A Brief Introduction to Spoken Chinese – by Rachael Binns

View between Chinese building

Chinese is a language that both interests and baffles many of us. There is a common belief that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to master, both in spoken and written forms. But our Resources Coordinator Rachael Binns informs us that it’s actually not as alien to us as we might think…

With a language and culture so different from the familiar languages of the West, China is fascinating and has been a focus of exoticism and curiosity for the West for centuries with tea, silks and spices.

The last few decades have shown a new attention to China as it has risen into the global and economic market, which has also lead to an increase in interest in studying the language. Many people are now familiar with the basic greeting, Nihao 你好, and thank you, Xiexie 谢谢, but the language still remains alien to us for the most part…

China: a Multilingual Haven
92% of the Chinese population speak a form of Chinese as their mother tongue. However, Chinese, in its many varieties, is just 1 of 128 different languages spoken across China. Other languages include English, Russian, Korean, Portuguese, Mongolian and Tibetan.

The Many Dialects of Chinese
Chinese in itself is a complex language. Unlike English, where our dialects are understood for the most part by anyone who understands English, China’s dialects are like sub-languages. Three most commonly known dialects are Mandarin (the official language of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and Singapore), Cantonese (spoken in Guangzhou) and Taiwanese.

However, there are many more varieties that form the different dialects across the empire that we call China. The less common varieties of Chinese, spoken only in specific parts of the country, are only understood by those who have lived in the area and learnt the dialect.

Many of the provinces within China have their own, non-mutually intelligible dialects of Chinese and there are 55 non-Han officially recognised ethnicities in China, many of them have their own dialect too. Considering the dialects and regional variations within the UK, with a population of over 1.4 billion and a land mass nearly 40 times the size of the UK, it is hardly surprising.

Speaking Chinese: It’s all in the tone
Another commonly held belief is Chinese is very difficult to learn because of the tones. In this respect Mandarin is the simplest with only 4 tones – Cantonese and Taiwanese have even more!

The four tones in Mandarin are vital to prevent misunderstanding but not as alien to the English Language as many people think. We use the rising tone for asking questions and the falling tone when angry.

But for the native Chinese speaker, English speakers must be very confusing. We hide meaning and emotion behind the tone of our voices that a native would understand (most of the time) but may present minefields for those less accustomed to the English language.

Chinese Puns and Plays on Words
In the Chinese language, particularly in Mandarin, there are many plays on words which form the basis for traditions and symbolisms.

For example, ‘fudaole’ 福到了translates as ‘fortune has arrived’, sounds similar to福倒了 ‘fortune is inverted’. Signs displaying the symbol 福 are traditionally hung upside down, often in restaurants or in homes around Chinese New Year, as a way of inviting good fortune.

Another symbolistic tradition is to eat a meal served with lettuce as the first meal of the New Year. This is because shēngcài 生菜 sounds almost the same as shēng cái生財, meaning ‘to make money’. 

In my next article, I will delve more into the fascinating writing system used to create the iconic written Chinese we see today, and the history behind the logographic script used to communicate the language in visual form. 

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