Basics of Chinese Language


Traditional of “Hanyu” on top, Simplified on bottom. Image from: Wikipedia

Chinese, or “Hanyu,” looks like a daunting mammoth of a language to anyone who grew up outside the culture. Here are some basics to the absolute beginner who is interested in learning more about the language.

  1. What became known as the Chinese language began developing as early as 1300-1200 BCE on oracle bones, but documents containing the written language date back to 3000-3500 years ago.
  2. Today, over 1.2 billion people speak the language. Dialects based on region and locality are numerous, but the standardized form is known as “Putonghua,” or the Beijing Dialect.
  3. There are two current forms of Mandarin Chinese written: Traditional and Simplified. Traditional was utilized for the majority of Mainland Chinese history and is still in use today, both in government and in Taiwan. Simplified is used primarily in Mainland China, and is often the version taught in overseas programs.
  4. Chinese grammar is perhaps the most basic in the world for a number of reasons:
    1. There are no plurals. Instead, numbers and “measure words” (such as a “cup” of water) are used to denote more than one of an object.
    2. There are no verb conjugations. To change tenses, you simply add one or two extra characters. There is also no difference between “present” and “future” tenses. It’s good to think of it as “it has been done” or “it has yet to be done.”
    3. Grammar runs as follows in almost every scenario: Subject + Verb + Object. Adverbs and adjectives are often placed before verbs.
  5. The most difficult part of learning Mandarin Chinese is the five tones. The way a sound is pronounced ultimately determines the meaning of the sound. For instance, the sound “ma” can mean “mother” or ” to scold,” dependent solely on the sound being made. Note that the characters used are also different, but when speaking it, the tone denotes the character being utilized.
  6. Each character represented an image of itself. A great example of this is 火,which means “fire.” You can easily see a crackling fire in the image, with two sparks flying, one on each side. More complicated characters combine numerous images into one.
  7. Anyone can learn the language! If interested in resources, be sure to check out the Sources of Learning page for more details!