It’s the most widely spoken mother tongue on the planet, with more than a billion speakers. But much of what people think they know about the Chinese language is wrong!
The biggest misconception is, of course, the idea that it’s only one language.
Linguists disagree on the exact dividing line between a language and a dialect. But what we call Chinese consists of between seven and 13 dialects (depending on the classification system), many of which are mutually imcomprehensible. Most Western linguists now call it a family of languages, rather than a single tongue.
One thing that is certain is we shouldn’t underestimate its importance! It’s also likely to become the most widely spoken online language within a few years. Here are a few more misconceptions about this language family.
1) The two main varieties are Mandarin and Cantonese.
When we refer to Chinese, we’re often talking about Mandarin. A staggering 850 million people speak it as a first language. But the second most commonly spoken variant is Wu Chinese with 90 million speakers. This is followed by Min and Cantonese (both with around 70 million).
2) Written Chinese is the same in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong
Traditional Chinese is the written text that has been used for thousands of years, and is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong today. But people in Mainland China and Singapore began to adopt a simplified version of the text after 1949, known as “Simplified Chinese”.
3) Chinese is much harder to learn than European languages
Of course, Chinese is more difficult for many English speakers than French or German, because they won’t recognise many words. But its reputation as a particularly difficult language is a little unfair! Now hundreds of thousands of people around the world are learning Mandarin, and making impressive progress in just a few months. Learning the written language can be more tricky though…
4) Chinese characters represent single words
Most characters refer to syllables, so could represent either a one-syllable word or part of a word. Many characters originally represented objects, abstract notions, or pronunciation.
5) Speakers of different dialects have difficulty communicating
Mandarin is the official language in schools and colleges throughout China and Taiwan. Most educated Chinese people can speak and understand it fluently, even if they speak another variant at home.
6) It’s hard to express your tone of voice in Chinese
As a tonal language, it’s all too easy for learners to use the wrong tone and end up saying something completely different to what they meant! But for native and fluent speakers, the language still allows ample room to express emotions and tone of voice.
7) Business travellers can easily get by using just English
English may be the global language of business, but it’s best not to take people’s knowledge for granted. Building relationships is a key part of doing business in China. Even if your contacts speak fluent English, taking time to learn a few phrases can go a long way.
And for global companies targeting China, a website in the language is a must! Not only do most people prefer browsing in their native language, but it will help rank higher in local search engines.
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