Introduction to Mandarin

Want to learn Mandarin? Here is the place to start!

By Billy Shi

The best way to learn a language is to be in the atmosphere, and be surrounded by people who speak that language. For almost everyone, that is how they learn their first language. My first language is Mandarin, and I learned it by being surrounded by my family and friends in China who speak the language.

Mandarin is a language that is said to be five thousand years old, and in fact, it might be even older than that. The history traces way back when people used illustrations to represent meaning, which made total sense in a context without paper or pen. Later on, these pictures are simplified by people, and then are fit into a block-shape square, which we nowadays call Chinese characters. Therefore, people often, when comparing Mandarin to English, ask about the alphabet in Mandarin and most people will say there is no alphabet. But that is actually wrong.

There are actually two kinds of “alphabets”. The first one is called figurative alphabet (I made up this name but bear with me). The figurative alphabet is officially called radicals, which is part of a character that represents the meaning of the character. Sometimes two radicals can be placed together to form a characters, and sometimes three, four, five … Let’s see an example: 

Look that these five characters; it is quite easy to spot their common radical. Each character has three “dots” on the left, and that represents water, just as three drops of water. So, as you probably would guess, all these characters have a meaning related to water. The first one means ocean, the second one wave, the third one river, the fourth one lake, and the fifth one … WAIT! The fifth one has a radical made up by only two drops of water! And that in Mandarin means ice, and that’s what that character represents. (See? Ice is solid, so less water … get it?) If you are interested, here are five more that have a similar radical. Can you guess what does that radical represent? Notice that the radical doesn’t have to be on the left. 

Now, there is also phonic alphabet (yes I made that up again), but you get what I mean: that tells you how to pronounce the characters. I have seen way too many surprising faces when people saw me type out Chinese characters on a standard keyboard. To type out characters, one can use either the phonic alphabet or the figurative alphabet, but, most people use phonic alphabet because it is more straightforward I guess. The official name for the phonic alphabet is called PinYin, which is something like this(that’s not all the alphabets, just some of them):

You learn them just as how you would learn the English alphabet, and yes there is a song too (ABCDEFG, HIJKLMN, OPQ…) except the alphabets are pronounced differently. In addition to the alphabets, you may have heard of the four tones: (1)flat, (2)rise, (3)fall-rise, and (4)fall. And almost all pronunciations have more than one tones, and what I found from teaching other people Mandarin is that pronouncing the tones is actually the hardest part. When you get the tones right, the alphabets are actually easy and very straightforward. 

So, when I type out a word such as 语言, which means language. I would pronounce it myself (in my mind of course), which is Yu(3) Yan(2). 3 shows that it is the fall-rise tone and 2 shows  the rise tone. So I go to type “Y U Y A N” on my keyboard and this is what I see: 

There are more than one choice because different words can have similar pronunciation, but they usually differ by the four tones. 

And that’s about the mysterious Chinese alphabet. It is quite different from what we know in English, but still there are some similarities like the alphabet song, at least. I hope to share more about Mandarin in future blogs.