A Simplified Introduction to the Chinese Language

by LyraKua

A brief background about the Chinese language for those who wish to study it.

Being born and raised by Chinese parents in a foreign country allowed me to be exposed to both my ancestors' native tongue and local tongue. Not only did I have to learn Chinese and Filipino in school, I also had to learn English. The experience had taught me about the different sentences structures and compositions in different languages, which was what I found to be very interesting.

However, most of my classmates were not interested in Chinese (despite that being the language of their ancestors as well). The funny thing was, Filipinos seemed to be more interested in it than the people with the heritage. Even Americans and other foreigners from different parts of the world were more willing to study it.

Chinese is indeed complex and had specific features not found on other languages. Most of the curriculum in Chinese schools here in the Philippines implement rote memorization as the main method of instruction - which unfortunately ruined many learners' motivation in acquiring the language.

Yet learning Chinese need not to be boring and dull. It is a beautiful language that exists for a long time. Hence, I decided to write about it with the hope of sparking people's interests. This page will just be a brief background about Chinese language to give interested learners a quick reference.

Copyright © 2014 by Lyra Kua. All rights reserved.

About the Chinese Language

The Chinese language has a complex writing system with a long history. It consists of 40,000 characters (including the rare and archaic ones), each consisting of different number and types of strokes. A well educated reader can recognize up to 4000-6000 characters. Unlike in English when the spellings of the word give clue to the pronunciation, Chinese words do not. A phonetic spelling is however indicated in dictionaries for learners to know the words' pronunciations.

What is roughly equivalent to the English alphabet is the sound alphabet in Chinese. There are 37 phonetic alphabets in the Chinese language, each having a special character called zhuyin to represent it. There are 21 consonants and 16 vowels. Basically, a syllable may consist of one consonant and one vowel, one consonant and two vowels, one vowel, and two vowels (see Phonetic Alphabets Table). In addition to sounds, there should be proper intonation while pronouncing each syllable. There is a total of five tones. Each tone will give the syllable a different meaning.

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The Phonetic Alphabet

Phonetic Alphabet
Each Chinese character represents a single syllable. With the many characters existing in the Chinese language, it is common to find several characters that share similar sounds. A single character does not necessarily carry a meaning. Many Chinese characters do not have a fixed pronunciation. They may differ depending on the meaning they convey.

Different Characters, Similar Sounds

Chinese Character Xin

Similar Characters, Different Sounds

Chinese characters pronounced differently

Despite the Chinese language's complexity with regards to its characters, it is relatively simple in terms of grammar. There is no subject-verb agreement in the Chinese language. Verbs do not need to be conjugated in order to convey the different tenses. Tenses are rather understood based on context. There is also no singular and plural form of the nouns.

Chinese language are rich in idioms. Just like in English, there is history behind the Chinese idioms. A Chinese idiom is usually consisted of four Chinese characters. Some of the idioms may be commonly found in everyday Chinese conversation.

Although English and Chinese languages have very different structures, a native English speaker need not to feel baffled. In fact, I've already seen a lot of Westerners mastering the language. Hearing them speak the language never ceased to amaze me. 

With lots of practice and familiarization with the characters, learning becomes a lot easier. Flashcards are effective in remembering different words. Films in Chinese usually have subtitles that will definitely help the learner acquire more words.

Do you wish to learn Chinese?

Updated: 09/08/2014, LyraKua
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Rose on 11/12/2014

One advantage of Chinese characters is that modern Chinese find no difficulty reading ancient Chinese scripts. Whereas because English words give a clue to pronounciation, the spelling has changed drastically over time to the way the pronounciation has changed.

LyraKua on 08/24/2014

Thank you for visiting my page. Your kind words made my day.

ologsinquito on 08/23/2014

Very nice article. Your writing style is beautiful, even for a native English speaker. I never would have guessed, by your writing, that English is not your first language.

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