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Spotlight on Chinese

About the Chinese Language

Chinese is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family, which includes languages such as Burmese and Tibetan. Classification of the languages in this family is an ongoing scholarly effort; by some classification systems, there are as many as 14 major varieties of Chinese (see, e.g., Gordon, 2005), with additional variation within the major varieties.

Whether varieties of Chinese should be called languages or dialects—and which varieties might be dialects and which ones languages—is a matter of scholarly debate. We refer to all of them here as varieties.

If all varieties of Chinese are considered together, it is estimated that there are approximately 1 billion native speakers—about one fifth of the world’s population (“Chinese Language,” n.d.; Matisoff, n.d.; Turner, n.d.). Mandarin alone is estimated to have more speakers than any other language in the world (Turner, n.d.). It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China (also called PRC and mainland China) and the Republic of China (also called RoC and Taiwan), and is also one of the official languages of Singapore and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Mandarin is typically the language used by speakers of different Chinese varieties to communicate with each other. Varieties of Chinese are also spoken by significant numbers of people in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia (Java and Bali), Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Viet Nam (Gordon, 2005). The Modern Language Association provides an interactive language map that shows where Chinese (of all varieties) is spoken in the United States.

Characteristics of spoken Chinese

Chinese is a tonal language: The same sounds convey different meaning depending on the pitch and contour of the intonation with which they are spoken. Different varieties of Chinese use different numbers of tones to distinguish meaning; between 5 and 10 is common. Several Web sites describe, contrast, and demonstrate tones in Mandarin, for example Harvard University's Chinese Pronunciation Guide and New Concept Mandarin's Chinese Pronunciation. posts audio and text of common phrases. Omniglot provides a longer speech sample.

To provide a visual representation of Chinese sounds to assist learners in acquiring spoken Chinese, multiple transliteration systems are used to transcribe Chinese into Roman alphabets (a process known as romanization). These include Wade-Giles Romanization, Romatzyh (also known as National Romanization), Yale Romanization, and Hanyu Pinyin (Kubler, 2006, pp. 37-39). There is also a Chinese phonetic alphabet system, commonly known as Zhuyin Fuhao or Bopomofo, which was developed in the 1930s and is still used in Taiwan. Both Hanyu Pinyin and Zhuyin Fuhao are currently used by various communities, typically as an aide for teaching Chinese to learners or in computer-mediated applications.

Characteristics of written Chinese

The Chinese writing system is logographic: In general, its characters represent words or parts of words. While Chinese is arguably the best known example of a logographic writing system, logographs occur in many  languages and are commonly used in fields such as mathematics and science, where they aid crosslinguistic and international comprehensibility. Many English speakers will recognize such logographs as +, =, ∞, , and . Logographic writing systems involve thousands of graphemes, whereas alphabetic systems use fewer than 100 (e.g., 26 letters in English). The Chinese K’ang Hsi dictionary—arguably the most comprehensive in existence—lists nearly 50,000 characters. However, it is estimated that basic Chinese literacy can be achieved with knowledge of 2,000 to 3,500 characters.

There are six categories of characters (六书), as follows (Crystal, 1987):

形声    Hsing sheng are comprised of a semantic element, known as the radical, and a phonetic element that reminds the reader how to pronounce the word.

指事    Chih shih are similar to ideograms, or symbolic depictions of ideas.

会意    Hui i are compound characters in which separate, related semantic elements combine to represent a third, derived meaning.

转助    Chuan chu reshape or reorient a character of one meaning to form a character of related meaning.

假借    Chia chieh utilize the characters of homophones.

象形    Hsiang hsing are very like their ancient pictogram forms.

Because of the political separation of the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party since 1949 and the efforts of the People’s Republic of China to modernize written Chinese with simplified characters, there are currently two writing systems in use. The Asia Society (2006, p. 11) offers a clear summary:

Typically, simplified characters require fewer strokes than the traditional characters. To date, there are 2,238 simplified characters out of approximately 7,000 characters that are used by educated native speakers of Chinese (DeFrancis, 1984). The use of simplified characters is common on mainland China, but traditional characters prevail in Taiwan (Kubler, 1999). Hong Kong and Singapore use both systems. In the United States, overseas Chinese communities may use either system, depending on the origins of their members.

Chinese calligraphy, traditionally a way of writing, has become an art widely recognized and appreciated for its distinctive brushwork. Calligraphy applies any of a variety of styles to the characters of either writing system.

A good place to start a search for more information about Chinese writing systems is Omniglot’s page on Chinese script and language. The Learn to Write Characters Web site housed at California State University, Long Beach, provides animations illustrating the correct stroke order used to form characters, which is of great importance in the art of Chinese writing.

Read more about CAL's activities and resources related to Chinese.

Return to the Discover Languages Language Spotlight page.

Compiled by Cate Coburn, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington, D.C.
Special thanks to Shuhan Wang, Asia Society, New York
Site Updated: April 17, 2007


Asia Society. (2006). Creating a Chinese language program in your school: An introductory guide. New York: Asia Society. Available from

Chinese language. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from

Crystal, D. (1987). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gordon, R. G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.) [Electronic version]. Dallas, TX.: SIL International. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from

Matisoff, J. A. (n.d.). Description of the Sino-Tibetan language family. In TheSino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (STEDT). Retrieved February 26, 2007, from

Turner, M.A. (n.d.). The World's most widely spoken languages. Retrieved February 26, 2007, from