Mandarin Language

Mandarin is a group of varieties of Chinese spoken across most of northern and southwestern China, which includes the Beijing dialect and Standard Mandarin (or 普通話 "Putonghua", literally means 'the common tongue'). Mandarin is by far the largest among seven to ten dialect groups (including Cantonese), spoken by at least 70 percent of all Chinese speakers in China. It has a total of about 900 million speakers who speak Mandarin as a first language, and about 180 million Mandarin speakers outside of China who spoke Mandarin as a second language[1]. Speakers of Mandarin in China are widely distributed over this large geographical territory, stretching from Yunnan in southwestern China to Xinjiang in the northwest, and to Heilongjiang in the northeast.

Distibution of Mandarin spoken in the area all over China and Taiwan

Mandarin area in China and Taiwan, with the Jin territory in light green (sometimes treated as a separate group).

As Mandarin originated in North China, Mandarin dialects around that region are generally referred to as Northern dialects (or 北方話 "Beifanghua"). These Mandarin dialects are generally not mutually intelligible. However, as a language, Mandarin belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. The table below shows the various Chinese varieties and their origins throughout the centuries.


Mandarin and the Sinto-Tibetan Language Family


The focus for this section is on "Putonghua", or Standard Mandarin. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan, and one of the four main languages of Singapore. It is one of the working languages of the United Nations (UN), and the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among the Chinese speaking community around the world.


Standard Mandarin is a tonal language with four main tones, and one neutral tone. Each tone has a distinctive pitch contour to differentiate the meaning of a word. A same syllable can be pronounced with different tones and it can change the meaning of a word and even a sentence. Miscommunication can be an issue if a wrong tone of a syllable is used during a conversation. Thus, it is extremely essential to pay attention to the right tone that is used for every word in order to converse properly with a Mandarin speaker.

Mandarin tones for info and practice

The high level tone [1], symbolized as ( ˉ ) is the first tone in Mandarin. It has a high steady sound with a level tone that sounds almost monotonous across the syllable when pronounced.

The rising tone [2], symbolized as ( ˊ ) is the second tone in Mandarin. It rises from middle to high pitch just like how a question is being asked in English.

The low dipping tone [3], symbolized as ( ˇ ) is the third tone in Mandarin. It falls from mid-low pitch and then rises again. This tone is rather distinctive in that it does not rise as much after the fall of the pitch. Most of the time, a third-tone syllable is not said in isolation, and the rise is usually heard at the end of a sentence or before a pause. The third tone without the rise is sometimes called half third tone

The high-falling [4], symbolized as ( ˋ ) is the fourth tone in Mandarin. It features a sharp fall from high to low pitch. When there are two fourth-tone syllables in a phrase, the fall for the second syllable may be only from high to mid-level.

As for the fifth tone [5], known also as “輕聲” (or qīng shēng), is often associated with weak syllables, which are generally shorter than tonic syllables when pronounced. The pitch of the neutral tone is largely dependent on the tone of the preceding syllable. The use of the neutral tone differs by dialect. In some regions, especially in Taiwan, the neutral tone is relatively uncommon.


Tone No. Chinese Word English Meaning Pronunciation
1st 妈 (mā) Mother headphones   Listen
2nd  (má) Numb headphones   Listen
3rd 马 (mă) Horse headphones   Listen
4th  (mà) Scold headphones   Listen
5th 吗 (ma) Modifier headphones   Listen


In some cases, the Neutral Tone is used at the end of a phrase or sentence indicating a question, a request, or a matter-of-fact statement. For example:

...吃了(chī le ma)...have already eaten is the word with a neutral tone indicating the fact that the subject has already eaten.

(hăo ma)...alright?  is a word with a neutral tone, whereby in this context, the subject was simply asking for a permission.



The table below shows two of the many functions in Mandarin Chinese, whereby articles are grouped together by the purpose and meaning they contain. These are also known as the everyday-use of a language or phrases people used frequently. There are too many in the Mandarin language and this section only features the prime examples.

Mandarin Numbers

Mandarin Pronouns


According to the Standard Chinese Dictionary (汉语辞典), or "han yu ci dian", the largest corpus of modern Chinese words, there are a total of 370,000 words derived from 23,000 characters consisting of loanwords and terminology from disciplines such as zoology, geography, sociology, science, and other technical terms. In classical Chinese, one Chinese character can form a word that means something in a conversation or a sentence. In modern Chinese, a majority of Chinese words may consist of more than one Chinese character. One reason for this is because the number of new Chinese words are increasing all the time as the world advances. For instance, words such as 电 "dian[4]" (electric) and 脑 "nao[3]"(brain) forms two words 电脑, a created phrase which means 'computer' in modern Chinese.

There are some instances when phrases are formed by combining two words of similar meaning to indicate a new meaning of the message. For example:

匆忙 "cōng máng", which means "to be in a rush", is formed from the words "匆" (which means 'hurry'), and "忙" (which means 'busy').

运动 "yùn dòng", which generally means "to move about" or "to exercise", is formed from the words "运" (which means 'to transport'), and "动" (which means 'to move').

There are other instances whereby two words of opposite meaning can create a new meaning to a phrase or message in modern Chinese. For example:

买卖 "mǎi mài", which means "to trade", is formed from the words "买" (which means to 'buy'), and "卖" (which means to 'sell').

左右 "zuǒ yòu", which means "about" or "approximately", is formed from the words "左" (which means 'left'), and "右" (which means 'right').

 东西 "dōng xī", which means "thing", is formed from the words "东" (which means 'east'), and "西" (which means 'west').


Mandarin Grammar and Word Order

Learn Mandarin in Singapore

Whether you are living and working in Singapore as an expat, or will be staying here as a long-term residence, there are ways to learn Mandarin to converse and bond better with Chinese colleagues, and even improve your relationships with Chinese Singaporeans. The following are recommended schools to learn Mandarin in Singapore.


Classroom Courses

Inlingua Singapore

Yi Mandarin

Linda Mandarin

Chinese Edge

Standford Language Centre


Online Courses

E-Chinese Learning

Chinese Pod