Here's What Makes Mandarin Such a Complex but Beautiful Language

May 11, 2019 10:12:00 AM / by Imani Wilson

In this week's post, Imani gets to the heart of learning Mandarin and shares an introduction to the language. Take note of the basics here and the keys to understanding how the Chinese language works as a result of history and context. After all, the possibilities in life are endless when you know another language!

The main and most exciting reason I wanted to come to China was to learn Mandarin. I wanted to learn about the language and how to speak it in the country from which it originated. I already knew that there were multiple languages in China, the main or the most known being Mandarin. There is also Cantonese (more common in Hong Kong) and Uyghuycha (spoken by Uyghur people). Only in China did I get to learn about the other languages and dialects spoken (Shanghainese for instance)—it was when I was riding on the subway with my friend who’s lived in China for almost six years. We were listening to other people talk and he told me that they must live in a rural village because he couldn’t understand what they were saying at all. This is one of the many benefits of going abroad. So, without further ado, here are some basic notes for learning Chinese.

Each character is made up of at least one stroke. There are about 11 possible strokes that could make up a character. Some Chinese characters are made up of other characters. A Chinese character can be made up of the radical and the second character. The radical tells you the meaning and the second character tells you how the character is pronounced. There are four basic tones that are needed to know Mandarin: the first tone 妈 (mā), the second tone 麻 (má), the third tone 马 (mǎ), and the fourth tone 骂 (mà).

There are also characters that have no tones such as 吗 (ma). All of these characters have different meanings although they have the same phonetic sound. The tone really makes a difference. However, sometimes it really does depend on the character rather than the tone. For example, 蚂 (mā) is a a dragonfly, 孖 (mā) means a pair, and 妈 (mā) means mother. When speaking, context is very important.

Historical WritingWhich form of writing can you understand the most?

Knowing these strokes, Chinese characters look simpler than before.

With learning Mandarin comes the knowledge of Chinese history and culture. The way Chinese characters are written now illustrates their historical thought process. For example 美 (měi) , is made up of 羊 (yáng) on the top and 大 (dà) on the bottom. 美 (měi) means beauty/beautiful, pretty, or pleasing. 羊 (yáng) means sheep or lamb. Lastly, 大 (dà) means big. Therefore, a big sheep is beautiful because it implies that there is a lot of wool and food to provide for the family. The history of the Chinese characters is interesting because their characters come from pictographs such as the written hieroglyphs and cuneiform. In my Chinese Civilization course, we learn about oracle bone script which is the oldest form of the written Chinese language.

Written PoemChinese poems have a deeper, more intense meaning when you know Mandarin and Chinese culture.

People say that learning Mandarin is hard. I think it can be challenging simply by having to put a little more energy into understanding and memorizing the vocabulary. Switching from an alphabet or syllabary language such as Korean or any European language to a logographic language like Mandarin is inevitably hard. More effort needs to be put in to memorizing the vocabulary because without the vocabulary there is nothing. The grammar is very similar to English, however there aren’t as many rules such as plurals or conjugation. With this in mind, there are specific characters to describe something that happened in the past or future. For example, 了 (le) is used after a verb to indicate the completion of an action (past tense).

Street SignThe places you could go when you know another language are endless.

In my GCP2 Chinese class, we learn about greetings, describing a person, food, shopping, telling time, talking about schedules, family, and jobs. I learned a lot within just two months. With any language there needs to be constant practice in order to continuously and fluently understand it. If you are trying to learn Mandarin or any language, I would say that success comes with persistence. Even if you study for 20 minutes one day and then five minutes the next day, it doesn’t matter because you are still studying every day.

Thanks, Imani!

Imani Wilson


Imani Wilson is an official CAPA blogger for spring 2019, sharing her story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A Mathematics major at Hood College, she is studying abroad in Shanghai this semester.

Imani's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

Learn More about the CAPA Shanghai Program

Topics: Shanghai, China, Language