So … you want to learn Mandarin. Tài bàng le!
Spoken by over a billion people and with more native speakers than any other language, Mandarin Chinese is also one of the fastest growing languages in the world. And if you’re linguistically proficient and business savvy, being able to hold your own in a suit-centric conversation could land you a job (and great coin) in one of the world’s largest economies. Ka-ching!
Things to know before you start
As a group of related varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and south-western China, Mandarin includes the Beijing dialect, which forms the basis of ‘standard Chinese’. Unlike our English mother tongue, the language has no alphabet, and is instead written with symbols called Chinese characters (which, FYI, represent the oldest writing system in the world).
There are two types of characters – the ‘traditional’ being used by Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong and overseas Chinese communities (it has more strokes and takes longer to write) and the ‘simplified’, which is used mainly in China (characters can be written for top to bottom, left to right or right to left).
Part of what makes the Mandarin language so unique (and orally entertaining) is its tones, which are used to differentiate meaning between individual syllables. There are four, some say five, if you include the ‘neutral one’. The first is high and level, the second rises moderately, the third falls and rises and the fourth drops sharply to the bottom of the tonal range. Check out the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den, a famous poem consisting of 120 characters all with the pronunciation “shi”, which highlights the complexity of using tones accurately to convey meaning. (Practice this one in the shower to avoid your mates thinking you’ve lost the plot).
The Chinese language is not an easy one to learn. Its 50,000 characters alone are mega-daunting, but thankfully only around 5000 are required for basic literacy. It also has its positives – Chinese grammar is extremely simple, there are no verb conjugations, gender-specific nouns or phonetic alphabet. Plus, if you use your imagination, some words already sound like their English counterparts, like kěkǒu kělè and kāfēi. Coca Cola and coffee. So obvi!
How can I learn Mandarin before I go to China?
The internet is definitely a savvy way to go if you’re looking for range of learning tools, depending on how you’d like to go about it. For an off-kilter (and hilarious) take on tones, check out the Kaiser’s Dude System, and for character tuition, Memrise and Anki will up the fun factor. These programs focus on the fact that technology like laptops and mobile devices are superseding a lot of the character writing in China, meaning that being able to recognise characters has become far more important than being able to physically draw them.
If you’re after a little reading practice, the Marco Polo Project offers a selection of Chinese literature (including short fiction and blogs) that allows language students to collaborate on translations, The Chairman’s Bao publishes newspaper articles written by natives that follow HSK (the standard Chinese language proficiency test) and Master Mandarin is a (paper version) of a “beginner’s step-by-step guide to learning Chinese the fun way”. Perfect your pronunciation with Fovo, guide your grammar with DigChinese and if you need a quick reference tool, pilfer resources like Pleco and Line Dictionary.
Tune into ChineseClass101 and Yep!Chinese for podcast resources, peruse FluentU Chinese for cool videos of everything from music to infomercials, and appsters should download Skritter (for help with characters), Pleco (for words) and HelloTalk (if you just want to connect with other language freaks).
And the obvious – surround yourself with the language. Hang out with your Chinese mates, watch subtitled movies (go on, embrace your crouching tiger) and swap a Saturday night clubbing fiasco for a Chinatown feed and a spot of karaoke (in Chinese).
How do I learn Mandarin in China?
In terms of studying at a university, the top of the pecking order is to pay for an internship, however it’s expensive, complicated (VISA-wise etc.) and you may end up with a class full of cashed-up foreigners who prefer to speak English rather than blunder their way through a conversation in broken Mandarin. For a ‘standard’ placement (and this is probably the best option for beginner learners), you’ll get relocation assistance and a quality experience, however it is a full time commitment so there’s no backing out if you’re bored with the curriculum or end up with a dodgy lecturer.
Private schools offer the most flexibility. Normally, you can show up and start your tuition the same day, pay-by-the-lesson and enroll in smaller classes, which means a more intimate learning experience, however like any business, they operate on profit margins and so quality may be compromised (hello, totes under-qualified teacher). Try That’s Mandarin (they’re one of the oldest in China) or the LTL Mandarin School, which focuses on foreign students and is authorised by the HSK.
Lastly, private tutors are perfect for beginners, because although they may be a little more expensive than schools, they’ll give you one-on-one tuition and can tidy up any of those bad habits you’ve picked up watching all of those dodgy YouTube videos!
Mandarin slang that will have you speaking like a local
- Qin – bae (your babe or main squeeze)
- Gē men – bro (your male besty or group of bros)
- Jiǔguǐ – a drunk or ‘wine ghost’
- Chuī niú – to talk big or brag (literally translates as ‘to blow cows’)
- Lǎo niú chī nèn cǎo – old men who date younger women (literally translates as ‘old cows eating young grass’)
- Jì mò dǎng – to have yourself a loneliness party
- Shén jīng bing – crazy
- Xiǎohùnhùn – a young bum or slacker
- Quán lěi dǎ – to get a ‘home run’ (and not in the baseball sense)