Ten facts you need to know about the Chinese language

The Chinese language has evolved over the centuries into modern Mandarin that is spoken and written today. It is a language deeply rooted in cultural significance and modern practicality. It is fun and fascinating to learn. Here are ten facts about Chinese which we hope will give you insights to parts of the language that you may not really know.

1, Are Chinese and Mandarin the same languages?

A: Mandarin is the official language of China. It’s also referred to as Standard Chinese or Putonghua. But that doesn’t mean Mandarin is the only language in China.  Far from it! Many varieties of regional Chinese exist. These are often called “dialects,” i.e. Shanghai dialect, Hunan dialect, Shaanxi dialect, etc. It is worth pointing out that Cantonese is one from of the regional language in China. Besides dialects, some Chinese ethnic minorities also have their own languages, some of which are not written.

2, Is there any similarity in pronunciation between Chinese and English?

A: Yes! The pronunciation of some English words has had an impact on the sound of the Chinese equivalent, i.e. chocolate – 巧克力 (qiǎokèlì), sofa – 沙发 (shāfā), bus – 巴士 ( bāshì), coffee – 咖啡 ( kāfēi), etc.

3, How many people in China speak English? How many people in the UK speak Chinese?

A:  Among its population of 1.3 billion, it is reported that only around 10 million Chinese people speak English. Although there is no definitive number of British people speaking Chinese, reports have shown that among its 66 million population, 38% speak at least one foreign language, 18% speak two and 6% speak three or more. Chinese has long been perceived to be the most difficult language to learn and it has never been very popular in the UK. That view is, however, changing. According to British Council, Mandarin Chinese is predicted to become the second most popular foreign language learned in UK schools. It is already studied by more students than German or Russian. At the moment only French and Spanish are more popular.

4, When do Chinese children begin to learn Chinese characters?

A: Although Chinese children officially start to learn characters after they enter primary school (at the age of 6), these days many Chinese families teach their children before nursery (at about 3yrs). According to the national syllabus, primary school students should be able to read and write the following number of characters:

Year 1-2: Read 1600, write 800;

Year 3-4: Read 2500, write 1600;

Year 5-6: Read 3000, write 2500;

Year 7-9: Read/write 3500.

To get your Chinese level on the chart, one will have to push for HSK4 or GCSE. ;-(

5, How many characters do you need to know in order to read Chinese newspapers fluently?

A: Although there are over 50,000 characters in Chinese (a comprehensive modern dictionary will list about 20,000 frequently used characters), an educated Chinese person will only know about 8,000 characters. To read mainstream publications, the requirement is much lower – you will only need about 2-3,000. Still, one needs to work towards HSK Level 5 to almost become a native speaker!

6, Are there any rules for Chinese writing?

A: There is no space between Chinese characters.  For each character, the general writing rule is to start from the left to the right, from the top move to the bottom, and from the middle to the two sides. You may like to consider how to write “ 大” following the above rule.

7, What is the most complicated Chinese character?

A:   “biáng”  is an unofficial character which has 64 strokes. Not only does the dizzying number of strokes dwarf just about any other, biáng needs to be written twice when appears in the name of a famous Shaanxi region dish (biángbiáng miàn). “biáng” is an onomatopoeia for the sound of noodles slapping against the chef’s cooking top.

8, Are there any good ways to learn the characters?

A: Definitely yes! Trying to remember some common radicals is very helpful. For example, plant radical “艹” (cǎo zì tóu). The characters with this radical are ordinarily related to plants: 草 (cǎo, grass), 花(huā, flower ), 菜 (cài, vegetable); another example is the water radical “氵” (sān diǎn shuǐ). The characters with this radical are ordinarily related to water: 海 (hǎi, sea),  河 ( hé, river), 洗 (xǐ, to wash).

9, While spoken Chinese languages and dialects vary across the country, written Chinese has only slight regional variations. Do you know why?

A: That’s because the Chinese characters are logograms. They represent words or phrases rather sounds. As such, they transcend most of the variations in speech found across China. That said, there are some dialectal differences in written Chinese, particularly with Cantonese and Hakka. Mostly, these differences are apparent in informal writing between friends or online. However, written Cantonese is sometimes used in adverts in Hong Kong, especially in Hong Kong’s Metro.

10, Are there any benefits of learning Chinese other than cultural and linguistic awareness?

A: Studies suggest that people who speak Chinese will learn to use both temporal lobes of their brains, whereas English speakers will only use the left side (sorry!). Both temporal lobes are required to distinguish between words that have different intonation in Chinese.


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