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China's Languages

Learn Chinese    Numbers    Written Chinese    Pinyin



The official language of the PRC is "Putonghua" (普通话 pǔ tōng hu),  a literal translation of which is "common speech". This is known in English as Mandarin Chinese. However, to think that all Chinese people speak it somewhat misrepresents the true picture. According to Chinese government figures, only 53% of the population speak putonghua. Also, Ethnologue lists more than 200 languages in use in China and there are countless local dialects. This can be a problem, not only for the poor foreigners struggling to communicate, but also for the Chinese. It not unusual to see two Chinese struggling to understand each other. 

The saving grace is that the majority of these dialects have a common written form. The pronunciation of any character can be completely different in say, Beijing from that in Guangzhou (where Cantonese is the dominant language), but the character looks the same. For that reason, nearly all television programmes are subtitled and the Chinese often communicate by passing notes. This can be doubly frustrating for us. After struggling to make himself understood verbally, the new Chinese friend you have just met on the train will hand you a note in a Chinese scrawl, utterly sure that he has solved the problem. 

That said, the majority of people you meet will speak or understand Putonghua. It really is worth making the effort to learn even a little. You will gain a much better insight to the lives of Chinese people. 

For teachers, another, often overlooked, advantage to learning even a little Chinese is that it can give you a much better understanding of the difficulties your students have with English and therefore improve your teaching. For example, Chinese does not have a tense system like English, relying on time adverbs much of the time. So, when your students say "I tomorrow go Beijing", they are using Chinese grammar with English vocabulary. I spent some time teaching a  group of students who had between them a number of different 'mother tongues'. After a while, I was able to identify which were which by the mistakes they made in English pronunciation. The differing languages each had different interference patterns.

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Learning Chinese

If you intend learning Chinese, it is most useful to learn standard Chinese (Putonghua) rather than a local language or dialect which will not be understood when you travel. Find a teacher who really does speak Putonghua. Many Chinese think they can speak it, but most of the teachers in the English department of one local college failed their Putonghua exams. This is quite common, especially in the south of China, far from Beijing where the standard originated. They may 'know' Putonghua but speak it with a strong local accent which will not be understood easily anywhere else. You don't want to pick this up! Even Chairman Mao spoke Putonghua with a strong Hunan accent.

It is often said that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn, and it is certainly not easy. However, many of the difficulties are exaggerated, and only apply to the writing system. It is worth making an early decision whether you want to learn spoken Chinese only or also to learn the written form. It is relatively easy to quickly pick up enough spoken language for basic communication. The written language takes a lot more effort, but is highly rewarding.

OK, some basics.

Chinese is a language which has relatively few 'words' as we know them in English. Each 'word' can have many meanings. This problem is dealt with by assigning each syllable one of four tones: flat and high, rising, falling then rising , falling. There is also a fifth, neutral tone, which can be ignored. So each 'word' can have four meanings. Most articles about Chinese cite the example 'ma'. They tell you that with the first tone this means 'mother', the second 'hemp', the third 'horse' and the fourth 'to curse'. If only it were so simple. In fact 'ma' has many, many meanings, especially when it is combined with other 'words'. For example 'ma' in the first tone can also mean 'to wipe' and when combined with 'lang' becomes 'dragonfly'. Before I put you off completely, let me remind you that they have been using this system for a long time - around 6,000 years compared to English which has a history of only around 1,500 years.

How do they manage? Well, context is everything. Despite each syllable having a fixed tone, in practice the tones become less strict in rapid speech. The meaning is generally clear from the context. This can make things difficult for the learner, who tends not to speak in complete sentences. But persevere and listen carefully. Remember that many Chinese also have difficulty and most, though not all, listeners will make a real effort to work out what you are saying.

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Some of the problems mentioned above are overcome when looking at written Chinese. Although 'ma' has so many different meanings, in the written form those meanings are represented by different characters. In my dictionary there are 24 different characters with the pronunciation 'ma'! 10 of these are shown on the left. 'Shi' has 90!

There are around 56,000 different characters, although most of these are archaic or rare. It is estimated that around 3,000 are needed to read a newspaper, while college graduates may know 5 - 6,000. One often sees young children writing characters over and over again in an effort to remember them all.

Each syllable is represented by one character, and most characters consist of two parts. One (known as the 'radical') represents meaning and the second indicates pronunciation. In this way, Chinese people can often guess the meaning and pronunciation of a character they have never seen before. As you can see on the left, the first character 'ma' meaning 'horse' is repeated within many of the subsequent characters. The second character, 'ma' meaning mother is made up of the character for 'woman' (giving an indication of meaning) and the character 'ma' for horse, giving the pronunciation. There is no suggestion that 'mother' and 'horse' are otherwise related!

All the varieties of Chinese spoken on the mainland use the same characters, irrespective of how they actually pronounce the word. However, it is important to note that Hong Kong and Taiwan use some different characters from the mainland. This is because in 1959 the Communist  Party introduced a number of 'simplified' characters in order to try to increase literacy. Hong Kong and Taiwan still use the 'traditional' characters. Most educated mainlanders can read, if not write, both sets. In traditional characters "China" is 中國. In simplified characters it is 中国. For a more extreme example, consider these two people: 衛蘭 and 卫兰. Yes, they are the same person, Hong Kong based pop singer also known as Janice. I'll let you guess which one is simplified!

One last note: despite popular opinion, Chinese is NOT written right to left or back to front. It goes in the same direction as English. Ancient Classical Chinese was written 'backwards', but no longer!



The Chinese use both the western numerals 0-9 and Chinese characters. Learning the numbers is relatively easy. Remember the words for one to ten plus 'zero' and you can immediately count to 99. For example 23 is said as two ten three and 99 is nine ten nine. Learn the word for 100 and you are all the way to 999 (nine hundred nine ten nine). Same at one thousand. So, by learning just 13 words you can count all the way to 9,999. The confusion starts here. The Chinese have a separate word for 10,000. Rather than introduce new words at 3 digit intervals as we do in the west, after one thousand they do so at 4 digit intervals. So, 1 million is 100 ten-thousands! The next special word is for 100 million.

There are two sets of characters for Chinese numbers. The first is the common (simplified) version used in most everyday situations. However, these are easily changed (say from 1 to 10 by adding a downward stroke), so to avoid fraud etc., in banks and legal documents the more complex formal characters are used. Every bank has a notice instructing people how to write the numbers!

An alternative for '1' is  (yāo), used in the spoken language when referring to the numeral. So, in giving phone numbers, for example, is used rather than (yī).

An alternative for '2' is (liǎng), used when referring to a quantity. So 'two people'  would be 'liang ge ren'. However, in numbers such as 20 or 200 etc.,   r  is more commonly used. (20 = 二十 (r sh), 200 = 二百 (r bǎi)  etc.) 

Newspapers sometimes abbreviate '20' to 廿 (nin)  and thirty to (s ) .

Note: The usage and pronunciation given here is the Mandarin standard. There are regional variations and in many dialects, 4 and 10 sound the same! Fortunately, the Chinese have a system of indicating numbers by hand signals. This obviates a lot of the confusion! Learn them here!




pīn yīn

Pinyin is a system of rendering Chinese in the Roman alphabet. It was introduced by the Chinese government and is now almost universally accepted as the official method of romanisation. Hence instead of  Peking most people now talk about Beijing, which is much closer to the Chinese pronunciation.

The full system includes tone markers but these are seldom seen in Chinese textbooks or on signs. Incidentally, few Chinese seem to be adept at reading or writing pinyin.

The majority of letters are pronounced similarly to English, but a few are different.

zh is similar to the  "j" sound in English "judge", q like "ch" in "cheap", and x like "sh" in "sheep". 

z is something like the final sound in English "adds" while c is like "ts" in "cats". 


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