Overview of the Chinese Language

Chinese is the most popular language in the world. More than one billion people in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places in East Asia speak Chinese. Significant populations of people who speak Chinese also live in urban centers around the world. For example, San Francisco has the largest Chinese-speaking population of any city outside of China.

Chinese actually consists of a large number of dialects which share a written language but are mutually unintelligible when spoken. Because of this, some linguists consider them separate languages instead of dialects. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, and it is the most widely-spoken form of Chinese. Other important linguistic groups include Cantonese, Wu, Xiang, Hakka, Min, and Gan. Within each group, many variations in spoken language occur. It is said that speakers from one area may not understand those who live only a few miles away. The majority of Chinese speakers in the United States speak Cantonese.

Formal and Informal Address in the Chinese Language

When speaking Chinese to an older person or someone in a formal setting, Chinese speakers use the second person nín instead of the more general n. In addition, Chinese uses a number of terms to indicate their respect for the person to whom they are speaking including guì (honored or honorable). To show respect for an older person, Chinese speakers often use the word o, meaning venerable or old, after the person’s last name.

Chinese Pronunciation and Chinese Grammar

The Chinese language is a tonal language, which means that a given word can change meaning depending on its tone. Mandarin Chinese has four tones: flat, rising, falling then rising, and falling. Other dialects can have as many as nine tones. Careless use of tones with the syllable ma in Mandarin Chinese could cause one to call someone’s mother a horse! So be careful with your Chinese pronunciation.

Chinese verbs never change form. The speaker is indicated by a pronoun, while time or aspect are marked by adverbs and a series of particles (suffix-like syllables) that indicate completion, continuation, and emotion.

As you learn Chinese pronouns, you will notice that the words for "he" and "she" share the sound , but are represented by two different Chinese characters. When you listen to people speak Chinese, you must use the context to differentiate between the pronouns.

The Chinese language was traditionally written from right to left in vertical columns. Today, most material published in the People’s Republic of China is printed in rows read from left to right as in English, while Taiwan’s publishers continue to write Chinese using the traditional method.