Why “十五分钟 (Shíwǔ fēnzhōng)” is Three Words in Chinese?

Recently, I’ve seen an interesting Chinese question circulating online. Test yourself and see if you know the answer:

Shíwǔ fēnzhōng shì sān gè zì, wǔ fēnzhōng shì jǐ gè zì?
Fifteen minutes is three words; how many words is five minutes?
A. Yīgè zì                 B. Liǎng gè zì         C. Sān gè zì                  D. Sì gè zì
A.一个字                  B. 两个字               C. 三个字                       D. 四个字
A. One word            B. Two words         C. Three words             D. Four words

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In Mandarin, “十五分钟 (shíwǔ fēnzhōng), fifteen minutes” consists of four characters, while “五分钟 (wǔ fēnzhōng), five minutes” has three characters. However, in Guangdong, China, “五分钟 (wǔ fēnzhōng), five minutes” can sometimes be metaphorically referred to as “一个字(yīgè zì), one word.” This comes from the way the clock face changes every five minutes, altering the clock’s numeral, so it’s called “一个字(yīgè zì), one word.” So the answer is A, “一个字(yīgè zì), one word”.

This unique expression isn’t limited to Guangdong provenience China; Singaporean Chinese speakers have a similar way of speaking. For example, they might say “十五分钟 (shíwǔ fēnzhōng), fifteen minutes” as “三个字(sān gè zì), three words,” reflecting local linguistic customs in describing time.

Just as English has many dialects and accents worldwide, Chinese has a wide variety of dialects and linguistic practices too. This leads to a common question: which Chinese language should you learn? Should it be Mandarin, Singaporean Chinese, Taiwanese Chinese, or Hong Kong Chinese?

In mainland China, Mandarin is the official language and the most widely spoken. The HSK exam tests Mandarin, making it the standard language for academic purposes, business communication, and official documents. Mastering Mandarin is like having a universal pass, enabling you to communicate effectively across most Chinese-speaking regions.

When choosing which form of Chinese to learn, Mandarin stands out as the most broadly used standard, especially in mainland China and official settings. The HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) assesses proficiency in Mandarin, allowing for effective communication in most Chinese-speaking areas.

While different regions have various dialects and idiomatic expressions, Mandarin provides a common foundation for communication. If your goal is extensive interaction and understanding, learning Mandarin is the best choice.

Singaporean Chinese is primarily based on Mandarin but may include English and Malay words, along with unique accents and expressions. Taiwan and Hong Kong also have their own dialects, but Mandarin is widely understood and used. Once you learn Mandarin, it becomes easier to familiarize yourself with other regional dialects and specific expressions.

Start your Chinese learning journey with Mandarin—the most widely spoken dialect. It provides a strong foundation and opens doors to understanding other dialects. Ready to get started? Click here for a free trial Chinese lesson and begin mastering Mandarin today!

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