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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).
Chinese characters are mostly made up of building blocks called radicals, which have 1 to 17 strokes. Radicals and strokes must be written in order: usually left to right and top to bottom.
For example: In the character for 'feeling' 情, there are three radicals: 1) 忄 'heart', 2) 丰 'plentiful' , and 3)月 'moon'. Changing the first radical in 情 makes different words like 请 ('to ask') or 清 ('clear').
The Chinese government simplified Chinese characters shortly after the beginning of the People's Republic era (1949), reducing strokes per character by an average of around 33%. Traditional characters are still used for ceremonial wording in China, and are still standard in Hong Kong and Taiwan. E.g., simplified 请 (10 strokes) is from traditional 請 (15 strokes).
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.
The world’s most natively-spoken language, Chinese, still remains a mystery to the West. When learning a little more than “Nihao!” one begins to discover the oddities hidden within this ancient language: what makes it practical, what makes it poetic, and what makes it intriguing.
How do we know what ancient Chinese looked like? Surprisingly, the best evidence comes from millennia old carvings on oracle bones once used in practicing divination.
Interested in seeing oracle bones in person? See The Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang.
Some believe that the people of China may be the fated “lost tribe of Israel” based on “Biblical narratives” in some Chinese characters. While the critics are more than just a few, the analysis does provide an interesting theory.
For example: Does the ‘garden’ character (园) refer to the Garden of Eden… two (二) people (儿) in an enclosure (囗)?
Japan adopted Chinese in their writing system because they needed a written language, and similar usage made its way to other bordering countries like pre-colonial Vietnam as well as historic Korea.
We generally take Chinese to be synonymous with Mandarin, but Mandarin is one of hundreds of Chinese languages still actively spoken in China. Chances are, that unless a person comes from Beijing, they speak at least one other dialect.
Chinese writing has a prescribed stroke order, usually working left to right and top to bottom. There are twenty-plus types of strokes and 1 to 64 strokes are needed to make up a Chinese character. Each stroke must be written correctly and in order for recognition on character writing software.
For example, for 口 you can’t just draw a square with one stroke: you must start with a down stroke on the left, then a left-to-right-and-down stroke for the top and right sides, then a left-to-right stroke at the bottom.
Like the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious of the Mandarin world, biang is an unofficial character. Not only does the dizzying number of strokes dwarf just about any other, biang needs to be written twice! The word occurs in the famous Shaanxi region biangbiang noodle dish (biángbiáng miàn). Biang is an onomatopoeia for the sound of noodles slapping against the chef's table.
[𪚥 (zhé 'verbose') and 𠔻 (zhèng 'flourishing') each have 64 strokes: equal most, but both repeat a radical four times, so aren't really so complicated.]
The inherent rigidities of Chinese (a set of pictographs instead of an alphabet) makes naming new things a bit difficult. When computers first arrived, they used what was already in their arsenal to create a name: ‘electric brain’.
Badminton is affectionately called ‘feather ball’, giraffe a ‘long-necked deer’, and what is a lobster to the Chinese? A ‘dragon shrimp’, of course!
The other way to add new words is by phonetics, but there are only 400 or so syllables used in Chinese, so a not-so-near (or unrecognizable) phonetic fit typically occurs. Foreign names always use this method: e.g. Donald Trump is Tangnade Telangpu (/tung-naa-der ter-lung-poo/)!
You may wonder how people in China type characters on a keyboard, and no, there isn’t a giant one with thousands of keys (though there are keyboards for the 20-or-so strokes)!
Pinyin, the alphabetization of Mandarin, can be typed on any keyboard and software displays a long list of corresponding characters for each syllable (most commonly used first thankfully!) — a bit like messaging on a number keypad.
Type “nihao” and you’ll get the following options: 你好 拟好 你 尼 泥…
There are many Chinese sayings, and the largest percentage have four characters. A common one to learn first shows indifference: “horse horse tiger tiger” (mǎmahūhū). It’s just one of thousands. “Just a drop in the bucket” in English, but “nine cows one hair” in Chinese.
Articles (“a”, “an”, and “the”), verb changes with tense and person, and plurals are not found where Chinese characters are used. It makes the language much easier to pick up, but also means mastering English is tricky for Chinese users…
In Chinglish: Article (“a”, “an”, and “zee”), verb change wiz tense and person, and plural not found where Chinese character use. It make language much easier pick up, but also mean master English is tricky for Chinese user. (There’s no “th” either.)
How to say “yes” in Chinese isn’t straightforward like sí in Spanish. Standard Mandarin replies use the verb or adjective in the question for assent:
- “Can you help me?” — “Can.”
- “Is it clear?” — “Clear.”
However, a nasally en is used for a less formal affirmative.
Mandarin’s five tones are important, but for the most part you can get by without them. Sure, you might make the mistake of saying ‘death’ instead of ‘four’. However, Chinese words generally come in character pairs, so if you botch the tones, don’t worry, the combination and the context will usually save you the embarrassment.
So go ahead, tell people you’re going to Shanghai in Chinese (wǒ qù Shànghǎi) — they’ll know you don’t mean you’re going to hurt someone (wǒ qù shānɡhài)!
When Chinese is sung the troublesome tones vanish altogether!
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.