Scribbles in the Sand

All About My Life in Taiwan

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An Introduction to Mandarin

Mandarin Chinese is spoken throughout China and Taiwan, and has more native speakers than any other language. There are a few key differences between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan, and that of the mainland, but the most obvious one I notice is that words which start with a Zh as in Zhōngguó (Chinese) are pronounces with a J as in Jeep, while the Taiwanese say is more like dzong guó (like a bumblebee stuck in a box).  Apparently the Taiwanese accent is becoming more popular and sexy in the main land so I’m in a good place to learn.  Using Rosetta Stone and Chinese Pod however (discussed later) means that a lot of the vocabulary I hear has very pronounced J’s which to me sounds stupid compared to the Taiwanese accent.

The first thing I noticed when starting out was how logical the language seems to be. For instance, the days of the week, and months of the year are incredibly simple once you can count from 1-12.

  • Monday is Xīngqí yī 星期一 (Day 1)
  • Tuesday is Xīngqí Èr 星期二 (Day 2)
  • Wednesday is Xīngqí san 星期三 (Day 3)

Likewise, January is yī yuè 一月 (1st month), and February is Èr yuè 二月 etc etc.
Next I though it would be good to learn the names for some basic food and drink, and there is likewise a similar logic.  Jiǔ = alcohol.  Therefore, Pí jiǔ = beer, Hóng jiǔ = red alcohol/red wine and Bái jiǔ = white alcohol/white wine.  With meat, you say the animal, then stick the word for meat on the end,

  • Zhū ròu (pork)
  • Yáng ròu(lamb)
  • Niú ròu (beef)
  • Yā ròu (duck).

All fairly simple.

Pronouns and possessives are even easier.

  • I/Me = Wǒ  (war)
  • You = Nǐ  (knee)
  • Him/Her/it = Tā

To make it plural, we just add “men” to the end,

  • We  = Wǒ men
  • Yous (pl.) = Nǐ men
  • Them = Ta men

To make it a possessive, we just a de;

  • Wǒ de (my)
  • Nǐ de (your)
  • Ta de (his/hers/its)
  • Ta men de (theirs)
  • Wǒ men de (ours)

So why is it that Mandarin is considered one of the hardest languages to learn in the world?

Well first off, the written language has no semblance to the spoken language. It is one of

the few languages with no phonic clues as to how to say the word.  This makes it particularly impossible in restaurants, where you may as well be looking at hieroglyphs.  Linguists therefore categories the spoken and written word separately, and I am concentrating primarily on speaking, and hopefully picking up some characters along the way.  However, with over 10,000 characters, even natives spend a whole lifetime accruing this knowledge.

Secondly, Mandarin is a tonal language which means the way you say a word alters the meaning unlike English where we can say hello in several different ways to convey different moods.  In Mandarin, there are 4 tones, a flat, high tone, a rising tone, a falling rising tone, and a falling tone.

Here is a common example

  • First tone: ma1 or mā  = Mother
  • Second tone: ma2 or má  = Hemp
  • Third tone: ma3 or mǎ  = Horse
  • Fourth tone: ma4 or mà  = To scold/insult

This means that to start with I would often hear words I recognised only to be told that I was thinking of the 4th tone, not the second tone word.  However, it is interesting to find that in music and singing you drop the tones, allowing the melody to play on, and so the meaning of the song is based on the context.  This is also true of day-to-day speech, which often happens so quickly that tones are often dropped and inferred from the context.  It would only be particularly important if you were talking about your mother scolding you for riding a horse with a hemp reign.

On the upside, the syntax of the language (arrangement of words) is relatively logical, such that the verb aspect (tense) doesn’t change.  To show that an event has finished in the past you seems to add the  ‘le’ particle 了 to make it past tense. e.g

Wǒ zǎoshang mǎi shū le.


I bought the book this morning.

One final point I learnt just yesterday was that Chinese characters are only ever one syllable long, and complex words are composed of short words added to each other.  If you count how many characters there are in the above example, we get 6, corresponding to the syllables in the sentence;

Wǒ (I) zao shang (morning) mǎi (bought)  shū  (book) le (past tense).

Ok, enough grammar for one day.