10 Interesting Facts and Figures about Mandarin Chinese

If there’s one thing that gets us fired up here at Twinkle Stars Mandarin Centre is enticing more people to learn the language that we love, so here’s 10 interesting facts and figures about Mandarin Chinese.

  • Speak to the world

Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over 955 million native speakers worldwide (that’s more than any other language!). This means that by learning Chinese you unlock the potential to speak to over 13% of the world’s total population. Chinese is also one of the 6 official UN languages – the others being English, Arabic, French, Russian and Spanish.

  • Don’t take that tone with me!

Contrary to popular belief that there are only four tones in Mandarin Chinese, there is also a fifth ‘neutral tone’. There’s a famous poem called 施氏食狮史 Shī shì shí shī shǐ (The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den) which is comprised of 120 characters, all of which have the pronunciation “shi” – talk about a tongue twister!

Top tip: At Twinkle Stars Mandarin Centre we suggest that you focus less on learning the tone of each and every individual character by heart. A much more productive approach is to interact and speak Chinese at every possible opportunity – your tones will then fall into place naturally. You’re also less likely to lose any sleep over which “ma” should be used to avoid calling your Mother a horse!

  • But there’s so many words, I couldn’t possibly learn them all!

The entire Chinese language stems from a set of 50,000 characters, which initially seems extremely daunting (and rightly so!). However, when you contrast that with Hutong School’s research that states you can read 97.97% of everyday written Chinese language with a set of 2,500 characters, the task suddenly seems a lot more manageable.

  • Chinese grammar really isn’t that difficult

Chinese grammar is extremely simple. There are no verb conjugations and tenses are expressed by using time phrases such as “tomorrow, yesterday, in the future” etc. If that wasn’t reason enough to pick up a Mandarin textbook, there’s also no gender-specific nouns and no need to distinguish between singular and plural nouns, take that Latin languages!

  • Some famous faces

More and more famous people are learning Mandarin. Recently, Facebook CEO & Founder Mark Zuckerberg surprised a group of students at Beijing University by giving a talk in Chinese (if you ask me his tones could do with a little work, though!). Other famous people that speak Mandarin include former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who studied Chinese at Beijing University. Even Prince William gave an interview in Mandarin recently, as he wished everybody a Happy Chinese New Year.

  • Chinese online slang

The creativity of Chinese netizens has given rise to a new chapter of Chinese language use online in recent years. Here’s some of our favourite examples of Chinese internet slang: in Chinese three is “san”, so “3Q” sounds like the English “thank you”; eight is “ba” so “88” is used as it sounds like the English ‘bye-bye’.

  • Anglicisms in Chinese

It’s not only in online slang that we can see the effect that English has had on Chinese language, Mandarin also has lots of “loan words” taken from English. Take, for example, 巧克力 qiǎo kè lì for chocolate and 沙发 shā fā for sofa.

  • Keep up! The fastest growing language in the West…

Not only is Chinese the fastest growing language in the world, but it’s also the fastest growing second language in the West! Even my 4 year old brother is learning Mandarin at school – no doubt he’ll be able to show me up in a few years’ time!

  • Unlock a different part of your brain

Studies suggest that people who speak Chinese will learn to use both temporal lobes of their brain, whereas English speakers will only use the left side. Both temporal lobes are required to distinguish between words that have different intonation in Mandarin.

  • Think you’ve got the measure of it?

One of the most troublesome parts of learning Mandarin Chinese is the need to use measure words to denote the quantity of nouns. In English we could simply say “six apples”, whereas in Chinese we would have to say “six (measure word) apples”. It can get tricky, particularly considering there are over 240 measure words in total, but you soon get the hang of it! If not, there’s always some such as 个 gè that can be reverted to in times of trouble!

If any of you would like to contribute any of your own suggestions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

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Origin of Chinese Characters

Where did the Chinese characters come from? What’s the history of Chinese characters like? Come on! Let’s find the answer together.

Origin of Chinese characters  汉字的起源

As one kind of the most ancient characters, Chinese characters have played a significant role in the development of Chinese culture. Originally, ancient Sumerian and ancient Egyptian symbols existed, but only Chinese characters remain today.

Based on pictographs, Chinese characters combine shapes with sounds and connotations to form unique, block-shaped characters that carry meaning. Archaeological researchers discovered many such signs carved on earthenware excavated from Banpo Village in Xi’an City and Jiangzhai Village in Lintong. The etchings were carved during the Yangshao Culture Period some 6,000 years ago. More than 4,000 years ago, people living in Tai’an area of Shangdong Province also carved signs on earthenware. The character “旦”(dàn),meaning dawn, for instance; the sun (日) rises upwards, crossing the mountains and passing through cloud layers to tell people a new day has begun. It is safe to say that the earthenware signs are the first Chinese characters, which originated from drawings.

The most sophiscated and earlist Chinese characters are the inscriptions on tortoises shells and animal bones called Jiaguwen(甲骨文) of the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC) that resemble drawings. To date, China has unearthed 150,000 pieces of an animal bone and tortoise shell, including more than 4,600 distinctive Chinese characters, among which more than 1,700 have been identified. The inscriptions on bones and shells consist of phrases and simple sentences, providing much insight into the Shang Dynasty. Modern Chinese characters top 60,000 among which about 3,000 are commonly used.

Evolution of Chinese Characters  汉字的演化

Chinese charaters have evolved from Jiaguwen 甲骨文 (inscription on tortoise shells and animal bones) to today’s characters over a long process. 甲骨文 Jiaguwen of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1765-1112BC) is a group of Chinese characters that resemble drawings.

In the Shang Dynasty and Western Zhou Dynasty (1121-771BC), there were also inscriptions on bronzeware called 钟鼎文 Zhongdingwen, which also resembled drawings. After the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty (221-207BC) unified China, he also unified Chinese characters and introduced 小篆 Xiaozhuan (lesser seal script) — a very beautiful style of characters.

Since the 小篆 Xiaozhuan script was very time-consuming, people of the Qin further simplified the characters and created a new style, 隶书 Lishu (offical script). In the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD8), Lishu — including another type of calligraphy, 草书 Caoshu (grass script), followed by 行书 Xingshu (running script)– became the main general typeface. The official script broke away from the pictographic element of ancient Chinese characters laying the foundations for 楷书 Kaishu (regular script).

楷书 Kaishu came into being in the late Han Dynasty and was based on Lishu. After Kaishu appered, the block-shaped Chinese characters were finalized Kaishu has been used ever since. Kaishu is standard calligraphy that has been used for the longest period of time, still today. For the students in Chinese schools, they are required to write the Chinese characters in Kaishu as the regular script.

Here are the comparison for different Chinese script for some common Chinese characters:

History of Chinese Language

The Sinitic languages are spoken by over 1,000 million people. The vast majority of these are in China (over 980 million) and Taiwan (19 million), but bstantial numbers are to be found throughout the whole of South-east Asia, especially in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore.Imporiant Chinese- speaking communities are also found in many other parts of the world, especially in the USA.

The Languages of China

Because there has long been a single method for writing Chinese, and a common literary and cultural history, a tradition has grown up of referring to, the eight main varieties of speech in China as diaalects’. But in fact they are as different from each other (mainly in pronuncia~ion and vocabulary) as French or Spanish is from Italian, the dialects of the south-east being linguistically the furthest apart. The mutual unintelligibility of the varieties is the main ground for referring to them as separate languages. However, it must also be recognized that each variety consists of a large number of dialects, many of which may themselves be referred to as languages. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easyto define.

The Chinese refer to themselves and their language, in any of the forms below, as Han – a name which derives from the Han dynasty (202 BC-AD 220). Han Chinese is thus to be distinguished from the non-Han minority languages used in China. There are over 50 of these languages (such as Tibetan, Russian, Uighur, Kazakh, Mongolian, and Korean), spoken by around 6% of the population.

The Chinese Linguistic Revolution

The 20th-century movement for language reform in China has resulted in the most ambitious programme of language planning the world has ever seen. The programme has three aims: (i) to simplify the characters of classical written Chinese, by cutting down on their number, and reducing the number of strokes it takes to write a character; (ii) to provide a single means of spoken communication throughout the whole of China, by popularizing the Beijing-based variety, which has been chosen as a standard; (iii) to introduce a phonetic alphabet, which would gradually replace the Chinese characters in everyday use.

There have been moves to reform the language from as early as the 2nd century BC, but there has been nothing to equal the complexity of the present-day programme. in which frequent reference is made to the names of several different varieties of the Chinese language.

Wén-yán (‘literary speech’ or ‘body of classical writing’). The cultivated literary language, recorded from around 1,500BC. and the traditional unifying medium for all varieties of Chinese. Its complex system of characters is explained on p. 200. It differs greatly from everyday speech, especially ln lts terse grammatical style and specialized literary vocabulary. It is now less widely used, because of the success of the current reform movement for written Chinese.

Bái-huà (‘colloquial language’). A simplified, vernacular style of writing, introduced by the literary reformer Hu Shih in 1917, to make the language more widely known to the public, and to permit the expression of new ideas. A style of writing which reflected everyday speech had developed as early as the Sung dynasty (AD 9~0-lZ79), but had made little impact on the dominant Wén-yán. However, the (May Fourth Movement’ (which originated in political demonstrations on 4 May 1919 after the Paris Peace Conference) adopted Hu Shi’h’s ideas, and Bái-huà was recognized as the national language in 1922.

Pûtônghuà (‘common language’). The variety chosen as a standard for the whole of China, and widely promulgated under this name after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. (In Taiwan, it goes under the name of guó yu , or ‘national speech’; in the West. it is generally referred to simply as ‘Mandarin’.) It embodies the pronunciation of Beijing; the grammar of the Mandarin dialects, and the vocabulary of colloquial Chinese literature. In 1956, it became the medium of instruction in all schools. and a policy of promoting its use began. It is now the most widely used form of spoken Ghinese, and is the normal written medium for almost all kinds of publication.

Pin yin (‘phonetic spelling’). After several previous attempts to write Chinese using the letters of the roman alphabet, this 58-symbol writing system was finally adopted in 1958. Its main aims are to facilitate the spread of Pûtônghuà, and the learning of Chine’se characters. Pin-yin is now in widespread use. In the 1970s, for example, a new map of China was published using the alphabet, and a list of standard spellings for Chinese placename was compiled. New codes were devised for such diverse uses as telegraphy, flag signals, braille, and deaf finger-spelling.

The future of the reform programme is not entirely clear. It may be that pin-yin will ultimately supplant the general use of characters, or there may be a receaction to preserve the traditional written language. With Pûtônghuà, new varieties of regional pronunciation are certain to develop (for instance, Mao Zedong spoke it with a marked Hunan accent), which may lead to problems of intelligibility. And if Pûtônghuà is to succeed as a popular means of communication, it needs to anticipate the potential conflict with local regional dialects (for example, whether local words should be used). Much will depend on how flexibly the authorities interpret the notion of standard, and whether they are able to achieve a balance between the competing pressures of respecting popular usage (where there is a strong case for variety) and the need for national communication (which could lead to a form of centralized laying down of prescriptive linguistic rules).

Simplified Chinese Characters

Simplified Chinese Characters (Simplified Chinese: 简化字; Traditional Chinese: 簡化字; pinyin: Jiǎnhuàzì or Simplified Chinese: 简体字; Traditional Chinese: 簡體字;pinyin: Jiǎntǐzì) are one of two standard sets of Chinese characters of the contemporary Chinese written language. They are based mostly on popular cursive (caoshu) forms embodying graphic or phonetic simplifications of the “traditional” forms that were used in printed text for over a thousand years. In 1956 and in 1964, the government of the People’s Republic of China issued official documents listing simplified characters, and began promoting them for use in printing in an attempt to increase literacy. Simplified character forms were created by decreasing the number of strokes and simplifying the forms of a sizable proportion of traditional Chinese characters. Some characters were simplified by applying regular rules; for example, by replacing all occurrences of a certain component with a simpler variant. Some characters were simplified irregularly, however, and some simplified characters are very dissimilar to traditional characters. Many characters were left untouched by simplification, and are identical in both the traditional and simplified Chinese orthographies.

Simplified Chinese characters are officially used in People’s Republic of China on Mainland, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Nations. Traditional Chinese characters are currently used in Republic of China on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.Overseas Chinese communities typically use the traditional characters, but simplified characters are gradually gaining popularity among mainland Chinese emigrants. At the same time, the prestige of traditional characters is increasing in the People’s Republic of China. A heated debate, tinged with political implications, exists between those who support the use of simplified characters and those who believe that they undermine traditional Chinese culture and have only created more confusion and greater opportunity for miscommunication among Chinese speakers.

Learning Mandarin, whatever it takes

TODAY’S Wall Street Journal offers a useful update to the annual “Americans are rushing to teach their kids Mandarin” story. The reporters have found several families that have gone to unusual lengths. One Californian lawyer took a year’s leave of absence from work and moved the clan to Chengdu, for the sole purpose of immersion in the language. Another family moved to Singapore in 2007, again only so the kids could grow up speaking Mandarin. Other parents are not quite so committed, but nonetheless,

families are enrolling their children in Mandarin-immersion programs that are springing up from California to Maine. They are hiring tutors, Skyping with teachers in Beijing and recruiting Chinese-speaking nannies. Some are stocking their playrooms with Disney videos in Mandarin—not to mention the iPhone apps aimed at making kids into Mandarin speakers.

The article goes on that

Mandarin is notoriously difficult to learn. The language is tonal, and fluency requires mastering thousands of characters. Mandarin competence takes 2,200 class hours, with half of that time spent in a country where it’s spoken, according to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, whereas Spanish can be learned in 600 to 750 class hours.

My upstairs neighbours’ children have attended a Chinese-English bilingual school in New York for several years. It’s the only public school of its kind in the city. Curious one day, I plied the younger one (eight years old) with a little quiz as we walked to the park with my son.

Me: “How do you say ‘house’?”

Boy: “Uh, I forget.”

Me: “How about ‘car’?”

Boy: “Uh… hm…”

Me: “How about ‘I am American?'”

Boy: “Wo shi Zhongguo ren.”

Me: “Hm, I’m pretty sure that means ‘I am Chinese.’ Isn’t American Meiguo ren?”

Boy: “Oh, that’s right!”

Me: “How about ‘he is my friend?'”

Boy: “Oh! Ta shi wode pengyou.

Finally a perfect answer on the first go.

This kid has been in this program since kindergarten. The Mandarin program is strictly speaking an after-school, voluntary one, but all kids go after school and study the language for 2.5 hours per day, I believe. At 180 school days a year, for just two years, he would have had roughly 900 hours of instruction and exposure, starting when he was quite small. (He may have had three years; I’m not sure.) Of course he’s still quite small, and unlike State Department diplomats, doesn’t have adult intellectual equipment to bring to bear. He does have a child’s still-plastic brain, one of the reasons his accent was excellent. He’s a bright kid. I can only take it that the State Department is right: learning Mandarin is very hard for a native English-speaker, and true immersion is pretty important.

I’m interested in the experience of those who have studied Chinese for a while. The Journalmentions both the tones and characters as difficulties, but I have a hunch one problem is rather bigger than the other. Which is a tougher challenge: mastering and using the four tones (several each second) for accurate and fluent speech? Or learning the thousands of characters needed to read and write?

I also know—because I’ve seen calligraphy homework around their apartment—that the kids spend significant time reading and writing. Is this a good idea?  Or would you focus on speech and use pinyin first with young children? The answers are important, as more and more Americans are going to be studying Mandarin in coming years, and getting the pedagogy right will be crucial.

Why Chinese Is Easier To Learn Than Spanish Or French

Western businesses have been trying to “get inside” the vast Chinese market since the days of Marco Polo – it’s one of the top prizes of global commerce, and one that continues to inspire a frenzy of maneuvering.

There is one powerful step, however, that many Westerners avoid taking: learning Mandarin Chinese. This is far easier than its image may suggest. One who proves it is none other than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who started lessons in 2010. Within four years, he was conversing fluently with Chinese President Xi Jinping and giving long speeches with incredible complexity.

The economies in the U.S. and China are increasingly intertwined and they now might accurately be called the two true military superpowers of the globe. Chinese foreign direct investment in the U.S. is expected to exceed $10 billion this year and it remains our number-one trade partner. The governments have pledged collaboration on various global issues such as climate change, pollution, and international terrorism.

But suspicion persists and misunderstandings are certain. Some of this can be blamed on the linguistic divide, and the widespread practice of doing business through translators is not helpful. Yes, it is true that English is the lingua franca in the business world and many Chinese speak English skillfully. However, “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head,” said Nelson Mandela. “If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

This idea has a long history in a society fixated on its own long history. Traditional Chinese society accepted foreigner traders in proportion to their respect for Chinese culture and observance of rituals. This means the ability to communicate – even imperfectly — in Mandarin Chinese is particularly instrumental to building trust and winning hearts, regardless of in a business, political, or street encounter.

Chinese sounds so strange, Westerners complain. It is true that the varying tones may confuse the listener. But just as the new piano student may struggle at first with scales and keys, the language begins to click nicely after the first sonic hurdles. The language is actually easier to acquire than romance tongues like Spanish or French because Mandarin Chinese shares a similar grammatical system with fewer commonly-used words. There is no conjugation in whatever form.

The widely-held view that tones are inscrutable to Westerner ears is a myth. English language has tones as well, just on the sentence level. Based on the intonation of a sentence, a listener can tell whether they hear a question, an exclamation, or a statement. Chinese compresses these kinds of subtleties into a single word. And mispronunciations are often “cleaned up” with contextual cues, just as they are in English. Even choppy speech can be understood. Chinese people often are extremely appreciative and tolerant when they see Westerners take efforts to speak Chinese, further easing the transition. There is a reason why nearly a quarter-million Americans are now actively learning the language which may speed the day when it becomes as mainstreamed into the public schools as Spanish or French.

Confucius has a lesser-known saying: “I am not bothered by the fact that I am not understood — I am bothered when I do not know others.” Competence in speaking will deepen the understanding between the two key civilizations of the 21st century, and friendship starts with language. So does competitive business advantage.

Nobody in America understands this better than Zuckerberg. It is foreseeable that, thanks to his lobbying efforts and bridge-building, the Chinese government will ease its restrictions on Facebook, bringing a bridge-building social network into a nation of 1.4 billion people who have much to say if we can only understand them.

(This article was published on Forbes by Li Jin).

More funding for learning of mother tongue languages in Singapore

Three committees that aim to encourage the learning and use of Chinese, Malay and Tamil here will get a 50 per cent boost in funding over the next five years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Saturday (Sept 5).

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has raised the funding commitment for the mother tongue language learning and promotion committees to $25 million over the next five years, up from $16.6 million from 2011 to 2015.

About 80 per cent of the amount for the coming years is assured funding, offering the three committees – Tamil, Malay and Chinese – greater certainty to plan programmes and long-term initiatives.

The rest will be raised by the community with the Government matching every dollar raised. This, MOE said in a statement on Saturday, will encourage continued support from the community.

The increased funding will allow the committees to enhance and expand their programmes and activities so more students can benefit, with community partners and families playing a part too, Mr Lee noted.

He added: “Together, we will make our mother tongues living languages.”

These committees were first started 10 years ago to rally support from the communities and have helped create a conducive environment for the learning of the three mother tongue languages that goes beyond schools.

They have launched a wide range of programmes over the past five years.

The committee for the Chinese language has roped in local writers to help inspire students, for one. And the Malay language committee has tapped on the know-how of academics in the National Institute of Education to organise a Malay Finesse Camp for parents and students.

Meanwhile, the Tamil language committee played a role in organising the annual Tamil Language Festival.

New initiatives are also on the cards: The Malay and Chinese language committees, for instance, plan to work with arts groups to foster appreciation for their mother tongue languages.

Mr Lee was speaking at the launch of this year’s Malay Language Month, which celebrates Malay language, culture and heritage. At the launch at Gardens by the Bay on Saturday, he said he was glad to see the initiative – first started in 1988 – has evolved and stayed relevant to a younger, bilingual generation, with concerts and plays among the more than 100 programmes lined up for this year.

He also paid tribute to the pioneer generation champions of the Malay language, like “literary lion” Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, 91. The award-winning writer helped the late composer Zubir Said craft the lyrics for Singapore’s national anthem.

Another pioneer singled out by Mr Lee was poet and novelist Suratman Markasan, 85.

And the youth too are carrying on the work of these pioneers, keeping the flame of the Malay language and culture alive. Young language ambassadors are spreading their love for the language while up and coming talents are reinventing traditional Malay music and performing arts, said Mr Lee, who spoke in English and Malay.

He also spoke of the Government’s commitment to its bilingual policy, adding: “Efforts to promote the Malay language is part of the Government’s consistent emphasis on our three official mother tongue languages – Chinese, Malay, Tamil.”

The Malay community has made enormous progress in the last five decades, and successful Malays are leaders in fields ranging from arts and culture to banking and finance, he said.

But as the Malay community progresses along with the other communities in Singapore, the use of English is rising in the community.

And this, he added, is the case across all communities, though not to the same extent.

English was adopted as the lingua franca in Singapore, giving all the races here equal opportunities through a common language for work and communication, Mr Lee explained. It is taught as a first language in schools.

“As we use more English, we need to make a greater effort to preserve and promote our mother tongue languages to keep them alive,” he said. “Mother tongue connects us to our roots, values, culture.”

And competence in both English and mother tongue will make Singapore competitive globally.

“This is why our bilingual policy will remain important,” said Mr Lee.