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Learn Cantonese: Face-to-Face and Online Classes Offered

About Learning Cantonese with Berlitz

Chinese is spoken by more people than any other language in the world. All but about 100 million of China’s 1 1/4 billion people, or 1,150,000,000, speak one or another of its dialects. There are another 20 million speakers on Taiwan, 7 million in Thailand, 5 million in Malaysia, 2 1⁄2 million in Singapore, one million in Vietnam, and lesser numbers in other countries including the United States and Canada. Thus Chinese has more than twice the number of speakers of English, though of course it lacks the universality of English and is spoken by few people not of Chinese origin. Chinese has been an official language of the United Nations since the founding of the organization in 1945.

China constitutes a separate branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Though it has many dialects, Mandarin (based on the pronunciation of Beijing) is considered the standard and is spoken by nearly three-fourths of all Chinese-speakers in China, or about 900 million people. The Mandarin-speaking area covers more than three-fourths of all of China: the entire north but also the southern provinces of Kweichow (Guizhou) and Szechwan (Sichuan). All the other dialects are confined to the southeastern corner of the country, between the lower course of the Yangtze River and the South China Sea.

The non-Mandarin dialects are:

  1. Wu, spoken by about 80 million people in Shanghai and the surrounding areas;
  2. Cantonese, spoken by about 50 million people in the extreme southern provinces of Kwangtung (Guangdong) and Kwangsi (Guangxi) and also in Hong Kong;
  3. Min, spoken by about 40 million people in Fukien (Fujian) Province and generally subdivided into Northern Min, or Fuzhou, and southern Min, or Amoy. Amoy is also the principal dialect of Taiwan.
  4. Hsiang, with 40 million speakers in Hunan Province;
  5. Hakka, with 30 million speakers in Szechwan, Kwangtung, Kwangsi, Fukien, and also on Taiwan.

In addition, the Min dialects are widely spoken in Malaysia and Singapore, while Cantonese is also spoken in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Most Chinese in the United States speak Cantonese.

Chinese, like the other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family, is a tonal language, meaning that different tones, or intonations, distinguish words that otherwise are pronounced identically. The four Chinese tones are (1) high level; (2) high rising; (3) low rising; (4) high falling to low. It is not unusual for a syllable to be pronounced in each of the four tones, each yielding a word with a completely different meaning. For example, the word ma in tone one means “mother,” while ma2 means “hemp,” ma3 means “horse,” and ma4 means “to curse.” In fact each tone usually offers a large number of homonyms. Yi in tone one can mean, among other things, “one,” “clothes,” “doctor,” and “to cure”; yi2 “aunt,” “doubt,” “suitable,” and “to shift”; yi 3 “already,” “because of,” and “by”; yi4 “easy,” “strange,” “benefit,” and the number “100 million.”

Chinese is written with thousands of distinctive characters called ideographs, which have no relation to the sound of a word. A large dictionary will contain as many as 40,000 to 50,000 of them. Chinese children learn about 2,000 by the time they are ten, but one must know two or three times that number to be able to read a newspaper or a novel. One kind of Chinese typewriter has 5,400. The number of strokes required to draw a single character can be as high as 33.

The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs, such as a crescent for the moon, or a circle with a dot in the center to represent the sun. Gradually these gave way to nonpictorial ideographs, which, in addition to standing for tangible objects, also represented abstract concepts. Today two characters (sometimes the same, sometimes different) often stand side by side to form a third. Thus two “tree” characters mean “forest,” while “sun” + “moon” =“bright,” and “woman” + “child” = “good.” Sometimes the two characters are superimposed upon each other, their relative position giving a clue as to the meaning of the newly formed character. When the character for “sun” is placed above the character for “tree” the new character means “high” or “bright,” but when it is placed below, the new character means “hidden” or“dark.” No matter how many single characters are combined into one, the resulting character always has the same square appearance and is the same size as any other character.

The majority of Chinese characters, however, consist of two elements: a signific, which indicates the meaning of a word, and a phonetic, which indicates the sound. The significs, or radicals, number 214, and indicate the class of objects to which the word belongs. For example, all words relating to wood, such as “tree” and “table,” contain the “wood” radical. The phonetic consists of the character for a word whose meaning is totally unrelated to the word in question, but whose pronunciation happens to be the same. Thus the character for “ocean” consists of the signific “water” plus the phonetic “sheep,” because the word for “sheep” is pronounced the same as the word for “ocean.” In some cases the phonetic stands alone, as in the case of the character for“dustpan,” which also stands for the Chinese possessive pronoun, since the word for the pronoun is the same as the word for “dustpan.”

Despite their complexity, the Chinese characters do have the advantage of making written communication possible between people speaking mutually unintelligible dialects and languages. A given word may be quite different in Mandarin and Cantonese, but it would be written identically in the two dialects. Since the Chinese characters are also used in Japanese, each language, when written, is partially understandable to a speaker of the other, despite the fact that the two languages are totally unrelated.

Numerous attempts have been made over the years to simplify the Chinese system of writing. In 1955 the Chinese People’s Republic initiated a plan to simplify more than 1,700 characters, this number to be increased gradually so that over half of the most commonly used symbols would eventually be simplified. But the ultimate hope for easy readability of Chinese would appear to be an alphabetic script. In 1958 a new Chinese alphabet based on the Roman was introduced, but thus far it appears to have made little headway.

English words of Chinese origin include tea, typhoon, sampan, kaolin, kumquat, kowtow, and shanghai.

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Authorized from the original edition of The Languages of the World 3rd edition by Keneth Katzner published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group.

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