For UN Chinese Language Day, we asked British Council colleagues, and participants of the Generation UK and Mandarin Excellence programmes, what they find most surprising about learning Mandarin.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity
Vocabulary words can be logical
What has surprised me most when learning Chinese is that, despite some difficulties I had with tones and homonyms, Mandarin includes some literal translations for words in English. Some examples are animal names:
máoniύ (牦牛) ‘hairy cow’ is the Mandarin word for yak
dàishǔ ( 袋鼠 ) ‘bag rat’ is a kangaroo
chángjǐnglù（长颈鹿) ‘long neck deer’ is a giraffe
Other examples are huǒshān (火山) ‘fire mountain’ meaning volcano, kǒushuǐ (口水) ‘mouth water’ meaning saliva and diànnǎo (电脑) ‘electric brain’ meaning computer.
Mandarin is an evolving language
Chinese has a complex writing system. A single stroke can mark the difference between one word and another. So, I was surprised to learn that characters are adaptable to speakers’ needs in the same way as any living language.
A recent example of this is an oat milk company who created a new Chinese character to denote plant milk, catering to the increase in demand for this product. It combines the character for milk năi (奶) with the radical for plant căo (艹). The new character is a more creative and visually appealing than the characters for plant and milk, one after another.
Characters have phonetic elements
This means that you can sometimes estimate what a character sounds like even if you aren’t familiar with it.
For example, the character 丁 is pronounced dīng. If you see this element included in a character, you can take an well-educated guess at its pronunciation:
顶 dĭng, top or peak (of a mountain)
订dìng, to book (tickets, a restaurant)
盯 dīng, to gaze, stare at
Rap music is one way to learn Mandarin
When I lived in Tianjin in the northeast of China, one of my favourite ways to learn Mandarin was by listening to rap artist Tianjin Fan. He uses his own creative lyrics over popular Western or Korean melodies, for example over Dr. Dre’s track The Next Episode.
The Mandarin Rap Podcast is a fun resource to learn Mandarin through rap music.
Mandarin is a punny language
I was surprised to discover that Mandarin lends itself incredibly well to puns. I was confused when friends wrote ‘3Q’ and ‘88’ in texts, until I read these aloud in Chinese (sān-q) (bābā), and realised they sounded similar to the English for ‘thank you’ and ‘bye bye’.
Characters can look like what they are describing
When learning Chinese characters, I love finding characters that look like the word they are describing. Examples are 山 shān 'mountain', 口 kŏu/ 'mouth' and 门mén 'door'.
My favourite Chinese character is 兔子 (‘Tùzǐ’ ‘rabbit’) because it has two big squares that remind of me a rabbit’s massive front teeth.
Grammar can be a sequence
A good example of this is verbs, coming one after another, which logically explain the detail and sequence of events.
For example, jìn lái (进来) literally ‘enter come’, means the subject is entering into an area and is going in the direction of the speaker. Huí qù (回去) literally ‘return go’, means the subject is returning to a place and is going in the direction away from the speaker.
You can be add more elements to this sequence to tell more of the story, like jìn mén lái (进门来) ‘enter door come’, meaning enter through the door.
Students and recent graduates from universities in England and Northern Ireland can apply to intern in China through the Generation UK internship programme.
Schools in England can sign up for the Mandarin Excellence programme.