Chinese Language

Learning the Chinese Language

Zhong wen

Learning how to speak

The term 'Chinese' is a generic term for the group of languages spoken by the Han Chinese people. The most important numerically is known as Mandarin or Northern Chinese, spoken by about 800 million people. It forms the basis of Putonghua or Modem Standard Chinese, the sort you bear on the radio, TV and most Chinese films from China itself. If you want to go to China, then this is by far the most useful to learn, and this article is mostly about learning Putonghua.

In Britain, though, Cantonese is much more widely spoken amongst the Chinese community, because most Chinese families here have their roots in Hong Kong or other areas of South China where Cantonese is the main language. Cantonese is quite different from Putonghua in pronunciation and even grammar, although the written form of the language is the same (Chinese characters). People from the North who go to Canton sometimes have to resort to writing down what they mean in order to make themselves understood!

Learning online

We have set up a few pages on this site to give a flavour for the study of Chinese. These include references to online resources for learning Chinese.

Getting a textbook

To get started you can do no better than with Get by in Chinese by Katherine Flower (BBC, 1988), supplied with a CD. It takes you through basic survival Mandarin Chinese: asking the way, shopping, saying hello, thank you and so on, in an enjoyable and friendly way. There are listening exercises at the end of each chapter. There are no Chinese characters, but the aim of the book is to help you speak, not read.

A useful companion volume is About Chinese by Richard Newnham (Pelican), which gives you plenty of background information about the language you have embarked upon.

Finding a class

Most people find it hard to learn a language entirely on their own. Joining an evening class gives you the chance to practise with other people, and provides a structure to your learning. Most importantly, you will have a teacher to ask about your problems, to guide your learning and point out your mistakes. Especially in the early stages it is vital that you get into good habits in pronunciation. You can find lists of evening (and day) classes in Chinese at your local library.

Pinyin romanisation

In order to speak Chinese you will need to get used to one of the many romanisation systems used to write the sounds of the language. Of these, Hanyu Pinyin (HP) is the most widely used in China nowadays: in the Western translations of official documents personal and place names such as Deng Xiaoping, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Tianjin etc are all now written in HP. You will find a brief explanation of this system in 'Get by in Chinese'.

The Four Tones

Chinese does not use all the possible vowel and consonant combinations. To get around this limitation Chinese uses tone to distinguish syllables that sound very similar to a Western ear. But mandarin or putonghua has fewer than Cantonesee. For more information on tones please look at our tones page.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2004, author David Wright, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 144, Page 21, 1993

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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