These days being able to speak mandarin is quickly becoming an important skill for anyone seeking a secure job, as China spreads its wings and rises up as a powerful nation more and more people will learn this unique and complex language. If you’re interested in learning to speak some basic mandarin, but feel overwhelmed by its complicated tonal system or the sheer number of characters that you need to remember, don’t worry because you’re not alone. Most native English speakers struggle during the initial phases of learning to speak mandarin, but this is only because it is so far removed from anything they will find in our 26 letter alphabet or seemingly logical grammar system.
The Chinese language is so complicated that it had to be simplified by China’s government in order to increase the literacy level of certain regions, with such a high complexity level you might be wondering how a non-native speaker is able to learn even the basics of Mandarin. Well, in 1979 a new form of written mandarin was introduced called “Pinyin”, this writing style is basically a Romanize form of the Chinese language that makes reading and learning easier for English speakers. Instead of struggling to memorize endless characters and sitting for hours doing repetitive exercises with a pronunciation coach, you can now use a book to learn new words by yourself.
It’s so easy you can learn it over night
This statement might be a little far fetched, but pinyin is so basic that once any native English speaker understands the concept and can pronounce the sounds correctly, they’ll be able to read a passage of pinyin Chinese as if they were from China. A single word in pinyin is made up of an ‘initial’ and ‘final’ sound or put another way, the start and ending sound that make up a word. There are only 21 initial sounds and 37 final sounds, which together form a total of roughly 420 different combination sounds, so you can already see how much less complicated learning pinyin is.
An example of a word written in pinyin and split into its separate parts is “Zhongguo” which means ‘China’. ‘Zhong’ meaning ‘middle’ and ‘guo’ meaning ‘country’; these can then be split into their initial and final sounds ‘zh’ and ‘ong’ for middle and ‘g’ and ‘uo’ for country. As they use letters from the English alphabet it is much simpler for us to recognize and read them at a relatively fast speed, though not every letter in pinyin has the same pronunciation sound as it does in English. For example the letter ‘q’ sounds like ‘tch’ in the English word ‘witch’ and the letter ‘r’ sounds more like ‘ure’ in the word ‘leisure’, it takes practice but it is a lot easier then remembering Chinese characters.
Tone and meaning
If you’ve been wondering how it’s possible to express every meaning with only 420 different combinations of words, mandarin uses a set of special tones to differentiate each individual word. There are 4 tones in the Chinese language, a high pitched tone, a low to high rising tone, a falling tone and a falling going into a rising tone. The same word can be used 4 times with each tone to give a different meaning all together, for example ‘ma’ can mean mother, brother, horse, to tell someone off and as a marker of a question, all depending on which tone is used. You will see each tone presented as a line above the initial or final sound telling you how to pronounce the combined word; this also requires daily practice to master and can lead to some embarrassing mistakes.