Mandarin (China and Taiwan)


Spoken Language

China is home to nearly 300 spoken languages which span several primary language families (precise figures vary). These languages are not mutually intelligible, most of them have sub-dialects (which may or may not be mutually intelligible), and several dozen have their own writing system. In addition, each populous area has its own local dialect, which is usually a variation of Mandarin or the language of that region. Mandarin, the official language of China, is based on the local Beijing dialect. It is estimated that approximately 70% of the population speaks Mandarin, which is the primary language used in education, politics, and the media. 

Written Language

In mainland China, the written language has gone through numerous shifts over the thousands of years of existence. In an effort to increase literacy, Mao Zedong popularized a shift towards a simplified version of what are now known as 'traditional' characters. 'Traditional' characters are still in use in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while 'simplified' characters are used in mainland China. An example of the shift is: 媽 --> 妈 and 罵 --> 骂. The method of Chinese romanization used in mainland China is called pinyin. For more information on Pinyin, please visit:


Spoken Language

The official language spoken in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, which has been the medium of instruction in the schools for more than five decades. Although Mandarin is widely used, several other languages are commonplace. A large majority of people speak Taiwanese, one of the Southern Fujianese dialects, and many older generations also speak Japanese--a result of half a century of Japanese rule. There are several indigenous tribes, each with their own language, and the Hakka (Han Chinese) who are concentrated in several counties throughout Taiwan and who have their own distinct dialect.

Written Language

Traditional characters are used in Taiwan. The method of Chinese romanization most commonly used in Taiwan is the Wade-Giles system. In 2002, Taiwan authorities announced adoption of the pinyin system also used in mainland China to replace the Wade-Giles system, but its use is not consistent throughout society. This often results in two or more romanizations for the same place or person.

Language Properties


Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, with nearly a billion native speakers, covering a large area. As with other widespread languages such as English and Spanish, there are many distinct regional variations particularly in pronunciation, but also vocabulary, and grammar to some extent. The following description of Mandarin phonology will focus on "standard Mandarin", based on the Beijing dialect.


All words in Mandarin are mono-syllabic and divided into three parts: an initial (onset), a final (rime), and a tone.

Mandarin Initial Consonant Inventory

There are twenty-one initial consonants in Mandarin

  Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Retroflex Alveo-Palatal Velar
Plosive p / pʰ   b   t / tʰ   d     k / kʰ   g
Nasal m   n      
Fricative   f s ʂ    ʐ ɕ x    ɰ
Affricate     ʦ / ʦʰ   d͡ʒ ʈʂ / ʈʂʰ tɕ / tɕʰ  
Lateral     l      
Approximant       ɻ    

When two IPA symbols in the same box are divided by a space, the second phoneme is voiced. If phonemes in the same box are separated by a “/” they are both voiceless sounds.  

A Handy Pronunciation Guide for Consonants

b =English b 

c = ts in English hats

ci = (silent i!) as though English had a word spelt tsz

ch = ch in English church 

chi = (silent i!) as though English had a word spelt chr

d = English d 

f = English f

g = English hard g in get 

h (initial) = English h, only slightly harder, almost to being like the ch in Scottish Loch or German Hoch

j = j in English jeans (not like g in rouge!!!) 

k = English k 

l = English l

m = English m

n = English n

-ng (final) = ng in English sing

p = English p

q = English ch in cheat

r (initial) = French initial j / retroflex palatal /r/

-r (final) = a Midwestern r

ri (silent i!) = a French j followed by a Midwestern r!

s = English s

si (silent i!) = as though English had a word spelt sz

sh = sh in English shame

shi (silent i!) = as though English had a word spelt shr

t = English t

w = English w

x = English sh in sheet

y = English y

z = ds in English heads

zi (silent i!) = as though English had a word spelt dz

zh = j or g in English judge

zhi (silent i!) = as though English had a word spelt jr

Mandarin - Syllable Final

The second part of a syllable, the rime, consists of three parts: a main vowel, medial vowel and ending. A medial vowel starts with the sounds i-, u- or iu- followed by the endings, -n, -ng or -r. The following is a list of the main vowels and examples of how the vowel is used in a syllable ending:

[a] [ia], [ua], [ya], [ai], [uai], [au], [iau], [uan]
[ɑ] [ɑŋ], [iɑŋ], [uɑŋ], [yɑŋ]
[e] [ei] and [uei]
[ɛ] [iɛ], [iɛn], [yɛn] and in the isolated word [ɛ]
[œ] [yœ]
[o] [ou] and [iou]
[ɔ] [uɔ] and in the isolated word [ɔ]
[ə] [ən], [uən], [əŋ], [uəŋ]
[ɤ] [ɤ]
[z̩] [z̩]
[ʐ̩] [ʐ̩̩]
[i] [i], [in], [iŋ]
[ʊ] [ʊŋ], [yʊŋ]
[u] [u]
[y] [y], [yn]

A Handy Pronunciation Guide for Vowels:

a (in ian or yan) = e in English get (!)

a (elsewhere) = a in English father

e (alone) = usually between the u in English lump or and the u in English lurch

e (alone) = occasionally in exclamations and a few particles) like e in English get. 

e (before n or ng) = a in English alone

e (after i or y) = e in English get

er = Midwestern English are

i (after h or r) = Midwestern r in hurt

i (after z, c, s) = English z

i (before or after another vowel, except u) = English y

i (elsewhere) = ee in English see

iu = English yo as in "Yo ho!" or yeo as in yeoman

o (after b,p,m, or f) = Italian uo

o (after a) = English w

o = Italian o

ou = English owe

u (after j,q,x,i, or y) = French u or German ü

u (before or after another vowel, except i) = English w

u (elsewhere) = Italian u

ui = English way (!)

ü = French u or German ü (written like ordinary u [without the dots] after j,q,x,i, or y, since they never have a regular u-sound after them)

  •  /u/ may never occur as an initial letter of a syllable. It always turns to w in that case. If u is the only sound in the syllable, then it becomes wu.
  • /i/ may never occur as an initial letter of a syllable. It always turns to y in that case. If i is the only sound in the syllable, then it becomes yi.


Mandarin has four tones; 1st tone high-level, 2nd tone high-rising, 3rd tone low-dipping, and 4th tone high falling. Mandarin also has a so-called “neutral tone,” which refers to the absence of tonal contour on certain unstressed syllables. The following four words demonstrate each of the four tones:

1. 媽 or 妈 (mā)“mother”
2. 麻 (má)“hemp”
3. 馬 or 马 (mǎ)“horse”
4. 罵 or 骂 (mà)“admonish”

Please visit: for more information on Mandarin and its phonology

Grammatical Structure

  • Plural markers: In order to indicate one or more than one, the only thing that changes is the number word preceding the noun. The only exception is the addition of the suffix [men] to pluralize the words 'wo' (meaningI), 'ta' (he or she), 'ni' (you). 'Wo', therefore, becomes 'women' to change the meaning to us/we; 'ta' becomes 'tamen' to mean they; 'ni' become 'nimen' to mean the plural form of you.
  • Articles: Articles are not used in Chinese as they are in English. In place of the definite article, demonstratives such as 'this' or 'that' are followed by the measure word which corresponds with the noun being indicated. For example, instead of saying: "boy rides the bike", in Chinese one might say: "that [measure word] boy is ride bike." In place of the indefinite article, a number word + measure word combination is used. For example, "I have a friend" becomes "I have one [measure word] friend". 
  • Verb conjugation: Verbs are not conjugated in Mandarin. There are additional word markers to indicate whether something is taking place now, whether it just happened, whether it happened a long time ago, whether it will happen in the immediate future, or whether it will happen in the distant future, but the actual verb does not change. Time words (day of the week, time of day, etc.) are therefore very important. 
  • Pronouns: In spoken Mandarin, she, he, and it are all pronunced 'ta', although they are written differently (她, 他, and 它 respectively).

Implications for the SLP

  • SLPs may note a flat affect of native Chinese speakers when they speak English because Mandarin does not have the same patterns of inflection as English, but instead relies on tone for lexical difference.
  • Potential speech and language errors made by native Chinese speakers: 
    • No conjugation of verbs (direct translations from correct sentences in Mandarin would be: "you yesterday go there?" or "she is tomorrow want go shopping.")
    • Time word before action
    • No plural markers
    • Speech sounds made farther back in the mouth (Mandarin has many retroflex sounds and the language is generally spoken farther back in the mouth. There are no sounds where the tongue comes out of the mouth as in /th/)
    • Reduced, omitted, or incorrect use of definite and indefinite articles
    • Incorrect use of or confusion between prepositions
    • Incorrect use of or confusion between gender pronouns

Helpful Mandarin Phrases for the SLP


Original Contributor: Susan Ashbury, Winter 2007; Revisions: Molly Franz, Spring 2013

References and Resources