Chinese is a very old language, perhaps even the oldest according to one recently found text. Even the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics may be a younger language! Though formed thousands of years ago, it is still a living language, a fact that has prompted some to refer to the Chinese language as a living fossil.
It is spoken by more people than any other language. According to Wikipedia, “About one-fifth of the world’s population, or over one billion people, speak some form of Chinese as their native language.” Some of the countries or region where Chinese is either the official or at least a major language are China (PRC), Taiwan, Singapore. It is also spoken by millions of people in Chinese communities in other countries around the world. Mandarin, the Beijing dialect, is the predominant and official dialect of China and is one of the six official languages spoken at the United Nations.
The spoken language is tonal with Mandarin having four tones and Cantonese (the second most widely spoken dialect) having six tones. The tones of Mandarin are comprised of (1) a high, flat tone, (2) a rising tone, (3) a falling, then rising tone, and (4) a fast falling tone.
In 1949 the Chinese government undertook a comprehensive script reform that included defining a standardization guide for pronunciation of Mandarin, the dialect chosen to be the official language. In the mid-1950’s a romanization system, known as pinyin, was adopted to enable speakers of different dialects to speak Mandarin with pronunciation as defined by the new standard. Pinyin has turned out to be useful as well for foreigners who want to learn Mandarin. The earlier examples in pinyin are “Wo shi Meiguoren.” and “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi”.
The written language evolved from a pictographic form. The fact that written language was originally recorded on turtle shells and animal bones, it is easy to understand why the overall form has linear rather than curved forms which are difficult to carve on hard surfaces. Thus each word has its own character (that is, symbol) rather than being comprised of letters as is done in western languages. There are about 50,000 Chinese characters although a working vocabulary of only 3,000 to 4,000 is sufficient to be able read a newspaper with a moderate level of understanding.
As we move into the twenty first century, more and more people around the world are learning Chinese than ever before. A recent report puts the number of people worldwide learning Chinese at 400,000. Perhaps this is not surprising due to the increasingly important role China plays in world affairs. In the United States, several cities have designated Chinese as a critical world language and are making substantial efforts to significantly enlarge the pool of young people who are fluent in Chinese.