Chinese at a Glance

Is Chinese on your shortlist of languages to learn?

Below I give a quick and dirty synopsis of what you should be aware of and to expect when you go down this road.

Chinese is a special case within languages, so before I go any further I'd like to let you know something.

Chinese is called a language, but what people actually speak are different dialects. The problem is that the dialects are so different the are not mutually intelligible and may as well be considered separate languages.

With that said there are two main dialects you should be aware of. First is Mandarin and the second is Cantonese. Mandarin is the more widely spoken while Cantonese is spoken mainly in Hong Kong and the surround areas (As well as areas with high concentrations of Hong Kongese immigrants).

In this post I'll focus on Mandarin. To see a At a Glance of Cantonese click here.


Useful and only getting more useful as China gets bigger.

Though China's growth has slowed in recent years, it is still the second biggest economy in the world. Not to mention the population in China is over a billion people.

Though it is much more likely that in the world of business and diplomacy will still be done in English, knowing the language of a powerful country can't hurt.

Fluency Time

Quite a while. If you are coming from a Romance language like I'm assuming it's going to take much longer than a language like Spanish.

The reasons a various(some of the same reasons as Japanese), but mostly because of:

  • Hanzi(Chinese characters). There are 3000 kanji that are used and expected to be remembered. But unlike Japanese there is no standardized list to say which are absolutely necessary.
  • Multiple types of Hanzi. There are two sets of Hanzi.
    Yes you heard that right. There exists a traditional and simplified forms.
    In places like Taiwan traditional are mainly used, on the mainland they use simplified.
    Why the difference? During one of China's many reforms it decided to "simplify" all of the characters to make learning to read simpler.
  • Tones. Not that hard once you get used to them, but at the beginning its a pain.
    Tones are when a word has the exact same sound but said in a different tone of voice. An example is when you ask a question and inflect your voice to signify its a question.
    Chinese has at least 4 tones. And each tone makes the sound have a completely different meaning.

With consistent daily effort expect 1-2 years to be fluent enough to handle daily tasks.

Top Countries

China & Hong Kong. Taiwan. Singapore.

China also has large pockets of immigrants in various countries in Europe, America, and other East Asian (Korea, Japan) countries.

Future Outlook

A little hard to tell. Even if their growth stalls, they still have a large population and immigrant population that should continue to make their language fairly useful.

The main barrier to Chinese becoming a bigger language in the future will be difficulty in acquisition compared to other large languages like English and Spanish.

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