Introduction to Chinese Language
The official language of China is Standard Mandarin, known in Chinese as Putonghua (普通话, “common speech”). It has been the only language used in education on the mainland since the 1950s, so most people speak it. However, the pronunciation varies quite a lot from region to region. Unless otherwise noted, all terms, spellings and pronunciations in this guide are standard Mandarin. As Mandarin is tonal, getting the correct tones is necessary for one to be understood.
Many regions – especially in the southeast and south of the country – also have their own “dialect”, all of which are tonal. These are really distinct languages, as different as French and Italian although referring to Chinese “dialects” as separate languages is a touchy political issue. Of true dialects within Mandarin, pronunciation varies widely and there is often a liberal dose of local slang or terminology to liven up the mix. After Mandarin, the largest dialect groups are Cantonese, spoken in southern Guangdong (Canton), Hong Kong and Macau, Wu (Shanghainese), spoken in the region around Shanghai and Zhejiang, and Minnan (Hokkien, Teochew), spoken in the region around Xiamen, northeastern Guangdong and Taiwan. Many Chinese are bilingual in the local language and Mandarin. A few who are older, less educated or from the countryside may speak only the local dialect, but this is unlikely to affect tourists. It often helps to have a guide that can speak the local language as it marks that person as an insider, and you as a friend of the insider. As a general rule, almost all Chinese can understand spoken Mandarin even if they are unable to reply except in their local dialect. Of course, it goes without saying that learning a few simple phrases and sentences in the local dialects will very much enrich your travel experience, and will draw smiles and encouragement from locals, by and large.
Whatever the spoken dialect, the formal written language is always the same. Even Japanese and Korean use many of the same characters with the same meaning. There is a complication in this, however. Mainland China uses “simplified characters”, adopted to facilitate writing many years ago. Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and by many overseas Chinese, but also on the mainland in advertising and commercial signs. As a result you will just as often see 银行 (yínháng) as 銀行 for “bank”. The simplification was however fairly systematic, which means that all hope is not lost for the traveller trying to pick up some sign-reading skills. On the other hand, native speakers usually do not encounter problems reading either script so learning how to write either one would usually suffice.
Note that in calligraphy, the number of scripts is much more varied as different painters use different unique styles, though these have been grouped into five different styles. They are zhuanshu(篆书／篆書), lishu(隶书/隸書), kaishu (楷书/楷書), xingshu (行书/行書) and caoshu (草书/草書), of which kaishu is the official script used in China today. When calligraphy is written in kaishu, it is usually traditional Chinese characters that are used due to their superior aesthetic value. The casual traveller can easily get by without learning the other four styles though learning them would certainly help those with a deep interest in traditional Chinese art.
In the far western reaches of the country, Turkic languages such as Uighur, Kirghiz, and Kazakh, Russian and Tibetan are spoken by some of the non-Han ethnic minorities. In the northern and northeastern parts, other minority languages like Manchu, Mongol and Korean (China is home to the largest Korean population outside the Korean peninsula) are also spoken in areas populated by the respective ethnic minorities. Yunnan and Guangxi in the south are also home to many other ethnic minorities such as the Miao and the Naxi who speak their own languages. However, Mandarin is generally usable too. Sadly some of the minority languages such as Manchu are dying out.
Although most Chinese are taught some English at school (in fact, English is compulsory starting from late elementary school), and passing an English exam is a requirement for a university degree, the focus of the instruction is formal grammar and writing rather than conversation. As a result, few learn it well enough to be able to participate in an English conversation. Outside of the largest cities and the major tourist areas, it is quite rare to find locals conversant in English.
That said, a few locals who have studied English as a second language in university (an especially if they studied abroad) generally have a reasonable to very good standard of English.
Useful hint: it’s often helpful if you try to simplify your English. Stay away from using complex phrasing like “Would you mind if I come back tomorrow?” and stick to simpler, more abrupt phrasing like “Tomorrow I will come back.” This brings the phrase closer to its Chinese equivalent, and is therefore not necessarily condescending.
In the West, Chinese has a undeserved reputation for being difficult to learn. While it is very different from English and other Western languages, there is no reason that a traveler cannot learn to speak some basic Chinese. Elementary Chinese grammar is quite simple; the main difficulties are pronunciation and using tones.
Written Chinese is famously complex and requires a great deal of study to master. However, learning to recognize just a limited number of characters will allow you to get information you need. This may even be simpler in Chinese than in languages with alphabetic writing systems, because in those languages you can’t understand anything until you know the whole alphabet and acquire the required vocabulary. In Chinese it’s relatively straightforward to pick up the characters, say, for “Internet cafe” or “fried noodles,” without knowing anything else about the language. If you have a good visual memory, you may even end up knowing what a sign means without being able to pronounce it – a useful skill even if only to distinguish “exit” 出口 from “entrance” 入口. To bridge the gap between recognizing and reading out loud, pinyin was developed, which uses Latin script as an aid to teaching Chinese. Pronouncing pinyin is not intuitive for English speakers, as letters and combinations are not what you would expect, but learning it at even a basic level already has enormous practical value for the traveler.
An understanding of the local dialect – often completely different from standard Chinese (Mandarin) – can be useful when traveling to more remote areas. But in those areas a phrase book that includes Chinese characters will also be a big help, as written Chinese is more or less the same everywhere.