Background Understanding of the Chinese Language

To start off, it will be helpful to build up some basic understanding about what Mandarin Chinese is exactly. Not everyone realizes it, but the broad term “Chinese” is actually more like a group of Sinitic languages which all utilize Chinese characters, called hanzi (汉字). Although Mandarin and Cantonese are the most common dialects of Chinese, there are many different dialectics which all use the same set of written characters. Each dialect attaches their own pronunciation to these common characters. I’d recommend watching this video about the Chinese language which covers a great deal about the history and difference between these common dialects.

Sidenote: As you will come to find out from my other posts, I’m a big fan of saving time wherever possible. This includes searching for any way of making the learning process as efficient as possible. That being said, I would wholeheartedly recommend watching this video (and most of the others I recommend , for that matter) at 2x speed or more.

Alright, let’s discuss some more basics just to get a better understanding of how the Chinese language works.

Chinese is a monosyllabic language, meaning that words can be expressed in individual syllables. However, I find this term a bit misleading, because the vast majority of commonly used Chinese words are actually composed of two Chinese characters. These words are called bigrams and, in my experience, the actual challenge of learning Chinese is not learning the characters, but remembering the many unique meanings of combinations of characters and the subtle differences in their meanings.

Although words often consist of two characters, sentences do not contain any spaces between characters. You will eventually know from the context of a sentence which characters together form a word and which stand by themselves. Fortunately, doing this is a lot simpler to figure out than you might think. Words you are unfamiliar with will quickly begin to stand out quite prominently within a sentence.

I’ve been asked several times if Chinese is written right-to-left, so I think we should address that common question. Chinese was traditionally written from top-to-bottom and right-to-left in vertical columns of text. However, modern Chinese writing is aligned the same way as English or other Romance languages, top-to-bottom and left-to-right. The main difference is the lack of spacing we already discussed and that words may be broken between lines of text without any indication.

Additionally, the Chinese language has many idioms or phrases in form of four character phrases called chéngyǔ (成语). We have many of these in English as well, such as “a dime a dozen” or “miss the boat”; the main difference is that Chinese idioms usually follow the four-character structure. These phrases are quite advanced so it’s probably not necessary to think too much about them at the start and just be aware they exist.

What about words that aren’t of Chinese origin? Chinese often uses characters phonetically to produce a similar pronunciation as the word in it’s native language, such as English. Take the examples of the following words:

  • 华盛顿 – huáshèngdùn – Washington
  • 巴西 – bāxī – Brazil
  • 加利福尼亚 – jiālìfúníyà – California
  • 可口可乐 – kĕkŏu kĕlè – Coca-Cola

(You might be wondering what those marks over the vowels are. These are tone marks. But don’t worry, we’ll discuss them further shortly, so sit tight!) There’s a lot more to discuss about how Chinese characters and words are used to form sentences, but we’ll save these details for the grammar section of this guide. Now it’s time to tackle the topic that you might be most excited and (possibly) worried about…Chinese characters.

Next up: The Part You’re Excited and Worried About: Chinese Characters

How to get started learning Chinese Series

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