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China > General information > Languages


Chinese initially seems a baffling cacophony of tones and a labyrinth of characters, but with a little effort, a good sense of humor and the odd hand gesture you should be able to make yourself understood. Even the tiniest bit of spoken Chinese will help traveling in practical terms, but will also be widely appreciated by anyone who you try it out on. Learning Mandarin Chinese is no easy feat – the tones and the characters see to that, however, the grammatical structure is comparatively simple and even just a few hours study should yield some results, if only in your understanding of the tenets of the language rather than practical usage.



There are countless different dialects of Chinese (known as hanyu or zhongwen in China and guoyu in Taiwan) which can sound as unalike as a deep southern drawl and a New York accent, and there are also a host of other spoken languages amongst the ethnic minorities.  


The prevalent form of Chinese on the mainland is putonghua (normal language), the Beijing dialect which has clearly defined tones and a tendency to add “er” to the end of words. In the far south and Hong Kong, guangdonghua or Cantonese is the prevalent tongue and with its garrulous nine tones, feels a world away from the refined north. Other major dialects include Shanghainese and Hokkien (minnanhua) which is spoken in Fujian.  


Some of the most widely spoken ethnic languages are Hakka (kejia), Mongol, Uyghur and Tibetan. Putonghua is understood throughout China and Taiwan, although in remote rural areas older people may only speak their regional or ethnic dialect. 


The Spoken Word 

Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that any character can have many different meanings according to its tone and the character it is connected to. There are four principal tones (1- high flat, 2 - low rising, 3 - like a Chinese hat upside down, and 4 - abrupt falling) and a fifth “toneless” tone. This means that any one character can have many different meanings depending upon its tone and the character it is linked with. Thus: (1 - mother), (2 - hemp), (3 - horse), (4 - scold).  


Unless you are a natural linguist the tones take some mastering, but don’t be shy to try – if you have context (you’re in a bar and you ask for a beer for example) you’re likely to be understood even if your tone is a little off. However, be prepared for a few blank faces too! Even if you have good Mandarin many people just won’t expect you to speak Chinese and are convinced they won’t be able to understand you – repeating yourself should do the trick.  


Amusingly if you manage to get into a conversation but then hit a linguistic stumbling block some people will write the Chinese character in the belief that this will be easier to understand. This offers some insight into the diversity of the language – people from far flung parts of the country may not understand eachother’s dialects, but if they can read they’ll be able to communicate. Practicing the tones for some basic phrases and then trying them out in context makes a good way to start teaching yourself Chinese, although understanding the responses can be more problematic!  


If you’re really keen to learn the language then there are plenty of great places to do just that all over the country, from short lessons to entire courses. For me though the best way to learn a language is to absorb yourself in a country – gradually the strings of unintelligible sentences start to break down into words and once you’ve heard the word enough times to repeat it, ask what it is and that’s your word for the day… 



The Written Word 

You need to know around a couple of thousand Chinese characters to be able to read a newspaper and learning to write Chinese takes years of study. However, even for the short-term visitor there is insight found through understanding a few of the characters. The Chinese written language was originally a pictographic language and this can still be seen in some of its more elemental symbols such as fire, middle and mountain. In 1956 as part of Chairman Mao’s drive to increase literacy, the Chinese written form was simplified and thousands of characters were lost or altered.  


This system has indeed facilitated learning but in Hong Kong and Taiwan the original characters remain in use and are admired for their elegance and sense of history. As a language without an alphabet Chinese has to adapt itself and create new character combinations to deal with modern inventions.  Thus train literally translates as fire-car and computer means electric brain!   


Chinese has been Romanized into a system called pinyin (spellsound) which also incorporates the tones and is far more effective than the dated Wade-Giles transliteration still used in Taiwan. Many of the letters are pronounced in the same or a similar way to their English sound, however there are a few notable exceptions: c (ts, thus cun is tsun) / q (ch, thus qin is Chin) / x (sh, thus xie xie is she she) / z (ds, thus zai is dsai), zh (j, thus zhong is jong). 



Chinese grammar offers some light relief from the complexity of the tonal and written language and is fairly simple compared with English. Sentence order generally follows the subject verb object format and a few basic words offer the key to changing tenses and altering sentences from statements to questions or demands.   


If ma is added to the end of any sentence it makes it into a question (ni yao ma = “Do you want?”), or alternatively the verb can simply be repeated after a negative (ni yao bu yao = you want not want meaning “Do you want?”). There is no conjugation of verbs and to change tenses you simply start the sentence with the relevant one of the following (yiqian or zhiqian=before/ yi hou or wei lai=after or in the future). 


Chinese finger counting 


The presence of numerous mutually unintelligible local dialects has led to the development of an easy system of finger counting in China.  Memorize the hand signals below (from left to right, they represent the numbers one to 10) and you’re all set for a hard day of bargaining at the markets. 


 Chinese finger counting

Chinese finger counting

See also 

Chinese basic words & phrases: meeting people, food, restaurants, hotels,…

Chinese basic words: figures, months, emergency 

Beijing & Chengde glossary

Xi’an Chinese glossary 

Guangzhou & Shenzhen glossary 

Shanghai & Suzhou glossary 

Chongqing & Three Gorges glossary 

Yangshuo & Longji glossary 

Guilin Chinese glossary 

Back to China Travel Guide homepage



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