Many people want to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese. However, people often have different definitions or expectations of what it means to be able to speak Chinese. In order to best explain this topic, let’s break this down into different topics: (1) Chinese dialects, (2) Mandarin pronunciation, (3) beginner conversational Mandarin, and (4) full conversational Mandarin.
First, let’s talk about Chinese dialects. It’s generally accepted that there are 7 main Chinese dialect groups: Mandarin, Min, Wu, Yue, Gan, Hakka, Xiang. In some recent definitions, there may be additional groups or subgroups added. Mandarin is the dialect that is spoken by over 70% of native Chinese speakers. Other dialects that you may have heard of include Cantonese (part of Yue), Taiwanese (mostly part of Min but some in Hakka) and Shanghainese (part of Wu). We’re not going to get into the details on the differences and similarities among these dialects but what’s important for the rest of us is that Mandarin is now the predominant dialect of Chinese for communication among native Chinese speakers.
Next, let’s discuss Mandarin pronunciation in the context of what it means to have the “correct” pronunciation. Many people think that there is somehow a “correct” Mandarin pronunciation. This is actually not exactly true. Most native Chinese speakers have an accent when they speak Mandarin, which is perfectly fine. What’s interesting is that the “accent” is only considered an “accent” when compared to the generally accepted “accent”. For example in China, the “Beijing accent” is generally considered the accepted Mandarin accent but in Shanghai, someone who speaks with a “Beijing accent” may be referred by natives of Shanghai to have a “Beijing accent”. In Taiwan, standard Mandarin pronunciation is not the “Beijing accent” and retroflex consonants are often not used by native speakers there. Think of how English is spoken in the USA vs the UK and Australia? Even within the USA, English may be spoken differently in different regions such as in California, New York City and in the Southern States. The main point is, as a student of Mandarin Chinese, don’t worry if your pronunciation is not “perfect”. Just get the basics right and move on to learning more words.
Now we get to the biggest difference in opinion on what it means to be able to speak Mandarin Chinese. For those learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language and with no relatives who already speak Mandarin Chinese, perhaps the ability to communicate with native Chinese speakers during an occasional trip to Asia is good enough. Many learning Mandarin for beginners courses will provide that. Heritage Mandarin speakers (those who grew up in households speaking Mandarin Chinese) who have never formally taken Chinese classes also fit in this category. From an outsider point of view, heritage speakers may be able to “speak Mandarin Chinese”. However, most are really at the “limited conversational” ability.
To converse comfortably with native Chinese speakers on various topics, a “learning Mandarin for beginners” class is not enough. In order to learn to speak Mandarin to the point where the student can have meaningful conversations with native Mandarin speakers, they will need to learn to read Chinese first. This is where the Mandarin Reading Club comes in. Our read aloud stories are perfect for giving the student examples of how Mandarin Chinese is spoken. We also choose multiple speakers to do the narration in the stories so that students can get exposure to various Mandarin Chinese pronunciations and accents.