China is the most populated country in the world, and as such, it’s a major player in international industry, economy, and politics. Although you’ve surely heard of (or even visited) Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, do you know anything about the language that’s spoken there? For example, did you know that Chinese has no verb tenses, no distinction between singular and plural, and no alphabet? Here’s a crash course in the world’s #1 most spoken language.
1. One in six people speaks Chinese.
With over a billion native speakers, about 15% of the world’s population speaks Chinese as their mother tongue. That’s more than Spanish, English, French, and German — combined!
2. There is no alphabet.
The Chinese writing system is notoriously difficult for English speakers to master, as it does not contain a segmental alphabet. Instead, it consists of thousands of standalone characters. However, Chinese can be transcribed into Roman characters by using pinyin, removing some of the burden on the learner that comes with memorizing thousands of individual characters.
3. Nouns don’t have a singular/plural distinction.
Unlike English, in which plural nouns are marked with an -s, Chinese nouns retain the same form regardless of whether or not they are in singular or plural form.
4. Different tones can drastically change a word’s meaning.
Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that a word’s pitch can affect its meaning. For example, wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ — in which “wen” is spoken with a falling pitch — means “I want to ask you”. But wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ — in which “wen” rises and falls in pitch — means “I want to kiss you”. Yikes — that’s not a mistake you want to make!
5. It’s an official UN language.
Chinese joins English, Arabic, French, Russian, and Spanish as one of the six official UN languages.
How good is your Chinese? Find out with our free online Chinese level test!
6. There are over 20,000 distinct Chinese characters.
The Chinese language contains a vast amount of characters — and some advanced dictionaries place the number is even higher! But rest assured: about 98% of written Chinese consists of the same 2,500 characters, so you can successfully read the newspaper even if you can “only” identify about two or three thousand.
7. Verbs aren’t marked for tense.
Chinese verbs aren’t modified for tense like they are in English and many other languages. Instead, adverbs like “before” and “after” indicate temporal relations. This allows you to focus more on other, more pressing issues, such as memorizing 2,500 different characters.
8. The Chinese writing system is over 3,000 years old.
Of all languages spoken today, Chinese has the most ancient writing system. Indeed, Chinese characters have been found engraved in animal bones that date from 1600 BC! In contrast, the Latin alphabet didn’t originate until almost 1,000 years later, in the 7th century BC.
9. The word “Mandarin” comes from Sanskrit.
The English word “Mandarin” originally referred to an official of the Chinese empire. It comes from the Portuguese word mandarim, which is derived from the Malay word menteri, which in turn originates from the Sanskrit word mantrin, which means “minister”. Among Chinese speakers, Mandarin Chinese is often called Guóyǔ (国语), which means “national language”, or Pǔtōnghuà (普通话), which means “common speech”.
China is a hugely important economic hub, and now you know a little more about the language that’s spoken by a sixth of the world’s population.