Mandarin Chinese – The First Two Months


Chinese Confucius Paper Analects Type

So if you’ve read my ‘Life Update’ post, you’ll no doubt know that I’ve been studying Mandarin Chinese in university for about two months now. I’ve essentially been learning the language from having no knowledge at all and in these two months, I’ve been progressing at a nice, steady pace. Mandarin is probably one of the most unusual languages I’ve studied, but I’d more than likely leave that down to the fact that, as an Indo-European language speaker, the way I would normally express myself is so radically different from that of an Asian language speaker.

Something I hear people say a lot is ‘Chinese doesn’t have grammar!’ This infuriates me for two main reasons; ‘Chinese’ isn’t one language, you probably mean ‘Mandarin’, and second of all, I don’t think it’s linguistically possible for a language to simply ‘have no grammar’. Grammar is the foundation of how every language forms sentences and how they make sense – to not have grammar would imply that, rather than a language, you’re dealing with an incoherent mess of sounds and noises. But let’s not waste time talking about the mistakes made by mere mortals, we’re linguists after all!

我們開始吧!(Let’s get started!)

Mandarin (or 普通話, if that’s your style) is, by far, the largest of the Chinese language, boasting about 960 million native speakers worldwide. Although that’s slightly more than I can count on my hands, there are many, many more people learning Mandarin Chinese as their second or third language in many different countries for many different reasons. Mandarin grammar is really unique if I do say so myself; Mandarin initially appears quite unique because it lacks verb tenses. In Mandarin, time is not expressed by changing the ending of a verb, allowing Mandarin sentences the option of having a more vague sense of when the actions they describe take place, and so verbs never change their form like in European languages. An example of this would be if I said ‘我跟我朋友出去’ (‘I go out with my friend(s)’) – there’s no way of telling when this action of ‘going’ takes place just by looking at the sentence because ‘去’ being the verb in the sentence, doesn’t change its form so the time at which this action takes place has to either be explicitly mentioned (e.g. 我跟我朋明天友出去 – Tomorrow I will go out with my friends) or it has to be inferred from the context of the conversation since the Chinese languages in general are very context sensitive, much like Japanese often is.

Another interesting thing to admire about Mandarin is that adjectives tend to act as kind of pseudo-verb. When many Mandarin learners are trying to describe something as, for example, ‘good’ or ‘expensive’, many of them are often tempted to use ‘是’ (‘is’ or ‘to be’) and if I said ‘我的電腦是很貴’ that would just be horribly wrong. However ‘我的電腦很貴’ (‘My computer is very expensive’) is the correct thing to say. The adjective here is 貴 (‘expensive’) and as you can see, Mandarin doesn’t use ‘is’ or ‘to be’ to connect it to the noun, the adjective just immediately follows; you could therefore translate 貴 as ‘to be expensive’ and therefore, the adjective has some verbal qualities which is something I’ve never really seen in a language before (my teacher likes to call them ‘stative verbs’).

I was initially going to talk about the writing system for Chinese here but I think I’ll cover that in a separate post because there is a lot I would like to talk about.

I think a defining (and most famous/infamous) feature of Mandarin lies within the spoken language. If you’ve ever studied a Chinese language, you’ll know instantly what I mean – Tones (聲調). Mandarin has four of these tones, and they’re used to indicate semantic meaning. The first tone is high and flat, the second tone rises, the third tone starts lower, falls, and then rises, and the fourth tone starts high and falls.

mā (媽) ‘mother’
mà (麻) ‘hemp’
mǎ (馬) ‘horse’
mà (罵) ‘scold’

And certainly try not to make the mistake of asking the waiter if they have a disease (病’bìng’) instead of if they have any ice (冰’bīng’).

So far, I’m getting more confident speaking the language and I think I can write really well. I’ve heard that I need to know about 3000 characters to even read a 報紙, a newspaper, so I’m confident that I’m well on my way. Since I’m living in London, I’ve taken full advantage of visiting 唐人街, China Town, every so often to speak to people (since Mandarin is starting to become more commonplace than Cantonese in China Town these days). I think learning the small grammatical particles is a bit difficult since English doesn’t use specific grammar words for things like tense, aspect, and number; it seems like quite an alien concept to me, or at least it did at first.

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised about Chinese is that it’s very logical and orderly; you give the time of an action first, then the subject, then the action, then the object and any other grammatical particles the sentence requires.

Next up for my analysis on Mandarin: Why the Chinese writing system isn’t nearly as scary as it looks!
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