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Basics of Learning Mandarin, the Most Spoken Language in the World

Basics of Learning Mandarin, the Most Spoken Language in the World
on May, 10 2013

These days, learning one or two languages other than your own is deemed to be important and useful. Of all the languages in the world though, it seems that Mandarin is gaining the most popularity. As it is, Mandarin is currently the world’s most spoken language, spoken by about a billion people. A lot of people regardless of age are learning this rather difficult language because it is deemed to be the language of the future generation. In 2011, it has been claimed by the Chinese government that about 230,000 people are enrolled in Chinese language institutions.

A lot of thoughts come to mind upon hearing the word Mandarin. Some people automatically remember it as the universal language used by the Chinese in most parts of China and the rest of the world. Others might attach a negative impression to the language thinking that it is one of the most difficult foreign languages to learn. The truth is that Mandarin can be a tad bit difficult especially for first-time learners who have no background at all. But once you’ve mastered a word or two, you will immediately feel inspired to push further.

If you have no background on the language and you want to learn it now, here are some of the basics you need to remember.

Mandarin is Difficult

When Mandarin speakers tell you that learning the language is difficult, don’t think that they are just trying to put you down. The truth is that Mandarin is really difficult and most people need to tell you this beforehand because you really need to be dedicated. When learning a new language, it is best to really have the heart and passion for it so that no matter how confusing it gets at some point, you will still feel motivated to continue your learning process.

Also, a lot of Mandarin speakers will give you a heads up when it comes to learning this language because there are several strict rules to know. Luckily a number of great and competitive schools can already be found around the world.

Mandarin is a Tonal Language

Mandarin is made even more difficult by the fact that it is a tonal language. Therefore, it is a must that you master the different tones used to make sure that you are saying the right words. Take note that there are some words that when said may mean something else simply because your tones are not correctly used and pronounced.

There are four official tones in the Mandarin language.

  • The first tone is known to be a level or equal tone. For instance, when saying the word mom in Mandarin, you need to pronounce it as “Mama”; both syllables should sound exactly alike and the tone should be mellow and light.
  • The second tone usually sounds like you are asking a question.
  • The third tone is characterized by an uphill and downhill sound. For example, if you want to say hello in Mandarin, you say “Ni Hao.” Both syllables make use of the third tone so they should sound round and elongated.
  • The fourth tone is perhaps the easiest to learn. It is characterized by an abrupt drop on the syllable and requires a heavy sound. If you want to say father in Mandarin, you say “Ba Ba.” Both syllables need to be stressed. Say it as if you’re a bit angry or surprised and you’ll hit it right.

Aspirated Letters

Mandarin is also heavy when it comes to using letters that are aspirated. Aspirated words basically make use of heavy and deep breathing that should be heard when speaking. For instance, the letters “b” and “p” in Mandarin have the same sound but what makes them different from each other is that “b” is not aspirated whereas “p” is aspirated. For example, when you say dad or “ba ba” in Mandarin, you assume the sound of the letter “p”. So you pronounce the word as “papa.” If you want to say friend in Mandarin you say “peng you.” “Peng” is also pronounced with the letter “p” but needs to be aspirated so it should sound like “pheng you.”

“E” and “U” Rule

Another thing you need to master when learning the Mandarin language is their use of the letters “e” and “u.” Most of the time, the letter “e” is pronounced as “u” in Mandarin. For instance, you don’t literally say friend in Mandarin as “p-eng you.” You need to pronounce the letter “e” as “u” so it should sound like “phung you.” The second word is not read as “you” in the English language. Rather it is pronounced as “yow.”

There are several other rules in the Mandarin language that you need to familiarize yourself with. At some point, everything will just sound confusing and you might wonder how come you’re stressing yourself trying to learn a difficult language. At times like these, push further and bear in the mind that the benefits you can get from it are extremely huge.

Two Ways of Learning Mandarin

There are two distinct ways of learning the Mandarin language. The first way is through the use of “pinyin” or a combination of letters and syllables that make up a word. Another way of learning the language is through the use of Chinese characters or what is also known as “Hanzi.”

Most people trying to study the Mandarin language these days usually make use of the former option which is known as learning through the use of pinyin. With this type of learning, letters as in the English alphabet are used to give the sound and correct diction of a single Mandarin word. Once first-time Mandarin language learners have developed a sense of how to pronounce the words, that is the time they proceed to learning through the use of Chinese characters.

Get to Know Hanzi

The Chinese characters also known as Hanzi date back to thousands of years ago. In the past, these writings served as a form of expression. According to ancient history, the Chinese characters are considered to be pictographic which means that the overall character is reflective of the words it is trying to depict.

For example, the character for mother in Hanzi is 妈妈. The character on the left, which if written alone means woman is said to depict the image of a mother. On the other hand, the characters on the right looks like a pregnant woman. As a result, the Chinese peoples from thousands of years ago declared that this how the character for the mother should look like.

Another example is the character for the word water or “shui” 水 in Mandarin. If you look at this character closely, what do you see? According to ancient Chinese historians, this character depicts the image of the water because of the drops of water found on both sides of the character itself. The character for heart which is “xin” in Mandarin looks something like this: 心. Again, according to Chinese historians, this character looks like a heart and those three strokes depict the idea that the heart is beating.

Some people might find it difficult to see what makes certain characters pictographic but at the time when the Chinese people didn’t have any other ways to express themselves, they were able to utilize these images and translate them to one of the most beautiful characters of today.

Traditional vs. Simplified

The use of Hanzi has evolved throughout the years. In the past, all Chinese people were required to learn the traditional Chinese characters that date back to the Northern Song Dynasty. All schools since then were required to really perfect the strokes of every character and to make this possible, a special character writing pen was used.

Since the 20th century though, China has accepted the need to train and teach younger generations of a simplified version of writing Hanzi. Now, more and more people Chinese people use it but the older generations still resort to traditional writing, which is the only version they understand.

There have been huge changes to the appearance of the characters from traditional to simplified. For instance, the character for love which is 爱 in simplified Mandarin used to look like . If you take a closer look, you will see that the character in red, which is ‘xin’ or heart is no longer used in today’s simplified version of the character.


Granted learning Mandarin could be difficult, but you should persevere and be patient. It is a language that will take months for you to learn, and here are some tips for you to stay on with your lessons.

  • Build a program that will suit you best. Mix it up. The basic requirements would be vocabulary building, reading, speaking and listening.
  • Start with pinyin because it will allow you to pick up basic Mandarin words and phrases easily.
  • Give a good foundation to your pronunciation. Find a coach so you will have a good start in learning the language.
  • Listening to audio tapes, MP3 or other recordings of Mandarin lessons will be of great value not only in building your vocabulary but also in getting the pronunciations correctly.
  • Know the characters that go with each word. Pretty soon you will recognize each character and its meaning as you see them used in other words. It will help you to learn new words faster.
  • Build you vocabulary and use learning aids such as books and flash cards. Listen to Chinese songs, watch podcasts and Chinese films and dramas. Rely on literal translations during the early days of learning the language. This will help you break down long words and phrases into smaller chunks that are easier to remember. Word association also helps. For example, if you want a Chinese friend to give you a call, the phrase is “dǎ diànhuà gěi wǒ,” which is “hit the phone, give me” when translated literally. Still, with the words phone and give in the translation, you can immediately associate them with “giving you a call.”
  • Find a practice partner so you can learn to speak the language together. Go back to being a child and repeat words and phrases over and over. This is still one of the best ways to retain the words and know their meanings.

Common Mandarin Phrases

There are also some very common Mandarin phrases you will come across with when learning the language. It seems that even those who do not know anything about the course can say the Chinese universal greeting, which is Ni Hao. In Mandarin, the word ‘ni’ means you and the word ‘hao’ means good. When combined together it literally means ‘you good’. Taking grammar into account, this word now simply means “hello!” If on the other hand you want to ask someone if they are good, all you have to do is add the word ‘ma’ to the sentence, as in “ni hao ma?” and it now means “are you good?”

Another favorite Mandarin phrase is none other than “Wo Ai Ni” or “I love you” in English. “Wo” in Mandarin means “I” or “me;” “ai” in Mandarin means “love” and “ni,” as mentioned earlier means “you.” Thus, the direct translation for Wo Ai Ni is I love you.

Happy birthday in pinyin is “zhu ni sheng ri kuai le,” which when translated directly means “very birthday happy.”

Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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