April 20, 2015 marks the fifth annual observance of Chinese Language Day, which the United Nations established in part to recognize Chinese as being one of the six official languages of the organization. The others are Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish and English.
Chinese has been one of the official languages since the UN’s inception. More than 1 billion people on the planet speak it and many more non-speakers around the world are trying to learn the language.
Confucius Institutes, established by China as a way to do this, are found in more than 90 countries, a number of them at universities.
A recent report by the British Council on the languages the U.K. one most needs to know includes Chinese. In the U.S., the Census Bureau count of 2011 yielded close to 3 million people speaking various dialects of Chinese.
Oracle Bones and the History They Hold
April was chosen as the month to celebrate Chinese Language Day because it falls during the season when tribute is paid to Cangjie, a mythical figure who is said to have created the Chinese characters some 5,000 years ago.
That story may be myth, but it is a fact that evidence of a written Chinese language dates back at least 3,000 years. These written records are not on paper. Rather, they are found on what are known as oracle bones—Chinese characters that were inscribed on turtle shells and animal bones. Close to 2,000 characters have been identified on them, with recordings of such phenomena as a solar eclipse.
Can a Complex Language Be Simplified?
An observance like Chinese Language Day provides an opportunity for non-Chinese people to begin to grasp the rudiments of a language that’s part of the Sino-Tibetan group.
Granted, it is a complex language to master—but on the flip side, you don’t have to learn how to conjugate verbs. Some key points:
- The language has many dialects. Mandarin is chief among them, spoken by more than 845 million people. Cantonese and Hokkein are other well-known dialects. All of them have the written language in common.
- The Chinese language is not alphabet-based; it is a series of characters. The more comprehensive Chinese dictionaries record more than 100,000 characters—but just a few hundred can help to get a basic grasp of the language.
- Some of the more complex, traditional characters now have a simpler version as well.
- A standard spelling system using the Roman alphabet helps with pronunciation. This is known as the pinyin, which means “spelled sound.” And that’s because…
- Chinese is a tonal language. The tone you use in pronouncing a word determines its meaning. Mandarin, for example, has four different tones plus a neutral one. The accent mark above a vowel in the pinyin provides the cue to the tone, and hence the word’s meaning
- mă means horse
- mā means mother
In her book Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese, the Taiwanese author ShaoLan Hsueh offers a method for Westerners to familiarize themselves with the language by embedding characters in simple illustrations of their meaning. It’s a new way to see this ancient language, and to appreciate it on Chinese Language Day and every day.