Publish Date: May 6, 2014      Author: melissa.bailey

Our regular readers know that we are anxiously awaiting the school lottery to see if my son has been accepted into a dual language program this fall. If we are successful, he will begin the process of learning Mandarin Chinese. His kindergarten will be conducted 90% in Mandarin and 10% English, with those numbers shifting a bit each  year until he reaches a 50/50 language immersion environment. All of this has created a curiosity in both my husband and me to discover more about Mandarin. Here are some of the interesting facts about the language that will hopefully spark your curiosity, too!

Mandarin Language

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  • Mandarin has over 20,000 characters. This created a moment of panic until we discovered that the average native Mandarin speaker will only learn about 5,000 of those in his or her lifetime.
  • With close to 1 billion speakers, Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language. This beats the next four line which are (numbers vary depending on source):
    • Spanish, 387 million
    • English, 365 million
    • Hindi, 295 million
    • Arabic, 280 million
  • Mandarin is the official language of China, followed by Cantonese.
  • Even though Mandarin does not have tenses, plurals, cases, or genders, it is a tonal language. This means that a single word may have several meanings based on the rising and falling of voice pitch. The number of tones varies depending on which region of China that you live.
  • In 1991 it was estimated that only 2,000 non-native speakers of Mandarin were trying to learn this beloved Chinese language. Today, this number has risen to over 30 million.
  • Mandarin is one of six official languages of the United Nations.
  • English has many words and expressions that are a word-for-word translation of the equivalent in Mandarin. Some of the more common phrases include:
    • “Long time no see”
    • The word “typhoon”
    • The word “China”
    • Gung-ho, an English expression referring to someone who is overly excited, comes from a Mandarin phrase referring to an industry cooperative.

If you are currently studying Mandarin, here are a few fun phrases to help you practice your tones:

Sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí, sìshísì zhī shí shīzi shì sǐ de.
Translation: “Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty. Forty four stone lions are dead.”

(Thanks goes to BBC for this fun tongue twister.)

Chī pútao bù tǔ pútao pí, bù chī pútao dáo tǔ pútao pí
Translation: “When eating grapes don’t spit out the skin, when not eating grapes spit out the skin.”

(Credit goes to Omniglot.)

pén hé píng, zhuō shàng yǒu gè pén, pén lǐ yǒu gè píng, pèng pèng pèng, shì píng pèng pén, hái shì pén pèng píng.
Translation: “A basin and a bottle. On the table there is a basin, in the basin there is a bottle. Bang, bang, bang! Is it the sound of the bottle banging against the basin or the basin banging against the bottle?”

(Credit goes to That’s Mandarin.)

Enjoy your journey of language study and we’ll keep you posted on ours!

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