Monday, September 10, 2012

Language Profile: Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese has nearly a billion native speakers, more than any other language in the world. That amounts to over 14% of the world's (but probably not worlds') population!

Mandarin's actually a group of related dialects of the Chinese language mostly spoken in northern and south-western China, but a standardized form of Mandarin is the official language of China, Taiwan and Singapore. However, the regional varieties of Mandarin are sometimes so different that speakers of different dialects may not be able to understand each other at all! (Perhaps in English we could only truly observe this phenomenon between a Scot and a Texan...)

If you come from the dark green area you probably speak Mandarin.

Many Westerners find Mandarin Chinese very difficult to learn since it's a tonal language. We modify our intonation in English constantly to convey context, emotions, meaning, and even to allude to sarcasm (at least in the US!), but English is not a tonal language. Every syllable in tonal languages like Mandarin has an appropriate tone... if your pitch raises while uttering that syllable it can mean something vastly different to when your pitch lowers.

For example, take the syllable ma in Mandarin. It can mean mom, hemp, horse, and scold depending on your tone. We can all imagine how catastrophic it would be if you said "We had great fun riding your mom when we visited you in the country."

Never tell anyone that you mounted their Mom in the Rockies.