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Learn Mandarin: What is Chinese?

Let`s start this off by ensuring that readers are clear on a few terms. First off, there is no such language as Chinese. Chinese is actually a family of languages also referred to as Sinitic languages. (Sinitic is an adjective derived from sino-, the pre-fix commonly used to indicate Chinese. The sino- pre-fix is derived from the late Latin Sinae.) The Chinese family of languages is comprised of thirteen sub-languages.

The most common sub-language, and that generally referred to when people talk about learning Chinese, is Mandarin. Mandarin is spoken by approximately 850 million people, and is the official language of the People`s Republic of China. In general, throughout the country anyone under the age of thirty-five to forty who has attended school will be able to speak Mandarin, though how well they actually speak it varies from region to region. More on this later.

So, to split hairs, when you hear people talking about learning Chinese, they are likely referring to Mandarin, as no such language as Chinese exists, and not one of the sub-languages, or, as they are sometimes (incorrectly) referred to, dialects. The linguistic definition of a dialect is a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary (www.dictionary.com). To provide an example, speakers of American English say French fries whereas speakers of British English say chips. Americans from Boston are likely to drop the r sound when they pronounce the word car whereas Americans from the south may draw it out. These are examples how one language, English, varies in phonology (or sound) and vocabulary.

What are commonly referred to as dialects throughout Chinese are actually mutually unintelligible languages. Speakers from the northeast who grow up speaking Mandarin cannot understand Cantonese, and vice versa. Likewise, speakers who grow up in the south speaking Cantonese cannot understand those from the Shanghai region who speak Shanghaiese, also known as Wu. These three languages, indeed as well as the other sub-languages, are completely different languages. They are not dialects.

In the next section of this guide, we will see why learning Mandarin is not as difficult as many people believe.

Learn Mandarin Part 2: Is Mandarin Difficult to Learn?

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