There are 292 documented living languages in China which include both Han Chinese and minority languages (Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc.). Linguists break them into six distinct language groups — check out China’s language map to see what languages dominate which parts of the country. China’s official language is Standard Mandarin, also known as Putonghua. Formal Chinese policy encourages the development of national languages, but local languages have an increasingly difficult time thriving, especially in republics like Tibet that are the subject of “sinicization.”

Chinese “letters” aren’t simply letters at all, but “ideographs” (known more accurately as hanzi or “sinograms”) composed of one or more (usually two or three) of the language’s 214 radicals. The combination of radicals indicates not strict pronunciation but meaning, sound or a combination of the two. Watch this video for a refreshingly clear introduction to Chinese characters, including an explanation of how Chinese characters convey not sounds, like in Roman script, but ideas. (As an interesting sidelight, this video explains, the mechanism people once used to write scripts has an effect on the way they look. For example,

— Latin scripts were scratched into wax tablets with a stylus, which allowed for both straight lines and curves
— Runic letters were carved into wood, which has a grain in which horizontal lines would be lost, so there are only vertical and diagonal marks
— Many ancient scripts like some in India were written on banana leaves and therefore have many curves and few straight lines
— Chinese script was written in a brush so there are no circles, which are hard to do in brush strokes.)

In the 1950s a standardized “Romanization” system based upon Mandarin pronunciation began to appear on street signs and on storefronts. Those who understand Roman characters can approach the language more instinctively, but pronouncing Mandarin…? That’s no simple feat.

The main Chinese languages are “tonal,” meaning that the way one pronounces the words drastically effects the meaning. One way to think about this is through an example used in the introduction to tonal languages. You pronounce the word “present” differently whether you are using it as a verb — to give, or “present,” a gift to someone [pri-zent] — or as an adjective indicating that the time is now [prezuhnt].

In class we’re going to do our present Mandarin greetings (no, not present. Present!):

Hello: Nî hâo
Goodbye: Zài Jiàn

More information:’s introduction to the languages of China | Wikipedia categorizes China’s languages | What is a tonal language?

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