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Mandarin Chinese vs. English: 3 Amazing Facts

Mandarin Chinese: How would English look like if it were a Chinese dialect? (Instant understand)

Chinese is so complicated. There are so many questions that most people don’t have a clear answer to: Does Chinese have alphabets? How does the pronunciation relate to the characters? If Mandarin Chinese is standard Chinese, how would Cantonese work in this system? Are there similar other languages or dialects? If so, how do those 1000 other dialects work which 1.4 billion people speak? How can they communicate with each other?

Today, I want to use English as an example to explain the difference between Chinese, Mandarin and dialects. With this example, you will be able to understand how far the Chinese characters could go to remain the written language and why a modern Chinese can travel back in time to understand the language 2000 years ago.

Hi everyone, this is Chi from Berlin. I am a developer that offers an online open Chinese course for free, which is called Deepling. 

Some simple questions that are hard to explain

For the past 6 years, I have been developing courses for people to learn Chinese. Specifically for those who don’t have any basic understanding of Chinese, or have given up learning Chinese because it was too overwhelming, or, they are people who feel they have no language talents and have no time to learn Chinese. 

In these past 6 years, I have been dealing with many very basic issues. for example. Is Chinese a language? I heard that many dialects of Chinese are actually languages. Are Cantonese and Chinese the same language? Is it two languages? 

Or questions like: Does Chinese have letters? How many letters are there in Chinese?

If the Chinese text is not based on letters or the alphabet, how do I understand Chinese?

In fact, these questions are very good. But it’s not that easy to find good answers to these questions. The most widely accepted explanation on Quora to  the question “How many letters are there in Chinese?”is, Chinese and English are completely different languages, and Chinese doesn’t have letters.

English is based on letters, and Chinese is based on characters, this is comparing apples and pears because they are not comparable.

In fact, I have always agreed with this idea, because it is true! Until I discovered later one big fact: Though this idea is 100% correct, it is actually useless. You can only accept it as a fact, but it makes you feel powerless because it only tells you not to try to understand it with the alphabet because it’s different. 

But if you are really interested in learning Chinese, or you at least want to know a bit more about Chinese, this is very discouraging.  The conclusion you may get is that you should not think about understanding the Chinese language but there’s nothing comparable that you could start with. Because it’s so different anyway that you can’t understand.

That’s not my style.

So I will compare Chinese with English, so well, that an alphabet system can fit 100% in it.

(Why English as a dialect to Mandarin Chinese and not the other way around)

 So I had a whim today.

Ok.

A crazy idea: 

What if, if I make English a dialect of Mandarin Chinese? Can it work?

Well, the reason why I imagined English as a dialect of Mandarin Chinese instead of the other way around is because there are two systems of documentation in Chinese. One for the pronunciation, one for the documentation.

The pronunciation part is called Pinyin, which literally means spell sound. Apparently, Pinyin is responsible for describing pronunciation.

The documentation part is called characters, it is responsible for, of course, documentation, so that we can pass down thoughts over generations. The reason why they are separated has a long history. In short, pronunciations change all the time, and the written language stays. A relatable example would be Latin. 

In Roman times, people spoke different languages or dialects, but the only written form is Latin. And this is a very relatable example to Mandarin Chinese today.

Therefore, it is very suitable to compare English with Pinyin because the alphabet is extremely similar. But if I do it the other way around, I wouldn’t know how to find characters in English that are relatable to Chinese.

In this way, you might understand how Chinese works as a system, much more easily than reading a long wikipedia article about pinyin, alphabet, characters and so on. 

How does a dialect work generally?

At this time, I need to explain I don’t want to discuss what is dialect and what is language. Because this question is really complicated. So I am now mainly focusing on the consensus we can reach, and under what circumstances, generally speaking, we can accept something as a dialect.

I think the first thing we can agree on is a unified written form. If you write the same and only the pronunciation is different, and one of these pronunciations is called the standard pronunciation. The biggest feature of dialect is that although you write the same, its pronunciation is different, and only one of them is called the standard pronunciation. All other pronunciations are considered dialects. This is a method that can be said to be more than 90% acceptable to both linguists and the general public.

So we define it as a dialect.

How would English work as a dialect in Chinese: Similar words:

Now let’s take a look at English and find out what would happen if it were a dialect of Chinese. I’ll use the example of “Sofa” and will use other dialects to compare. 

In Mandarin Chinese, Sofa is

shafa

In English, it’s

Sofa.

I come from northern Hunan.

In fact, according to the Western defined Chinese language system, what I speak is supposed to be Mandarin Chinese. When I first learned about it I thought this was a joke because they are really too different. The difference is far bigger than the difference between Irish English and London English. This is one of the reasons why I don’t agree with the thesis that Chinese is not a language, but a language group. The division to define Cantonese as a language while Shanghainese is a dialect is according to this system is just a sign that these experts are simply westerners who didn’t know Chinese well enough.

But I don’t want to get too deep into this topic. If this video hit 50,000 likes, I will make another video about a system that I believe can explain how to define Mandarin Chinese, dialects and languages in China. This topic is more complicated, so I will put it aside. 

Let’s continue with this question. 

So in Mandarin Chinese, it’s shafa, in my dialect, it’s safa, they still sound quite similar.

In Cantonese, it’s pronounced sofa (https://languagedrops.com/word/en/english/chinese-yue/translate/sofa/) .

So that would work. 

In this case, a sofa would be

沙发

And the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation would be

Shafa

If you insist on your dialect, which is English, you can write:

So fa

沙 发

But of course, this is a word that sounds similar to Mandarin. This is the first category: Words that are or could be written the same, but pronounced differently.  

 There are not extremely many, but still quite some amount of these words: Mango, coffee, logic, toast.
There are also adjectives like hysterical.

How would English work as a dialect in Chinese: different words

But of course, most words in English sound very different from Mandarin Chinese. But there are also plenty of words in other dialects that are the same in this way: There are many words in standard Mandarin that are one word, but they are completely different words in various local dialects.

For example, the word dirty.

In Mandarin Chinese  it’s “zang”.

The pronunciation of dirty in my dialect is called

pinai

And there is no way to find a similar expression in Mandarin.

If we want to use Mandarin Chinese, we will simply say “zang” instead. We don’t write down our dialect, there is only a spoken form. If we insist on writing it down, we could use “pinyin” – the spelling alphabet.

However, if the spelling combination can build a character, I can also write down:

Pinai -> 批奈

This phenomenon exists actually in many languages. It happens much more often in China because China is so big as a country and has a huge population. So for those of us who did not grow up in a Mandarin Chinese environment, speaking Mandarin itself is already a process close to learning a foreign language. I’m not sure where you are from, but if you are from Europe, you probably can understand what I’m talking about.

It may be similar for Dutch speaking people to learn German. After living in Germany for so many years, I have discovered that, in fact, living in Europe and learning English is very close to my process of learning Mandarin Chinese in a non-Mandarin area in China. Not that they are the same. But it is very comparable.

My husband is from Bavaria, so I happen to know some words that do not exist in the Standard German, which is called “Hochdeutsch”. e.g. Apfelküchl

If you insist on writing it in Hochdeutsch, you probably would write:: Apfelküchlein. 

So if you go to China, you will meet a lot of people in China who don’t speak Mandarin Chinese very well. And before you experienced this, you probably thought everyone spoke Mandarin Chinese as a native speaker, so they inevitably are more confident about Mandarin Chinese than you. But many people can only speak their native dialect comfortably, and their Mandarin Chinese may not be very good. 

Before I go even deeper with German, I’ll bring it back.

So I brought these examples to show how words dialects can work, even if they sound very different. Using this logic, I’m going to translate English into a Chinese dialect.

This is mainly for you to understand how Chinese works as a language.

How would English work as a dialect in Chinese as a whole picture

First of all, if English were a dialect, then the English alphabet would no longer be used for documentation, its only use would be to describe its pronunciation. The final form of the alphabet would be Chinese characters. This is a crucial point. The only use of the English abc would be to describe pronunciation. Remember this starting point.

At this point, the similar pronunciations would be easy to deal with: You replace them with Mandarin Chinese.

The more interesting case would be those that are different in Chinese.

Most words in English are completely different than in Chinese. Then we will need to use other dialects again. For example, the word “dirty” (zang) that I mentioned earlier would be comparable here.  So in the end, I’ll have to follow the mainstream and have to write down dirty. Because there are so few people who speak my dialect. There are only 6 million people in total.

So if English is not a mainstream language, it will have to accept the mainstream pronunciation. You can call it “apple” in your dialect, but when it comes to written form, it needs to be 苹果。

So now, in Mandarin Chinese, it’s still pingguo. But you can use English to mark its pronunciation as “apple” behind it. Just like when I want to say something is dirty, but I want to use my own dialect, I will write 脏, followed by a description in pinyin (pi nai). Very often, if the combination can spell new words, you can also write the equivalent Chinese characters to it. Like here, you can write 苹果, followed by (阿婆 a po). This sounds similar, and it can also be expressed in characters. 

There are a lot of typical internet buzzwords, such as iPhone in Chinese, many people call it 爱疯 (love crazy), because the pronunciation is very similar to iPhone. It’s the same reason.

 Speaking of iPhone, we can also introduce the third case, which is a word that didn’t exist in Mandarin Chinese, but sometimes, when the dialect of a certain place becomes popular, it can become a Mandarin word again. For example, when I was very young, the word “霸蛮” did not exist in Mandarin. It was a common word in Hunan Province, and there was no corresponding word in Mandarin.

You can’t translate it into English, and you can’t even translate it into Chinese. Or, to be exact, you can’t translate it into Mandarin Chinese – which raises the question again why I don’t like the word Mandarin and what in my opinion would be the right thing to say.

OK, if this video hits 10,000 likes, I will produce a video explaining why I believe it’s double standard for the western linguists to treat English, German as languages, but Chinese as a language group.

Okay, back to business, on to the third case. The word 霸蛮 that I mentioned earlier, if you were forced to translate it, you could roughly translate it as primitive force.  霸得蛮  means somebody is able to 霸蛮, it means someone is fearless and also has stamina, it’s kind of a spirit like, I know it can’t be done and you will need to force it, but I can force it. 

Over 20 years ago, it was a word that didn’t exist, it was just a dialect known in Hunan. But because Hunan province has a population of 67 million people, and because it has a famous TV station, the Hunan dialect has often appeared in mainstream culture in the last 20 years, and I don’t know when the word “霸蛮” started to appear in the Mandarin vocabulary. If you use Chinese input on the phone or pc, you will find that the first suggestion that appears when you type in the combination baman is 霸蛮, which means it has become a new vocabulary in Mandarin Chinese.

And this is what happens a lot to the English language, too. There are many words in the English language that are not part of the Chinese language, but have become part of the mainstream culture in the last twenty years. 

e.g.

血拼

宝贝

粉丝

 The first word 血拼 is pronounced xue pin, which is the English word “shopping”. This kind of word is very interesting because the English word “shopping” has no other meaning. But in Chinese, not only does it mean shopping directly, but they mean literally “to fight with blood”. If you can relate to the idea that going shopping and spending money is like bleeding to death, you can understand the complex humor that it’s not just about spending money, but it’s also about the heartache about the money spent. For a very frugal group of people like the Chinese, shopping gives us meaning beyond the mere act of shopping, but also the pain of bleeding.

By the way, in German it’s the same! “Heute musste ich wieder bluten” means that I had to spend a lot of money today. 

So if someone buys something very expensive, or spends a lot of money, we’d also say hemorrhage, 大出血  heavy bleeding. This is also connected with shopping.

 These words didn’t exist in Mandarin Chinese before, but they have gradually formed into a mainstream culture and have their own vocabulary.  So now, we can finally combine what we say and turn English into a dialect of Mandarin Chinese.

Let’s say, for example 

Let’s go shopping today!

If we simply translate every word into Chinese, it would be:

Let     us     go shopping   today

让    我们  去     血拼           今天

Now imagine that every time you wanted to write let, you would write 让, instead of us you would write 我们, 去 for  go, shopping you would write 血拼, and today you would write 今天.

You would even still say the exact same sentence in English, knowing it would be “just” a dialect.  You will know what these words mean, but the Mandarin pronunciation of these words is very different from your “dialect” pronunciation. But when you read and write, you will use these Chinese characters.

And whenever you are only around your „local” people, you can simply say „Let’s go shopping today“. But when you want to say Mandarin Chinese, you will have to switch it to

rang  women  qu  xuepin   jintian

And if you don’t know the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of these words, then you can at least write them down so that the other person knows what you mean, even if they can’t understand your pronunciation. And if they can’t speak Mandarin either, but they can also write Chinese characters, then you can communicate with you by writing their “dialect” down.

Of course, I know there will be people who will say, the correct term is:我们今天去血拼吧! But that’s actually how Chinese works.  霸蛮was wrong a few decades ago, but today, you can use it. So while this is technically not 100% correct, if you use it that way, it’s perfectly fine in China. Everyone can communicate with you this way.

There are similar examples in English as well. The correct usage of “i.e.” is to pronounce i.e. as “that is to say”, and e.g. as “for example”, but more and more young people simply say ie and eg directly.  You can say it’s wrong, but it gets to the point of communication quickly. And that’s the purpose of language.

So if you want to learn Mandarin Chinese, you might want to try using your language as a dialect. In this way, you can simply learn a new pronunciation first, and use pinyin, the Chinese alphabetic system to describe its pronunciation, so that you can keep practicing and remembering the pronunciation of each word. 

At this stage, you can learn Mandarin Chinese just like you learn German or Spanish.

Let’s just take “Let’s go shopping today” as an example.

You could very well translate it as: 

Rang  women  qu  xuepin jintian.

Memorize each corresponding word. Learn more of these sentences. At this point you will feel that Chinese is quite easy. No grammar at all, just translate the words you want to say into pinyin.

Ideally, of course, you go on to learn the typical correct Chinese sentences, their combinations and the corresponding meanings of each word. In this way, you will be able to understand the logic of the Chinese language faster. Such a case would correspond to the same sentence as.

women   jintian    qu     xuepin                  ba!

We          today go    shopping  (a word to present suggestion*s)

Then, you memorize the sentence. When you’re comfortable with the words, and you can communicate in everyday language without thinking, that’s when you learn the corresponding Chinese characters. At this point, you’re like a 6-year-old in Beijing going to school and starting to learn your first character.

Or, you can do it the entirely opposite way: You can just look at the Mandarin Chinese words and translate them all into the corresponding English. Remember what the words look like. You can also roughly understand the meaning of the article. But this way is quite equivalent to using Google Translate instead. So I wouldn’t recommend it.

Anyway, the last thing I would recommend is to learn the pronunciation and the characters together. After all, you have to learn two things that you don’t know at all.

So I suggest everyone learn one thing at a time, and that’s really from my heart.

More about Mandarin Chinese… Is it a language?

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Who wrote this?

Chi Zhang

A sinologist, anglicist, linguist, and a tech lover who lives in Berlin. Was once a manager, producer, school opener, language teacher, SEO agency owner, and marketing director.
She could be angry sometimes, especially about racism, but overall, she's a friendly person who's famous for her loud laughter.
Here's the place for her to express a new voice in the language world, a world dominated by the west.