Learning Mandarin in China


When my successful application to study at China’s Fudan University arrived I confess that I had no idea what I was letting myself into. The problem with most English-speaking nationalities is a sense of laziness at learning other languages. This description most certainly applies to me! In fact, despite being British, I was born in Wales and can speak some conversational Welsh. During schooling, the vast majority of my peers and I had no appetite to learn the ancient Celtic language, largely as the English language remains dominant.

Thrice I have visited China – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – and wholly relied on my Chinese friends to do the translating. One can get away with not speaking English in many places of Shanghai, but farther a field would prove cumbersome and counterproductive. Particularly so for someone who suffers with a nut allergy, who desperately tried communicating with chefs in broken English, but to no avail. But, hey-ho, I lived to tell of this tale!

Despite the erroneous belief of China’s people speaking a homogeneous language, there is officially seven major dialects and 200 other languages. Mandarin being the dominant, which is closely followed by Cantonese.

During previous visits I had managed successively to conquer the precise pronunciation of ní hăo (你好). Yet I struggled with correctly saying basic conversational Chinese, such as xièxie. Thus, as a Sinophile I decided on breaking tradition with most English-speakers and attempt to learn some Mandarin.

I arrived in Shanghai in the early hours of last month, following an exhausting 12-hour flight. I lived in a flat in Hongkou district. On the first day of our lectures, the class struggled to comprehend Mandarin’s basics. Essentially, Mandarin language composes of 4 tones; depending on the choice of tone determines the meaning of a word.

Tone 1 – is quite flat but high.

Tone 2 / a raised voice should be used.

Tone 3 v voice should go down then be raised (as the tone’s picture implies).

Tone 4 short pronunciation of word.

To exemplify, lets take the word .

mā (tone 1) means mother;

Má (tone 2) means ‘bother’;

mǎ (tone 3) means horse;

mà (tone 4) ‘to scold’.

It took the best part of 2 weeks for me to master the difference and begin to recognise the sounds. The complexity with Mandarin is it being a tonal language. Conversely in English, differing tonal usage do not re-fashion meanings of words.

The bulk of the course inculcated as much PinYin (English spelling for Chinese characters) as possible. Once a working knowledge of PinYin is gained, it is possible to move on to learn Chinese characters. Learning PinYin is strenuous enough, yet we were later introduced to some Chinese characters. Despite the horrified facial expressions, our lecturer cleverly pointed out that the best way to memorise Chinese characters is to picture each one as a drawing of something.

I must admit this helped dramatically.

Here are a few examples:

The PinYin for work is gōng (). When I see this character I associate it with me and my work.

People in PinYin is rén (). The character looks like the bottom half of a person.

Of course, I could talk of the idiosyncrasies and positives of Mandarin for hours, but the aim of this article is to encourage people of the benefits of learning the illusive, age-old language. Indeed, it is a highly difficult language, but so what; if a population of 1.2 billion can speak it, why shouldn’t we. Moreover, with China’s impressive economic growth – which has surpassed all economic predications – and having the largest population in the world, Mandarin’s significance will rise. There has been no greater time to be associated with the language than now.

As Karen Lamb once said: “A year from now you will wish you had started today.”

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