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Get to Grips with the Complex Linguistic History of China and Learning Mandarin

From Joseph, published on 17/11/2017 Blog > Languages > Chinese > Everything You Need to Know to Learn Chinese
Contents
  • What Languages Do the Chinese Speak?
  • The History of Languages in China
  • Which Variant of Chinese Should I Learn?
  • The Influence of Chinese in Asia
  • Focus on Mandarin Chinese
  • What’s Pinyin?
  • Tones in Chinese

1.3 billion inhabitants and one sixth of the world’s population. 8 urban areas with over 10 million inhabitants and around 30 with over 2 million. 10 million kilometres squared…

China is the third largest country in the world, one of the world’s biggest economic powers, and one of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. It’s also the world’s largest exporter, home to the world’s largest army, and second in terms of military spending. These are the kinds of figures that should grab the attention of students and businessmen, alike!

Over the course of this article, you’re going to find out everything you need to know about learning Chinese and why you should consider moving to China!

What Languages Do the Chinese Speak?

Perhaps you’re itching to put that you can read, write, and speak Chinese on your CV.

How much do Chinese private tutorials cost? Mandarin is the most widely spoken variety of Chinese. (Source: Sindhu Wijaya)

But did you know that there are 81 different languages spoken in China?

  • Which should you choose?

  • Mandarin?

  • Cantonese?

  • Wu?

Let Superprof point you in the right direction. As we said, there are 81 different languages in China. 49 of them share their name with the people that speak them.

  • Han is spoken by the Han.

  • Zhuang by the Zhuang.

  • Buyei and Dai by the… you get the idea!

The 32 remaining languages aren’t named for ethnic groups. For example, there are 90,000 Tibetans who speak rGyalrong rather than “Tibetan”.

Generally speaking, there are more minority languages and dialects in Southern China while there’s a greater degree of similarity between the dialects spoken in the North.

Let’s have a look at the 3 main languages of China.

Mandarin Chinese

It’s the most spoken language in China. Mandarin Chinese or 普通話/普通话 pǔtōnghuà (“common speech”) is spoken by around 955 million people.

Mandarin Chinese has been the official language of the People’s Republic of China since 1956 and is generally the language you’ll learn if you study “Chinese”. If you want to go to China, this is the language you should learn since most of China can speak standard Mandarin Chinese.

You should also know that it’s spoken in Taiwan and Singapore.

Cantonese

Cantonese is spoken by over 71 million people. The language is spoken in Hong Kong, Macao, and a number of regions in Southeast Asia. There are some that say that the language is too simplistic in comparison to Mandarin Chinese and some Chinese people even consider it an ugly language. However, Cantonese is the second most spoken language in China in terms of native speakers. In Hong Kong, choosing to speak Cantonese or Mandarin can be a huge political statement.

Wu

There are 77 million people who speak Wu, a language spoken predominantly in Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. This is where things might get a little confusing. For some Chinese people, Wu is the country’s second language, not Cantonese!

Why is this? Even though the language is made up of various languages and dialects, just like Mandarin Chinese, it’s considered more prestigious than Cantonese. Unfortunately, “Wu” is not accepted in Scrabble! If it was, it would be worth 5 points…

The History of Languages in China

Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. This group includes 10 Sinitic languages (with around 1.35 billion speakers) and 330 Tibeto-Burman languages (with around 70 million speaks).

Which is the best way to learn Chinese? Mandarin Chinese, much like a unified Chinese identity, has been promoted across the nation by the Chinese government. (Source: Zhang Kaiyv)

The Chinese writing system, along with Sumerian and Egyptian writing systems, is one of the world’s oldest. This is often referred to as “Old Chinese” or “Archaic Chinese”. The writing system was logographic which means that the characters represent words or phrases rather than sounds. This can make it as hard to read as hieroglyphics for those not familiar with it. Those who spoke the language in the North are more closely related to Mandarin Chinese while in the Southeast, there are a number of different dialects and languages including Cantonese (Yue), Min (Fujian, Taiwan), Wu (Shanghai).

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin’s most famous time was probably in 1956 when it became the standardised official language of the People’s Republic of China. The reform modified 2,300 complex ideograms in order to make them easier to learn for both the Chinese and foreign speakers. This language originated from the different dialects spoken in the North with the one from the capital, Beijing, being its main source of inspiration.

As a symbol of China’s economic growth, the language has become an important part of business and is the most spoken language in the world.

Cantonese

The word “Cantonese” comes from “Canton”, the Western word for Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province, which is considered to be the home of the language itself. While some see it as a less prestigious Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese has strong roots in the region and has made it difficult for any other language to usurp it.

It’s also spoken in a number of other places such as:

  • Malaysia (750,000 speakers)

  • Vietnam (500,000 speakers)

  • And North America, where there are 180,000 speakers of the language in the city of San Francisco alone.

The words “wok”, “dim sum”, and “mahjong” are all of Cantonese origin.

Which Variant of Chinese Should I Learn?

When it comes to business, speaking Mandarin Chinese would be hugely beneficial and with around 20% of the world’s population speaking it, there are literally thousands and thousands of jobs that require it.

As the world’s 2nd biggest economic power, China is Europe’s second most popular trading partner, just after the United States, and accounts for around 160 billion Euros in trade. Hopefully this makes your decision much easier.

This is one of the main reasons that more and more students are signing up to take Chinese classes and it’s currently estimated that around 30 million people are currently learning Mandarin. It should also be noted that there are plenty of international employers looking for skilled employees who know how to read, write, and speak Mandarin Chinese.

In terms of demand, Cantonese is just after Mandarin Chinese. The language spoken in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia is currently also very popular among young students from the West. In fact, as trade with Hong Kong increases, more and more employers are looking for employees from the West who can speak their language.

The Influence of Chinese in Asia

There are plenty of Asian countries far and wide that are influenced by China.

Which languages are related to Chinese? 60% of Japanese vocabulary is of Chinese origin. (Source: Manuel Joseph)

Japan

The influence of the Chinese language on Japan can be seen quite clearly. In fact, 60% of modern Japanese vocabulary is of Chinese origin.

The presence of a Chinese army in the Land of the Rising Sun had a profound effect on the country’s linguistic landscape. You can find a number of Chinese characters being used in Japanese. These Chinese characters, known as Kanji in Japanese, are used alongside Japan’s two other writing systems: Hiragana and Katakana.

However, the Japanese government likes to downplay China’s effect on the country as they believe China is still trying to exert their influence on them.

Korea

As early as the 5th century BCE, the Chinese Empire was seen as a model civilisation by the Koreans and a number of Chinese influences can still be seen to this day. Culturally speaking, the Middle Kingdom influenced the Koreans in the following ways:

  • Agriculture: through the different technologies of the time for cultivating rice and barley.

  • Law: the drafting of the first civil code and the adoption of an administrative model.

Just like in Japanese, Chinese characters also found their way into Korean and it’s thought that between 60% and 70% of Korean’s vocabulary is made up of Sino-Korean words.

Vietnam

When speaking about the relationship between China and Vietnam, you have to be careful as it’s quite difficult to find trustworthy information on the subject.

In terms of linguistics, we know that Chinese and Vietnamese belong to two different language families. However, there are phonetic similarities between the two languages! In fact, while there are also certain grammatical similarities between Mandarin Chinese in some cases, the phonetic similarities between Cantonese and Vietnamese are even greater.

While the language is more similar to ancient Chinese, there is a clear Cantonese influence on Vietnamese due to the historical relationship between the two regions.

Singapore

Of all the ethnic groups in Singapore, the Chinese population is the biggest. The country’s comprised of four main linguistic groups: one for each of the country’s official languages. Mandarin Chinese is the language spoken by most of the Chinese-speaking inhabitants.

While there’s a tendency for Mandarin households to also speak English, we can confirm that Mandarin makes up part of the city-state’s multilingual landscape

Focus on Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 955 million people. With so many speakers, it’s worth focusing on this variant of Chinese.

How many people speak Chinese? Mandarin Chinese is spoken by 955 million people! (Source: Dom J)

What are the main things about Mandarin Chinese?

Firstly, Mandarin is a tonal language. This means that the pronunciation can completely change the meaning of certain words even if they’re written completely the same.

There are 4 tones in Mandarin:

  • The first tone is the high-level tone.

  • The second tone is the rising tone.

  • The third tone is dipping tone.

  • The fourth tone is the falling tone.

Grammatical rules:

  • The determiner always comes first regardless of whether it’s part of a sentence (adverb before the ver), a subordinate clause, or a noun consisting of several sinographs.

  • Negatives are made by putting a grammatical element before the verb. The character bù is used in the present of future before all verbs except yǒu (to have) which is preceded by the character méi.
  • When referring to a discouraged or forbidden action, the negation is expressed using the character or bié or biè before the verb.

Of course, if you’re going to learn Mandarin Chinese, you’ll need to know how to count, too!

  • One: or yī, pronounced [yi]
  • Two: or èr, pronounced [ar]
  • Three: or sān, pronounced [sahn]
  • Four: or sì, pronounced [seu]
  • Five: or wǔ, pronounced [wou]

Finally, as you probably know, both Japanese and Chinese follow a strict set of rules when it comes to being polite.

If you want to mingle with the Chinese, you’ll need to learn how to say:

  • Hello = nǐhǎo, pronounced [ni hao]

  • What’s your name? = nín guì xìng, pronounced [nin gouay shing]

  • Yes = shì, pronounced [shu]

  • No = bú shì, pronounced [bou chi]

  • Thank you = xiè xiè, pronounced [chi chi]

If you know the basics of Mandarin Chinese, you’ll be able to progress quickly and settle in China.

What’s Pinyin?

As you probably know, China has been looking beyond its own borders in recent years. This can be very clearly seen in Pinyin, the system for transcribing the Chinese language in the Latin Alphabet.

Invented by Zhou Yougouang, it wouldn’t be until 1982 that the International Organization for Standardization in the People’s Republic of China recognised it as the official system for the romanisation of Mandarin Chinese.

In addition to being a huge step towards the west, this system has also helped improve the literacy of the Chinese population (which is at 95% according to UNICEF).

The Chinese can now also benefit from 25 of the letters in the Latin Alphabet. V is not included. You’ll also see that Pinyin includes 5 tones.

Tones in Chinese

You may have learnt during your studies of foreign languages that the English language is not tonal. Despite how well some speakers of our language can sing, tone barely plays a role in English.

However, the use of tone in Mandarin Chinese is really important as well as being the stuff of nightmares for those trying to learn the language.

There are actually 5 tones in Chinese:

  1. The first tone is high and level.

  2. The second tone is a high and rising.

  3. The third tone is much like a wave: a mid-range tone that falls then rises.

  4. The fourth tone starts high and then descends.

  5. The fifth is the neutral tone.

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