A Guide to Chinese - 10 facts about the Chinese language

Useful facts about the Chinese language

Translation in Chinese

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1. Where is Chinese spoken?

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.

2. What you already know about Chinese

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.

3. How hard is it to learn?

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!

4. Chinese tongue twisters

This is a great tongue twister for practising the tones, which are marked above the vowels.

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.

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.

5. Know any good Chinese jokes?

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 .
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.

6. If I learn Chinese, will it help me with any other languages?

Knowing how to read and write Chinese characters will help you pick up written Japanese more quickly, since Japanese uses a large number of characters with exactly the same meaning, although the pronunciation and grammar is completely different.

7. What not to say and do

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!

8. Famous quotations

Here are two sayings from ancient philosophers.

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.

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!

9. First publication

Chinese is an ancient language. Archaeologists have discovered early forms of Chinese writing on animal bones and tortoise shells which date back to the Shang dynasty over 3,000 years ago.

Classics included the Book of Songs, which is the earliest surviving collection of Chinese poetry and was written some time around 1000 BC. The works of China’s moral philosopher, Confucius, are collected together in a work called The Analects, dating from around 400 BC.
Because Chinese has a continuous writing tradition, students today can still read and understand these ancient works.

10. How to be polite and show respect

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.

Chinese key phrases

Chinese phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Chinese characters

Chinese characters

From pictures to a system of symbols


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