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Seven Things You Didn't Know About the Chinese Language

In an effort to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, the United Nations designated six separate days of observation -- one each for the organization’s six official languages. Today, April 20, is Chinese Language Day. We can think of no better occasion to highlight a few of the things that make Chinese so amazing. Read on for a roundup of seven phenomenal facts about the Chinese language.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
Seven Things You Didn't Know About the Chinese Language

In an effort to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity, the United Nations designated six separate days of observation -- one each for the organization’s six official languages. Today, April 20, is Chinese Language Day. We can think of no better occasion to highlight a few of the things that make Chinese so amazing. Read on for a roundup of seven phenomenal facts about the Chinese language.

1. It is the world’s most used mother tongue.

Ethnologue estimates that there are approximately 1.2 billion native Chinese speakers in the world -- the vast majority of whom speak Mandarin. If the sheer number doesn’t impress you, maybe this perspective will: One out of every six people on the planet speak Chinese. This makes it the planet's most widely spoken language. In fact, there are more native Chinese speakers than there are English, Spanish, German and French speakers combined!

2. Chinese is a “family of languages.”

Most of us think of Chinese as a single language. However, it’s actually a “family of languages.”

Explains South China Post Magazine, "From a linguistic viewpoint, ‘Chinese’ acts like ‘Romance’ or ‘Germanic’ – the generic name for a family of languages somewhat related through history and culture. In the broadest sense, the Chinese language, a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family, encompasses seven main regional groups of Sinitic, such as: Mandarin; Wu, which includes Shanghainese; Min, which includes Hokkien and Chiuchow; Hakka; and Yue, which includes Cantonese. Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible – spoken Mandarin and Cantonese are as distant as Italian and Romanian. Still, these varieties are often commonly referred to as ‘dialects’ of Chinese."

Adds Today Translations, “The terms and concepts used by Chinese Translators to think about language are different from those used in the West, partly because of the unifying effects of the Chinese characters used in writing, and also due to differences in the political and social development of China in comparison with Europe, for example. Whereas after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe fragmented into small nation-states, whose identities were often defined by the language, China was able to preserve cultural and political unity through the same period. It maintained a common written standard throughout its entire history, despite the fact that its actual diversity in spoken language has always been comparable to Europe.”

3. There is an unlimited number of Chinese characters.

Unlike many languages, the Chinese writing system is not based on an alphabet, but instead utilizes characters or “logographs,” which represent units of meaning. While there is an unlimited number of Chinese characters, most literate people know approximately 8,000 characters. Meanwhile, if you want to read the newspaper, you’ll need to know somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000.

4. The Chinese language dates back thousands of years.

“The Chinese language is the oldest written language in the world with at least six thousand years of history. Chinese character inscriptions have been found in turtle shells dating back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1123 BC) proving the written language has existed for more than 3,000 years,” says EthoMed.

Of course, the language has developed, changed and evolved over time. Reveals Linda Mandarin, “The modern iteration of Mandarin was originally the dialect of Beijing. Mandarin, pu tong hua, now serves as a common language across the entirety of China.”

5. Some claim it is the last remaining pictographic language.

Similar to the hieroglyphics used by ancient Egyptians, Chinese may be the last remaining pictographic language still used in everyday life. Others contend that it’s not a pictographic language at all because while the oldest characters may be pictographic (meaning that they are drawn from looking at the world), others are not.

Regardless of whether you count Chinese as pictographic or not, knowing the pictographic characters is very helpful to Chinese language students. Says ThoughtCo. “Even though it's true that only a small proportion of Chinese characters are pictographs, that doesn't mean that they aren't important. First, they represent some very basic concepts that students need to learn early on. They aren't necessarily the most common characters (those are usually grammatical in nature), but they are still common….Second, and more importantly, pictographs are very common as components of other characters. If you want to learn to read and write Chinese, you have to break characters down and understand both the structure and the components themselves.

6. Many people are learning Chinese as a second language, including celebs!

Chinese is growing in popularity as a second language -- particularly in the West. Said Robert Davis, who heads up the Chinese-language program for Chicago’s public school system, “Chinese isn’t the new French, it’s the new English.”

Chinese is not only the most widely spoken native language, it’s also an increasingly popular second language. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, Malia Obama, and former Australian Prime minister Kevin Rudd have all studied Chinese.

7. Learning it may not be as hard as you think.

While there are many compelling reasons to learn Chinese, some people are deterred from studying this language because they think it’s too hard. While we won’t say that Chinese is easy, it may be easier than you think. Experts attribute a lot of this to technology -- specifically, to typing.

Insists the TutorMing Chinese Language and Culture blog, “Without taking anything away from the rewarding experience of learning how to write Chinese characters, technology is an important means of communication in China, and typing in Chinese makes the learning process a whole lot easier. All you need to be able to type in Chinese is to be able to spell out the pinyin of the word you wish to type, and be able to pick out the character from a list. When comparing the respective difficulties of handwriting and reading Chinese characters, doing away with the stroke order bit is going to save you at least half your time. In fact, many literate Chinese, despite having memorized stroke orders as children, have trouble recalling how to write even basic characters in adulthood. “

One last thing to keep in mind if you're thinking of studying Chinese? While it’s possible to learn the language anywhere and everywhere these days, a trip abroad may give you an invaluable inside edge. One recent graduate who studied abroad told CGRN America, “My greatest strides in Chinese came about when I first arrived at Tsinghua and had to navigate my new environment without any translators-and for a few days- any other foreigners. Playing basketball and other sports with Chinese people my age also opened up ability for me to build friendships and in turn practice my Chinese.” This may also explain why so many international students are choosing China for their international study adventures.





Joanna Hughes

Author

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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