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  • Writer's pictureIndy Language Center

Are Chinese and Mandarin the Same Language?

By: Vikey Chen |

Many people think Chinese and Mandarin are the same language. But the fact is: they are technically NOT the same thing.

Mandarin is a form of the Chinese language. There are many different versions of Chinese spoken throughout China, and they are usually classified as dialects.

Do you know how many dialects there are in China? Statistics found out that there are at least 200! Mandarin is one of the dialects of Chinese alongside Shanghainese, Cantonese, Hakka, and many more.

So… why do we call Chinese “Mandarin”?

TL;DR: Mandarin is the official dialect in China.

What we call “Mandarin” in English is known to its native speakers as “Putonghua”, which literally translates into “common tongue.” Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect of Chinese. It is also the world’s second most spoken language, following only English.

More than 70% of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin. It is taught throughout mainland China from preschools to universities. Children are required to learn Mandarin as a subject in schools. It is also used in most Chinese media including films, radio stations, television programs, and music.

Therefore, when people are talking about “Chinese,” they are most likely referring to Mandarin.

Mandarin is a tonal language.

What is a tonal language? It means that the meaning of a word changes based on the way we pronounce it. Mandarin has four tones. A syllable can be pronounced in four different ways, and each pronunciation has a different meaning.

For example, the word “ma” can mean “mother”, “numb”, “horse” or “scold” depending on which one of the four tones we use. The word “guo” can mean “pot”, “country”, “fruit” or “cross” depending on how we say it.

Other Chinese dialects have up to ten distinct tones. So, generally speaking, Mandarin has fewer sounds when compared to other Chinese dialects.

How did Mandarin become the official language in China?

China has always been a land of many dialects because of its enormous geographic size. During the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the capital of China switched from Nanjing in the south to Beijing in the north. It remained in Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912).

Since Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, it naturally emerged as the language of the ruling class. Mandarin took out a few difficult-to-pronounce sounds out of Beijing dialect and made it easier for people of other parts of China to speak.

When the Qing Dynasty fell in 1912, the Republic of China maintained Mandarin as the official language. It was renamed “Putonghua” in 1955 by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Since most Chinese speak Mandarin, if you want to travel, do business, or make friends in China, learning Mandarin is a good start.

Vikey Chen is an education columnist from Hong Kong, and now she calls the US home.

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