Mandarin Chinese is the official language in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. It is also considered to be one of the most useful foreign languages to learn today. As the language is significantly different from English, here are five pointers to help clarify what the language is about.
Chinese versus Mandarin
Chinese language contains many dialects, which includes Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, and Shanghainese (four out of eight major dialect groups in China). Mandarin is the common language in China and is spoken by 70% of the population. When people speak of learning Chinese, most likely they are referring to the Mandarin language. In Guangdong and Hong Kong, however, Cantonese is the primary language.
Chinese characters are logographic, meaning that a symbol is used to represent a word. Each character corresponds to one syllable. Sometimes, it takes two Chinese characters to represent one word. Each character also contains a radical, which is used to classify the character in a Chinese dictionary and to provide a meaning indication. A small number of Chinese characters were formed from pictures or icons, but most of the characters were formed from a combination of these symbols. Chinese characters are written following specific stroke orders and the stroke order count is used to classify the characters in the Chinese dictionary. Chinese characters can also be found in the Japanese language (known as kanji) and the Korean language (known as hanja).
Traditional versus Simplified Chinese Characters
Chinese characters spans tens of thousands in numbers. Knowledge of as many as 2000 Chinese characters is required to understand 80% of communication in Chinese. In order to improve national literacy, China developed simplified characters in the 1950s to make it easier for Chinese people to learn the language. Today, the simplified characters are used in China and Singapore, whereas the traditional characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Pinyin versus Chinese Characters
Pinyin is the romanisation system developed in the 1950s to help teach Mandarin. It uses Latin alphabet and tone marks. Pinyin can be found in Chinese textbooks for beginner learners, often written alongside the Chinese characters, and is used to learn Chinese pronunciation. Pinyin is also used to input Chinese characters into computers and mobile phones. Although Pinyin uses Latin alphabet, just like foreign languages that are Latin based, it has its own unique pronunciation.
Chinese is a tonal language. The same syllable can be pronounced with different tones that convey different meanings. Mandarin contains four tones (called the first tone, the second tone, the third tone, and the fourth tone) and one neutral tone. Some characters can have more than one tones, and sometimes the tone for a character would change depending on the tones of the syllable before or after it.
Article written by Stephanie Li from Asian Language School
Author: Sim K