Updated 10 months ago

When considering a move to a foreign country, the question of whether you should learn the language comes up and, typically, taking a language course before your move is a simple and wise choice. However, things get a bit more complicated when it comes to China and the Chinese language.

Chinese is the most spoken language in the world with over 1 billion speakers. The language is spoken in Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Singapore covering over 16% of the world’s population. In practise, however, there is more than one Chinese language.

China is the world’s 4th largest country with a lot of natural borders on its territory: rivers, lakes and mountain ranges dividing the country into a multitude of regions. Over time, each of those regions has developed its own culture, customs, cuisine and even language. Thus, several dialects of Chinese exist all throughout the country, the biggest of them being Wu, Hunanese, Jiangxinese, Hakka, Yue (including Cantonese-Taishanese), Ping, Shaojiang and Min. Several versions of Chinese may even be spoken within the same province and, due to the active migration between cities, you can hear a variety of dialects in practically any city in China.

 Good to know:

While the many Chinese languages are not drastically different, even native speakers may sometimes have trouble fully understanding each other.

Standard Chinese (Putonghua) and Cantonese

Putonghua is the official language in China and what most people abroad refer to simply as Mandarin. It is based on China’s northern dialect and is most widely spoke in Beijing and neighbouring cities. Putonghua is taught in schools and universities across the country, it’s the language of TV and radio, and it’s also the language you would learn should you decide to study Chinese at university or take a course.

Most people in China speak Putonghua in addition to their local language. However, it is estimated that 30% of China’s population do not speak standard Chinese, especially in rural areas. With that said, you should have no problem getting around China with a basic knowledge of Putonghua. While you may pick up some extra vocabulary, pronunciation differences and grammar structures depending on where in China you are located, Putonghua is the base on which to build all that extra knowledge on. If your purpose is to be widely understood, learning Putonghua is definitely the way to go, you will be able to use it across China including Hong Kong and Macau.

Cantonese is the second most spoken “dialect” in the country after Putonghua. It is widespread in China’s southern regions, specifically Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau, and is spoken by over 70 million people, including the majority of overseas Chinese. Cantonese is generally considered to be more difficult than standard Chinese. If you plan to spend the majority of your time in southern China, it’s a good idea to pick up some Cantonese in addition to Putonghua.

Studying Chinese

Chinese is not an easy language to learn. First, there’s the writing system. With over 80,000 characters, studying the language can seem quite intimidating. Standard Chinese requires the knowledge of 3,500 characters — however, you can get around fine with 1,000 most frequently used characters.

The spelling currently used in Mainland China and Singapore is known as simplified Chinese, following the reform of 1949. Hong Kong and Taiwan still use a more complicated form of spelling — traditional Chinese.

Chinese is also a tonal language — a word’s meaning depends not only on the pronunciation but also on the tone you use. There are four tones in Putonghua and seven in Cantonese. Mastering the tones is a big part of Chinese study, as using the wrong tone can lead to miscommunication.

On the other hand, most learners find Chinese grammar easy. Sentence structures are simple and straightforward with no conjugations, inflexions or subject-verb agreement.

It is advised to start your Chinese studies before the move so that you have at least a basic understanding of the language before arrival — but there are plenty of options for Chinese learning in the country. If you want to take things seriously, you can enrol at a university for a long-term Chinese course. Most major universities in big cities have programs for expats to learn Chinese, either full time or part time. Full-time programs typically provide their students with visas and dormitories.

If you are coming to China for work, your company may already have an after-work Chinese course. Alternatively, there are some Chinese lT learning centres in most cities in China, from big chains like Mandarin House to smaller, local institutions. If you are looking for even more flexibility, consider hiring a tutor: check out classifieds on local websites, post an ad or apply for a one on one class at the language learning centre. Yet another option is language exchange — a lot of Chinese speakers are very eager to learn English and would be happy to teach you Chinese in exchange for English classes.

 Good to know:

Prefer self-study? There are a variety of online courses and apps than can help you get started in Chinese. Try FluentU, Pleco and others.

 Useful links:

Study Chinese in China
Beijing Language and Culture University
Shenzhen University Mandarin Study
Shanghai University Mandarin Study
Learn Cantonese at HK Graduate School

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