Learning Mandarin the easy way – April 2012


Learning Mandarin the easy way


The lingua franca of modern China is not actually called “Mandarin” (which comes from the bad old days before Communism and refers to the language spoken by the Mandarins or Court servants). The politically correct word nowadays is “Pu Tong Hua” (often written with the three words run together) – meaning the common or ordinary language.


But whatever you call it, this is now arguably, after English of course, the world’s most important language. And not because it is the common language spoken by the worlds biggest country in terms of population (1.3 billion now and rising fast – or nearly a quarter of the world’s population). Though that’s one reason, for it means that, if you can speak Chinese and English, then you can speak to around half of the entire humanity of our planet.


But now, China is more than big – it is also rising. There may be different views about whether this will happen quickly or slowly. I personally think that before China can achieve her full potential, she will have to democratise her society, just as she has liberalised her economy and this may be more difficult for her than many understand. But whether China rises quickly or over a longer period there are very few now who would not accept that she will be one of the major global powers of our age with interests in every part of the world and a global reach to go with this.


So this is a great language, with great potential.


But, grammatically at least, it is not a difficult language. Indeed there is really very little grammar in Pu Tong Hua.


The difficulties a foreigner experiences with Chinese are more human rather than intellectual.


And the first comes from the language’s beauty.


There is a wonderful mellifluous musical underpinning to Chinese ,which exists in no other language – indeed the language only works if you understand its music – or tones. This is because this is a monosyllabic language with the differentiation between one word and another being entirely dependent on the tone in which it is said (there are four tones in Pu Tong Hua, seven in Cantonese). And some of the tones even change according to their juxtaposition with others. The effect, when added to a great richness of regional accent (in Peking they role their “r” and slide their elisions in a way that would make any Devonian proud) adds up to a language which is immensely pleasing to the ear. Often when I hear Chinese visitors speaking Pu Tong Hua on the streets of London, I will hang around them for a bit, just for the pleasure of hearing them talk.


Learning to apply these tones accurately can be tricky for a foreigner at first and sometimes leads to hilarious mistakes (I once accidentally asked a very proper Chinese lady at a dinner party if she had ever sat on a flying penis – instead of what I meant to ask her – if she had ever flown on an aircraft!). But once you have them they become almost naturally.


To learn spoken Pu Tong Hua, you need a good ear (though not necessarily a musical one – I am hopelessly unmusical) and an ability to mimic.


To learn the written language, what you chiefly need is a good memory


Here the problem is that written Chinese is not spelt, it is drawn. Western written languages (and indeed most world ones) depend on words being spelt in letters from a alphabet. But in Chinese there is no alphabet. Each word is represented by a different picture – or pictogram, to use the proper technical term. This means that to read or write for a newspaper like, say the Sun, you would need to know perhaps six thousand pictograms – for The Times you would need ten thousand. And an educated Chinese would know upwards of forty thousand.


Learning these can be quite a sweat (though there are certain logical structures and simplifications which help the process). And, at the end of the day you do not NEED to know to write in order to be able to speak.


But there are advantages in doing so.


The first is that written Chinese is the same for all Chinese dialects. In this respect the pictograms perform the same function as Arabic numerals in European languages. The word for the number “four” is different French, German and English. But the written Arabic numeral means the same in all three. In Chinese this principle applies to pictograms across the whole language. Which means that, though a Pu Tong Hua speaker may not be able to speak or understand another Chinese dialect, they can use the written language and communicate perfectly.


The second advantage of learning written Chinese is its beauty. Indeed calligraphy is recognised by many Chinese as their highest form of art. Mao Tse Tung was a great soldier, a passable poet, a charismatic leader and a powerful and, in his time much respected Head of the Chinese state. But it is a calligrapher that he was and remains most admired.


But in the end, though the beauty of spoken Chinese and, especially of its written script, are good reasons for learning this language, they are not as important as the fact that speaking Mandarin or Pu Tong Hua, will give you contact with one of the world’s greatest civilisations, richest histories, most populous states and most important nations in the new world that is now emerging.