Chinese (1200 BC – ) is the most spoken language in the world, more than even English, though almost everyone who speaks it lives in East Asia. It is also one of the oldest written languages still in use. Some of the world’s deepest thinkers and best poets wrote in Chinese. It is one of the six languages of the United Nations.
Chinese is spoken in China and Taiwan and, according to what you count as Chinese, also in parts of South-east Asia and in Chinatowns the world over.
The Chinese of Beijing in the north and Hong Kong in the south are written the same way but even to a foreigner they do not sound like the same language. It is as if English and German were written the same way.
Mandarin, the Chinese of the north, has by far the greatest number of speakers. It is what most people mean by Chinese.
By far the hardest thing about learning Chinese is the writing. Not just for foreigners, but even for Chinese schoolchildren.
English is written with 26 Roman characters. They are used to tell you what a word sounds like, but give you no idea what a word means. Written English is still hard to master, but it is nowhere near as bad as what you face in Chinese.
Chinese is written with thousands of characters, one for each word! Just to read the newspaper means learning thousands of characters. To the English way of thinking, it is as if each word had its own letter!
It is both harder and easier than it looks.
It is easier because certain characters and parts of characters come up over and over again. Most words are made of two characters – one to give you an idea of what the word means and another to tell you what it sounds like.
If English were written this way, then the word for cart might have the character for wheel followed by the character for heart – meaning that it is something that has wheels that sounds like “heart”.
It is harder than it looks because to write it well requires years of practice. Just as it takes years of practice to write Roman letters well. Same thing. There are no short cuts.
There are ways to write Chinese in Roman letters, but to change Chinese over to Roman letters would mean reprinting all the books in China. Unlikely.
Another thing that makes Chinese different than Western languages are the tones. This gives spoken Chinese its sing-song quality. What makes one word different from the next is not just its letter sounds but also the tone or pitch it is said with.
Mandarin has four tones: high and even, falling, rising and dipping (going down and then up). Some forms of Chinese have more than four.
But there is some good news: Chinese grammar is very easy. No word endings at all! Like English, it all comes down to word order, but even more so.