Welcome To Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin is the official language of China, and Taiwan. Although there are many dialects, every Chinese person you meet will speak and understand Mandarin. It is officially classified as a “difficult” language, but in some ways it is easier than English.

The lack of irregular verbs, lack of verb endings and the presence of consistent pronouns are among the reasons why it could be considered easier. In Mandarin, once you learn a word, its yours. 

Mandarin is written in Chinese characters, which are not phonetic. In order to learn the language we will use pinyin, a phonetic representation. Each Chinese character is pronounced as a single syllable and represented phonetically as a pinyin syllable. The table below uses an example to illustrate this relationship.

Pinyin Chinese English Audio
Ní hǎo 你好 Hello

The main goal of the first ten lessons is learn pronunciation. Using a phonetic representation, instead of characters, makes this easier to achieve.  In addition to pronunciation, learning pinyin has other benefits as well: such as Looking up words in a dictionary and typing Chinese characters on a keyboard or mobile phone

Tones

Tone Chart

Mandarin has only 409 distinct syllables. Compared to more than 5000 English syllables, this is a small number. Once you master these 409 sounds, you can pronounce any word in Mandarin.

Mandarin is a tonal language, where “tone” is actually a change in pitch that occurs during the pronunciation of a syllable. Tone marks are placed above the vowels as guide to pronunciation. The table below illustrates how tones change the meaning of words that sound like “ma”.

Tones are not optional.  If you use the wrong tone, you said the wrong word.  Missing the tone generally confuses your listener. So, unless you have a musician’s ear, it is a good idea to memorize the tone when you learn a word.

Some words will take a different tone depending on the tone of the word that follows. This is called tone change, or “spoken tone”. There are just three types of tone change, which will be explained later. Standard text books do not show spoken tone. However this courseware does, in order to make the expected pronunciation more clear.

Tone Number Mark Pitch Meaning
1st ma1 high level Mother
2nd ma2 rising Numb
3rd ma3 falling then rising Horse
4th ma4 falling Scold
Neutral ma ma unstressed Question
  • 4 tones: mā má mǎ mà
  • Mother scolds a horse: māma mà mǎ
  • Click on bolded pinyin in the chart to hear the differences.

 

Example Dialog

Note: In the first column of the table below 王 (wáng) and 张 (zhāng) are common family names in China.

1) How are you?
Ní hǎo ma? 你好吗? How are you?
Wǒ hén hǎo. 我很好。 I am fine (very good).
2) And you?
Nǐ máng ma? 你忙吗? Are you busy?
Wǒ bù máng, nǐ ne? 我不忙,你呢? I’m not busy, how about you?
Wó yě bù máng. 我也不忙。 I am also not busy.
3) Good Morning
Zǎoshang hǎo! 早上好! Good morning!
Zǎo! 早! Morning!
Nǐ máng ma? 你忙吗? Are you busy?
Wó hěn máng, nǐ ne? 我很忙,你呢? I am very busy, and you?
Wǒ yé hěn máng. 我也很忙。 I am also very busy.
Zàijiàn. 再见。 Bye.
Zàijiàn. 再见。 Bye.

Vocabulary

Pinyin Chinese  English
you Pronoun, second person singular.
hǎo good Adjective, generally indicating a positive quality.
ní hǎo 你好 hello A greeting, not a question.
I or me Pronoun, first person singular. Note: wǒ can be used as a subject (“I”) or an object (“me”).
hěn very Adverb of degree
ma   Particle, used to request confirmation. Similar to a rising tone in English.
ne what about ..? Particle, used to request more information.
also Adverb, expressing similarity
máng busy Adjective
not Adverb of negation
zǎoshang 早上 morning Noun, early in the day
wǎnshang 晚上 evening Noun, late in the day
zàijiàn 再见 good bye Expression, taken separately the characters mean “again” “meet”.

Tone Change

When two 3rd tone syllables occur in sequence, the first syllable is usually pronounced with a 2nd tone. This makes the sentence easier to say. For example “nǐ hǎo” (the written form) is normally pronounced “ní hǎo” (the spoken form). Unfortunately, all books published with pinyin use the written form and let you figure out how to say it. In contrast, this courseware will display the spoken form at all times, so you don’t have to guess about the pronunciation.

Grammar Patterns

Grammar is the patterns of a language. Although every pattern has exceptions, recognizing the language patterns improves our feel for the language.

Sentences

All the sentences in this lesson describe conditions: good, bad, busy, not busy. It is interesting to note that they do not contain any form of the verb “is”. Mandarin does have a verb that is similar to “is”, which we will learn in the 3rd lesson. The table below illustrates the structure of sentences that express conditions.

subject adjective phrase meaning
hén hǎo. I am very good
bù máng You are not busy

 

Particles

Particles, like ma and ne in Chinese, are structural words. They are used to indicate the purpose of a sentence (such as question or statement) without effecting the content.

  • When ma occurs at the end of a sentence it is asking for confirmation. For example “Nǐ máng” is the statement “You are busy”, while  “Nǐ máng ma?” asks for confirmation of that statement.
  • When ne occurs at the end of a sentence it indicates a more open ended question. For example “nǐ ne?” means “what about you?” and “wǒ ne” means “what about me?”.

Seeking Confirmation

We learned two sentences that seek confirmation in this lesson: “Nǐ máng ma?” and “Ní hǎo ma?”. All confirmation questions have the same structure: a statement, followed by “ma”. This is much easier than English, where we change the order of subject and verb.

Statement “?” Answer
Wǒ máng ma? Máng
Ní hǎo ma? Hén hǎo
Nǐ máng ma? Máng

Confirming the question also differs from English. Chinese does not have a simple “yes” and “no”;. Instead, the Chinese speaker uses the verb or adverb of the sentence in its positive or negative form.

Here are some examples of answers to “Nǐ máng ma?”.

  • Wó hěn máng. – affirmative response
  • Bù máng. – affirmative response
  • Wǒ máng. – omitting any adverbs
  • Máng. – brief and succinct

After answering you can use “Nǐ ne?” to return the question. And, if the second answer is consistent with the first you can add to the response

  • Wǒ yé hěn máng.
  • Yé hěn máng.
  • Wó yě máng.
Statement “?” Answer
Wó hěn máng, nǐ ne? Wǒ yé hěn máng
Bù máng, nǐ ne? Wó yě bù máng
Máng, nǐ ne? Wó yě máng

Greetings

Just as in English, a response to a greeting is usually the same as the greeting.

Greeting Response
Zǎo Zǎo
Ní hǎo. Ní hǎo.
Zǎoshang hǎo. Zǎoshang hǎo.
Wǎnshang hǎo. Wǎnshang hǎo.
Zàijiàn. Zàijiàn.

Resources

There are two types of flashcards to choose from. Each type has two sides. Both types will provide valuable practice opportunities.

  • Pinyin to English Flashcards will display the pinyin first and give you the opportunity to remember the English meaning.
  • Chinese to English Flashcards will display a Chinese character first. When the character is displayed you will hear the word pronounced. Don’t worry about reading the character, your job is to listen to the word and remember the pinyin and tone mark.

 

 

Also check out …

See this page for Sentence Practice

See this website more general pinyin practice