A few months ago, we took a look at some of the world's most spoken languages.
From Spanish to Russian to Arabic and everything in between, the world's 15 most spoken languages are spoken by nearly half of the world's population in 2007. There's one language, however, that rises above all the rest with regards to total number of speakers. Today, it's spoken by over one billion people throughout Asia and is one of the top 10 most important languages of the future.
Do you know which language I'm talking about?
Yep, that's right: it's Mandarin Chinese.
Today, we're going to take a closer look at Mandarin Chinese, its characteristics, why you should learn it, and some tips for making learning Mandarin Chinese easier.
Introduction to Mandarin[rocket-record phraseId="37015"]
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local spoken Chinese dialects that have developed throughout Chinese history. Although all Chinese speakers share the same written language, many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible and Chinese speakers from different regions often can't understand each other.
The two most common languages among Chinese emigrants are Mandarin and Cantonese. Although Cantonese was once the most spoken Chinese language among immigrants in North America, the world's most spoken language, Mandarin, is soon to take its place.
Mandarin Chinese is the name used to refer to a group of related varieties of the Chinese language that are spoken across the majority of northern and southwestern China. It is the official language of education, politics and media in both mainland China and Taiwan. It is also one of the four official languages in Singapore and is increasingly more spoken in Hong Kong.
Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect and is definitely the largest of the Chinese dialect groups: it's spoken by nearly 70% of Chinese speakers across the country!
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, which means that it uses a pitch to distinguish or inflect different words. While all verbal languages use pitch to express emotions or add emphasis, not all languages use tones to distinguish words or their meanings.
Most varieties of Mandarin have four tones, and the meaning of a word often depends on which tone is used by the speaker. The most famous example of this is the syllable "ma," which could mean either "mother," "hemp," "horse" or the verb "to scold" depending on the inflection, which might make for an award dinner conversation with your Chinese mother-in-law.
Mandarin uses Chinese characters in its writing system. These characters date back more than two thousand years and can be used to represent ideas as well as objects.
There are thousands of Chinese characters, and each Chinese character represents a syllable of the spoken language. Characters can also represent words, but not every character can be used by itself.
In the 1950's, the Chinese government began to simplify characters, which led to what we now call "Simplified Chinese" versus "Traditional Chinese." In general, simplified Chinese characters are used in Mainland China and Singapore, while Traditional Chinese characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and by most Chinese who live overseas. A lot of modern online materials are typically written and available in Simplified Chinese.
Chinese GrammarChinese grammar also provides some unique challenges. There are a few basic, helpful rules for English speakers who are learning Mandarin Chinese grammar:
1. Verbs and adjectives do not change. That's right, you can officially say goodbye to all of those verb conjugations and new endings! In Mandarin Chinese, you don't conjugate verbs and you don't need to make adjectives agree with their subject. Instead, context and the other words in the sentence help determine its meaning.
2. What precedes modifies what follows. This basically means that modifiers (like adjectives and adverbs) come before the thing they modify in Chinese, unlike many Latin-based languages.
3. Topics are prominent. In Mandarin Chinese, the topic of an action before the subject of the action, unlike English. In English, for example, we say: "I don't like red wine." The same sentence in Mandarin, however, would sound something like this when literally translated: "Red wine, I do not like."
4. Chinese is logical. While Mandarin may be a challenging language for English speakers to learn, one of the joys of the Chinese language is that it is an overall logical and consistent language. This is especially true when studying vocabulary, since you can easily see the logic and relationship behind most words. Grammatical rules are consistent and reusable and have fewer "exceptions" than the English language.
Why Should I Learn Mandarin?
Mandarin is spoken by nearly a billion people, which means that it has more native speakers than any other language in the world. If the sheer number of native speakers doesn't convince you to start learning it, then its expected future significance will: according to a recent British Council report, Mandarin is predicted to be one of the top 10 most important languages of the future.
In addition, it's a very practical language in the business and IT world since China is currently completing with the United States for the world's largest GDP and Mandarin is the second most popular online language. Add Mandarin to your resume, and you'll wow potential employers and open up a whole new world of career opportunities.
Are You Ready for a Challenge?
Mandarin Chinese is often considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn based on its features.
Written Mandarin is a character-based language that contains over 20,000 characters. While some main characters appear in other symbols (almost like root words in many Western languages), reading and writing Mandarin implies a lot of study and memorization of very complex characters.
To make matters more difficult, the written form of the language has no phonic connection to the spoken form, unlike many other languages. There are also many words that have no direct English translation.
Learning Mandarin does have a pro, however: grammar. Grammatically, Mandarin is much simpler than Indo-European languages since words generally have only one grammatical form. Instead of needing to conjugate each verb to indicate the tense or time, a preposition or particle is added or changed or the word order is switched. This structure, however, takes time to understand and build.
On average, a native English speaker needs over 88 weeks (one year and about 8 months) of intensive study to learn Mandarin and over 2,200 hours of study, according to the FSI.
Tips for Learning Mandarin Chinese
While learning Mandarin is no walk in the park, it's also an extremely rewarding experience that can be made easier by following some of these tips:
1. Speak first, then decide if you would like to read and write.Since the most complex part of the Mandarin language is its writing system, prospective Mandarin students should consider learning to speak first and then tackle the written language after. Even though the tonal aspect of the language is challenging, it can be mastered fairly quickly.
The written language, on the other hand, requires a working familiarity with several thousand written characters and requires much more time to learn. Most Chinese language programs teach both speaking and writing at the same time, but if you're in a rush to communicate quickly, focus on speaking first.
2. Decide which version of written Chinese you would like to learn.Once you've decided you'd like to learn Chinese, you face another important question: should you learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
The answer depends on what your goals are.
In general, Simplified Chinese is easier to learn and yields faster results. After all, that's why it was developed in the first place! If you would like to learn Chinese as quickly as possible and are hoping to be able to speak with more people, then Simplified Chinese is the choice for you.
If, however, you're a patient learner looking for a deeper understanding of the Chinese language and culture or would like to live or travel in one of the regions where Traditional Chinese is used, learning Traditional Chinese is the best choice for you.
It's also possible to learn both the Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, and it won't take twice as long to do. As soon as you start learning Chinese characters, you'll begin to recognize certain patterns and roots. These roots will help make learning future characters easier.
3. Take your studies seriously.This tip applies to learning any language, but is especially important for languages that are completely foreign to English speakers, like Chinese.
It's important to invest the time and money necessary to learn Mandarin the right way. Experiment and discover which language learning method is right for you, set goals, make a realistic plan, and keep up your motivation by rewarding yourself after goals are met.
Know that it takes hours of listening, repeating, speaking and writing to master the basics of Chinese. Many students often only see results with daily practice, so set aside the time you need to learn successfully.
4. Practice makes perfect.As with any challenge in life, it takes time and practice to succeed at learning a language. It's highly recommendable to practice Chinese on a daily basis if you hope to learn the language successfully. I've got some good news for you, though: practicing Chinese can be fun!
With the most speakers of any language in the world, there is no shortage of fun and creative ways to practice your Chinese on a daily basis. Some of these include:
- Spending time and practicing with native speakers online, in person, or over the phone
- Going to Chinatown, eating at the local restaurants and talking with the locals
- Visiting, traveling or teaching English in China or Taiwan
- Following a Chinese series or watching Chinese movies
- Listening to Chinese music
- Surfing the Chinese internet
- Making a profile and friends on the Chinese Facebook and Twitter equivalents: Renren and Weibo
- Reading books, comics or magazines in Chinese
- And many, many more!
At Rocket Languages, we also have many other great tips for learning a language that we encourage all language learners to take advantage of.
Always remember: learning Chinese is only as difficult as you think it is, and with time, dedication, and practice, you'll be amazed with your progress.
As the famous Chinese proverb says: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
Do you speak or are you learning Chinese? Do you have any tips for fellow learners? Feel free to share in the comments below!