About one in five of the world’s population speaks a form of Chinese. Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and by far the most widely used version, with over 800 million speakers. Chinese is also spoken by large communities around the world, from Singapore to London to Vancouver, although overseas Chinese are more likely to speak Cantonese or Hokkien, than Mandarin.
A system of symbols Chinese characters are the system of symbols used to write Chinese. Unlike an alphabet, which represents only sounds, each Chinese character has a unique meaning. Although some large dictionaries have over 50,000 characters, you 'only' need 2 - 3,000 to read a newspaper. University-educated Chinese will normally know 6 - 8,000. In our interactive character game you can learn how to write 60 commonly-used characters. The earliest recognisable characters date back over 3,000 years and were discovered carved into tortoise shells and cattle bones. This makes written Chinese the oldest system of writing in continuous use as a living language. Although older examples of Egyptian writing have been found, these hieroglyphs are no longer used to write any living language. It started with pictures The earliest characters were indeed what we call pictographs, many of which are still in use today in simplified, stylised forms, such as 火 [huǒ], fire , 山 [shān], mountain, and 日 [rì], Sun Although it may be difficult to see at first glance how the character 日 resembles the sun, we can see how it has evolved over time into its present form by looking at the more ancient form. For example (ancient to modern): Sun
There are many other types of characters. One is the ideograph, which depicts concepts like 一 [yī], one, 二 [èr], two, 上 [shàng], above, and 下 [xià], below. Some characters combine pictograms or ideograms to create a new meaning, such as: 女 [nǚ], woman ＋ 子 [zǐ], child ＝ 好 [hǎo], good 日 [rì], sun ＋ 月 [yuè], moon ＝ 明 [míng], bright Not all Chinese words are made up of single characters. Most words in Chinese are actually made up of a combination of characters. For example: 火 [huǒ], fire + 车 [chē], vehicle = 火车 [huǒchē], "fire vehicle" - train. 电 [diàn], electric + 视 [shì], vision = 电视 [diànshì], "electric vision" – television. "Electric speech" is 电话 [diànhuà] – telephone, "electric brain" is 电脑 [diànnǎo] – computer, and "electric shadow" is 电影 [diànyǐng] – film.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of characters were simplified by the Chinese government in order to make them easier to learn and improve literacy rates in the country. These are known as simplified characters as opposed to traditional characters, which are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, e.g. compare the traditional form of electric 電 with the simplified version 电. There is a system for writing Chinese words in the Latin alphabet called Pinyin.
The writing of well-formed, beautiful characters is also considered important and calligraphy is an art form in its own right. Master calligraphers spend their lives honing their talents and paint huge characters or poems on scrolls.
When giving an email or website address the conventions are: @ 小老鼠 [xiǎo lǎoshǔ], literally little mouse. . 点 [diǎn], dot / 斜线 [xiéxiàn], slash - 连接号 [liánjiēhào], dash Chinese speakers don't have different names for English letters, so be sure to spell your name slowly and clearly.
This in itself may not be an overwhelming reason to learn the language but when you consider that there are over 1.3 billion people in China itself, not to mention the millions elsewhere in Singapore, Taiwan, South East Asia, America and Europe that also speak Chinese, it is obvious that the language is spreading and growing around the World. Being able to speak the language then, will obviously open up billions of new friends, customers or possible partners than you had before.
Well, for starters, your cup of cha in the morning comes from a Chinese word. In Mandarin, it’s pronounced chá, spoken with rising intonation when it’s pronounced correctly. Martial arts enthusiasts will know words such as gōngfu and tàijíquán, although they might be more familiar with the spellings Kung-fu and Tai chi chuan. A few words have also gone the other way too, from English to Chinese. Feeling thirsty? You might want to order a kěkǒu kělè, kāfēi or wēishìjì. Can you guess what these might be? Coca Cola, coffee and whisky.
Actually, it’s not as hard as you might think. Chinese grammar is surprisingly straightforward, with none of the tenses, plurals, cases or genders that can make learning European languages difficult. The hard bit is mastering the tones. Mandarin is a tonal language, which means the pitch or intonation in which a sound is spoken affects the meaning. For example, if you say tāng with a high tone it means soup, but táng with a rising tone means sugar. In Mandarin Chinese, there are four basic tones and a fifth neutral tone. You can tell which tone to give a syllable from the marks above the vowels in pinyin, the writing system that uses the Latin alphabet. Find out how the tones sound. The most difficult but potentially most fun and rewarding aspect is learning how to write Chinese characters. The visually beautiful and often poetic script can give the learner a useful insight into the Chinese mind. But be prepared for a long learning journey as you’ll need to memorise over 2,000 characters to read a Chinese newspaper!
This is a great tongue twister for practising the tones, which are marked above the vowels. 四是四，十是十，十四是十四，四十是四十，四十四只石狮子是死的。 Sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí, sìshísì zhī shí shīzi shì sǐ de. Four is four, ten is ten, fourteen is fourteen, forty is forty. Forty four stone lions are dead. 吃葡萄不吐葡萄皮，不吃葡萄倒吐葡萄皮。 Chī pútao bù tǔ pútao pí, bù chī pútao dào tǔ pútao pí. When you are eating grapes, you don’t spit out the skin, but when you are not eating grapes, you do spit out the skin.
In China, puns and play on words are more popular than Western-style jokes. Here’s a popular example: at Chinese New Year, you’ll often hear the phrase nián nián yǒu yú, meaning may you have abundance (yú) every year. You’ll also see it written in Chinese calligraphy on scrolls which hang on walls and by doorways, mysteriously accompanied by a picture of a golden carp. What’s the connection? The word for fish, although written differently, is pronounced in exactly the same way as the word for abundance: both are yú. So, if you were to hear someone say nián nián yǒu yú, it could mean may you have fish every year. But when you see it written, there’s no confusion.
It has been scientifically proven that learning a language is good for the brain. It keep the brain young and healthy and can enhance the learning of other subjects, even seemingly unrelated subjects like Math. It has been shown that bilingual students consistently do better on their SATs than non-bilingual ones. This also applies to older people: It has been shown that people who learn languages are less susceptible to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and can keep their brains sharper for much longer. This effect is even greater for Chinese: The fact that Chinese is so different from English in sound, tones and script means that learning it is even more mentally stimulating than other languages. Learn Chinese and keep learning for a long long time.
It’s those tones. If you get the intonation of a word wrong you might end up saying completely the wrong thing. For example, wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ, means I want to ask you. Simple enough. But if you were to say wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ, it would mean I want to kiss you. Play the two clips and see if you can tell the difference. Don’t worry if you get the tones wrong at first. Most Chinese people will be very happy to know that you’ve attempted to learn their language, and besides, sometimes even they get the tones a bit wonky when, for example, a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong talks Mandarin to someone from Beijing. Top tip: listen carefully when a taxi driver asks you to put on your seatbelt, or ānquándài. Some foreign students in China have famously misheard this as ānquántào, which means condom!
Here are two sayings from ancient philosophers. 有朋自远方来，不亦乐乎 Yǒu péng zì yuǎn fāng lái, bù yì lè hū? Is it not a pleasure to have friends from afar? Confucius (551-479BC) A good reminder of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people. 千里之行，始于足下 Qiān lǐ zhī xíng, shǐ yú zú xià A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Laozi, Daoist philosopher (6th Century BC) One to bear in mind as you take your first steps in the Chinese language!
Sure this is linked to some of the previous reasons but is just as important in its own right. China is playing an increasingly major role in World affairs today, not just economically but also politically and environmentally. China is becoming a superpower but has a lot to work on before its human rights and environmental policies are acceptable globally. These issues will become increasingly more important as China grows, and if you have an interests in these issues, learning the language could certainly put you in a good position to go about changing some of them.
Chinese people place great emphasis on titles. For example, if your Chinese teacher is a Mrs Wang, you should call her by her title Wang Lǎoshī, meaning Teacher Wang. Doctors are Yīshēng and masters of other crafts Shīfu. More commonly, you’ll hear Xiānsheng, Mr and Nǚshì, Ms, after people’s surnames.