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On my mind: Mandarin Chinese: An intro

For this school year, 2007-2008, District 833 is offering a pilot Mandarin Chinese language program at three elementary schools: Liberty Ridge, Royal Oaks and Newport.

Most people here probably have heard the term "Mandarin Chinese" but don't really know what it means.

China has eight major dialect groups: Putonghua (Mandarin), Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghainese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan and Hakka.

Each major dialect sounds so different that people speaking specific dialects often cannot understand each other. In each major dialect, there are countless local variations.

The dialect used in my home town of Suzhou sounds very different from the dialect used in Shanghai, which is only about one hour away.

Even though I don't speak the Shanghai dialect, at least I can understand it without difficulty, because both dialects belong to same major dialect group called "Wu" dialect.

However, when people speak Cantonese, a dialect spoken in southern China and in many Chinese communities around the world, I can't understand anything. Cantonese is like a foreign language to me.

The language spoken in Beijing (Peking), the capital of China, is referred to as Putonghua or Mandarin. Putonghua, which means "common language," is the official spoken language of China. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore.

I learned to speak Mandarin Chinese when I went to college in Beijing. I have used Mandarin Chinese over the last 26 years. However, when I speak, some people can still notice that I have a slight accent from the South.

Even though the pronunciation of Chinese characters in the dialects can be as different from each other as foreign languages, the characters themselves don't change.

So, two Chinese who can't understand each other when they talk, can write to each other without any problem.

There are about 6,300 Chinese characters. Among them, about 2,500 are commonly used and are mastered by the elementary school kids.

These 2,500 characters make up 99 percent of characters used in our every day life. Once you master 2,500 commonly used characters, you are considered literate and will be able to read Chinese newspapers and books.

As a tourist, you can probably get by in China knowing about a couple of hundred Chinese characters.

One important part of learning Chinese is to learn to write Chinese characters.

Unlike Western languages, Chinese characters are pictographic, meaning that they are simplified pictures of the things they represent and they are independent from their sounds.

Over the last 2,000 years, Chinese characters have undergone transformations. Some kept this pictographic or ideographic nature while others were gradually modified or simplified so they no longer look like the original objects or ideas.

Most Chinese characters are formed by combining different and recurring components. As new words were needed for things which weren't easy to draw, existing characters were combined to create new characters. Simpler characters often act as basic building blocks from which more complex characters were formed.

As more and more characters were introduced over the years by combining existing characters, some of them became very complicated.

Writing the complicated characters requires many strokes which is very time-consuming. In the middle of the 20th century, the Chinese government created a standardized form of simplified characters to be used in China.

Today, the simplified characters are used in China and Singapore. People no longer learn the old traditional forms of characters. But the traditional forms are still used in Taiwan and in some overseas Chinese communities around the world, among the older generations.

Each Chinese character is made up of a number strokes. Strokes come in various shapes. It can be a straight line, a curve, a bent line, a line with a hook, a dot or a comma.

Traditionally, Chinese was written from top to bottom in columns beginning on the right hand side of the page and working towards the left. The cover of a Chinese book printed in the traditional way is what Westerners consider the back cover.

But along with simplifying the characters, people in China have also changed the way they write and print.

Nowadays, Chinese also write from left to right in horizontal lines working from the top to the bottom of a page.

The Chinese characters are pronounced using the phonetic system called "Pinyin," based on the letters of the alphabet.

About 1.3 billion people (one-fifth of the world population) speak some form of Chinese, making it the language with the most native speakers. Mandarin Chinese is becoming the fastest growing world language taught in schools in this country.

[Acknowledgement: The First 100 Chinese Characters: the Quick and Easy Method to Learn the 100 Most Basic Chinese Characters, a book available at Washington County Library, provided some helpful information for this column.]

Qin Tang can be reached at