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Wo Ai Ni (我爱你) is the way to go, if your Valentine is Chinese!

  • Feb 14, 2010
Today is first day of Chinese New Year (the year of the golden tiger begins) for all Chinese and also Valentine's Day for the rest of the world. So, other than uttering Gongxi Facai (恭喜发财) in Mandarin & Gong Hei Fat Choi in Cantonese, the words for lovers are Wo Ai Ni (我爱你) in Chinese. That's Je t'aime in French :-)

Now, the newest trend is to learn Chinese. I've seen and met a great many students who come from across the world to learn Mandarin in Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen. Students from U.S., France, Germany, Spain, Norway, Korea and even Kazakhstan. Mandarin is the language of the new decade, it seems.

Well, it's a little complicated where this language is concerned. Chinese Language, what is it? Why do they sound different in different parts of China? Let's differentiate between a language and dialects first.

There is only one language, ie. Chinese Language. It's written form is the same in all of China (but there is a little difference in Taiwan & Hong Kong. The traditional Chinese & the Simplified Chinese. China itself has adopted the Simplified Chinese while Taiwan & Hong Kong still use the Traditional Chinese way of writing (more strokes in the word itself). 

Chinese Language is one of the most complicated, not so much in its grammar but rather in the way the words are written & pronounced; many strokes & same pronounciation may have different meanings under different context as well as with different combination. 

Firstly, the official language of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC, ie. commonly known as China) is the language spoken in Beijing. Known as Mandarin to the West & Putonghua to the Chinese as well as Huayu to the South East Asian Chinese. Aside from Mandarin, China has 6 major dialect groups. Within each dialect groups, there are some differentiation in accent depending on where it's spoken & which village or town it originated. Around 70% of China's population speaks Mandarin but that doesn't mean it's their first language. In some cities like Guangzhou, Hongkong & southern China, Cantonese is spoken more often. Cantonese is also one of the major dialects & it sounds entirely different from Mandarin but in all chinese dialects, the written form is the same.

Trivia: Take a guess, how many Chinese characters are there? 
Answer: About 56,000 characters.

Generally, for the well educated, one would know or use about 6000 to 8000 characters. To read a newspaper, you need to know at least 1500-2500!

Chinese words usually is a combination of 2 or more characters. To make it even more complicated, there are countries outside China which uses different form of the same word, notably in Hongkong & Taiwan. China has in 1954 simplified about 2200 chinese characters by reducing the number of strokes for each of the different characters, while Hongkong & Taiwan prefer to use the traditional full-form characters. In other words, if one doesn't read widely, it is very possible one would not recognised the same character of the 2 different forms when one sees it. So, a young student from China may not be able to read the newspaper in Taiwan even though he/she has no problems reading it had it been published in China!!!

Spoken Mandarin has 4 different tones while 6 different tones in Cantonese. It's said that Cantonese is harder for a foreigner to master because of this.

爱in simplified Chinese.

For example, the word love 爱. It's the 4th tone of the pronounciation ai 4.
The first tone of ai may be a word like 挨(ai 1 骂 ma 4), meaning getting a scolding.
The second tone of ai may be a word like 癌 (ai 2), meaning cancer.
The third tone of ai may be a word like 矮 (ai 3), meaning short.

[BBC has produced a mini tone guide which I found interesting. Check it out!]

So, it is most important to get them right! :-)

I do speak Putonghua/Mandarin and also 3 other Chinese dialects. It comes naturally to me. Having learned Indonesian Language at a young age, it helps in learning Mandarin. I also speak some Japanese. I do find that within these 3 languages, Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese (possibly Spanish too), the pronounciation is similar. Hence, it is easier for those who know these few languages to learn spoken Chinese (may not be so easy to learn the written form though).

In order to learn Chinese Language well, you need lots of time, at least 10 years of exposure. Some may learn to speak in less but to write beautifully, it may actually take a lifetime! Calligraphy is also a trained art which I'm fond of. Generally though, I think the world is at a stage where by Chinese Language will be a major language in the near future (about 5 to 10 years down the road). As it is, about 1/3 of the world population speaks this language! I've read in recent times that some parents in New York City are hiring nannies who speak Chinese to their children from a young age so as to prepare them well in advance where learning Mandarin is concerned. 

From my own personal experience, it pays to pick up whatever languages you'd like to learn from a young age. It's extremely difficult to learn a new language once you reached adulthood. From observing Chinese Singaporeans trying to learn Mandarin, I'd say that's quite the case. I did learn English only from the age of 10, so, it's not too late for many. All in all, the earlier the better :-)

Wo Ai Ni (我爱你) is the way to go, if your Valentine is Chinese!

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February 15, 2010
wow! My friends speak Cantonese and some speak Mandarin; and now I know why most of them can't read or write in Chinese since they are American born. Very informative read, Sharrie! So how was your New year's?
February 15, 2010
You're welcome! I know it's confusing for many people with some speaking Mandarin while others Cantonese! In fact, there are also many other dialects which most Americans don't come into contact with. CNY? Quiet! Weather is not so good in this region. Dizzling, cold & rainy! But it'll improve in a day or two. No matter :-) Chinese New Year lasts for 15 days afterall :D
More Chinese Language reviews
Quick Tip by . September 13, 2010
posted in Go China
Learn it young if you intend to, or else it'll turn into a pain in the xxxx ! Once you learn to enjoy it, it's full of poetry and mystery. A language befitting of a great civilization. Something ancient and yet fully in use by 1 over billion people! Amazing!
Quick Tip by . January 01, 2010
Ancient, difficult to learn & challenging yet it is one of the most interesting languages. To learn it well, u need to live in China.
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Sharrie ()
Ranked #3
I'm a traveler at heart & have been nicknamed Travel Queen by friends & colleagues alike. Traveling has been my life passion for the last decade or so. As we enter a new decade, I'm excited … more
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 Chinese or the Sinitic language(s) (simplified Chinese汉语traditional Chinese漢語pinyinHànyǔsimplified Chinese华语traditional Chinese華語pinyinHuáyǔsimplified Chinese中国话traditional Chinese中國話pinyinZhōngguóhuà; orChinese中文pinyinZhōngwén) is a language family consisting of languages mutually unintelligible to varying degrees.[3] Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the two branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages. About one-fifth of the world’s population, or over one billion people, speak some form of Chinese as their native language. Theidentification of the varieties of Chinese as "dialects" instead of "languages" is considered inappropriate by some linguists and Sinologists.[4]

Spoken Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, although all spoken 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 (about 850 million), followed by Wu (90 million), Cantonese (Yue) (70 million) and Min (70 ...

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