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Chinese | 汉语 or 漢語 | [hànyǔ]
So, what does Chinese sound like?
Would you like to hear a sample of someone speaking it? Click the play button to get an impression of how Slovene sounds. As you listen to the recording of a native speaker speaking Standard Chinese – also known as Mandarin – pay attention to some of the sounds that seem most exotic to your ears. Mandarin is a tonal language in which words take on different meanings depending on the tones in which they are spoken.
The audio sample is taken from a poem writing by the famous Chinese poet Li Bai. Thousands of poems which have survived to this day have been attributed to Li Bai, including the one spoken here, which is considered to be a Tang-era masterpiece. The poem “Bring in the Wine” is an example of carpe diem poetry written during a period of depression in Li Bai’s life. It is designed to embolden the reader to positive thinking. Here’s a short excerpt:
For satisfaction in this life / taste pleasure to the limit, / And never let a goblet of gold / face the bright moon empty. // Heaven bred in me talents, / and they must be put to use. / I toss away a thousand in gold, / it comes right back to me.
Did you know...?
Did you know that the Chinese script (Han script) is the oldest logographic writing system in the world that is still in use today? According to the Chinese Culture Center in Berlin the Chinese writing system consists of symbols taken from the language of the Han nationality, which means it has a history stretching back some 4,000 years. The earliest examples of Chinese writing date back to the second millennium BC.
How many characters are there in the Chinese language? The Kangxi Dictionary, which was compiled between 1710 and 1716 during the Qing Dynasty, contains more than 47,000 characters. However, the list of standardized Chinese characters published by the Chinese Ministry of Education in 2013 features just 8,105 characters. And fewer than 2,500 characters are required to read most newspapers, magazines and books. Another interesting fact worth mentioning is that the characters for “Chinese” shown above are actually taken from two different sets of characters: “simplified” Chinese and “traditional” Chinese. It’s easy to see why Chinese characters are one of the most difficult and fascinating aspects of learning the language.
Strictly speaking, referring to Chinese in the singular is inaccurate. That's because Chinese is actually divided into various different languages which official Chinese terminology refers to as "dialects". In addition to Standard Chinese, or Mandarin, there are seven further languages. And even this total of eight languages is actually broken down further into a number of different dialects. By Western standards it would be more accurate to refer to these eight "dialects" as different languages, because they are so completely different from each other that their speakers often have trouble understanding each other. Standard Chinese is generally used as a means of making things clearly understood on a wider basis. But there are even aspects of Mandarin that differ to a minor or major degree from one province to the other! As noted above, the native speaker in our audio sample is speaking Standard Chinese, i.e. Mandarin. The regional variant of Mandarin he speaks the Beijing dialect, which could perhaps be compared to BBC English in the UK or a generalized Midwestern accent in the United States.
FACT FILE Chinese
Chinese is spoken by somewhere in the region of 1.3 billion people – that's almost 20 percent of the world’s population. Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, which is the world’s second largest language family after the Indo-European family. The most widely spoken of the Chinese languages are the northern Chinese dialects (see above), with Mandarin alone having some 850 million speakers. Chinese characters can be pronounced in different ways, and each different form of pronunciation might have several meanings. Each syllable can also be pronounced in different tones, which also affects the meaning.
The list of the most commonly used characters in modern Chinese published in 1988 by the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China is widely regarded as an authoritative reference work. This list was replaced by the Table of General Standard Chinese Characters which was published in 2013. The complete list of some 8,100 characters (including additional information/notes and various alternative characters) is available as a download from the official website of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. Please note, however, that the PDF is 96 MB, so it may take some time to download (List in PDF format). According to the notes, the first 3,500 characters that appear in the list are the most common, while a further 3,000 are referred to as "secondary" characters. The remaining characters are seldom used. According to our in-house Chinese specialist, anyone who achieves an active mastery of the most common and the secondary characters can rightly claim to be a highly distinguished expert on the Chinese language!