What is Mandarin?

In China there there are at least eight different linguistic groups, in addition to hundreds of dialects and variations, most of which are not mutually understandable.

The official language is Mandarin, which is based on the dialect of the Han ethnic group.  Modern day Mandarin is a variation of the Mandarin spoken during the Qing Dynasty in Beijing and later became the official language of the People’s Republic of China.  It is also one of four official languages in Singapore and one of six official languages of the United Nations.

Standard Mandarin in China is usually called hànyǔ (Han language) or pǔtōnghua (common language) and in Taiwan it is known locally as guóyǔ (national language).

Why Learn to Speak Mandarin?

Learning Mandarin offers many benefits for personal and professional growth, not least gaining a better understanding of one of the richest cultures in the world.  Millions of people travel to China to see the shrines, walk The Great Wall of China and indulge in the wonderful food markets in cities such as Beijng.

Chinese dialects, whether Mandarin or Cantonese, are the most widely spoken langes in the world, being spoken by 1,197,000,000 or 14% of the global population.  Mandarin is spoken by 873,000 million people in China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, the Phillipines and Mongolia.

Chinese history and culture is one the richest and certainly the oldest in the world.  China is renowned for producing beautiful novels, short stories, poetry and more recently excellence in film.  Reading great Chinese biographies and watching short films about the history of China provides a greater understanding of the language.

China has the biggest population in the world with approximately 1.28 billion people.  It’s far easier to acquire a deeper understanding of the culture if you can speak their language.

Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and CEO of Facebook  has been wowing audiences across the world with his new Mandarin skills.  It’s part of his business strategy to move Facebook into China and become a truly global business.   So, if you want to do business in China, learn Mandarin.

Learning Mandarin is actually easier than you think.  You don’t have to worry about verbal conjugation and the use of tenses is simplified.  There are over 80,000 characters but generally only 3,500 are used in conversation.  In fact, it could be regarded as a more logical language.

Chinese symbols and characters require a steady hand.  The written words are actually iconographic characters rather than letters.  These symbols and characters are created using ‘strokes’ rather like painting.

We know we need to keep are brains well oiled and studies have shown that Mandarin speakers use both sides of their brains!

If you can speak Mandarin, the world suddenly becomes that much larger.  As you travel across Southeast Asia, you’ll have the confidence to communicate with local people in a language they understand, enriching your experience and making inroads socially.

Sizzling food markets across China offer some unique dishes not found anywhere else.  Chinese cuisine is a joy to behold and understanding Mandarin will acquaint you with foods you’ll never find in your local Chinese Take Away.


Mandarin was introduced into the curriculum at Crickhowell High School in 2013.  All students in Year 7 start learning Mandarin at the beginning of the academic year as a timetabled subject, which provides them with Mandarin lesson per week, taught by a native Chinese specialist.

The emphasis is on pronunciation in the early years.  Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that different tones can change the meaning of a word, even if the pronunciation and spelling are otherwise the same.  It is essential to learn the different tones (of which there are four) in order to master the language.

Students are taught to write Mandarin using the Pinyin system, which converts Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet.  It also allows students to focus on pronunciation, whilst enabling them to read and write, without needing to learn complex Chinese characters.  Although Pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, the pronunciation of its letters is often not intuitive to English speakers, but is still significantly easier than learning to recognize traditional Chinese characters.

At the end of the academic year, each Year 7 student is awarded a certificate in basic Mandarin language by the Confucius Institute of the University of Wales Trinity St. David.

GCSE Mandarin

The Edexcel Level 1/Level 2 GCSE in Mandarin course has been developed to enable students of all abilities to progress and develop a passion for Mandarin through a culturally engaging and inspirational course of study that will teach students to use the language effectively, independently and creatively, so that they have a solid basis from which to progress to A Level or employment.

At the end of the course of study, students will sit 4 exams.  All papers are available at Foundation and Higher tier levels:

Listening and Understanding Mandarin:  This is a written paper in which students listen to an authentic recording in Mandarin of one or more speakers in a public or social setting and will answer questions in English about what you’ve heard.  Some of the questions will be multiple-choice, whilst others will require short written answers.

Speaking in Mandarin:  This is the oral part of the exam in which students will have to complete three tasks:  a short role play based on a topic set by the examining board, a discussion about a photo on a topic set by the examining board and a short conversation on two topics that have been studied.

Reading and Understanding Mandarin:  This is a written paper in which students will be given texts in Mandarin to study, such as emails, adverts, letters, magazine / newspaper articles or literary texts and will answer a mixture of multiple-choice and short answer questions in English.  In the second part of this paper, students will be asked to translate a passage from Mandarin into English.

Writing in Mandarin:  This is a written paper which tests a student’s ability to write in coherent and grammatically accurate Mandarin.   Students may choose to write their answers in either simplified or traditional Chinese characters.  Students will be asked to answer questions about a photo and write a passage on one of two topics.  There will also be a translation exercise from English into Chinese.

The entire GCSE course of study is spready across key themes relating to both a student’s home and the countries and communities where Mandarin is spoken:

  • Identity and culture
  • Local area, holidays and travel
  • School
  • Future aspirations, study and work
  • International and global dimension

The Edexcel GCSE Mandarin syllabus specification and Guide for Students is available for download below.  The Mandarin vocabulary and grammar lists will be added when complete:

Edexcel GCSE Mandarin Spec 2017+

Edexcel GCSE Mandarin Student Guide

HSK Mandarin Language Proficiency Test

The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) test is China’s only official test of Mandarin language proficiency for non-native speakers.  It is open to foreign students, overseas Chinese and members of ethnic minority groups in China and provides the global standard for Mandarin language proficiency from beginner to advanced level.

It also provides a concrete demonstration of a student’s ability to prospective employers, foreign institutions and other international organisations.

The test is administered by Hanban, a non-government organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the Chinese government and is available in Levels 1 to 6.

At Crickhowell High School, our students are taught up to Level 2.

Outside China, the largest benefit of having an HSK qualification is that it gives an immediate indication of your level of Mandarin and proves you have made significant progression.  It also looks good on applications for scholarships and university places.

An HSK qualification serves as excellent proof of a student’s existing Chinese level if you are applying to study in China.  Some universities offer tiered entry into language studies, meaning a student may a place at a higher level.

The best place to show off an HSK qualifications, is in China.  Excellent exam results can lead to offers of scholarships.  When applying for scholarships in Chinese institutions, the HSK qualification is a pre-requisite. T he majority of Chinese universities will require HSK Level 4 or 5 seas applications to its courses.  So if a student wants to study in a Chinese university, the HSK examination is very important.

The HSK qualification will always be an asset on any CV when applying for jobs outside China.  However, it is unlikely the qualification will be enough to secure a job using Chinese.   The importance of HSK for Chinese language learners ranges from desirable to necessary.  If the end goal is to attend a Chinese university, students must take the higher-level HSK examinations and achieve a good score.  For overseas universities and your job search in China and elsewhere, whilst an HSK qualification is rarely required, it’s an impressive addition to experience and qualifications.  The HSK exams are a great way to push yourself on to the next level of Chinese; something you’ll be thankful for when working, studying or doing business with China.

Teaching Staff

Here at Crickhowell High School, we’re extremely fortunate to have two native Chinese specialist teachers, namely Mr Sam Qin and Mrs Rachel  Zhang.

Mr Qin is from Beijing Union University and has been teaching Mandarin at Crickhowell High School for two years.  He is also working with other local primary schools around Chickhowell.  He teaches general Mandarin to Year 7 and GCSE Mandarin to Year 9 and 10.  Moreover, he taught Tourism Mandarin to students who were studying at the University of Wales Trinity St. David in Swansea.


Mrs Rachel Guangrong Zhang is from Beijing Union University and has been teaching Mandarin for ten years.  She works for the Confucius Institute of the University of Wales Trinity St. David and is  teaching Mandarin classes to students at Crickhowell High School, Llangattock Primary School and Gwernyfed High School



Extra-curricular / After School Clubs and Activities

At Crickhowell High School, our talented Mandarin teaching staff offer a range of language and cultural activities as detailed in the table below.

During the academic year, there is a schedule of other cultural events including:

  • A regular Chinese tea ceremony
  • China Day celebration
  • Mid-autumn Chinese Festival
  • Wushu demonstration and introduction to Tai Chi
  • Trip to Beijing in June/July 2018
  • Visits from Chinese artists

Useful Resources

The following is a list of free apps, online dictionaries, useful websites, video sharing websites and radio programme sites that we recommend to help you to learn Mandarin or improve your existing knowledge.

FluentU:  FluentU is a  unique app because it takes a huge collection of real-world Chinese videos—like music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks—and turns it into a personalized and engaging language learning experience.

Thanks to the diverse range of content here, you’re guaranteed to find something for your skill level, preferred learning style and personal interests.

It’s got everything from viral commercials to grammar lessons, street interviews, clips from Chinese horror movies and even the “Let it Go” song from “Frozen.”  Download FluentU for free at


Anki Vocab App:  If you have begun your Mandarin learning journey, you’ll probably have realized by now that you remember some words more easily than others.  If you wonder if there could actually be an app that helps you to solidify and build your vocabulary, then it’s Anki.

Anki is a powerful and effective flashcard program that uses a spaced repetition program that is believed to greatly improve how you remember new words.

You can download stacks of flashcards from Anki, or create your own deck.  Android users get to download Anki for free at  There is a monthly fee for iPhone users to pay.


Pleco Dictionary App:  The most basic app that every learner from beginner to advanced would benefit from is one that works as a dictionary and translator. Pleco is free to download for both iOS and Android users. The dictionary can be used offline, and there are a number of additional features that you could download for a fee at

What’s great about Pleco is being able to look up words using your phone’s camera or from a still image, which makes this great for translating on-the-go.  You can also look up words by drawing on the screen.


Chinese Skill:  Chinese Skill is a free app that’s great for beginners learning Mandarin.  If you’ve used Duolingo with another language and loved it, then you’ll love this.   The design and interface is really cute, featuring a panda, of course.  Also, the content is designed according to categories like food, numbers and colors—so you learn in a systematic way while having some fun. 

Download the app for android or iPhone from the Google Play store at


Standard Mandarin App for Pinyin and Tones:  This app (for iPhone users only) specializes in getting your pronunciation right and even tells you which facial muscles to choose—so you can really work at getting rid of your foreign accent.  Remember, Chinese is a tonal language, so mis-pronunciations may put you in a more embarrassing situation than using the wrong grammar.  This is a good in-depth guide to speaking Mandarin Chinese correctly.

The app is free to download at


Memrise:  This is a free app that has tons of user-created courses.  These can be anything from characters to restaurant items to slang words.  It’s sort of a gamified flashcard system that you can use to learn new characters.  It also uses mnemonics but the quality can vary significantly on a course by course basis.  Download the app for free at


Chinese Radio Stations / Apps:  There are some awesome Chinese language radio apps.  They have lots of content ranging from music, novels, children’s stories, talk shows and more.  They’re more suitable for intermediate – advanced learners because they’re all in Chinese.  Try  ximalaya FM (喜马拉雅 FM)– a great way to discover new Chinese music.  Qing Ting FM (蜻蜓FM) and Li Zhi FM (荔枝FM)are two other good options.



Video Sharing Websites:  These three video sharing websites have millions of hours of free Mandarin learning content, more than you could ever listen to in the course of your studies.

Whilst there is plenty of lesson-style content to get you started in the beginning, the best thing is the countless videos containing real native speech.  You can use this to get audio learning materials for free.



Tatoeba: A Sentence Database:  Dictionaries are useful for quick checks on words, particularly from the target language into your own.  But experienced language learners know that to accurately grasp the meaning of a word you need to see it in action.

Tatoeba is a great source of Mandarin example sentences.  It’s already got a huge database of sentences, and more are being added every hour –


MDBG Online Dictionary:  If you’re looking for an online Mandarin-English dictionary, this has to be the best there is.  It’s very fast and reliable online and it’s also the result of an admirable community project to build a free and open dictionary –