Spoken Chinese

Chinese is spoken as a first language by over a billion people, mainly in China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), as well as in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and among overseas Chinese throughout the world.

Chinese dialects

When we speak about Chinese, we usually mean "Mandarin" or "putonghua"--the "common" or national language of China. It is the language used in broadcasting, education and public affairs in most parts of China and is spoken by about 900 million people. It is also the type of Chinese I speak and will speak on this Web site. But Mandarin is really just one of several Chinese dialects, including Cantonese (Yue), Shangainese (Wu), Taiwanese (Minnan), Fukienese (Mindong) and Hakka.


One of the main ways in which spoken Chinese is different from English is its tonality. Chinese has four tones plus a neutral tone. First tone is high and even. Second tone is rising. Third tone has a "curved" sound. Fourth tone is falling and sounds more forceful than the other tones. The neutral tone is the sound of an unaccented syllable. Chinese uses the neutral tone less often, however, than English, which has unaccented syllables in almost every word of more than one syllable.

Each separate syllable in Chinese is represented by a character. In most cases, a character has only one pronunciation and only one tone. In some cases, a character has one pronunciation in two different tones (with different meanings for each tone). In rare cases, a character may have two totally different pronunciations. Sometimes a character that normally has a tone will lose or change the tone when combined with another character into a two-character word. However, most Chinese words--when spoken correctly--retain their original tones. It might be hard at first for you to identify which tone is which, but producing tones correctly and differentiating tones you hear soon becomes easy for most students of Chinese.

Distinguishing different tones is very important since Chinese is a "sound poor" language. The same syllable can mean many different things. So it is important that you speak and listen carefully. Sometimes saying a word with the wrong tone can make it unintelligible to Chinese speakers. For non-Chinese speakers, this is hard to imagine. We may think "mǎ" (马) is close enough to "mā" (妈) to be understandable--they're both just "ma," right? But that's not the case. These two characters--which mean "horse" and "mom," respectively--are as different in sound to Chinese ears as they are in meaning.


Speaking of pronunciation, the basic sounds of Chinese are pretty close to English even if the intonation is different. Chinese has most of the same consonant sounds as English. Chinese lacks the "v" sound, as well as the "st" and "th" sounds. It also lacks the "zh" sound found in "usually." Some consonant sounds in Chinese--like "h" and "r" are sometimes pronounced a little differently than in English, but the differences aren't huge.

Chinese vowel sounds aren't hard to master either. Except for the "ü" sound--found in the French "tu"--Chinese has no vowel sounds not found in English. In fact, the range of vowel sounds in Chinese is narrower than in English. There is no short "a" sound (as in "cat"), short "e" sound (as in "pet"), or short "i" sound (as in "sit"). So, an English speaker studying Chinese probably has fewer new sounds to learn than a Chinese speaker studying English.

Romanizing Chinese

Pinyin is the system used in China to represent Chinese words in the Roman alphabet--the alphabet used by most Western languages. The similarity in basic sounds between English and Chinese may be one reason pinyin is pretty easy for English speakers to learn. Many of the letters in pinyin represent the exact same sounds as they do in English. However, a few are different. Pinyin is a necessary tool for foreigners learning Chinese, but it is also used by Chinese school children as they begin to learn characters.

Besides representing just the basic sound of a word, pinyin also includes tone markers for each word. So, "hello" in pinyin would actually be written "nǐ hǎo"--not just "ni hao."

Chinese Grammar

If tones make Chinese seem forbidding, Chinese grammar should change all that. In comparison with English or some of the grammatically difficult languages--like Arabic, Korean or Russian--Chinese is easy. For starters, Chinese verbs don't change to express tense or number--which are usually expressed by adding small words before or after the verb. In addition, much of the sense of tense is expressed contextually.

Chinese nouns also generally don't change to express the plural. For example, in Chinese we say: "one book" or "four book." The word "book" doesn't change. Nouns also don't have gender (as in French or Spanish) or case (as in Russian or Arabic). In addition, Chinese follows a sentence structure similar to English: subjects come first and verbs second; although objects are sometimes brought to the front of the sentence after the subject.

Of course, Chinese has its own grammatical idiosyncrasies, but even these rules seem manageable when one doesn't have to worry about gender, case, tense and the other common bugaboos of language learning.

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