I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for over a year now (actually like 18 months) and thought it would be interesting to write about my experiences thus far. Chris MacAskill (@Chris), the founder of Cake, had some questions for me to answer to kick off this thread. I should also note that I am by no means a Chinese expert. I’m still learning, so my responses are based on my own understanding of things. If anyone has any corrections or clarifications for me, by all means feel free to correct me. For those that are curious, “Cake” in Mandarin Chinese is “蛋糕 (Dàn gāo).”
Q: How do you learn those characters?
It’s just straight memorization. Now, as you go about learning characters you’ll start to learn certain patterns that offer clues of as to what the character means and how to pronounce it. These patterns are called “radicals.” However, this doesn’t mean that Chinese characters in and of themselves are alphabetical in anyway. Each individual character has its own pronunciation and its own individual
meaning. While the radicals/patterns can offer clues to help you learn the characters and what they mean, at the end of the day it’s still memorization, which is why it takes so long to become fluent in the written language.
Q: What is it like to learn pronunciation?
Since there is no Chinese alphabet per se, the way in which you learn pronunciation is through a system called “Pinyin”, which spells out how to read Chinese using English letters. It’s important to note that “Pinyin” is not simply Chinese translated into English letters. It’s rather a way to help Chinese learners learn how to pronounce the different characters. There’s also a system used in Taiwan called “Zhuyin”, which attaches pronunciation to 36 or 37 different radicals. For those that speak Japanese, this is like “Hiragana” and “Katakana.” Like I said, Zhuyin is only used in Taiwan, so it’s not something that I’ve come across much in my Chinese studies.
Accompanied with the English letters are what are called “tone marks” which indicate what tone each word uses. These marks go above one of the letters in each word, the letter almost always being a vowel. I say “almost always”, but I can’t think of an example of a word where the tone mark is above a non-vowel. I should also add, that each character is a one syllable word. As you will see
below, the way you say “hello” in Mandarin involves two separate characters.
There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese as well as a 5th neutral tone. The
first tone is a high flat tone, the second tone is a rising tone, the third tone is a low bouncing tone that goes down and then goes up, and the fourth tone is a dropping tone.
The first tone is similar to the sound made in the word “maybe.” Specifically, the “ma” part. It’s a high flat tone that doesn’t rise or fall. An example word that uses a first tone is “高 (Gāo)” which means tall or high. The tone mark for a first tone is a flat line.
The second tone is similar to the sound made when asking a question. E.g. “What? Huh? Really?” When we ask questions in English, we use a rising tone. A word that uses a rising tone is “停 (Tíng)” which means stop. The tone mark for a second tone is a little mark that rises up.
The third tone is similar to the sound made in the word “Uh.” E.g. “Uh…I’m not sure.” We kind of go down and then go back up when we say it. An example of a phrase that uses third tones is “你好 (Nǐ hǎo)” which means hello. The tone mark to indicate the third tone is a small little ‘v’ that indicates how you go down and then come back up. The literal meaning of “Ni hao” is “You good.” It’s always important to know what each character means in a phrase as that really helps to build up your vocabulary.
Side note: There are certain tone changing rules in Mandarin. For example, when you have two words together that are both third tones, the first word changes to a second tone. In those cases, the tone mark doesn’t change, but you are expected to know the rule all the same.
The fourth tone is similar to the sound made when making a command. E.g. “No! Stop!” The tone of our voice drops when we speak in commands. An example word that uses the fourth tone is “要 (yào)” which means to want.
The 5th neutral tone is just as it sounds. No tone. It’s short like a staccato note in music and you don’t inflect your voice in any way. An example word that is said with a neutral tone is “嗎 (ma)”, which is used at the end of a sentence to indicate a yes or no question.
Lastly, I need to stress that pronunciation is extremely important! If you get the tone wrong in a word, you’ll wind up saying something different entirely! Fortunately, Mandarin is highly context driven so people will likely know what you’re saying if you get a tone wrong, but you don’t want to risk possible embarrassment! “Wen” said with a second tone means “language.” With a third tone, it means “kiss.” With a fourth tone it means “to ask.”
I should also quickly add that multiple characters have the same pronunciation, hence the sensitivity to context. The word for “wet” and “lion” has the same pronunciation even though they have a different character. This creates opportunities for a lot of fun tongue twisters!
Q: What’s the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese and why did you choose the one you did?
Before I get into the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, let me first explain how they are similar. Both Mandarin and Cantonese use the same characters when writing. That’s why a Mandarin speaker can still read the newspaper in Hong Kong, which is located in a Cantonese speaking region. The characters are pronounced differently in Mandarin and Cantonese, but they have the same
meaning. They also are both part of the macro language known as Chinese.
It’s important to note that saying you speak Chinese is not specific enough. Chinese
refers to any language spoken in the language family of Chinese. This includes Mandarin and Cantonese, but also many other regional dialects like Shanghainese, Wenzhounese, Taiwanese, and many others. Chinese is also listed into different subfamilies such as Guan (Mandarin), Wu (Shanghainese), Yue (Cantonese), and others. So, right there, I listed a difference between Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is part of their own subfamily Guan a.k.a. Mandarin whereas Cantonese is part of the Yue subfamily of Chinese.
A major difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the number of tones. As I said
above, Mandarin has four tones, five if you include the neutral tone. Cantonese
has anywhere between six to nine tones. In the 1990s, a romanization system for Cantonese called
“Jyutping” was developed with the intention of serving as a “Pinyin” for Cantonese. In Jyutping, there are six tones, though many native Cantonese speakers don’t feel six tones full captures the ways in which they express themselves. Still, it’s helpful for non-Cantonese speakers as they go about
learning Cantonese. As you get better with the language, you’ll be able to understand the subtleties that native Cantonese speakers are talking about.
How can there be six tones, you ask? Well, it turns out Cantonese is not just sensitive
to rising and falling, it’s also sensitive to octaves as well. The first tone in Cantonese is a high flat tone just like the first tone in Mandarin. The second tone is a rising tone like the second tone in Mandarin. The third tone is a middle flat tone that is unique to Cantonese. The fourth tone is a falling
tone like the fourth tone in Mandarin. The 5th tone is a low rising tone like the second tone only it’s lower, making it unique to Cantonese. The 6th tone is a low flat tone, like the 3rd and 1st tones only
lower, also making it unique to Cantonese.
Another difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is pronunciation. Mandarin and
Cantonese are mutually unintelligible. While some words are similar, a Cantonese speaker and a Mandarin speaker cannot understand each other. It’s a simple difference, but it’s important. In movies, they’ll often depict people switching back and forth between the two dialects, which is not realistic. I
guess they think all Chinese sounds the same to non-Chinese speakers?
One other important difference is the characters that are used. While both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can read and write in standard Chinese, the vernacular is different when spoken. What this means is if you were to actually quote a Cantonese speaker in an article, a Mandarin speaker would have a hard time following along what was said. The reason why is spoken Cantonese uses words (characters) that are not commonly used in Mandarin. Cantonese is said to be more closely related to classical Chinese and frequently uses characters that are more archaic or obsolete in Mandarin.
A simple example of this is “日落 (Rì luò)” which means “Sunset (lit. Sun going down).” In Mandarin “落 (luò)” is not as commonly used to describe “going down” as it is in Cantonese. Typically in Mandarin, you would say “下 (Xià)” instead. For reasons that I don’t know, “Sunset” in Mandarin uses “落” instead of “下”. In Cantonese however, they would use “落 (luò)” much more frequently than “下”.
Another major difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the regions that they are spoken. While Mandarin is the official dialect of both Mainland China and Taiwan, it’s native to the northern part of China, specifically Beijing. Cantonese is native to the Guangdong (Canton) province in South China and is much more commonly spoken in that region. Also, the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan is slightly different than the Mandarin spoken in Mainland China. It’s like the difference between American English and British English. They can both understand each other, but there are certain words that they prefer over others. It’s just like how in England “chips” means what we call “fries” in the United States. It’s those kinds of differences.
As far as why I chose Mandarin over Cantonese, it’s just what I gravitated to and also there’s a lot more Mandarin learning resources out there. It’s much more widely spoken and much more useful as a result. I do most of my learning via YouTube and the amount of Mandarin resources on there are practically endless. I also have a grammar book as well that I use, and I try to hit up an LDS Mandarin congregation as well after I have my regular services at Stanford. It’s mostly YouTube, but the grammar book has been very helpful as it helps me fill in the gaps. The LDS Mandarin congregation helps with my listening and ability to put my Mandarin to use.
Q: How long does it take to get so you can read Chinese news?
Well, I’m still a ways off from being able to read Chinese news, so I can’t really answer
that question. What I will say is that when it comes to memorizing characters,
I’ve found it’s all about exposure. The more you see a character, the more it
sticks in your brain. What is true is that some characters are more frequently
used than others and those are the ones you want to learn first. There are
around 80,000 characters in Chinese, but you only need to know 10,000 or so to
be fluent. If you know 3,000 of the most common characters, you should be able
to read the newspaper. At least be able to get the general idea. I have been focusing much more on the listening and speaking aspect of Mandarin, but now I am starting to make learning the characters much more of a priority. I feel speaking and listening is what you need to start with and then once you
have a baseline, you can start diving into the characters with more vigor.
Q: How has it helped you?
Learning Mandarin has helped me to see the world through a different lens. There’s a
whole world that been opened to me by learning it and that has been the most
fun part. All the YouTube channels I’ve become connected with and the different
interactions I’ve had with people has been really fun. Down the road, I’m
hoping learning Mandarin will open up doors for me professionally as well. I’ve
already been tabbed to do some substitute teacher work filling in for Mandarin
teachers, so that’s been an added plus as well.
Q: Why did you do it?
I’ve always had an interest in Asian languages and culture ever since I was a young
child. I loved Big Bird in China when I was little and perhaps that is what
sparked my interest. When I was a freshman in high school I wanted to learn Japanese,
but found it to be too hard! Studying Mandarin is giving me a chance to
reconnect with my desire to learn an Asian language.
As for how I got into it, I was on YouTube and randomly decided to look up Mandarin
Chinese lessons. I watched a video and found it interesting, but at the time
was like “No way will I actually try to learn Chinese! That’s impossible!” But
slowly, bit by bit, I kept coming back and now I’m trying to put in a couple
hours a day during the week and an hour on the weekends. So, those first
YouTube videos are what got the ball rolling.
The added benefit of Mandarin Chinese being such a valuable skill in the 21st
Century is an added perk, but it’s not the main reason I started learning. I
started learning because I found it to be interesting and fun. I think that’s
the main reason you should learn anything. Especially a challenging language