April 20th is Chinese Language Day! How much do you know about this fascinating and widespread language? We’re here to share some of our favorite facts about what makes this language so cool—and maybe inspire you to try your hand at it!
Chinese boasts more native speakers than any other language.
Believe it or not, almost 20% of the world’s population speaks some variety of Chinese language, with around one billion people speaking Mandarin alone. That’s a big chunk of the world! English also has over one billion speakers worldwide (though far fewer speak it as a native language than Chinese), which means that English speakers who learn Chinese will be able to communicate with almost half of the world’s population. Now that’s impressive!
It’s one of the oldest languages still spoken today.
The oldest fragments of Chinese writing date back to around 1250 BCE. Ancient Chinese priests carved these markings onto oracle bones—fragments of bones and turtle shells used to communicate with deities and ancestors. The language has developed into its modern form over 3,000+ years and is still going strong!
There are many different Chinese dialects.
China is a huge country, so it stands to reason that it’s populated by speakers of many different languages. While Mandarin is the national language and by far the most popular, there are at least 7 or more different language families in China. You’ll meet more Mandarin speakers in Northern, Eastern, and Southwestern China. Cantonese is most spoken in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and in Hong Kong. Other Southern dialects include Wu and Gan.
While you might not be able to converse easily with someone who speaks a different Chinese dialect, you may still be able to communicate through writing. The different Chinese language groups share the same writing system (called hànzì). Pro tip, though: Mandarin usually uses simplified Chinese characters and Cantonese more commonly uses traditional Chinese.
Chinese doesn’t assign genders to nouns.
Quick! Is “table” masculine, feminine, or neutral? If you’re learning Chinese, that’s a question you’ll never have to ask yourself. Unlike Spanish, French, Italian, German, or many of the other popular Indo-European languages, Chinese nouns don’t come with assigned genders. Chinese shares that in common with English—which may make it easier for English speakers to learn Chinese grammar!
Spoken Chinese also doesn’t use different words for the pronouns “he/him,” “she/her,” or “it.” You just need to learn one word for all of them: tā.
Over 50,000 Chinese characters— maybe as many as 100,000—exist today.
There is no Chinese alphabet. Instead, characters represent words and concepts. Some of them are still recognizable to people who don’t know Chinese. For example, can you guess what this character means?
If you guessed ‘fly,’ you are correct. Don’t worry, you don’t need to learn 50,000 characters to learn Chinese as a beginner. Experts say that you can easily read a newspaper if you know about 2,500 characters. The government actually published a list of the most essential characters to know, and that boiled down to 3,500.
Unlike English, Chinese is tonal.
To speak Chinese languages, you need to pay close attention to the pitch of your voice. There are four (or five!) different tones. Luckily, a tone mark written above the words can help you remember which tone to use—or you might accidentally say ‘horse’ instead of ‘mom!’ Here’s a breakdown of the different tones:
1. Flat tone. A high pitched, straight tone. Example: mā (mother)
2. Rising tone. Starts lower and becomes higher. Example: má (fibers like hemp or flax)
3. Falling and rising tone. Starts higher, dips lower, then rises higher. Example: mǎ (horse)
4. Falling tone. Starts higher and dips lower. Example: mà (scold or curse)
And depending on who you ask, there’s an additional neutral tone with no tone mark at all.
Mandarin Chinese is one of the most sought-after languages for business.
After English, Mandarin is the top language used to conduct business internationally. The huge number of Mandarin speakers worldwide and China’s status as the USA’s top trading partner make the ability to speak Mandarin very valuable in the business world. Some studies show that bilingual workers often earn more than workers who only speak one language. Learning Chinese can certainly help candidates stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Learning Chinese can help improve other skills, too.
Can learning Chinese make you better at your other hobbies? It’s possible. Learning a tonal language like Chinese can help learners recognize differences in pitch and sound, which may improve music skills. Learning to write and recognize Chinese characters can help with fine motor skills and art abilities. It may even help improve math skills!
If you’re feeling inspired to learn Mandarin Chinese, we can help with that. We offer individual and group online classes for both adults and kids. A live instructor will guide you toward all of your Chinese language learning goals—and make sure you don’t accidentally call your mom a horse!