Deconstructing Mandarin Chinese

One of my goals for this year is to learn spoken Mandarin Chinese. Given that I live and work in China it only makes sense that I learn the language which will ultimately help improve both hopefully. Also given that Mandarin is one of the harder languages to learn (hard as in virtually impossible if you want to read as well as speak it) I am not expecting an easy ride.

Last year I read an intriguing article by the author and self-proclaimed “life hacker” Tim Ferris titled “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour”. He reasons that before you invest a lot of time in a language you should first deconstruct it into its core components by examining sentence structure through comparison with your native tongue. By doing this you should in theory be able to get a better grasp of the core components of the language in relation to your own and thus gain conversational fluency faster. That’s the theory anyway so I decided to take a shot a deconstructing Mandarin and share what I found out…

From this we can see how verbs remain independent of the speaker (both according to gender and number), placement of indirect objects (John), direct objects (the apple), and their respective pronouns (him, it). We can also see how to negate sentences and how tenses are expressed.

The good news is that Mandarin uses the same Subject-Verb-Object sentence order as English does and uses auxiliary verbs. The bad news is that pronunciation is notoriously difficult for English speakers since each syllable/word is made up of a combination of “initials” and “finals” plus a tone added. Added to this there are a ton of homonyms to deal with (two or more words with the same sound/spelling but different meaning), so many in fact that even native speakers have trouble with it!

As a start to learning a language, I think it’s a useful exercise but ultimately a lot of effort is going to be needed to build up enough vocabulary to get by. As I did with Korean I’ll be posting up any material which others might find helpful.

Some useful resources:

Update (07/01): Updated document to include Pinyin tones

David avatar

9 responses

  1. Are you sure you want to do it? :PPP

    Jokes apart, I see your point: working and living there, learning the language is almost a forced step. I’ve been learning Japanese for the past year, and while it’s probably a thousand times easier than Mandarin, I feel your “pain”. Still, I’m focusing on speaking/understanding it, and forgetting about Kanjii for the time being.

    One of my proposition for 2009 is to learn a 4th (and half if we count I can almost understand Spanish) languages. French or German I still haven’t decided, but I’ll be self-teaching it myself too. We’ll see what it comes out of it 😉

  2. Yeah, it’s a bit of a big challenge. I’ve never been very good at languages (have tried Japanese and Korean in the past with little success).

    Generally it seems European languages are fairly easy to pick up for Europeans and Asian languages fairly easy for Asians but not visa versa.

    If it were me I’d go for French – German just seems boring somehow 😉

  3. rainbow avatar

    i see your determination and pain……hehe… chinese is not a pronoucing language so it is difficult for foreigners to learn and use. i used to think english is hard , but i changed my mind when i learned german. it is too complicated and many grammar rules. OK, try your best to remember some commer words and sentences.. come on.. i believe you can achieve it.

  4. Chinese is hard in many ways, but in others it’s a very simple language – the lack of morphology in the grammar can be a big bonus, depending on how you learn. I learned to converse reasonably happily while I was in China, although I have a very very long way to go to get fluent. The method which I found most useful as a learning tool was certainly the Pimsleur mp3s. However, the most useful tip was to get out there and use the Chinese you have at every available opportunity. Don’t be scared to make mistakes and simply try things out. People will generally be very pleased that you’re giving it a go.

    Is there any way to add tone marks easily into scribd? Without tone marks Pinyin loses a great deal of its meaning.

    I’m a bit confused as to the statement that verbs are conjugated based on the speaker. I may be missing something but the verbs themselves never change, independent of the gender or the number. The verb in ‘I go’ is the same as in ‘she goes’ and ‘they go’ in Chinese.

    Anyway, the best of luck with your new pursuit and I look forward to hearing how it goes!


  5. Hi Jonathan, thanks for your comment. I will definitely take a look Pimsleur audio guides – I’ve been using ChinesePod so far which seems pretty good also.

    I will have to update the document with the Pinyin tone marks (I was just being lazy) and you’re right, that sentence about verb conjugation was confusing/misleading so I’ve changed it.

    Like you say, practising is the key but luckily I’m in the right place to do it!

  6. Hi Shuo, thanks for the tip. You can notice what you said about the difference in negation from the sentences but I’m still not entirely sure in what circumstances to use each.

  7. Shuo avatar

    Have you found that there are two ways to negate sentences?One is led by “bu” and the other is led by “mei”.Basically,”bu” means something doesn’t happen yet,”mei” didn’t happened.

    i.e.(1)Wo bu he jiu.–I don’t drink alcohol.
    (2)Wo mei he jiu.–I didn’t drink alcohol.

    Hope that it’s helpful.^^

  8. If u have any question about how to learn Chinese,maybe we can talk about it:pp

  9. Mandarin Language Course

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