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    • 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
      like Mandarin.

    • That's amazing, Ben! Massive respect for being able to get this far. Your excellent write-up answered a lot of my questions but leaves me gobsmacked about some others. Mostly I'm amazed at how many characters there are and how hard it must be to memorize 10,000 of them.

      I knew Mandarin and Cantonese speakers could not understand each other when speaking but I didn't realize they could when reading. That seems like such a strange concept. Sometimes when I speak to my Scottish relatives in the Northern Highlands, I get a taste of this.

      So what do Mandarin and Cantonese speakers do when they meet each other? If someone from Beijing travels to Hong Kong, what does she do?

    • Ben, thanks for your great article....great for the novice purveyor like me. Even though I would like to be fluent in about 8 languages, my excuse is my brain is not wired as well to learn language without alot of work. Net = I am too lazy to put the time and effort into it. As I studied conversational Italian for a couple of years in Adult Education, and used to brag that I took Spanish One three years in a row in High School, what I know now is how important very subtle nuances in spoken, written and body language are. Thus, learning Chinese (Mandarin or otherwise) or something like Portuguese would just overwhelm me.

      So, BRAVO to you and I don't doubt your current & future language skills will result in some professional opportunities. Thanks again for your post!

    • I have a lot of favorite characters. One of them is “齉” (nàng) which means having a stuffy nose. Just because of how crazy looking it is. It has more strokes than any of the characters in the dictionary. I also find the character “月” (yuè) to be really pretty. In modern Mandarin it means “month”, but it’s also the character that means “moon” in Classical Chinese. To say moon you add the character for bright “亮” (liàng) at the end of it: “月亮”.

    • Great question, Chris! It turns out that the written language is what kept China unified for centuries in terms of communicating. Remember, it’s not just Mandarin and Cantonese. There are tons of regional dialects. Writing the characters was the way people were able to communicate cross regional dialect boundaries. Today, Mandarin is becoming the lingua franca of China as a whole, so increasingly there are more and more Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin. Still, not everyone knows both, which is why if you are going into Hong Kong and you only know Mandarin, you better find a translator that knows Cantonese.

    • @Chris Even native Chinese speakers get tripped up by the characters. One thing that’s particularly tricky is each character has to be written with the proper stroke order. At least traditionally speaking that’s the way it works...

    • Could you recommend some chinese YT channels for those trying to learn? Not necessarily language learning channels, but regular stuff you watch just to get exposure. Any suggestions for kid content (I have a 9 y.o. trying to learn)?

    • The following YouTube channels are ones that I think would be a great start: YoYo Chinese, ChinesePod, Learn Chinese Now, E-Chinese Learning, and Easy Mandarin. The first four channels I mentioned have tons of really good structured content for beginners and intermediate learners. Easy Mandarin is Chinese on the street stuff that helps with immersion. I would start with those and then grow out from there.

    • Wow. Great write-up!

      I’m curious what studying Mandarin has taught you about English @slamdunk406 ? How has your study of a tonal language given you insight into the respective cultures?

    • Mandarin has taught me that English is a lot harder to learn than we think. There are a lot of complex grammar rules that we have to follow that don’t exist in Mandarin like conjugating verbs. Mandarin is a lot simpler in some ways. “I eat” is “我吃 (Wǒ chī).” “I ate” is “我吃了 (Wǒ chī le).” No conjugation of the verb “吃” into something else. To make it a complete action, just add “了” to make it a completed action. “了” doesn’t mean past tense, but one of its uses is to indicate a completed action. That makes Mandarin simpler. One interesting thing about tones is that we use them all the time. We just use them differently in English. Tones don’t change the meaning of words, but they do modify the meaning of sentences as a whole. We inflect our voice like a second tone im Mandarin to indicate a question. We use the fourth dropping tone to indicate a command or exclamation. We use these tones as well to indicate sarcasm, frustration, etc. Mandarin has made me aware that we use tones in English, but just in a different way.

    • As for the cultural aspect, I’ve learned a lot more about Asian culture as a whole. They see the world differently than we do, but in a good way. There is a real emphasis on family, respecting your elders, respecting your parents, and being responsible. Westerners could learn a lot from the way Asians view the world.

    • Hahaha! That was really funny. I went looking for something similar and found this. Very informative, even showing the characters, but it sure makes it sound hopelessly complex. Maybe the language to learn is Arabic?

    • I see you have found one of my favorite channels: “Off The Great Wall”! Yeah that video does a really good job giving an introduction into the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. Very fun and also informative! Speaking of “Off The Great Wall”, here is their list of 11 crucial Chinese phrases to know before stepping into the Middle Kingdom:

    • Cantonese is much harder than Mandarin, imo. Just because there are more tones and sounds. Cantonese makes Mandarin seem like a cake walk! No pun intended!

    • Congrats on your new language learning journey! I travel to China quite often for work and have travelled there for pleasure as well. I'm certain that your language skills are far superior to mine, but I thought I'd share a few words/phrases that I've found helpful (or at least funny enough to break the ice and get a laugh).

      I picked up my of my language skills in the factories or on the streets so it's not always the most polite. A while back I started studying by Pimsler audio books too. Great for grammar and vocabulary. Not so great for street slang...

      If you're traveling in the big cities, you can get by with English, but if you're up for an adventure, go inland and put those skills to good use. I know only a few friendly words. The bulk of my vocabulary is dirty words and insults. Here are a few of each genre to keep in mind on your future travels...


      Foo-Yen: Waiter/Waitress. This one is fun. If you raise your hand or wait for someone to attend to you, you'll be waiting forever... Scream this to get the attention of the waitstaff. It's not rude at all. They use a different word for this in some parts that translates to Little Girl. It's probably best if I don't mention it though because if you get confused and use that word in the wrong area, it's like yelling out "Hey prostitute!"

      My-Dahn: The check. Say this to your "Foo-Yen" when you're ready to pay at the restaurant and they will bring you the check or say some numbers to you that you won't understand and then bring over a calculator. Although numbers are easy since 20 = Two-Ten, 30 = Three-Ten and so forth...


      Hen-How: Very good. Say this when you want to tell someone you like their food or whatever service they provided. 


      La: Spicy. They'll ask you if you want spicy sauce by saying this word. If you don't want spicy you can say Boo-La which means No Spicy.


      Chu-Nah-Lee: Where are you from. If people ask you this you can say "May-Gwah" for America. Or you can say "Jung-Gwah" to say China and watch them look at you funny.

      Fan-Tong: If one of you is eating way more food than the other, point to the hungry person and say this word while a local is around. You'll get some great laughs. It's a perfect ice breaker and they'll be amazed that you know this slang. The literal translation is Rice Bucket, but it can mean two things (1) fatty... or (2) you're so stupid that all you know how to do is eat rice. Either way, you'll get some laughs. Worked like a charm every time I said it about wife while on the bicycle trip through China! She's such a good sport 🧡

      R-By-Wu: Literally it's the number 250. But it's common slang for dumbass. Say it when you see someone do something stupid (and you will). Great to say when someone cuts off your taxi driver.

      Wu-R-Ling: Literally it's the number 520. But it sounds something like the phrase for "I love you."


      Mung-Mung-Dah: It's slang for something that's cute. Say it to the parents of a little kid you meet. They'll appreciate the compliment.

      Tsao-Ni-Mah: I just learned this one last week. It's Llama. Useful? Of course not, but the Chinese people think it's a funny name because it has a very close pronunciation to the phrase F*** Your Mother! (which I've had in my vocabulary for quite some time now). 

      Ben-Dahn: My colleagues love to remind me of this one. It translates to Stupid Egg. So Ben-Ben-Dahn is used quite often... For some reason, many insults in China are about eggs. From one Ben to another, sorry about this one...

    • Ben-Dahn: My colleagues love to remind me of this one. It translates to Stupid Egg. So Ben-Ben-Dahn is used quite often... For some reason, many insults in China are about eggs. From one Ben to another, sorry about this one...

      LOL....those were really helpful words based on your actual experience. Yea, if I knew a cool Ben in my social circle....he is now Ben-Dahn for life!

    • Awesome! You need to work on your pin-yin, but I knew all but a couple of those! I didn’t know the rice bucket one, so I’ll have to put that one in my memory bank! I also didn’t know the llama one. Not a bad start! Good job! Yeah, it kinda sucks that my name can mean “stupid” in Chinese, but it’s whatever. The word you were referring to that you wanna be careful with is “小姐 (xiǎojiě)”, which means “miss” in Taiwan and “prostitute” in Mainland China. It’s a dangerous word, lol. “辣妹 (là mèi)” is another fun one. It means “spicy little sister” a.k.a. “Hot girl.” Lol 😂

    • I learned the F- word in Mandarin on accident. I was translating a phrase that used the word “条 (tiáo)” and was speaking into Google translate to find out what that word meant. Google translate thought I said “操 (cāo)”, which I found out means the F-word. Lmao! 😂 😂😂😂

    • I didn’t know the rice bucket one, so I’ll have to put that one in my memory bank!

      One time I didn't enunciate well enough and instead of Fan Tong, I called someone a Fen Tong (Sh*t Bucket)... 🤷‍♂️ Stay safe out there!

    • > 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.”

      That's interesting, I didn't know Chinese had any form of transliteration. You could say that it's similar to hiragana and katakana, but it's probably more accurate to say it's like furigana, which is hiragana that appears above kanji to show the pronunciation. The only reason I make the distinction is that kanji, hiragana, and katakana are all used simultaneously in written Japanese. Most words have kanji associated with them, but kanji is never used in verb conjugation. So you'll have a verb stem which can be written in kanji but the end of the word is written in hiragana. Katakana is used like italics for emphasis and for foreign loan-words as well as lots of animals - even if they do have a kanji. But hiragana is the most basic part of the writing system and can be used to write anything in Japanese.

      You might wonder why they bother with the other two systems, but I can tell you that reading Japanese without kanji is actually more difficult.