Here are some interesting facts you might not know about the Chinese language:
1) There’s more than one “Chinese language”
Okay, you probably knew this one. But it’s worth remembering that when most people think of “Chinese”, they’re probably thinking of Mandarin Chinese – it’s the most widely spoken form and the official language of the People’s Republic of China. It’s also spoken in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, and in many smaller expatriate communities around the world.
That said, Mandarin is far from the only form. There’s also Wu, Xiang, Cantonese, Putonghua, Min, Hakka, and Gan, amongst others.
2) Roughly 1 billion people speak Chinese as their native language
It’s one of the reasons that professional translation to and from Chinese is so popular!
By mastering the language, you open up about 15% to 20% of the world’s population to your message, taking into account all the people who speak some form of Chinese as their native language.
3) There are over 50,000 characters in the Chinese language
Which is an absolutely mind-blowing number! But there is at least a logic to how Chinese characters are written in terms of the meanings and rules behind the strokes – somewhat reminiscent of an alphabet (though Mandarin Chinese has no true alphabet! – see No.4).
Plus, for daily use, you won’t need to know all fifty thousand. For example:
- “Only” 20,000 Chinese characters are in regular use
- Most educated Chinese people know around 8000 characters
- You’ll “only” need around 3000 to read a newspaper
So that’s not so bad! But of course people are always coming up with new characters, so the language – and number of characters – continues to evolve…
4) Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet
Which can take some getting used to for those more used to English or Romance languages? In Chinese, the characters each represent a single concept or syllable instead of a sound.
Though there are a large number of different spoken Chinese dialects (more on this in No. 5), there are only two forms of written Chinese character:
- Traditional Chinese – used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and elsewhere. They are generally more complicated and take more time to write.
- Simplified Chinese – used in mainland China. These can be read in the traditional style, and in other directions too.
5) Spoken Chinese and written Chinese are very different
This is yet another reason why Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages to learn!
Spoken Chinese (yu) and written Chinese (wen) is thought about very differently by native Chinese speakers. Even the very concept of the written word (zi) and the spoken word (hua) are distinct.
This may help to explain why there are so many different forms of spoken Chinese, but only one unified written script separated into two forms.
6) Some parts of learning Chinese are actually simple!
If you were beginning to think that Chinese sounds like an incredibly complicated language to learn, there is at least one upside:
Chinese grammar is simple.
In Chinese you won’t find any:
- Gender-specific nouns
- The difference in singular or plural nouns
- Verb conjugations
- Tenses, other than those expressed by time phrases
So that’s something!
7) Chinese has a huge number of words which sound the same
Finally, bear in mind that Chinese is a tonal language. This means that words can sound the same, and yet still have different meanings depending on the tone used to pronounce them.
Mandarin Chinese has five tones: flat, rising, falling, rising and falling, and neutral. Other dialects can have as many as nine tones! Mastering these is probably the most difficult part of learning how to speak Chinese.
In fact, there’s a very famous Chinese poem called Shī shì shí shī shǐ (which translates into English as The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone). It consists of 120 characters.
All of which is “shi“.
Don’t let this put you off from starting to study Chinese if you’re considering it! It’s a fascinating language and a brilliant way of enabling you to start talking to many interesting people.
If you’ve got something to say about your own experience of studying Chinese, feel free to contribute in the discussion column below.
And if you’re searching for tips as you try to understand this magnificent language, simply add your question as a comment and we’ll see what we can do!