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Mandarin or Chinese?

When it comes to learning the Chinese language, there are always two different terms mentioned and used: Mandarin and Chinese. Why are there two words for the Chinese language? Is Mandarin the same as the Chinese language? Which one should be studied by people who want to communicate fluently in China? Mandarin or Chinese? We will find this out together in this post.

What’s the Difference?

– What is Mandarin/Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà)?

Mandarin is also known as Mandarin Chinese, the Standard Modern Chinese language widely recognized and applied in China. It is called Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà), which indicate the common practice of Mandarin across the country and among people from different regions of China.

China is a multiple-nation country. Besides the major population of Han people, there are still another 55 ethnic minority groups live in this vast land. Each of these minority groups has its own culture, language, and customs as well. Mandarin Chinese is practiced as a common language to make communication among these 56 groups smoother and easier.

It can be told from the definition of Mandarin.

Putonghua (普通话pǔ tōng huà) is a common language for communication among the Han and different ethnic groups. It uses Beijing phonetics as the basic sound, northern dialects as the basic dialects, and typical modern vernacular writings as the grammatical norms.

– Why the northern dialects were selected as the basic dialects of Mandarin? Why is Beijing phonetics the basic sound of Mandarin? Should I learn Mandarin in Beijing?

 

During most of the time, the ancient political and economic center of ancient China was in the northern central plains, so the dialects of the northern central plains had become the basis of the common language since long ago. Since the 12th century, the Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties had chosen Beijing as the capital city. For more than 800 years, Beijing has been the political and cultural center of China. In this way, the previous “Official Chinese language” was formed based on Beijing phonetics. It had gradually spread to all regions of China and had become a common language used among different dialect areas.

With the previously formed foundation, it is easier to choose the northern dialects and Beijing phonetics as the basis of a new common language, Mandarin/Putonghua. But Beijing, the capital city of China, is not the best place for learning Mandarin Chinese. Instead of learning Chinese in Beijing, you should learn Chinese in Kunming.

What’s more, even though Mandarin Chinese is applied nationwide, it is not cited as the “official/national language.” The term “official/national language” was not adopted to respect the other 55 ethnic minority groups.

– What is the Chinese Language?

The concept of the Chinese language is more general and contains more elements.

The Chinese language refers to the written language and literature of China. It refers to the language and literature of the Han people and the languages and literature of other ethnic minority groups. The Chinese language includes Mandarin and various regional dialects, such as Northern, Wu, Yue, Hokkien, Hakka, Xiang, and Gan dialects.

When speaking about the Chinese language, it often includes both text and cultural environment. In the aspect of the text, there are traditional Chinese characters and simplified Chinese characters.

From the above content, we can have the conclusion that Mandarin is an essential component of the Chinese language. It is also a widely used and recognized language across China currently.

Technically, the term Chinese refers more to the written form of the Chinese language, while the term Mandarin is more about the spoken Chinese language.

Why is it called Mandarin?

The etymology of the word “Mandarin” comes from the Portuguese “mandarium,” created by the Portuguese. Portuguese borrowed the Sanskrit word “mantra” and change it into “mandarium.” The word’s original meaning is “counselor,” which means the person who assists the leader and provides advice. In 1589, the Portuguese word “mandarium” was formally adopted by English and became the term “mandarin,” which was used to describe Chinese officials back to that time.

Later, the term “mandarin” was used to describe the language spoken by these Chinese officials, which was extended to the current concept of “Mandarin.” It is worth noting that the term “mandarin” in lowercase is a general noun, and the term “Mandarin” is a proper uppercase noun.

Do all Chinese speak Mandarin?

According to the latest statistics published by the Chinese government in 2020, the nationwide penetration rate of Mandarin/Putonghua in China is 80.72%.

Among the 55 ethnic minorities that account for 8.49% of the total population of China, most of the Hui, Manchu, and She ethnic groups have switched to speak Mandarin Chinese. In contrast, the other 52 ethnic groups still maintain and speak their own languages.

From the perspective of language family, the languages spoken by 56 groups in China belong to five major language families: Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, and Indo-European.

In promoting Mandarin, all Chinese media broadcasting platforms and official conversations choose Mandarin as the medium of communication, which further promoted the common practice of Mandarin in China. It can be said that no matter which corner of China you go to, as long as you can speak Mandarin, you can communicate with locals.

Which one should you study?

You’re learning the Chinese language while learning Mandarin. The Chinese language and Mandarin Chinese are two interdependent concepts.

As we mentioned previously, Mandarin is an important component of the Chinese language. It is the most widely accepted and used spoken language in China. Being able to speak Mandarin, you would communicate fluently with 80% of Chinese people.

When learning Mandarin Chinese, you’re also learning the written form of the Chinese language, which is the Chinese character. To be more specific, it is simplified Chinese in most cases. Not to mention the learning of Chinese culture, works of literature, and history. These contents are all part of your learning of the Chinese language.

The Mandarin, Chinese character, Chinese history, Chinese culture, and Chinese arts all belong to the concept of the Chinese language.

Embracing both of these concepts gladly, Mandarin and the Chinese language, but focus on Mandarin when it relates to the spoken language learning.

It is worthy of further exploration on other regional dialects or other ethnic group’s languages after you mastering Mandarin if you are interested in a wider range of learning.

FAQ

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1. Can I skip the learning of Chinese character?

Chinese character is an essential part of Mandarin learning. Some students think Pinyin is convenient enough for them to recognize all pronunciation of the Chinese word. It is true in some aspects, however, when taking a look on the street and all the media channels, you would find that there is a rare chance to see any Pinyin mark and you will get lost if you cannot recognize the Chinese characters.

Not to mention that a lot of Chinese characters share common pronunciation which you cannot differentiate until you identify the character. Pinyin can be used as a practical tool to help you obtain the standard pronunciation at the beginning stage, but it can never replace the Chinese character.

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2. How many character should I learn to master the Mandarin Chinese?

To be fluent as a well-educated native Chinese, you have to master at least 5,000 Chinese characters. To have a good start, you may try to master the most commonly used 500 Chinese characters first.

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3. What should I do when I can understand Chinese well but cannot express myself in Chinese?

You should try to practise speaking Chinese as much as possible. You may find a Chinese friend to help you with it or you can also have an online Chinese lesson that focusing on polishing your spoken Chinese.

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4. What is the most challenging part when learning Mandarin?

Identifying Chinese characters and words that sharing the same pronunciation must be the most challenging part of learning Mandarin.

To increase your recognition rate of these words and characters, the best solution is to accumulate as many vocabularies as possible. And you should not only memorize the pronunciation of the words but also the meanings and usage of the words and expression. Memorising it by combining it with the context, so you will not be confused by wondering which one to pick.

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5. How to improve my Chinese writing?

Writing is the output of the brain after full processing of the input information. Good Mandarin Chinese writing skills should be the last stage of your Chinese language learning.

To successfully improve your Mandarin Chinese writing skills, you would have to follow the next steps:

  • INCREASE THE INPUT OF CHINESE MATERIALS WITH GOOD QUALITY
  • SET A HIGH SCREENING CRITERION FOR THE CHINESE INPUT MATERIALS
  • INPUT IN A MORE EFFICIENT WAY
  • SET UP THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE OBTAINED KNOWLEDGE AND NEW THINGS AND REMAIN CRITICAL THINKING.
  • TRY TO WRITE IN HIGH FREQUENCY AND INSIST ON WRITING
  • LEARN TO WRITE BOTH STORIES AND OPINIONS

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