The Many Faces of Mandarin Chinese
They say it’s the hardest language in the world.
Tones, characters, dialects – it’s intimidating, to be sure. But it truly isn’t all that bad. The first language and lingua franca of billions of people on this planet can’t be too hard to learn.
So what is Mandarin Chinese, anyway? Where did it come from, who speaks it, where can you use it, and how did it get that name?
A Short History of Mandarin Chinese
There are several different branches on the tree of Chinese, but when it comes to number of speakers, Mandarin is the thickest.
Linguists inside and outside China classify Mandarin Chinese as a family of dialects stretching from the northeast all the way to the southwest of the country.
The geography in this area is relatively less mountainous and therefore easy to traverse, compared with the terrain of the southeast. It’s no surprise, then, that the villages in the southeast sometimes have completely different dialects just a few kilometers away from one another!
For the last thousand years, the capital of the Chinese government has been located in a Mandarin-speaking region. Thus, the lingua franca of educated people and government officials is a Mandarin dialect.
That’s where we get the name – in Chinese, an older name for this language was 官话 or “language of the mandarins.” “Mandarin” in English comes from Hindi via Malay and Portuguese; it’s an older word for a Chinese government official (the fruit, incidentally, got its name because it shares the colour of the robes worn by these officials).
In the twentieth century, this Mandarin language was codified into what is now known as 普通话: Modern Standard Mandarin. It became the official language of China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and now enjoys status as one of the working languages of the United Nations.
People and Places
Because Mandarin is spoken by so many people – more than 700 million by some estimates – and in so many places, it’s bound to pick up a few regional idiosyncrasies.
By and large, though, Mandarin will get you where you need to go, whether you learned it in an academy in Beijing or on the streets of Kaohsiung.
So where exactly is Mandarin spoken?
Besides the obvious answers of China, Taiwan, and Singapore, Mandarin is also widely spoken and understood by the Chinese diaspora worldwide.
Although much of the diaspora population tends to use other Chinese varieties, many people nowadays are able to at least understand Mandarin.
Therefore, you’re likely to find Mandarin speakers all over Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In addition, there are many well-established Chinese communities in Europe and North America. Mandarin is truly a world language!
And each place where Mandarin is spoken has its own slightly different local flavour.
In Taiwan, for instance, most people grow up speaking Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, or an Aboriginal language. This has led to the evolution of a distinct Taiwanese accent in Mandarin.
Most people would say it sounds “soft” and “cute,” since it lacks some of the sharper sh and r sounds from Beijing. That’s because the local languages don’t have these sounds to begin with, and since Mandarin is still understandable without them, they fell out of use.
Taiwanese Mandarin has a couple of vocabulary differences compared to mainland China, and these differences are used and accepted as standard by people at all levels of society.
Mostly these words refer to everyday nouns like household objects or foods. One example is 垃圾 (garbage). It’s pronounced lājī in mainland China and lèsè in Taiwan.
You might have heard of Singlish or Straits Creole, the local language used by young multilingual Singaporeans. In Singapore, they’re known for mixing English, Malay, and Hokkien into their Mandarin – though of course they can still speak a more standard variety if need be. At its peak, this mixture becomes absolutely impenetrable for people without previous exposure.
The government of Singapore has actually run programs for decades encouraging the use of standard English and Modern Standard Mandarin, and up until recently it was forbidden to broadcast television in Hokkien.
These days, though, they’re relaxing the controls slightly and you can hear more local languages on television or radio.
In Malaysia, several local Malay words have become Mandarinized, like suka for “to like” as opposed to 喜欢. Most ethnic Chinese in Malaysia go to Chinese schools where they learn to read and write in Modern Standard Mandarin, but at home they might speak Hokkien, Cantonese, or Hakka with their parents.
Southeast Asia is definitely a multilingual’s paradise! Mandarin Chinese not only opens doors in China and Taiwan, but also pretty much anywhere you can find ethnic Chinese people.
Speaking Mandarin is Easier Than You Think
Did you know that Mandarin is actually relatively easy for native English speakers to pick up?
First of all, the tones aren’t as bad as you might have feared. Pronunciation is important, just like in any language, but tones are no harder to get to grips with than any other sounds.
Every language uses pitch in some way to express feeling or subtle shades of meaning. All it takes to speak a tonal language is learning to see the connections to what you’re already doing.
The grammar is a total breeze, especially compared with so-called “easy” languages like French or Spanish. Say goodbye to verb conjugations and noun declensions – you won’t be needing any of that when speaking Mandarin.
Word order is king when it comes to Mandarin grammar. Though there are some important differences, Mandarin syntax is much closer to English than something like Russian or German is.
In fact, one of the best ways to pick up Mandarin pronunciation and grammar is to follow a well-made course like the introductory Mandarin lessons here on LingQ.
So try it out now and see for yourself how accessible a major world language really can be. There’s a whole world of amazing Mandarin content out there waiting for you.
Alex Thomas started seriously studying languages five years ago and will never stop. He has traveled to many of China’s cities, big and small, and cannot wait to return.
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