May 17

Learning Mandarin: what you need to know before you start

By  Customer Service

China in Context last weekend was abuzz with booklovers who came from all over to share our passion for all things books, and all things China.

Participants of Sunday’s Chinese for Beginners workshop learned everything they needed to know about Chinese before they embark on the unique journey to mastery of such a beautiful and fascinating language.

We’ve listed below some of the key takeaways from the workshop. If you’re a ‘newbie’ to Chinese, we hope this introduction will set you up for success and more importantly, give you an idea of what to expect on your journey.18553087_10212357795718214_2109959927_o (1)

We know Mandarin is the national language of China.

Spoken Mandarin however is amongst many, many Chinese dialects (Cantonese or Hokkien, for example), and that those dialects are often so different that they are mutually unintelligible. (Does that make them distinct languages rather than dialects? Perhaps a discussion for another time!)

The Pinyin Romanisation system is the most common amongst several systems such as Wade-Giles and Yale, and was adopted by the United Nations as the international standard in 1986. Pinyin is a great way to get your head around the pronunciation of Chinese vowels and consonants.


There is bad news, and there is good news, and even more good news about Mandarin Chinese. The bad news is, you’ll need to learn tones for almost every syllable you utter in Chinese. The good news is, there are only four in Mandarin – while there are many more in other Chinese dialects. The further south you go, the more there are. Cantonese, spoken in the Guangdong and Hong Kong areas, has nine tones!18553024_10212357798198276_968591355_o

So what’s the ‘even more’ good news? You might think English is much easier to learn because it doesn’t have tones. It has in fact been argued that English has a more complex system of intonation than Chinese, making it more difficult for a Chinese speaker to learn English as a foreign language than it is vice versa. Intonation rises at the end of an English question, for example. Tones might apply to whole phrases rather than to individual syllables. That’s a nice, reassuring perspective to take on board.

Here’s a good example of how the meaning can change with the tone. If you’re drinking tea in a café and you tell the waiter: “Wǒ yào táng”, you are asking for sugar. But if you tell the waiter, “Wǒ yào tāng”, you are asking for soup. ‘Sugar’ has a rising tone, while ‘soup’ has a flat tone. Would you be able to order the right thing? It’s important to get tones right, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Chinese characters aren’t always pictographic.18493109_10212357792918144_438308507_o (1)

Some are, though. Take 女 (female) for example, which could be likened to a kneeling woman. Or 山, for mountain.

Some are ideograms, like 一,二,三 for one, two, three. Or 本, for ‘root’.

Then you have phono-semantic compounds, which as you might guess, combine parts that indicate how it is pronounced, and what it means. 拍, which means ‘to clap’, and is pronounced ‘pāi’, is a combination of ‘hand’ on the left, and the character ‘bái’ on the right.

Flexible culture, flexible greetings.

If you’ve learned a few phrases in Mandarin, you’re probably familiar with ‘nǐ hǎo’ as a way of saying ‘hello’. It’s not incorrect, but you’ll find yourself sounding more natural by adjusting your greeting to the specific situation in which you find yourself.

For example, you might greet a colleague at work by saying ‘nǐ máng ma?’ (are you busy?), or a friend at lunch time, asking ‘nǐ chīle ma’ (have you eaten?) You don’t necessarily expect an exact answer to these questions – it’s simply a way of saying ‘hi’.

If you’d like to be kept in the loop about Mandarin Chinese classes at Guanghwa Bookshop, email info@guanghwa.com today to be added to the mailing list.







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