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An introduction to the Chinese language

  • Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, with over 900 million speakers worldwide
  • Mandarin is commonly referred to as "Chinese", but in fact it is just one Chinese language of many.
  • Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations. 

It’s not what you say it’s how you say it 

Spoken Chinese has four tones. A commonly used example for practising these is: mā, má, mă, mà (to pronounce each tone follow the accents above the word). The tone of the character can completely change its meaning, for example mā (妈) means ‘mother’, while mă (马) means ‘horse’.

1.    Imagine begging your parents for something and saying ‘pleaaaaase’ that’s what the 1st tone mā sounds like.

2.    Imagine being dubious and saying ‘yes?’ When you’re voice starts low and rises to the end of the word, that’s what the 2nd tone má sounds like.

3.    Imagine being surprised and asking ‘really?’ Hear the tone of your voice going down in the middle of the word, that’s what the 3rd tone mă sounds like.

4.    Imagine snapping and saying ‘yes!’ That’s what the 4th tone mà sounds like.

It’s all visual

The system of using Latin letters to write Chinese phonetically (for example mā, má, mă, mà, used in the above example) is called pinyin. Pinyin is hardly ever used by native speakers of Chinese, apart from to input Chinese characters into computers.  

The written Chinese language is over 3,000 years old and has evolved from pictograms of objects to the characters used today. Whilst there are 23,000 characters in Chinese Dictionary, you only need approximately 1,000 to understand 90% of a newspaper.

Sections of Chinese characters called radicals help you understand the meaning of the character. The radicals can be at the top, down the side or underneath the character; once you’ve found them you’ve found the key to unlocking the meaning.

For example, you can see the hand radical (手, shŏu) in words such as moving (搬), lifting (拿) and a handful (一把).

Another example is the mouth radical (口, kŏu) which appears in words such as eating (吃), drinking (喝) and shouting (喊). 

Say goodbye to verb conjugations!

Unlike languages such as French, Spanish and Italian, in the Chinese language there are no verb conjugations. Forget about subjunctives, imperfects and conditionals - just learn the verb you want to use and you’re ready to go. Plus, you never have to worry about learning the ‘gender’ of nouns, as you did in your French and Spanish classes at school. 

You may already know a lot more Chinese than you think

There are many loan-words in Chinese which have been taken from the English, in a similar way to how the English language has adopted French words (e.g. déjà-vu, already seen).For example

  • coffee: kāfēi (咖啡)
  • chocolate: qiăokèlì (巧克力)
  • sofa: shāfā (沙发)
  • T-shirt: T-xù (T 恤)

Why learn Chinese?

'If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head, if you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.’

Nelson Mandela

Travel opportunities

Once you’ve begun studying Chinese you will be able to travel with ease through the stunning and culturally diverse country. With mandarin skills you will be able to break down language barriers, talk to locals and totally immerse yourself in the culture. 

Students who have attended our courses are eligible to attend our Summer Camp in Beijing - find out more

Employability

The Chinese market is already huge and it’s still expanding. With the second largest economy in the world there are infinite opportunities for trade. Language skills are essential for international business and for building lasting relationships. In today’s economy being able to communicate in Chinese is a huge advantage.

Or just for fun...

Learning Chinese opens up your world, challenges your mind, and above all, it's fun! Explore our website for information on our range of courses.

 Can't find what you're looking for? Email us at Confucius@leeds.ac.uk.