Mandarin Chinese is the language with the highest amount of native speakers in the world, far ahead of Spanish, English and Hindi. Around 955 million people speak it as natives. The Chinese economy is booming, being the world’s second largest. Here are a few interesting facts about this oriental language.

Simplified or traditional

When you look at translation into Chinese on the Internet you can see two options of translation – into Chinese simplified and traditional. What is the difference? The traditional characters are the ones in their initial form and are usually more complicated – they have more strokes than the simplified ones. Simplified Chinese is not a separate language, but a different, less complicated variant of Chinese characters. Simplified script was invented in the 1950s in the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China). The aim was to fight against illiteracy and simplify the process of learning. Around 50% of the most complicated characters (consisting of the largest amount of strokes) were simplified. Nowadays, simplified morphemes are used in Mainland China as well as in Singapore and Malaysia. Traditional script is still in everyday use in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Traditional characters are also used for the art of calligraphy. Nevertheless, most Chinese speakers live in Mainland China and can only write in simplified script.

Regarding translation, if your target market is Mainland China, ask about translation into Chinese simplified, and if your target market is Taiwan – ask for Chinese traditional. See these examples of simplified versus traditional characters, its meaning and pronunciation:

马 –> 馬 horse

Mén 门 –> 門 gate, door, entrance

Dōng 东 –> 東 East side

Mandarin or Cantonese

As you might have guessed, 955 million people don’t speak exactly the same Chinese J; every city or region in China has their own dialect. The grammar, characters and written form are almost the same, but the pronunciation is completely different. In Shanghai, native inhabitants speak Shanghainese (shanghaihua), in Sichuan – the Sichuanese dialect (sichuanhua), etc.

Standard Chinese is often called Mandarin. The name comes from the mandarins – the scholars and civil servants which were the elite of Imperial China (around 220 B.C. till 1911 A.D.). The actual contemporary standard language in China is called Putonghua, which can be translated literally as “the common speech” and is based on the Beijing dialect (but it is not exactly the same as Beijing speech). The name ‘Mandarin’ is more commonly used worldwide as the standard Chinese language, but the name is not 100% accurate.

Chinese dialects can be divided into 2 big groups – the northern and southern dialects. An example of a northern dialect is Beijing speech (Beijinghua) and an example of the most popular southern one is Cantonese (guangdonghua), which is spoken in the area of the city of Canton, in Hong Kong, Macau and is widely used by Chinese immigrant oversees – mostly in North America.

The differences between the Beijing dialect and Cantonese are greater than between Italian and Spanish. By European standards these are separate languages, but on a Chinese scale these are dialects of the same language J Nowadays, all people in Mainland China and Taiwan learn standard Chinese at school. The language is used in the media and public life, especially at present when domestic migration, mostly north-south, is very high. Dialects are commonly used at home and in family life. To communicate well in China, it’s enough to speak the ‘common speech’ only, but communication with elderly people might be a bit difficult.

Transcription and tones

Fortunately for us, the Chinese language has its standard Romanised script called pinyin. Each Chinese syllable (1 character equals 1 syllable and 1 word most often consists of 2 syllables)) has their sound transcripted in the Latin alphabet. It helps non-Chinese speakers to write proper names from Chinese, like surnames, cities, (for example the surnames: Li, Chan, cities: Shanghai, Tianjin), etc. It is also very useful for people studying the language as a foreign language. Here are examples of the Romanisation of some common words in Chinese with characters and meaning:

diànnǎo 电脑 –> computer

Bōlán 波兰 –> Poland

bàba 爸爸 –> father

Pinyin Romanisation has its own rules of how to read each letter different than English or Polish, but they are rather easy to learn. Unfortunately, writing in transcription will not help you much to communicate with Chinse, as they use only Chinese characters in everyday life J.

The last, and the scariest thing in Chinese are the 4 tones. There are marked in almost each syllable over vowels and represent the following tones of speech:

  • First tone: sounds like the sound ‘aaaa” you make where you visit a doctor and they ask you to open your mouth?
  • Second tone: sounds like a question tone
  • Third tone: sounds a bit like a frog speaking J
  • Fourth tone: sounds like you are shouting at someone or giving orders

In Chinese, words with the same syllable and pronunciation (same transcription), but with a different tone and usually also different character mean something totally different, so the language is full of homonyms. For example:

  • 瘟 –> temperature, warm
  • 文 –> script, language, culture
  • 吻 –> to kiss
  • 问 –> to ask

There is also neutral tone, called zero tone. It’s actually the lack of tone, the syllables are pronounced as in European languages. Saying a word in Chinese with no tone or the wrong one can lead to many misunderstandings and communication problems. Not to mention the process of translation and localization into Chinese which – as you might guess – is very complicated.

As you can see, Chinese students at school really need to learn a lot:-)


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