The Sinitic Languages of China

February 24, 2017


When someone says they want to learn to speak Chinese, this is often followed by the question of "which language or version?" Since China is such a large country in both population and size, Chinese is not a single language but rather a number of dialect groups, which are united by a common written language. While these are technically dialects of the same language, they are so different from one another that they can be thought of as separate tonal languages.

With more than 1.3 billion native speakers of some version of Chinese, the differences in pronunciation and tone can vary dramatically from region to region. Most people learning Chinese as a second language focus on the Mandarin dialect as it is the official language of the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, and one of the four official languages spoken in Singapore. Depending on how you classify and group them, it can be said that today there are 13 dialect groups used throughout China containing over 200 distinct varieties of speech, grammar, tone, and syntax.

As Chinese developed through the centuries, Classical Chinese remained as the formal written language, beginning in Old Chinese and progressing through Middle Chinese. Middle Chinese led to nearly all modern forms of the language. While these eventually split into various dialects, Classical Chinese remained the common written form. Fast forward to the early 20th century and a written vernacular form of Chinese, based on a range of Mandarin dialects, was introduced as the new official written language, replacing Classical Chinese. However, a few decades later it was decided that the new official language would be based on the Beijing dialect as it was the capital. Today, Pǔtōnghuà (meaning "common language") is used throughout China in writing.

If you're a native English speaker wanting to learn Chinese, there are several key differences you should know about before starting. First of all the written form of the language is in characters where each symbol means an entire word. Unlike European languages, knowing the pronunciation of these words gives no clue on how to write it, therefore the characters must be learned one-at-a-time. Second, all forms of Chinese are tonally based. This means that the way you emphasize specific sounds or syllables will entirely change the meaning of the word. Also, the written form of the word will be spoken differently depending on the dialect of the speaker.

Chinese is definitely a fascinating group of languages worth learning more about. Global commerce is bringing the English and Chinese worlds together more and more and many companies pay top dollar for fluent speakers and writers.

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