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Chinese is one of the two world languages with over a billion speakers. It is the most used mother tongue on the planet with over 900 million native speakers and more learning it as their second (or more) language. Let's take a look at 10 facts you should know about this complicated and very different language.
While the Internet has sealed the place of English as the most used (second) language, Chinese (Mandarin) still holds the top position as the most used mother tongue. In 2010, the number of Chinese native speakers totaled 955 million people. Just think of how many more people you'd be able to talk to after learning some Chinese!
Multiple factors blend together into making Chinese one of the hardest languages to learn for native English speakers. With a different writing system, different grammar, and even different pronunciation style and sound, there are not many things English and Chinese have in common.
People who wish to study Chinese must put in years of work to reach fluency and even then it is rare to achieve native-like proficiency. Typically, you must learn 3,000 characters in order to be considered fluent enough to read the morning newspaper. However, the language consists of tens of thousands of characters that make ultimate fluency a daunting task.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the written forms of Chinese words give no clues on the pronunciation and must be learned separately. With over 67% of the words being made up of two or more characters, you can see how it earns the title as one of the most difficult languages to learn.
There are five traditional forms of Chinese calligraphy: Seal Character, Official Script, Formal Script, Running Script, Formal Script, Running Script, and Cursive Hand. These are considered classical arts and representative of Chinese art styles.
The most popular calligraphy style is the Seal Character style developed by the Han people. It first appeared during the Zhou Dynasty (1045 - 221 BC) and is still popular among calligraphy artists today.
Thanks to its unique sound system, Chinese is filled with similar sounding words. This makes it quite difficult for non-native speakers to differentiate between words and sound combinations. When you add in the tones we will discuss below, it adds up to make Chinese one of the most difficult languages to listen to and understand. Since we have not been exposed to these similar sounds, it is often impossible for English speakers to pick out the differences.
Reminiscent of hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt, Chinese is the only extant pictographic language.
The Chinese language was developed using images, which means in its simplest form it resembles a game of Pictionary. Many (not all) of the Chinese characters we use today come from ancient drawings of the items they are meant to describe. This can be very helpful for those learning Chinese for the first time. A common example is the word for mountain "shan, 山." The three points of the character are meant to resemble the three peaks of a mountain ridge.
While most of us in the West have a hard time recognizing the handwriting on our prescriptions, the Chinese struggle with handwriting in almost every situation. This is due to the large variation in writing styles and the changes that occur between typed text and handwritten characters.
For example, the most used character (de, 的) has a very neat structure when typed here but becomes almost unrecognizable (a couple of loops) when scrawled at speed by native speakers of Chinese. Because we learn from books where clearly fonted text is used, making the transition to reading handwritten Chinese is incredibly difficult for language learners.
The origin of Chinese comes from the discovery of the famous Oracle Bones and what is believed to be the earliest samplings of Chinese script. These bones date from the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). With such a rich history, Chinese has obviously undergone many changes and influences due to wars and cultural shifts. However, the language has taken these all in stride and continued to grow.
If you are an English speaker first learning Chinese, the most difficult part may very well be the five tones. Since Chinese is a tonal language, the meaning of your words can change drastically based on the tone you use to pronounce them.
For example, the syllable ma can have multiple different meanings depending on whether you speak it using the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth (neutral) tone: mā má mǎ mà ma. This can cause some serious errors for Chinese learners. You don't want to slip up and call your mother (妈, mā) a horse (马, mǎ).
You might be thinking it would be difficult to pick one character as the MOST difficult and complex out of all the varied characters in Chinese. However, there is one character so complex it stands out from the rest: biang. and it takes a total of 57 strokes or 11 radicals (pictographic parts) to write. It's an onomatopoeia for the sound of noodles slapping against the chef's table. The word occurs in the famous biangbiang noodle dish, (biángbiáng miàn).
[𪚥 (zhé 'verbose') and 𠔻 (zhèng 'flourishing') each have 64 strokes, but both repeat a radical four times, so aren't really so complicated.]
When you're walking around China, you might be surprised at the amount of words you're able to pick up quickly. Thanks to an increase in exposure to Western culture, Chinese has many loanwords, or words borrowed from English, in use today. Some examples include: kafei (咖啡 /kaa-fay/) = coffee, shafa (沙发 /shaa-faa/) = sofa, and qiaokeli (巧克力 /chyaow-ker-lee/) = chocolate.
If you're learning Chinese, or simply fascinated with one of the world's oldest languages, there's no better way to experience it than taking your own Chinese excursion with China Highlights.
Peruse our tour ideas to see the wonders of Chinese culture and history come to life. For an in-depth experience of the Chinese language and more, let us create a custom tour built to fit your needs. See the China you're most curious about up close and personal.