Studying Chinese

Chinese Characters

Studying Chinese is becoming very popular throughout the Western world. But how is Chinese different from other languages? What are the characteristics that make it unique?

About one-fifth of the population in the world, or over one billion people, speak some variety of Chinese as their native language. Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, although all varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic. There are between seven and thirteen main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most spoken, by far, is Mandarin.

Watch: Studying Chinese is getting popular among elementary and high school students in America:


The Spoken Chinese language (whether Mandarin or Cantonese) is tonal. A few dialects of north China may have as few as three tones, while some dialects in south China have up to six or ten tones, depending on how one counts. A very common example used to illustrate the use of tones in Chinese is the four main tones of Mandarin applied to the syllable ma. The tones correspond to these five characters:

  • 妈/媽 (mā) “mother”— high level
  • 麻       (má) “linen” or “numb”— high rising
  • 马/馬 (mǎ) “horse”— low falling-rising
  • 骂/罵 (mà) “scold”— high falling
  • 吗/嗎 (ma) “question particle”— neutral

In the English language, changes in tones indicate the difference between a spoken statement and a question or the state of mind of the speaker, yet the meaning of the words does not change. Furthermore, each linguistically distinct sound, or phoneme, maps to a single letter. For example, the three phonemes in the word “bat” map on to three letters. If one letter is changed, a new word is created. In Mandarin, however, there are approximately 1,800 distinguishable syllables; Each syllable can have several meanings and each meaning is typically represented by a distinct character. The characters differ in the way they are written and in the way they are read, so even if two characters are read the same, they will not look the same.


What makes the Mandarin Chinese language unique?

An interesting research conducted by UC Irvine researcher Fan-Gang Zeng and by his Chinese colleagues examined the brain scans of subjects as they listened to spoken Mandarin Chinese. The researchers found that the brain processes the tones (or the pitch) of the words in Mandarin in the right hemisphere of the brain, before the left side of the brain processes the semantics, or the meaning, of the information. This process does not occur when one is listening to other, non-tonal languages, such as English. The researches, therefore, concluded that the brain actually processes Mandarin as music and not as words; The research helps understand how the brain of the average Chinese person works when speaking and listening to Mandarin and why tones are a crucial element in learning the Chinese language.

Brain functioning differs not only when distinguishing between spoken Chinese and spoken English but also when distinguishing between written Chinese and written English (or other indo-European languages). Fascinating research by US and Chinese scientists challenges our interpretation of how it is possible to be dyslexic in one language but not in another; It shows that readers of Chinese use a different part of their brains to readers of English. English speakers with reading disability typically have functional abnormalities in posterior parts of the brain associated with reading and possibly also have less gray matter in these areas. In Chinese dyslexics, on the other hand, the functional and structural brain abnormalities related to reading correspond with the left middle frontal region of the brain.

Li-Hai Tan, the researcher and a professor of linguistics and neuroscience at the University of Hong Kong, said after the research that: “At the functional level, it’s easy to understand why Chinese and English speakers use different parts of the brain to read language. The different brain networks accommodate the different features of English and Chinese. The two systems are dramatically different. Chinese is pictographic and English is more phonological, or sound-based.”

This research would suggest that the genetic makeup of Chinese speaking dyslexics is different from that of English speakers with the same disorder since they have reductions of gray matter in different sites of the brain. This conclusion helps understand how some people may be dyslexic in English yet can read Chinese fluently.

Should I be Studying Chinese?

Because speakers of Mandarin Chinese are required to pronounce each word accurately while maintaining strict sentence structures and because writers/readers must memorize and remember thousands of characters (3,500 characters are needed to read the equivalent of the daily mail and approximately 6,000 characters are needed to read books), studying Chinese is a difficult and time consuming mission.

Despite those difficulties, Chinese language studies have become increasingly popular among the young in the Western world. In 1991, for example, 2,000 foreign learners had taken the official Chinese Proficiency Test (comparable to the English Cambridge Certificate), while in 2005, the number of candidates rose sharply to 117,660.