Common questions about Chinese

Chinese lanterns

As a language Chinese is nearly as far as you can from English, with a few other exceptions. Meaning, people often have a lot of questions about this language. Here are some of the most common questions we hear asked about Chinese.

We hope this helps clear up some of the confusion, and if you have any other questions then add them to the comments and we’ll try to answer them!

What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

When people say do you speak Chinese, or I’m learning Chinese, they’re normally referring to a specific type. As Chinese itself isn’t clear which dialect you mean. Yes Mandarin is more commonly spoken, but Cantonese is just as equally a part of the Chinese language.

Cantonese and Mandarin are both dialects of Chinese but are mutually unintelligible when spoken. Someone speaking Mandarin can not be understand by Cantonese speaker and vice versa. However, they do both share a common writing system and that is the use of characters. The characters don’t change from dialect to dialect, just the sound of the language.

The biggest difference is the amount of tones, Mandarin has four tones, whereas Cantonese has six to nine tones.

In addition to Mandarin and Cantonese, China has various other dialects, but they’re normally restricted to specific regions and not as commonly spoken.

If you want to read more in depth about the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese you can do so here.

Where are the different types of Chinese spoken?


  • Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan and the majority of mainland China, making it the most spoken form of Chinese in the world.
  • Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and a small southern region of China.
  • It’s more common for Cantonese speakers to also be able to speak Mandarin than for Mandarin speakers to also be able to speak Cantonese.

Do they have an alphabet?


The short answer to this is no, but don’t worry I’m going to explain. Yes they have a writing system that you’ve probably encountered but the characters don’t make an alphabet. There is no set character for each sound that you can put together to make words. Instead each character represents a word or a concept.

The problem with this is that there are now over 50,000 characters and when they have a new word they have to fit old characters together because they can’t realistically create any more. Meaning car 车, becomes fire car 火车.

Although they are so many characters, in modern Chinese, only about 20000 characters are in use and you only need 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. So with a bit of excessive memorisation, you should be able to get there pretty quickly.

What is the difference between simplified and traditional characters?

Simplified characters are basically traditional characters that have been made to be simple to read and write, in order to improve literacy rates in China and to help foreigners learn Chinese with greater ease.

Simplified characters are clearer but have not been adopted across all of China and there are still regions that use traditional characters.

Simplified characters are used in mainland China and traditional characters are used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

If you want to read more in depth about the differences between simplified and traditional characters, and which ones you should be learning you can do so here.

What is pinyin? Why don’t they just use English spelling?


Pinyin is a writing system for Chinese based on the roman alphabet. As characters aren’t really phonetic, it gives a reliable phonetic pronunciation of the characters.

For example: 杯子 (cup) would be Bēizi in pinyin.

The only thing to be aware of is the letter aren’t pronounced exactly the same as you would pronounce them in English.

For example: Q in pinyin, make a ch sound in English. And C in pinyin, makes a ts sound in English.

This seems frustrating at first, because a lot of people think why couldn’t they have just used the English pronunciations, isn’t this more difficult? And there are several reasons for this.

  1. Firstly, the phonemes in Chinese are different to the phonemes in English, they have sounds in their language that we don’t really have and can be difficult to create with an exact match to our letters.
  2. English spelling is crazy anyway. Thought, through, though. Look at the spellings of those words. Our letters change their pronunciation all the time, more so than other languages that use the roman alphabet, which can be incredibly confusing. Pinyin keeps the pronunciation uniform.
  3. Secondly why would it have to be the same as English? Why not the pronunciation of Spanish letters or German letters. We all use the roman alphabet but we all pronounce letters differently. So there’s not really a reason why the pronunciation would have to match English pronunciation and not just have it’s own pronunciation that works best for the language.

I hope this clears up some of your queries about pinyin. It actually doesn’t take as long to learn as you think it would. Chinese doesn’t have that many different phonemes and you really get used to it quickly. It makes learning Chinese 100 times easier as well.

Do the tones really matter?

Yes they really do. I know this probably isn’t the news you wanted to hear but your tones matter.

If you give enough context in your sentence and where you are, then the odd slightly pronounced tone isn’t going to make a huge difference. But if you just say a few words, you’d be surprised at how sensitive the tones are.

They’re difficult but they’re something that will get easier for you with time, you just have to keep practising them. And start trying to use them from day one. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s ok and it’s better than pretending they don’t exist until you’re six months into the language and trying to relearn.

Every time you learn a word in Chinese you should really be learning the tone as well.

Do I need to learn how to write?

Chinese characters

This really depends on your learning needs. I would say that it’s better to learn how to write, but it’s not necessary.

I would definitely recommend learning the characters, but writing might not be as important for you as you think.

If you don’t bother to learn the characters then you’re going to be in trouble at some point in your Chines learning journey. Actually writing them is a bit of a different story.

If you want to take the HSK exams then you do need to learn to write, and if you want to work in China where Chinese is a required part of your job then you will also most likely need to learn how to write the characters.

However if you, and you’re not that interested in them, I believe that learning to write will become less and less necessary. Nor do you need it to communicate. China is an incredibly technology focused country, with smart phones being the focus of most people, and iPads being in all expensive inner city schools. China is pulling it’s people out of poverty at a rate faster than other countries and it’s technology is growing everyday.

I wouldn’t be surprised if writing characters became less and less relevant as the country moved even more technology focused, as it literally takes half the time to type characters as it does to write them.

My opinion might be an unpopular one, but I would definitely say it depends on your learning requirements, and it’s not as necessary as you would think.

What is Chinese grammar like?

Luckily for you Chinese grammar isn’t actually that difficult, especially compared to European languages and Slavic languages, because there is no conjugation!

You probably remember learning Spanish, French or German in school and wondering why the verbs kept changing depending on who they referred to, for example:

Jugar – to play (Spanish)

Juego – I play
Juegas – you play
Juega – he/she/it plays
Jugamos – we play
Juegan – they play

Well in Chinese this doesn’t happen at all. You just keep the pronoun to indicate who the verb refers to.

Play in Chinese is 玩 regardless of who’s doing the playing.

Chinese also has lots of useful words like the question word 吗 or the plural word 们. Add 吗 on the end of any sentence to make it a question and 们 to the end of any person to make plural.

我 – I

我们 – we

他 – he

他们 – they

妈妈 – mum

妈妈们 – mums

爸爸 – dad

爸爸们 – dads

Also Chinese grammar tends to be SVO, which is the same as English. Meaning sentences are easier to construct because you don’t have to think about changing round the word order.

Final thoughts

Chinese is a difficult language and differs drastically to english so it’s no surprise that people have so many questions about the language.

I hope this has helped you to clear up some of your questions about Chinese. If you have any other makes sure to leave them in the comments below.

Good luck and keep learning


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