi ‘three [classifier] cars’. In general, a noun in Chinese can occur with only one classifier. There are dozens of classifiers, and one has to learn which classifier goes with which noun. As an example, the classifier for books is bĕn, e.g., yī-bĕn shū ‘one [classifier] book’.
  • Locative markers
    Locative markers occur with prepositions and nouns to specify location, e.g., wŏ zài chuáng-shàn ‘I in bed on’.
  • Possessive (genitive) marker)
    The possessive marker –de is used with personal pronouns, turning them into possessive pronouns, e.g., wŏ-de ‘I + possessive = my’.

 

Verbs
Mandarin verbs are not marked for person and number. The most important verb category is aspect. The perfective aspect is marked by the suffix –le, e.g., wŏ chī-le sān-wăn fàn ‘I eat [perfective marker] three [classifier] rice’.

Sentence markers
There is a set of particles that occur at the end of sentences. For instance, the particle ma placed at the end of a sentence changes statements into questions, e.g., tā chī-le ‘He/she ate’ and tā chī-le ma? ‘Has he eaten?’

Word order 
Chinese is a topic-prominent language. This means that the topic of the sentence, defined as old or known information, precedes comment, i.e., new or added information. For example,

Topic (old or known information)
Comment (new or added information)
zhèi-bĕn shū
wŏ kàn-guo le
‘This book’
‘I have read’

 

Vocabulary

Mandarin shares most of its vocabulary with other Chinese dialects. Foreign words and concepts are adopted by creating new compound words that translate the concept behind them. For example, the word for computer is diànnao, ‘electric brain’, the word for telephone is diànhuà, literally ‘electric speech’. Transliteration of borrowed words does not work very well in Chinese because Chinese characters are not well-suited to represent foreign sounds, and because the pronunciation of characters differs from dialect to dialect.

Most Mandarin words are made up of one or two morphemes. Grammatical categories such as number, person, case, tense, and aspect are not expressed by inflections. The most common word building devices in Mandarin are described below.

  • Compounding
    Examples of nominal compounds are fàn-wăn ‘rice bowl,’ and hŭo-chē ‘fire + vehicle = train’.
  • Reduplication
    Another frequently used word building device is reduplication, e.g., rén ‘person’ and rénrén ‘people’.
  • Prefixation
    Prefixation is not very common, but a prefix can be added to a verb to form an adjective, e.g., the prefix – can be added to the verb xiào ‘laugh’ to form an adjective kă-xiào ‘laughable’.
  • Suffixation
    There are few derivational suffixes. One example is jiā ‘-ist’, e.g., lishĭ-jiā ‘historian’.
  • Borrowing
    Chinese tends not to borrow words from other languages. Instead, it uses native elements to create words for expressing new concepts, e.g.,dyàn-huà ‘electricity + speech = telephone’.

 

Below are some common words and phrases in Mandarin.

Pīnyīn
Traditional characters
Hello

nǐ hǎo
Hello in Chinese characters
Good-bye
zàijiàn
ChineseCharacterGoodbye
Thank you
xièxè
ChineseCharacterThankyou
Please
qĭng
ChineseCharacterPlease
Man
rén
Chinese character for man
Woman nǚrén
女人

 

Below are the numerals 0-10 in Mandarin.

0
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
Pīnyīn
líng
èr
sān
liù
jiŭ
shí
Characters
0
Character for one
Character for two
Character for three
Character for four
Character for five
Character for six
Character for seven
Charater for eight
Character for nine
Character for ten

Writing

The Chinese writing system is described in the Chinese branch page on this website.

Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in traditional characters, simplified characters, and in Pīnyīn. Although Chinese has been traditionally written vertically and from right to left, the modern trend is to write it horizontally and from left to right, just as it was done below.

Article 1

Did You Know?

English has borrowed many words from Mandarin Chinese. Among them are the following:

Chow mein American English, from Manarin chăo miàn ‘fried noodles’.
Feng shui A system of spiritual influences in natural landscapes and a means for regulating them. From Mandarin fēng ‘wind’ + shŭi ‘water’.
Gung ho Slang motto of Carlson’s Raiders, U.S. guerrilla unit operating in the Pacific during World War II. From gōng hé ‘work together, cooperate’.
Kowtow Custom of touching the ground with the forehead to show respect or submission. From kētóu, literally  ‘knock’ + tóu ‘head’.
Oolong Dark variety of Chinese tea, from Mandarin wūlóng ‘back dragon’.
Shih-tzu Small long-haired dog, from Mandarin zhīzigŏu, from zhī ‘lion’ + zi ‘son’ + gŏu ‘dog’.
Tai chi ‘The supreme ultimate’ in Taoism and New Confucianism, from Mandarin tài ‘extreme’ +  ‘limit’. The form of martial arts training in full is tàijíqúan, literally tài ‘extreme’ +  ‘limit’ + qúan ‘fist’.
Tao Religious system founded by Lao Tzu, from Mandarin tào ‘way, path, reason’
Tea From Amoy dialect of Chinese t’e. The Mandarin word is chá. The distribution of the different forms of the word reflect the spread of the beverage in Europe. The modern English word for tea, along with French the, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy dialect. The Portuguese form cha, Russian chay, Arabic shay, all came from the Mandarin form chá.
Tofu ‘Soy bean curd,’ from Japanese tofu, from Mandarin dòufu, from dòu ‘beans’ + fu ‘rotten’.

Difficulty

Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Mandarin?
Mandarin is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficult for speakers of English.

24 Responses to Mandarin (Chinese)

  1. Raymond Chui

    Below are the numerals 0-10 in Mandarin.

    The characters for zero is 零.

    Cantonese is not a language, it is the same as Chinese language.
    Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. are dialects. There are many dialects in China.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We did not claim that Cantonese is a language separate from Chinese on our website. Chinese is a macrolanguage spoken not just in China but in many other countries of Asia and elsehwere. The status of Cantonese is that of a de facto provincial language in Guangdong Province as well as in Hong Kong since Hong Kong’s Chinese majority originate mainly from the cities of Guangzhou and Taishan in Guangdong province. The medium of instruction in schools is Cantonese with written Chinese and English in primary schools. In secondary schools there has been an increasing emphasis on teaching Mandarin in order to create a trilingual/triliterate population.

       
  2. adelasia.newsvine.com

    Your way of explaining everything in this post is truly fastidious, all be capable of effortlessly understand it,
    Thanks a lot.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      You are welcome. Thank you for the kind words.

       
  3. Maiyji78

    Oish. Lots of little errors.
    The pinyin for 10 is ‘shí’, not ‘shì’. Rising, not falling.
    Your IPA for the palatoalveolar set is incorrect; it should be labeled “palatoalveolar”, not “palatal”, and you should be using , not . Significant difference. And if the sound *were* actually [ç], you’d want /cç/, not /tç/.
    “ni hăo” should be “nǐ hăo” or “ní hăo”. Minor quibble here, but it’s true. The second one marks tone sandhi; either would be okay in pinyin; the second more accurately marks how things are said in speech, and the first more clearly indicates what character is intended.
    ‘zàijìan’ should be ‘zàijiàn’; in pinyin, diacritics don’t go over an or a unless they absolutely have to. And if and occur next to each other, the diacritic(s) goes over . Minor quibble, but it helps readability.
    ‘xiexìe’ should be ‘xièxiè’. You could also write ‘xièxie’ if you wanted, but it’s safest to mark all tones.
    ‘niǔrén’ mean “twisted people”, not ‘woman’; ‘nǚrén’ means ‘woman’. And ‘niùrén’ means ‘cattle’. Be careful with tones. :p I think what you were originally trying to type was ‘niūrén’, which means “little girl”; but ‘nǚrén’ is what you want here. And you’d be fine with just ‘nǚ’, but it’s always safer to give two syllables.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      Please do not inundate us with multiple postings of the same comment. Do it ONCE!

       
  4. Maiyli78

    The first time I posted this comment, the orthographic tags (the sideways carets) got omitted as html. The second time, I tried nohtml tags. This time, I’ll use ” in place of the carets.
    I also found (after the fourth time posting it) that you guys had used the brève diacritic in “ni hao” instead of the caron.
    The sixth time posting, I left a tidbit about fonts. This last time, I added a tiny bit to the part about fonts.
    Oh, and I accidentally left a typo in my name those first three times. Should have been “Maiyli78”. Anyways, here’s the text:

    Oish. Lots of little errors.
    The pinyin for 10 is ‘shí’, not ‘shì’. Rising, not falling.
    Your IPA for the palatoalveolar set is incorrect; it should be labeled “palatoalveolar”, not “palatal”, and you should be using ‘ɕ’, not ‘ç’. Significant difference. And if the sound *were* actually [ç], you’d want /cç/, not */tç/.
    “ni hăo” should be “nǐ hǎo” or “ní hǎo”. Minor quibble here, but it’s true. The second one marks tone sandhi; either would be okay in pinyin; the second more accurately marks how things are said in speech, and the first more clearly indicates what character is intended. And you should never use the brève diacritic in Chinese; the caron is what you want.
    ‘zàijìan’ should be ‘zàijiàn’; in pinyin, diacritics don’t go over an ‘i’ or an ‘u’ unless they absolutely have to. And if ‘i’ and ‘u’ occur next to each other, the diacritic(s) go(es) over ‘u’. Minor quibble, but it helps readability.
    ‘xiexìe’ should be ‘xièxiè’. You could also write ‘xièxie’ if you wanted, but it’s safest to mark all tones.
    ‘niǔrén’ mean “twisted people”, not ‘woman’; ‘nǚrén’ means ‘woman’. And ‘niùrén’ means ‘cattle’. Be careful with tones. :p I think what you were originally trying to type was ‘niūrén’, which means “little girl”; but ‘nǚrén’ is what you want here. And you’d be fine with just ‘nǚ’, but it’s always safer to give two syllables.
    And you should pick a different font for characters; using a bitmap font like that is hardly acceptable in 2014, and a modern vector format is much more readable. Something that would be a much better pick would be DejaVu Sans YuanTi, which is royalty free. I’m almost certain that it’s fully libre software, under the same free licenses as DejaVu.

    Just delete my other comments.

     
  5. snowman55

    Maiyli78: thanks for the corrections, though it seems the OP didn’t appreciate it… dui4 nui2 tan2 qin2 🙂

     
  6. Ken Wong

    Some small errors, need for more careful proofreading before uploading to a public forum. But apart from that, an informative and useful site, thanks.

     
    • Irene Thompson

      We don’t have a staff of copy editors. Our readers can help us by pointing out the errors.

       
  7. orna taub

    My name is Orna. I am a Chinese language entusiastic. I have just launched my new blog for mandarin students with weekly updated free mandarin learning topics . I’d love to get your feedback ,comments and advices about the blog.
    If you like my blog you are very welcome to follow it and write your comments to enrich the worldwide mandarin students community.

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  8. Sundharma

    You forgot /x/ sound, ‘h’ in pinyin 🙂

     
  9. Pingback: Chinese Translations for Today’s Business Needs | How to Learn Chinese Language

    • Irene Thompson

      You seem to equate written communication with spoken communication. You should clarify which of these you actually mean.

       
      • Sundharma

        I mean voiceless velar fricative /x/ 🙂 河 /xɤ˧˥/ 好 /xaw˨˩˦/

         
  10. Sam

    The tones were nicely explained with words!!! 🙂

     
  11. Zhihui

    The Chinese characters for woman should be 女人 based on the hanyu pinyin given.

     
  12. Ethan Gunn

    great and informational website! thanks!

     
  13. Ethan Gunn

    I am writing an essay on mandarin Chinese and this was almost all the info i needed

     
  14. A.C.T.

    Great stuff. Comprehensive and thorough. I am a native Chinese speaker and agree with most of your points, except for this:

    Mandarin spoken in mainland China is usually divided into four main regional varieties that, for the most part, are mutually intelligible.

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

    I am from Sichuan, a southwest province of China and our daily speech is in “Sichuanese”, which might sound to a certain degree different from standard mandarin. We usually don’t consider it as a “mandarin”.

    However, the other three (Northern, Eastern, Northwestern) are very similar (if not identical), and you basically won’t tell any notable difference if you are not a native Chinese speaker. This trend of “accent convergency” is getting more and more obvious these days.

     
  15. Matthew Yu

    St. Louis Modern Chinese School (STLMCS) will celebrate its 20th anniversary on September 20th, 2017. There is nothing short of amazing about the formation of the school and what it has become 20 years later. STLMCS is a community school. It was formed 20 years ago by a group of dedicated parents who felt the Chinese language and culture education was essential to the growth of their children. Without any government funding, the school started with private donations and volunteered teachers. Roughly 10 years ago, the school bought its 3-story school building and expanded its mission to offer Chinese language and cultural classes to students from all walks of life.

    The celebration will be held on Wednesday, 9/20/2017, at 7:00 PM. The details will be furnished if you are interested coming to the show. The performing group is the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, the best from China. This will be a tremendous opportunity for your students to experience another facet of the Chinese culture. Please let me know if your students will be interested in seeing the show. 100% of the proceeds will benefit STLMCS. I look forward to hearing from you.

     

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