Learning Mandarin

I’m part way through my first “Conversational Chinese” course at the University of Waterloo’s Confucius Institute. From what I’ve learned so far, I’ve found Mandarin Chinese to be a very elegant language. It’s a language like a talented computer programmer might design a language. Everything is very regular and consistent. It has a quality that in computer science and mathematics we would call “orthogonality.”

Some examples of what I mean…

There is no conjugation of verbs by subject. In English (and French) we have to memorize many conjugations: “I am, you are, he is, they are.” In Mandarin, there is none of this crap. In Mandarin (written in the Pinyin romanization) it is wǒ shì, nǐ shì, tā shì, tāmen shì, which could be literally translated as “I is, you is, he is, they is.” It’s that simple. And it’s the same for all verbs.

No conjugation of verbs for present tense, past tense, etc. In English: “I was, I am, I will be.” In Mandarin, the verb is always the same. You just use another word to indicate the time. In Mandarin: wǒ zuótiān shì, wǒ shì, wǒ míngtiān shì, which is literally “I yesterday is, I is, I tomorrow is.”

Easy possessive forms. In English, we have different forms of possessive corresponding to each pronoun: “my, your, his, our,” etc. Yet more crap to memorize. In Mandarin, possession is indicated by adding the de particle after the pronoun: wǒ de, nǐ de, tā de, wǒmen de. Very easy. It also works with proper names, Shānméi de chà means “Shānméi’s tea”. De is kind of like the English ‘s, but can be applied to pronouns too.

Simple numbers. English numbers are easy enough to up to ten. But then there are these weird ones, eleven and twelve. After that we kind of have a bit of pattern again with the teens. But even then it’s not a very strong pattern (fifteen instead of fiveteen.) Mandarin makes it very easy. You just need to learn the words for 1 through 10, through shí (a different shí with a different tone). Then 11 through 19 are simply shí yī through shí jǐu, literally, “ten one” through “ten nine”. Twenty is then èr shí, literally “two tens”. Twenty one is èr shí yī, literally “two tens one”. This simple pattern will carry all the way up to ninety-nine (jǐu shí jǐu, lit. “nine tens nine”.) At that point, a new word is added for “hundred” (bǎi), but then the pattern resumes. The simple pattern continues on up, just adding new words for thousand(qiān) and ten-thousand(wàn). The pattern breaks there, with 100,000 (shí wàn, literally “ten ten-thousands”) and 1,000,000 (bǎi wàn, literally “one-hundred ten-thousands”.)

Simple question forms. Questions take exactly the same form as statements, except the unknown part is replaced with a question-word, like a variable replaces a constant in a math expression. In English we rearrange the sentence to put the question-word first: “Who are you?” In Mandarin, it is “Nǐ shì shéi?“, literally “You are who?” Similarly for words like “where” (nǎr), “which” (), “what” (shénme).

“Yes/no” kind of questions are also simply formed. Just form the positive statement, and add “ma” to the end to make it a question. “Do you want tea?” in Mandarin is “Nǐ yào chà ma?“, literally “You want tea ma?”

Simple days of the week. The seven days of the week are just numbered, starting from Monday. xīng qī yī, xīng qī èr, etc.

Simple month names. Months are similarly named just yī yuè, èr yuè, etc. Literally, “first month”, “second month”, etc. Kind of lacks romance, but you have to admire the simplicity of it.

But it’s not all perfect. There are some flaws.

Mandarin has this weird idea of measure-words. When you want to give a count or measurement of something, you always have to use a measure-word. And there are many, many different measure-words, depending on what sort of thing is being measured. “Five people” is wǔ ge rén, literally “five (ge) person.” Ge is a kind of general-purpose measure-word. I think we have kind of a similar idea in English, when we might say say something like “five head of cattle”: “head” is being used in a way similar to a measure-word in Mandarin.

There are many measure-words, and which one to use is based on some kind of quality of the thing being measured. Broad, flat things would be measured with zhāng, which I guess might be translated as “sheet.” Wǔ zhāng zhǐ means “five sheets (of) paper”, sì zhāng zhuōzi means “four sheets (of) table”. You always have to have a measure word of some kind. It’s not correct to say sì zhuōzi (“four tables”.)

Almost all adjectives, adverbs and verbs can be negated using the word : bú shì means “is not”, bú yào means “not want”. The only exception (that I’ve learned so far) is with the verb yǒu (to have). In that case, the negative form is méi yǒu, not bù yǒu. Why? I don’t know.

Another kind of bizarre example: usually the number two is èr. But if, and only if, èr is used with a measure-word, then it becomes liǎng. “Two people” is liǎng ge rén, not èr ge rén. Only “two” gets changed this way, none of the other numbers do. Weird.

What has been most difficult for me so far, though, is the tones. My brain just isn’t wired to think that shì and shí are different words. I can never remember what the correct tone is for any word. Writing this article required constantly looking up the correct tones to be sure I wrote the correct tone marks.

4 Responses to “Learning Mandarin”

  • Your article has inspired me to go and try to learn Chinese. I was expecting a very difficult grammar, but this isn’t so bad. Listening and speaking might be doable for me. The writing, however, is much to difficult, I think.

  • hello,now you are trying to learning chiness?how do you think about it?I learned for a short time and I can know some words of them,but not too much,I felt it was very difficult from writing part.it is difficult ti write abd remmember the way of writing.About pronounacian,it is quit like to Vietnammes so I can remmember transcription.but I cant remmember role of writting and a word can have same pronounacian but it can be diffirent about meaning so…I hope you can learn it well.

  • You might be interested in this list of Chinese measure words:


  • that is so nice to read your blog…i’ve been researching for so long trying to find a good blog like yours…many thanks… john

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