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Chinese Language 101 - Introduction to Spoken and Written Chinese

May 12th, 2009

chinese-language-zhong-wen.jpgAs a world language for communication, Chinese is gaining higher visibility in the business world and greater focus in educational institutions. Prominent newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and other regional papers have published feature articles about the growing trend of older and younger learners of the Chinese language.

The interest in learning Chinese goes beyond the casual traveler who wants to visit the Orient. Due to the need in trade relationships, more and more companies are also seeking translation and interpreting services to help with technical and business communications, which range from marketing presentations, conference meetings, engineering contracts, to legal documentations. In this atmosphere of global communications a host of language translation agencies have mushroomed in the market place. Many well-qualified freelance professional translators can also be found through directories of national and regional translation associations. Even so, when dealing with the Chinese language, some basic level of understanding can steer one in the correct direction and facilitate the process in an efficient manner.

Whether a company uses an agency or a freelance professional to provide these services, the first step is to know how to define the language work needs properly and precisely.

Just what is Mandarin Chinese? What is Cantonese? Some people confuse these two as different languages in writing. Actually these are languages spoken by the Chinese people. While Cantonese is a popular dialect spoken among the people in Canton (or spelled as Guangdong) and Hong Kong, Mandarin Chinese is the official language used by the vast majority of the Chinese population in Mainland China, Taiwan, and the overseas Chinese across the whole world. Mandarin Chinese is also referred to as Putong Hua (which means the common language) or Zhongguo Hua (which means the Chinese language).

There are a lot of other Chinese dialects such as Sichuan Hua, Shanghai Hua, Taiwan Hua, etc. Although Mandarin Chinese sounds very different from these local dialects such as Cantonese or Taiwanese, they all share the same written script. This is a blessing since the same written word enables Chinese people from diverse geographical regions to communicate with each other in writing even if they can not understand each other through speaking.

This leads to the topic of the written Chinese script. For more than five thousand years, the Chinese characters have formed word pictures of the Chinese culture. Each character is an independent word with its own sound and its own meaning. In newsprint format every character can fit into a square box. From ancient history to modern publications the same Traditional Chinese script has been used throughout the ages. In recent years Mainland China began to adopt a modified script which reduces the number of strokes in a large set of Chinese characters to facilitate easier writing. This system is referred to as the Simplified Chinese script. Most of the newspapers and publications from the Mainland use the Simplified Chinese characters. For people who use the computer to type Chinese words, there are separate input channels for the traditional and the simplified Chinese scripts.

For people who are eager to learn the written Chinese, the good news is that overlapping exists between the traditional script and the simplified script. This means that there are still a lot of characters which look the same in both script systems. There are also basic root components called radicals in every Chinese character. These radicals also hint at the meaning of the word.

To summarize the above, a written Chinese document can be produced in traditional or simplified characters. A verbal expression in Chinese can be spoken in Mandarin Chinese or regional dialects such as Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. But the same written language is used for all these spoken languages with the choice of traditional or simplified script. Knowing the target group is the first step in making the right choices.


Spring Stillman is a freelance writer for Constant Content who specializes in good quality articles at reasonable prices.


6 Responses to “Chinese Language 101 - Introduction to Spoken and Written Chinese”

  1. comment number 1 by: Min Min

    Chinese/Mandarin is the most spoken language. I have created a website for people who are keen to learn Chinese (LearnChineseEveryday.com). Please feel free to give me suggestions and comments.

  2. comment number 2 by: Downloader

    Because of their population but the problem still lies on international communications relations wherein Chinese are not yet well adept to other nationalities.

  3. comment number 3 by: engagement rings

    For the vast majority of Chinese and foreigners, I can’t see that more difficult access to the body of pre-revolutionary printed literature will be a big deal. Imagine that English spelling was reformed so that books published pre-1950 were harder to read. How often would this be a problem in your daily life? Of course it’s still a problem, but not worth too much hand wringing and certainly not worth another major orthographic shift.

    I think if you’re a beginning Chinese learner, simplified is the way to go. Most people who read simplified can also understand traditional. The reverse is usually not true.

    On the other hand, if you want to understand Chinese culture and literature, you should learn both.

  4. comment number 4 by: plg-online

    We provide the service of business-card translation. When our client requests to translate his/her card into Chinese, we always ask if it’s simplified or traditional Chinese. Sometimes the client doesn’t know the difference. Then we need to ask where he/she would use the card - in mainland, in Hong Kong or in Taiwan.

  5. comment number 5 by: Pamela Ponce

    “Chinese is strategic in a way that a lot of other languages aren’t,” because of China’s growth as an economic and military force.

  6. comment number 6 by: peter jiang-learn mandarin

    This is really a very perfect introduction to Chinese language. Very few introductions are so specific like this one.

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