Here’s a quick summary, but be sure to read the below as kids typically don’t stop with only one question– be prepared!:
• Mandarin Chinese has the most native speakers of any language in the world, with almost 1 billion
• The language is the national language in China and Taiwan, and one of four national languages in Singapore
• Mandarin Chinese is written with the Chinese characters writing system, with simplified or traditional characters
• It has been used as the national language of China since the 14th century, and comes from the Northern region of China
• In Chinese, Mandarin Chinese is often called Guóyǔ (国语 Simplified, 國語 Traditional) which means “national language” and Pǔtōnghuà (普通话 Simplified, 普通話 Traditional) which means “common speech”
When Westerners speak of Mandarin Chinese, they’re typically referring to the national language of China, Taiwan, and one of the four official languages of Singapore. In addition, there are large groups of Mandarin Chinese speakers across the world, from Vietnam to America and Malaysia to Australia. The language is so dominant in the Chinese world that speakers of other dialects and regional languages gravitate towards learning Mandarin Chinese to communicate with as many people as possible. In a nutshell, Mandarin Chinese is to the East what English is to the West.
With almost 1 billion native speakers, Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers than any other language in the world. To put that into perspective, the entire population of the United States is only a third of that, at 314 million people.
Although the Chinese character writing system can be used to represent many languages, Mandarin Chinese is written using Chinese characters, which is important to note as not an alphabet-based writing system.
While Mandarin Chinese has evolved over the centuries and does have some regional variation, some form of Mandarin Chinese has served as the national language of China since the 14th century. In the course of Chinese history, a dominant issue has long been unifying many Chinese regions and subcultures under one dominant form of government and society, and Mandarin Chinese has been one of the most important factors in tying together a group of regions that is arguably as regionally diverse as Europe. Keep in mind that there are many other Chinese languages that are often called dialects, and Mandarin is simply the most commonly spoken Chinese language.
Mandarin Chinese originated in the Northern area of China, which has generally also been the region where the capital has been located. As a result, the language is often associated with emperors and government, and is often called Guóyǔ (国语 in Simplified Chinese, 國語 in Traditional Chinese — more info on Simplified vs Traditional here), which translates literally as “national language.” In addition, Mandarin Chinese is often called Pǔtōnghuà (普通话 in Simplified Chinese and 普通話 in Traditional Chinese), which translates literally as “common speech.”
So why is it called Mandarin? Good question — most Chinese speakers probably wouldn’t even be able to tell you. That’s because the English term “Mandarin” originally meant an official of the Chinese empire and has its origins in the Portuguese word mandarim, which comes from the Malay language word menteri, which is derived from Sanskrit mantrin, meaning “minister or counsellor.” Pretty complicated, right? Remember, in the Chinese speaking world, none of the Chinese words for the language sounds like the English word “Mandarin,” so don’t feel like you need to know where this term comes from.
We hope this helps you explain Mandarin Chinese to kids, and of course as always feel free to leave a comment or email us if you’ve got any questions or input. If you find this post to be helpful, be sure to share this with your friend via Facebook, email, Twitter, or any other means.