10 Facts About Mandarin Chinese: Tones, Script and Dialects

As the foremost most spoken first language in the world and the second most spoken language for first and second language speakers overall, it’s no wonder that interest in Mandarin Chinese keeps rising. Mandarin usually includes Standard Chinese amongst its dialects, and it is the official national language of China over all others.

Interestingly, not all forms of Mandarin are actually understood by one another, depending on their regional locations. Despite this, over 70% of Chinese people in China and many more in the Chinese diaspora speak Mandarin, and more are learning new words every day.

A Few Facts about Mandarin Chinese

1. Mandarin has been the lingua franca of China since the 14th century

It became the national language in the 20th century. Nowadays, it is also the official language of China, Chinese-Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore. As well as this, it’s one of the official languages of the United Nations (as Chinese).

2. The use of Mandarin is increasingly mandated around China

In particular, schools and universities usually teach in Mandarin even if the local language is Cantonese or another Chinese variant.

3. There are eight main dialects of Mandarin (though a number of others exist)

Their names, areas, and number of speakers are listed below. Each of these dialects has a number of its own subgroups, some of which ALSO have subgroups!

DialectArea in ChinaNumber of speakers
Northeastern MandarinJilin, Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Inner MongoliaUpward of 98 million people
Beijing MandarinBeijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning and TianjinUpward of 27 million people
Ji-Lu (Beifang “Northern”) MandarinHebei (Jì) and the western part of Shandong (Lǔ) and Xunke, Tangwang & Jiayin counties of Heilongjiang.Upward of 89 million people
Jiao-Liao MandarinThe Jiaodong Peninsula (Yantai to Qingdao), the Ganyu District in northeastern Jiangsu, the Liaodong Peninsula (from Dalian to Dandong), the Mishan, Hulin, Fuyuan, and Raohe counties of Heilongjiang.Upward of 35 million people
Central Plains Mandarin (including Dungan)The Yellow River Plain: Central and Southern Shaanxi, Henan, Southwestern Shanxi, Southern Gansu, Far Southern Hebei, Northern Anhui, Northern Jiangsu, Southern Xinjiang, and Southern Shandong.Upward of 186 million people
Yanlin MandarinGansu province, Northern Ningxia, Northern Xinjiang.Upward of 10 million people
Lower Yangtze Mandarin (also Jiang–Huai Mandarin)The Huai and Yangzi Rivers: Anhui, Jiangsu, Hubei, Jiangxi, Henan.Upward of 86 million people
Southwestern MandarinSichuan, Yunnan, Chongqing, Guizhou, most parts of Hubei, northwestern Hunan, northern Guangxi and some southern parts of Shaanxi and Gansu.Upward of 260 million people

Several other dialects are not listed. As well, despite ostensibly all being parts of the same language, mutual intelligibility between Standard (Mandarin) Chinese and the other dialects ranges from 100% to 0%.

4. Mandarin is an extremely tonal language

Like many other Chinese and other Asian languages, a word that is spelled and apparently pronounced the same way can mean completely different things depending on the tone and emphasis placed on letters and syllables within the word and sentence.

5. There are two sets of characters used to write Mandarin and several other Chinese languages

These scripts are traditional and simplified. While simplified characters are more popular in mainland China, the traditional versions are heavily used in Hong Kong, Macau, and other countries, especially overseas outside of Southeast Asia. Simplified Chinese script has only existed since 1956 and its use is encouraged by the Chinese government.

6. Mandarin has the same basic structure as English for word order (subject-verb-object, SVO). However, it shares aspects with subject-object-verb (SOV) languages like Japanese and Turkish.

English leans toward head-initial syntax, which means the ‘head’ or ‘nucleus’ (i.e., the main syntax marker word) of a sentence tends to come before its complements (for example, how verbs usually come before objects), while Mandarin tends toward head-final structuring.

7. Traditional Chinese is read from top to bottom and right to left

However, modern systems often go left to right.

8. Since the Chinese script never uses spaces, a combination of characters can be a single word or a whole sentence depending entirely on the context.

Actual morphemes are generally monosyllabic and focused on one character each.

9. There’s an ongoing argument over whether tenses exist in Mandarin at all

Either way, verbs don’t conjugate at all for tense, not even the “to be” verb (is, was, are, were, will be), which in any case is rarely used. Instead, Mandarin Chinese indicates when things happened by use of temporal markers. For example, the base sentence “[Liu] [read article]” could mean any of the following (altered for time):

  • Liu is reading an article (now)
  • Liu will read an article (future)
  • Liu read an article (past)

To indicate the when and where, Chinese adds an extra word:

  • [Liu] tomorrow [read article] (Liu will read an article tomorrow)
  • [Liu] today [read article] (Liu read/is reading an article today)
  • [Liu] yesterday [read article] (Liu read an article yesterday)

As well, there are aspect markers that mark the flow of time, which is one of the reasons that many argue that tense does exist. Using the same example as above:

  • [Liu] [read guo article] – Liu has read an article before, but isn’t reading now
  • [Liu] [zhèng zài (in-middle-of)] [read article] – Liu is reading an article now

10. English and Mandarin both have claims to ‘most spoken language in the world’.

It depends on whether you count only L1 or L1/L2 speakers! These numbers are rounded to the nearest million people.

Native speakersAdditional languageWorld % (L1)World % (L2)Total and %
English370,000,000978,000,0004.7%12.4%1,348,000,000 (17.1%)
Mandarin921,000,000199,000,00011.7%2.5%1,120,000,000 (14.2%)

As a first language, English comes much lower – but is more spoken overall.

Final Thoughts

As the globe becomes increasingly connected, the influence of Mandarin on the world becomes more and more important in business, leisure, and travel. It’s essential that we know about the basic building blocks of a language which serves as the core starting point for the largest culture in the world.

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