Chinese is not as difficult a language to learn as it may first appear to be -- at least not once you've decided what kind of Chinese to learn. There are six major languages called Chinese. Speakers of each are unintelligible to speakers of the others, and there are, in addition, a host of dialects. The Chinese you are likely to hear spoken in your local Chinatown, in your local Chinese restaurant, or used by your friends of Chinese descent when they speak to their parents, is more than likely to be Cantonese, which is the version of Chinese used in Hong Kong and in much of southern China. But the official national language of China is Mandarin (Putonghua -- "common speech"), sometimes called Modern Standard Chinese, and viewed in mainland China as the language of administration, of the classics, and of the educated. While throughout much of mainland China people speak their own local flavor of Chinese for everyday communication, they've all been educated in Mandarin, which in general terms is the language of Beijing and the north. Mandarin is less well known in Hong Kong and Macau, but is also spoken in Taiwan and Singapore, and among growing communities of recent immigrants to North America and Europe.
Chinese grammar is considerably more straightforward than that of English or other European languages, even Spanish or Italian. There are no genders, so there is no need to remember long lists of endings for adjectives and to make them agree, with variations according to case. There are no equivalents for the definite and indefinite articles ("the," "a," "an"), so there is no need to make those agree either. Singular and plural nouns are the same. Best of all, verbs cannot be declined. The verb "to be" is shi. The same sound also covers "am," "are," "is," "was," "will be," and so on, since there are also no tenses. Instead of past, present, and future, Chinese is more concerned with whether an action is continuing or has been completed, and with the order in which events take place. To make matters of time clear, Chinese depends on simple expressions such as "yesterday," "before," "originally," "next year," and the like. "Tomorrow I go New York," is clear enough, as is "Yesterday I go New York." It's a little more complicated than these brief notes can suggest, but not much.
There are a few sounds in Mandarin that are not used in English (see the rough pronunciation guide below), but the main difficulty for foreigners lies in tones. Most sounds in Mandarin begin with a consonant and end in a vowel (or -n, or -ng), which leaves the language with very few distinct noises compared to English. Originally, one sound equaled one idea and one word. Even now, each of these monosyllables is represented by a single character, but often words have been made by putting two characters together, sometimes both of the same meaning, thus reinforcing one another. The solution to this phonetic poverty is to multiply the available sounds by making them tonal -- speaking them at different pitches, thereby giving them different meanings. Ma spoken on a high level tone (first tone) offers a set of possible meanings different to those of ma spoken with a rising tone (second tone), ma with a dipping then rising tone (third tone), or ma with an abruptly falling tone (fourth tone). There's also a different meaning for the neutral, toneless ma.
In the average sentence, context is your friend (there are not many occasions in which the third-tone ma or "horse" might be mistaken for the fourth-tone ma or "grasshopper," for instance), but without tone, there is essentially no meaning. The novice had better sing his or her Mandarin very clearly, as Chinese children do -- a chanted singsong can be heard emerging from the windows of primary schools across China. With experience, the student learns to give particular emphasis to the tones on words essential to a sentence's meaning, and to treat the others more lightly. Sadly, most books using modern Romanized Chinese, called Hanyu pinyin ("Han language spell-the-sounds"), do not mark the tones, nor do these appear on pinyin signs in China.
Cantonese has eight tones plus the neutral, but its grammatical structure is largely the same as Mandarin, as is that of all versions of Chinese. Even Chinese people who can barely understand each other's speech can at least write to each other, since written forms are similar. Mainland China, with the aim of increasing literacy (or perhaps of distancing the supposedly now thoroughly modern and socialist population from its Confucian heritage), instituted a ham-fisted simplification program in the 1950s, which reduced some characters originally taking 14 strokes of the brush, for instance, to as few as three strokes. Hong Kong, separated from the mainland and under British control until 1997, went its own way, kept the original full-form characters, and invented lots of new ones, too. Nevertheless, many characters remain the same, and some of the simplified forms are merely familiar shorthand for the full-form ones. But however many different meanings for each tone of ma there may be, for each meaning there's a different character. This makes the written form a far more successful communication medium than the spoken one, which leads to misunderstandings even between native speakers, who can often be seen sketching characters on their palms during conversation to confirm which one is meant.
The thought of learning 3,000 to 5,000 individual characters (at least 2,500 are needed to read a newspaper) also daunts many beginners. But look carefully at the ones below, and you'll notice many common elements. In fact, a rather limited number of smaller shapes are combined in different ways, much as we combine letters to make words. Admittedly, the characters only offer general hints as to their pronunciation, and that's often misleading -- the system is not a phonetic one, so each new Mandarin word has to be learned as both a sound and a shape (or a group of them). But soon it's the similarities among the characters, not their differences, that begin to bother the student. English, a far more subtle language with a far larger vocabulary, and with so many pointless inconsistencies and exceptions to what are laughingly called its rules, is much more of a struggle for the Chinese than Mandarin should be for us.
But no knowledge of the language is needed to get around China, and it's almost a plus that Chinese take it for granted that outlandish foreigners (that's you and me unless you're of Chinese descent) can speak not a word (poor things) and must use whatever other limited means we have to communicate -- this book and a phrase book, for instance. For help with navigation to sights, simply point to the characters below. When leaving your hotel, take one of its cards with you, and show it to the taxi driver when you want to return. At the end of section 2 is a limited list of useful words and phrases, which is best supplemented with a proper phrase book. If you have a Mandarin-speaking friend from the north (Cantonese speakers who know Mandarin as a second language tend to have fairly heavy accents), ask him or her to pronounce the greetings and words of thanks from the list below, so you can repeat after him and practice. While you are as much likely to be laughed at as with in China, such efforts are always appreciated.
A Guide to Pinyin Pronunciation
Letters in pinyin mostly have the values any English speaker would expect, with the following exceptions:
c ts as in bits
q ch as in chin, but much harder and more forward, made with tongue and teeth
r has no true equivalent in English, but the r of reed is close, although the tip of the tongue should be near the top of the mouth, and the teeth together
x also has no true equivalent, but is nearest to the sh of sheep, although the tongue should be parallel to the roof of the mouth and the teeth together
zh is a soft j, like the dge in judge
The vowels are pronounced roughly as follows:
a as father
e as in err (leng is pronounced as English "lung")
i is pronounced ee after most consonants, but after c, ch, r, s, sh, z, and zh is a buzz at the front of the mouth behind the closed teeth
o as in song
u as in too
u is the purer, lips-pursed u of French tu and German u. Confusingly, u after j, x, q, and y is always u, but in these cases the accent over "u" does not appear.
ai sounds like eye
ao as in ouch
ei as in hay
ia as in yak
ian sounds like yen
iang sounds like yang
iu sounds like you
ou as in toe
ua as in guava
ui sounds like way
uo sounds like or, but is more abrupt
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.