Basic Chinese Language
At first sight the Chinese Language seems one of hardest languages to learn. To English speakers who often have very limited exposure to foreign languages at school, the level of difficulty looks completely overwhelming. My experience is that appearances are deceptive. The first thing that hits you is the mass of squiggles and strokes that make up written Chinese. When starting with a European language you at least see familiar characters and quite often a number of words immediately seem and are familiar because they have common origins. It's a whole new ball game when it comes to Chinese, there are virtually no common words or language constructs, you can't just start by looking for similarities as there aren't any obvious ones. Before giving up in horror, there are a number of things that are actually simpler in Chinese : spelling in pinyin is phonetic; there are no complex verb declensions (as in German, Latin); there are no complex plurals (as in English) and no gender to nouns (as in French).
There is a separate page explaining this topic in more detail, the bare outline is as follows. The written Chinese script is not phonetic, it is basically symbolic, and so to make it easier for non-Chinese speakers and for anyone learning Chinese it is convenient to have a system of spelling the characters as they are pronounced using the standard Western alphabet. Over the years different ways have been devised to achieve this, of these only the Chinese 'pinyin' system is now widely used. It must be stressed that there are regions in China which use a different verbal language but the written characters are the same. The 'pinyin' system uses the phonetic spelling for 'mandarin' or 'putonghua' or Northern Chinese. If Chinese people from different regions meet and they don't both speak 'putonghua' they can make themselves understood by writing. Cantonese is the most important separate Chinese language. As many Chinese settlers in the world come from the Guangdong area of China you will find Cantonese rather than Mandarin used, for example, in Chinese restaurants and people's names.
The basic sounds of Chinese are different to English so in most cases using English consonants and vowels are at best a crude approximation to the Chinese sounds. Some sounds are new, others are modified. For example the letter 'x' is used to indicate a difficult 'hs' type of sound and 'r' loses its 'roll' and is more neutral. So next time you hear a Chinaman struggling with English sounds, imagine how odd our attempts at Chinese must sound to him.
There are about 50,000 characters or pictograms in Chinese but people can get by with as few as 2,000. The 'characters' are not quite the same as words they are more like syllables, some common words are single characters but many 'words' are made up of just two characters. Learning so many characters is a daunting prospect but, as in English, once the most commonly used ones are learnt the basic gist of any written Chinese can be grasped. The fact that characters are drawn in a standard way each time it is used leads to many of the stranger features of Chinese, you can't easily tack on more strokes to indicate a plural or change of tense as this would be very confusing. Instead of modifying words the meaning is imparted for the sentence as a whole. It is the order of characters in a sentence that carries a lot of meaning, for example by moving one character within a sentence the tense can be changed from 'doing' to 'done'.
We have some pages that start you off on this difficult but rewarding journey. Rather than start with grammar we've just included the very minimum of commonly used characters from which very simple sentences can be constructed. Of course, we've ignored the finer points of Chinese but it should give you a flavour of what's involved. Only 44 characters are used, for each character we give the 'pinyin' with tone marks above vowels, the calligraphic representation (how you would write it) as well as notes on its derivation and meaning. We have a main index page showing all the characters in abbreviated form, click on a character to get more information about each one.
Many of the most common characters in Chinese have a rich history and are easy to remember. We've put together just 44 characters that give a flavour of what Chinese is all about. For more information about learning chinese please go to our introduction page.
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