What is Chinese and why should I learn it?

Chinese can refer to any number of what are known as Chinese dialects. What a non-Chinese speaker thinks of as Chinese is typically Mandarin Chinese, the dominant spoken form of Chinese and the official language of China.

If you are completely new to Chinese then the best place to start is to understand what Chinese is and only then work out why and how you can learn it.

Chinese language explained in brief

Chinese is an umbrella term that refers to a group of related languages that share the same a similar written form but sound and are pronounced completely different. Because of the common written form these languages are known as “dialects”. Pronunciation of some words between dialects is nearly the same, while others vary so much that the spoken Chinese in one dialect is essentially unintelligible to the speaker of another. I will cover dialects in more detail once we get through the basics.

The written form of Mandarin Chinese is known as “Hanzi” (汉字), or literally “Han Characters”. Ninety percent of China’s population is the Han ethnicity. There are two variants of Chinese Characters: simplified and traditional. Simplified characters are exactly what the name implies: simplified versions of the original older traditional characters. Below is an example of the word “Hanyu” or “Chinese Language” in both simplified and traditional characters.

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese
汉语 漢語

As you can see traditional characters can be much more complex than the simplified form. Simplified characters are used in Mainland China, while traditional Characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

As I’ve already covered briefly, Chinese has many dialects. Mandarin is not considered a dialect, but the standard form of the spoken language. It is for this reason that Mandarin Chinese is known as the the common language “普通话”. With that said a dialects that you will commonly come across outside of mainland China are Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia and most “Chinatowns” across the world, as well as Hokkien, spoken in Taiwan and Malaysia.

In reality a number of Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien, to take only two examples, have their own written form that is very different from Mandarin Chinese and as such there is a strong argument that these other forms of Chinese are really languages rather than dialects.

Why learn Chinese?

There are many reasons why you may want to learn Chinese, and if you’re reading this you obviously already have an interest in the language. The reasons to learn Chinese are many, but common reasons to learn include

  • So you can speak very basic Chinese when travelling to China for work or holiday
  • You intend on living, working or doing business in China for an extended period
  • You have friends or colleagues who are Chinese
  • You have a interest in language or culture

If your interest lies in either the language itself or a more functional need to communicate with Chinese speakers, then this is a great reason to learn the language. You should be prepared that unless you are a oligot, that is you can speak a number of languages already or have a natural talent for learning languages, Chinese or any language for that matter is not something you can learn by studying 5 minutes a day for 3 months. If you want to learn an easier language then quite likely a European language such as German would be easier for native English speakers.

Is Chinese difficult to learn? Yes and no. First let me list the difficulties that people commonly encounter with the language (I’ll expand on these later):

  1. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the same sound pronounced with a different tone is a completely different word. This is unlike English where, beyond communicating the underlying mood of what you’re saying, tone does not change the meaning of a word.
  2. Many characters have the same pronunciation completely different meanings. This means that many non-native speakers find it difficult to understand spoken Chinese. Many new learners face the challenge of once losing track of what is being said it can be difficult to catch up again.
  3. Chinese has no alphabet, you need to memorise the characters.

Now the positives of Chinese:

  1. There are only four tones in Mandarin Chinese. Once you get used to the language the tones become much less of a concern than you might think. Cantonese Chinese for example has at least seven tones.
  2. The similarity in pronunciation I have found is an advantage, as once you have learned the initials and finals (beginning and end sounds of Chinese words), pronunciation becomes much easier. Getting lost with listening comprehension becomes less of a problem as you build out your vocabulary.
  3. Although Chinese characters have to be memorised, all chinese words contain a what is known as a radical (there are 214 in total) which give a hint as to the words meaning while other components of characters hint at the pronunciation.

Don’t let any of the above scare you. Chinese can and is learned by many non-native speakers. I am on my journey of learning the language and have and continue to derive a great deal of satisfaction from doing so.

Remember learning any language is not a destination but rather a journey.

Where is Mandarin Chinese spoken?

Mandarin Chinese is spoken around the world, both by countries with larger Ethnic Chinese populations such as Singapore and Malaysia, as well as in countries with far smaller Chinese populations (proportional to the total population) such as America and Australia.

Most younger ethnic Chinese outside China tend to learn Mandarin Chinese in addition to the Chinese dialect of their parents, primarily because it is seen as unlocking future economic potential for work and business.

The very basics of Mandarin Chinese and Tones

Before I get in to more details, I thought I should give a very simple overview of the anatomy of the language:

  • Mandarin Chinese has sentences just like English
  • Each word is made up of one or more characters, although two is typical
  • Each character has its own pronunciation and tone

Let’s start at the bottom up and first look at tones. A tone in chinese is literally the tone with which you pronounce a given character. With words in Chinese often made up of at least two characters, the given characters in a word will each have their own tone. In Mandarin Chinese there are four tones, high, falling, inflected and rising, conventionally referred to as tones one through to four for convenience.

The Chinese Tones are shown in the table below. To demonstrate these tones there is an attached audio clip. Note that the demonstrated clip is the “ma” sound, a arbitrary, but common way to demonstrate Chinese sounds.

First Tone Second Tone Third Tone Fourth Tone
High tone Rising tone Inflected tone Falling tone

e.g. e.g. e.g. e.g.

Many who hear Mandarin Chinese for the first time will say they can’t even hear the difference between the tones; this is because you are not used to listening for tones and in English don’t need to listen for these subtitles. if you find this is the case for yourself, listen again very carefully. Keep in mind that listening for the inflection on a word takes some getting use to.

Now you have a appreciation of what a tone is, the next logical step is to introduce you to Hanyu Pinyin

What is Chinese Pinyin?

Hanyu Pinyin, or Pinyin for short, is the Romanised written form of Chinese that gives the pronunciation of words, but is not a replacement for Chinese characters.  Let’s look at an example:


Nǐ hǎo ma?

How are you

Don’t worry about the characters and pronounciation, just appreciate that each Chinese character can be written with pinyin:

Chinese Character Pinyin
hǎo hǎo
ma ma

Pinyin is essentially a tool for showing pronunciation and is used common in language books, children’s books and Chinese dictionaries –  yes, native speakers also refer to Pinyin to understand the pronunciation of an unknown character.

Pinyin was introduced in to mainland China in 1956. There are alternatives to Pinyin, but Pinyin is the dominant and official romanisation standard for Chinese around the world and has been adopted by Taiwan and Singapore. Unless you are referring to an older textbook or teaching material, perhaps from the 1980’s or earlier, you are unlikely to find they do not use Pinyin.

Below are some more examples of Chinese characters with accompanying Pinyin. Note how Pinyin denotes the tone through the use of an accent, the little squiggly line above the character that is also known as a diacritic.

Character Definition Pinyin Tone
Mother First tone (high)
hái Still hái Second tone (rising)
hǎo Good hǎo Third tone (inflected)
dào To arrive dào Fourth tone (falling)

Adding complexity, there are rules around Chinese tones whereby some tones change depending on the tone of the neighbouring character, however I won’t go into that here.

Can I use Hanyu Pinyin instead of Chinese characters?

Pinyin is not a replacement for Chinese characters. Not only do you loose the beauty of the Chinese written language, but more practically multiple Chinese characters can have the same pronunciation and thus have the same Pinyin.

I would like to give an example of Pinyin versus the Chinese characters, take for example the Chinese 不,布 and 部, all of these have the equivalent pinyin of bù and sound identical, but all have completely different meanings. But could a Chinese speaker understand a sentence written in Pinyin? Yes, they could, given the sentence would give enough context to understand the context and thus the words. Is it common to write in Pinyin? No, it is not at all and in fact Pinyin is never used for normal written communication in Chinese.

Here is another example:

Chinese Character Pinyin (Pronunciation) Meaning
dài dài belt
dài dài treat – as in to treat people
dài dài to take the place of
dài dài to wear

Who uses Pinyin?

So what is the use of Pinyin if nobody uses it for day to day communication? Does this mean Pinyin is merely a teaching tool for Chinese? Not at all; Pinyin is has many uses the most important being:

  1. Pinyin is a very common way of typing Chinese (although there are other methods) on a computer of smartphone.
  2. Pinyin is taught to Chinese school students as it provides a standard way of describing the Chinese pronunciation and is used in dictionaries to describe pronunciation.
  3. Pinyin is use by non-native Chinese speakers almost universally to learn the Chinese pronunciation
  4. Because of 2 and 3, you will find that most, younger Childrens Chinese books and Chinese language learning books will write in the Pinyin and Chinese characters.
  5. If you are unable to recognise Chinese characters and had no other alternative you could use Pinyin to write to a non-English speaker. I have come across this on Chinese websites such as aliexpress.com where the use of Chinese Characters is not allowed in messages and the seller had poor English such that they didn’t understand my request.

If you are new to Chinese, you may want to think of characters that form a word as syllables in English; I realise likening characters to syllables is a large oversimplification, as English syllables typically have no meaning on their own, while Chinese characters very much have their own meaning. Take for example the Chinese word for “hello”, written as “你好” and pronounced (without considering the tone for now) as “ni-hao” (literally “nee – how” in English); “Hello” in this case is comprised of two characters each of which combine like syllables to make the sound. To take another example the word for bus is “gong – gong – qi – che”, written as 公共汽车, again this word is comprised of four characters, one for each sound.

Chinese Characters

Chinese language uses characters, known as “logograms”. These characters do not directly provide the pronunciation as is the case with the the Latin, Arabic or any other alphabet. In English, while you may mispronounce a word or have a strong accent, your pronunciation of the word is still going to be more-or-less correct based on how it is spelt.

Chinese characters are instead comprised of several components, some of which will often hint at the pronuncation, while others give meaning such as “forest”, “tree” or “flesh”. A given character is made from a combination of these components.

Chinese has more than 20,000 characters, of which more than 10,000 are in common usage. Although simple words can be a single character, a typical word is comprised of two or more characters.

So how many words and characters do you need to learn to understand Chinese? A rule of thumb is that approximately 2000 words will give you a basic understanding of the language. A proficient speaker can recognise approximately 6000 characters (which equates to more than 6000 words when used in combination to form words)  

What does written Chinese look like?

The origins of written Chinese lie in pictographs dating back more than 3000 years and perhaps longer, however the language has evolved substantially. The history of the evolution of Chinese characters is beyond the scope of this introduction, however I have given an example of written Mandarin below:

First let’s start with how a simple character is constructed:

Word Meaning Pronunciation
Child zi
Good hǎo

There are a few points of interest I should point out:

  1. Good (好) is made up of the characters for woman (女) and child (子) but the pronunciation for Good does not build or borrow from the pronunciation for the character components in any way
  2. There is some logic here, at least in a traditional context: it is good for a woman to bear children. You might not agree in the current age, but think of this in a traditinoal context, keeping in mind the Chinese culture is thousands of years old and people often relied upon having many children in agrarian soceities
  3. Both woman (女) and child (子) are characters in there own right, but this isn’t always the case for character components, for example ⺡represents water and forms the part of many characters, but cannot stand alone as a character on its own
  4. Good (好) can stand alone as a single character word

Below is an example of a multi-character word:

Word Meaning Pronunciation
Good hǎo
你好 Hello nǐ hǎo

Again a few notes here:

  1. You (你) and Good (好), can both be used as single character words, however this isn’t very common, most words are made up of two or more characters.
  2. Again there is some logic here: You + Good, means hello. This is not dissimilar to how you might say “Good Day to you” in English, instead of hello

Finally I’d like to provide you with a sentence, not to teach you the meaning, but so you understand what written mandarin looks like:


Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén.

I – can – speak – chinese

You will note that in written Mandarin Chinese there are no spaces in between words. You might ask, if Chinese words are typically more than one character and there is no spacing between words (except perhaps in language book), then how are you supposed to know which character belongs to which word? Fear not – as you develop some understanding of the language, this is much less of an issue than you think. Even if there are a string of words that you don’t understand, Chinese has punctuation such as full stops allowing you where a sentence ends. The punctuation combined with common words such as “I” (我 wǒ), “you” (你 nǐ), come up often enough that although you may not understand the sentence at all, you can at least recognise which parts you don’t understand and which are familiar.

The above description is intended to help a someone without prior knowledge of the Chinese language understand the very basics of what makes up the language. I will go into detail in a more indepth post. I hope this has provided a good brief introduction as to what written chinese looks like.

What is Simplified Chinese? How is that different to traditional Chinese?

Simplified Chinese are a simplification of Chinese characters that reduce the complexity and thus the number of strokes to comprise a character. The People’s Republic of China (mainland China) introduced simplified Chinese in 1954, however Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to use traditional Chinese characters. The simplified characters considered by many, including myself, as easier to learn.

Picture is worth a thousand words, so first some examples

Simplified Character Traditional Character Pronunciation (Hanyu Pinyin) Meaning
rén person
mén door
Lǎn lazy
chóng bug
kāi open
liáo chat

So some notes:

  • “Person” – 人 –  remains unchanged between traditional and simplified chinese as it was already a very simple character
  • “Door” – 门 –  was simplified somewhat although was already reasonably simple
  • “Lazy” – 懒 – remains is still quite a complicated character, with only a component of the character being simplified (see the right hand side of the character)
  • “Bug” – 虫 – was simplified by removing repetition in the character
  • “Open” – 开 – is now much simpler than it was in was with traditional characters
  • “Chat” – 聊 – remains unsimplified despite being quite a complicated character

The above is not intended to teach you the characters, but only serves to show you how characters changed, or in some cases didn’t, as a result of the introduction of simplified characters.

Pro’s and Con’s of Traditional and Simplified Characters

The advantages of traditional Chinese include:

  • The characters retain more of their original meaning, whereas simplified characters are more abstract arbitrary reflection of the meaning of a word
  • Traditional characters are seen as more beautiful, and as such you will see them used a lot in Chinese calligraphy
  • A learner of traditional characters can more easily learn simplified characters than the other way around
  • I have found that a lot of media on western internet sites such as youtube is from Taiwan, and as such use traditional characters. This was somewhat infuriating in the past, but is less relevant today with the simplified content source beginning to dwarf what is available in traditional form
  • If you plan on learning Cantonese in Hong Kong or Mandarin in Taiwan, learning traditional characters makes a lot of sense
  • If you wish to read older documents written prior to the 1950’s years ago, these will all be in traditional Chinese. This likely a moot point, as a learner who has the ability to read such literature is likely already proficient at Chinese, making the transition much easier.

The advantage of simplified Chinese:

  • Simplified characters are easier to write by hand and input via character recognition into your phone
  • The reduced number of strokes in simplified characters means they display more cleanly
  • With a lower number of strokes and thus complexity in the character, I have found it is much easier to remember simplified characters
  • Due to the lower number of strokes, you can write simplified characters faster than traditional characters. In a friendly challenge I have seen two friends compete in who can write the fastest, the Taiwanese writing in traditional characters and mainland Chinese in simplified; the mainland Chinese writer using simplified beat the traditional writer as you would expect.
  • Simplified Chinese is the standard form of Chinese for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With a population of 1.4 billion people and many Chinese around the world, there is a lot of media of all forms available in simplified Chinese.
  • Once you have reached an intermediate level of Chinese character proficiency, it is not difficult to slowly integrate traditional characters into your learning routine.

Should I learn traditional or simplified Chinese characters?

If you intend on learning to write, I would recommend you learn simplified Chinese characters as a starting point. If you are learning Mandarin Chinese then with the exception of older articles and content from Taiwan, you will find most Mandarin sources use simplified Chinese characters. Over time, if you have exposure to content from Taiwan or live in countries such as Malaysia where traditional Chinese characters are not uncommon, you will naturally be able to recognise a number of traditional characters.

Can you learn Chinese without learning to read? You can and many learning resources do teach Chinese by Pinyin alone. Once your Chinese moves from a beginner to intermediate level, you will likely find yourself wanting to or needing to recognise Chinese characters if you progress beyond the very basis.

Should I learn to write chinese?

So you’ve decided to at least learn to read Chinese characters, but is it worth being able to write them? You can learn to speak chinese without learning to write, this is how may people start to learn and is the most natural way to do so. Ultimately many decide to learn to write. I would suggest focusing on speaking before you concern yourself with reading or writing, Eearly focus on reading and writing will slow down your efforts and ability to learn and enjoy the language.

Reasons to learning Chinese writing include:

  • Learning to write Chinese helps reinforce the characters. Personally I found that memorising the characters without knowing how to write them led to me confusing difference characters
  • If you plan on living in China or a Chinese speaking country or environment, you will find yourself in situation whereby you need to write a note, directions or any number of other things in Chinese.
  • You cannot claim you have mastered Chinese until you have understood to learn how to write. In reality however you will naturally begin to recognise Chinese characters as your exposure to the language increases

It is not as uncommon as you might think to learn Mandarin without being able to read and write. The children of many immigrants, not just Chinese, often teach their children to speak in their mother tongue without teaching them to write. As another example it is also not uncommon in Malaysia for some Malaysian ethnic chinese to learn to speak any number of Chinese dialects without ever learning how to write, this results in the unusual situation where the mother tongue of some ethnic chinese are unable to read or write in their own dialect and in fact it their reading and writing skills lie in their second language. None of this presents itself as a problem, thus you can rest assured that being unable to read or write will not hinder your ability to get started learning the language and is something you can pick up at a later date.

What is a Chinese Dialect?

No introduction to Chinese would be complete without a little bit of background on dialects. Mandarin Chinese is one, but definitely not the only way to speak Chinese, it is the official language of the mainland China and the “standard” form of spoken Chinese. That said China’s Special Administrative Regions (SAR) of Macau and Hong Kong do not use Mandarin as their official language. Written Cantonese has its own written form that uses sound characters to communicate pronunciation, making them more stand alone languages than simply dialects, which is the case with several other dialects

Despite the Chinese Mandarin being spoken widely around the world, many Chinatown districts, do still speak Cantonese just as much as Mandarin. The history behind this is generally that many early Chinese emigrants came from southern China, including Guangdong and Guangxi provinces as well as Hong Kong and Macau, all of which were Cantonese speaking. In the last several decades Chinese emigrants have increasingly come from all over China, resulting in the majority being Mandarin speaking. Furthermore as China has risen as an economic power, more and more ethnic Chinese outside china have embraced Mandarin as an essential language to teach their children.

For the purposes of this site I am focusing on Mandarin Chinese, although I do have an interest in Cantonese, which is commonly spoken in southern parts of China, including Macau and Hong Kong, as well as Singapore and Malaysia.

How pronunciation varies between dialects

Simply put a given character of written chinese is typically pronounced completely differently between dialects. Some characters may share a the same sound but a different intonation. While a book could be written on Chinese dialects and language, and many have, below is a table of example words and how they are pronounced in Mandarin, Cantonese and Hokkien (to pick three examples):

Character Meaning Mandarin Pronunciation (Pinyin) Cantonese Pronunciation Hokkien Pronunciation
Horse maa5
Home / house jiā gaa1 chhù

As you can see from the above table, some pronunciations vary simply by the tone, denoted by the accent above the character, while other pronunciations are completely different.

Okay, I want to learn Mandarin Chinese, where do I start?

Now you have a basic understanding of what Chinese is, I suggest going to our Beginners Info section of this site  looking at some of the articles that covers the basis. Before you do start, keep in mind that learning a language is not a destination but a journey. Even as a native English speaker your language abilities have no doubt improved over your life and will continue to do so. Keep this in mind when you dive into learning Chinese and enjoy the journey.