Things to know about Chinese
Mandarin Chinese, also known as Standard Mandarin, is the language spoken across Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect, and has functioned as the official language of China since 1955.
The Chinese writing system consists of characters rather than alphabet letters. Chinese consists of more than 8000 characters. Luckily, in order to understand almost all Chinese media, it is necessary to have knowledge of only 2500 to 3000 characters.
With eTeacher, you can learn Chinese online using both Pinyin (Standard Mandarin Romanization) and Chinese characters.
Chinese languages are classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. There are seven major dialect groups: Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Min, and Yue.
For many centuries, the Beijing dialect was recognized as the standard language of China. This was due to the political and cultural importance of the capital. In 1955, the Beijing dialect was chosen by the government as the national language of China, and forms the basis of Standard Mandarin.
The differences between the Chinese dialects are significant. Historically, oral communication between Chinese people who did not speak the same dialect was extremely difficult. The written Chinese characters were the only shared means of communication.
With eTeacher you can learn Mandarin Chinese, which is the language used in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. Mandarin is also gaining influence in Hong Kong.
To many Westerners, the Chinese language seems complicated and perplexing. The saying "It's all Chinese to me!" is commonly used to express a lack of comprehension. Therefore, it may come as a surprise that Chinese grammar is much more simple and easier to learn compared to other languages, such as German, French, English or Russian.
Mandarin Chinese does not mark singular/plural distinction. For example, mao can refer to either one cat or many cats. Plurality is only marked with pronouns, and there are no markers for tense.
Many Chinese words are very simple and consist of a single morpheme (syllable) and no component parts. Seventy percent of Chinese words have two syllables, and the rest are three or four syllables.
Written Chinese consists of characters, not letters. The earliest Chinese characters are believed to have originated from Neolithic proto-writing, circa 6500 B.C. The oldest Chinese writing is the Oracle bone script, a writing system attributed to the late Shang Dynasty (1200 - 1050 B.C.), from Anyang and from Zhengzhou (1600 B.C.).
The character system has been in use for more than 3000 years. In written Chinese, each character corresponds to a single syllable that has a meaning, and characters are often used as a single-syllable word. However, most words in Chinese are polysyllabic, consisting of two, three or even four syllables.
Studies have shown that full literacy requires knowledge of between 3000 and 4000 characters. However, a knowledge of 2500-3000 characters allows one to read newspapers and other media quite comfortably.
Chinese characters are classified according to six principles:
|Pictures: representative drawings (very few characters belong to this category)|
|Symbols: symbols of the concept to which the characters refer (very few characters belong to this group)|
|Sound-loans: pictures or symbols that are pronounced the same way as other characters yet have different meanings|
|Sound-meaning compounds: one part of the character denotes meaning and another part denotes pronunciation (most characters belong to this category)|
|Meaning-meaning compounds: two characters are combined to form a new character. The meaning of the new character derives from the combination of the original characters. (10% of characters belong to this category)|
|Re-clarified compounds: characters formed due to a change in other characters, in sound, meaning or writing. (very few characters belong to this group)|
In 1956, mainland China adopted simplified characters based on a reform in written Chinese that was initiated by the Communist regime. Traditional Chinese characters are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
An educated Chinese person will know some 8,000 characters. However, in order to have a reasonable grasp of Chinese, it is necessary to become familiar with only 2500-3000.
The use of Pinyin
Since 1958, Pinyin (meaning "spell" or "sound") has been the most common form of Standard Mandarin Romanization, used to teach the pronunciation of words in Standard Mandarin. In Pinyin, each Chinese sound has a corresponding Roman character. The result is a Romanization system that is convenient and simple for both native English and Chinese speakers. Pinyin is widely used in Chinese language media and textbooks, and also in the eteacher’s online and written teaching materials.
Chinese syllable structures
The syllable is the most basic and most important unit in Standard Mandarin Chinese. Each syllable consists of initial, final and tone.
The initial is the consonantal beginning of a syllable. There are 22 initials in Standard Mandarin. The final is the part of the syllable that excludes the initial. There are 37 finals in Standard Mandarin, and they are composed mainly of vowels. There are three main groups of finals: simple finals (consisting of single vowels), compound finals (consisting of two or three vowels), and nasal finals (a single or compound vowel ending with an "n" or "ng" nasal sound).
Tonal variation is an integral component of the Chinese syllable, and of the language itself. The same syllable with a different tone has a different meaning.
In Standard Mandarin, there are four tones:
1st tone: high, even and constant
2nd tone: rising and becoming stronger
3rd tone: falling and fading, then rising and becoming stronger
4th tone: falling and fading rapidly
In addition, there is a fifth neutral tone, whose sound depends on the tone preceding it. When using Pinyin, tones are denoted with a distinctive symbol or number. In the table below, notice how the different tones have given completely different meanings to the same syllable.