Chinese Learning Keywords and Terms
Below are a list of keywords and terms that every Chinese learner should know. You might already know them, so if you think of more important vocabulary words please leave us a comment below!
You can also click on a word below to read more about it!
- Stroke Order
- Chinese Calligraphy
Mandarin Chinese or 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà) is the official language of China and based on the dialect spoken in Beijing. It is spoken by more than 730 million people. Written Chinese focuses on learning Mandarin Chinese.
Cantonese is the dialect spoken mostly in Southern China, especially in the surrounding area of Guangzhou (Canton). This area is known as Guangdong Province and Cantonese is often called 广东话 (guǎng dōng huà). It is also commonly spoken in both Hong Kong and Macao.
Chinese characters, also known as 汉字 (hàn zì) make up the written language of Chinese and is one of the oldest writing systems in the world. The are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, although it is possible to be somewhat literate with between 3 and 4 thousand.
Traditional characters are those that were not modified or edited in 1946 to create a more simplified set of characters. Although they are often more complex, many people feel that they are more aesthetic and reflect more of China’s heritage and culture than simplified characters. Traditional characters are still used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.
Simplified characters are the standardized set of characters used in the mainland of China since the 1950s. They were devised by the Chinese government to improve literacy. Simplified characters often have fewer strokes and certain complex radicals (see Radicals) have been replaced by a more simple, standard one.
You can see the differences between the 经过 (jīng guò) in the image below. (see Bigram)
A bigram is a word were two letters or characters are commonly used together. For example in the English language, the combination ‘th’ is the most commonly found bigram, followed by ‘he’ ‘in’ ‘er’ and ‘an’ etc. In Chinese, the most commonly used bigram is 一个 meaning ‘a/ an.’ The bigram above is the 374th most commonly seen bigram in Mandarin Chinese.
Pictograms are often used to describe those characters that actually look like what they are describing. Although due to simplification (see Simplified), some of these pictograms may not be so obvious, many of them can still be recognised. Here are some examples of pictogram characters:
木 = tree
伞 = umbrella
手 = hand
月 = moon
Put simply, Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters that phonetically teaches the Chinese language. The Hanyu Pinyin system was devised in the 1950s, but took some time before becoming largely used. It is often used to type on a computer, or write a Chinese name in English. It can usually be seen in one of two forms. Either with the ‘tone’ (see Tones) of the word above like this:
or with the romanized word followed by a number (that relates to the tone mark) like this:
The latter is often used when there is no pinyin with a tone marker available.
Did you know that the WCC Online Dictionary features it’s own pop out Pinyin Editor?
Zhuyin transcribes any Chinese character (especially Mandarin) into a phonetic sound. Zhuyin includes 37 words and 4 tones. Pinyin and Zhuyin are based on the same pronunciations of Mandarin. Although Zhuyin is no longer used as a teaching method in mainland China, it is still predominantly used in Taiwanese classrooms.
BoPoMoFo is a colloquial term for Zhuyin.
Originally known as 五笔字型输入法 (wǔbǐ zìxíng shūrùfǎ): The Five Stroke Input Method, Wubi is commonly used for inputting traditional or simplified characters into a computer. The Wubi method is based on the structure of Chinese characters instead of the pronunciation, so you can still input a character without knowing how to pronounce it. You can learn even more about the Wubi Method by reading Nora’s article ‘Why I Broke Up With Pinyin and Started Dating Wubi’
A radical is the base form of any Chinese character. It is also used to find a character in a dictionary. Radicals can appear anywhere on a character, although there are general rules of location depending on their function. Semantic radicals, the radicals that suggest the characters meaning, are generally on the left side and the top. The pronunciation components of the character tend to be on the bottom and right side. For example:
Lets take the character 粉 (fěn) which means powder. The two radicals in this character are 米 meaning rice and 分. Face powder was once made by grinding rice, hence the meaning suggested by the 米 character. 分 (fēn) made up of 八 and 刀 suggests the pronunciation of the character 粉.
Now it also has the meaning to divide or separate.
You can read more about radicals in Radicals Are Your Friends and The Radical Truth and understand about why they’re important!
Strokes are the special lines used to write a character. These strokes are necessary to learn before starting to write characters as there are specific rules and order that need to be observed.
There are rules that strokes follow in order to draw a character correctly, just as there is with other written languages. You can learn more about stroke order and some of the rules by reading Chinese Character Stroke Rules. Knowing the stroke order is also necessary if you wish to use the computer input method, Wubi.
There are 5 tones in Mandarin Chinese, although the 5th is often represented without a marker.
The first tone is level
Second tone is rising
Third tone dips and then rises again
Fourth tone is falling
Fifth tone is neutral
HSK is an exam series containing 6 levels that can be taken to certify Chinese language achievement. They can be taken in both China and abroad. If you want to read more about the HSK exams go to 9 Tips for Taking the HSK Exam.
Chengyu is a traditional form of Chinese idiom containing only four characters.
You may have heard the following Chengyu:
马马虎虎 (mǎ ma hū hū)
The characters literally translate to horse, horse, tiger, tiger, but the chengyu meaning is to be careless or so-so.
This is a general word meaning the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning, however you may come across this word often when reading about the development of Chinese characters.
A mnemonic is a memory aid, such as a story, pattern or other association to help a person remember something (like the order of the planets for eg.). It is not specific to the Chinese language, but people often use mnemonics to help them remember characters. You can take a look at our Online Dictionary, where people often post their mnemonic devices that help them remember a character.
Classifiers or measure words are used in Chinese similarly to how they are used in English to classify nouns. For eg. We say a ‘piece’ of paper, in Chinese the classifier is 张(zhāng) meaning slice. The classifier 张 is used for flat objects. Read more about classifiers in this posts Weighing Up Measure Words for a brief introduction to classifiers.
Chinese Calligraphy is a style of writing still widely practiced in China today. Using ink and often on silk, the writing of Chinese characters is an art form in itself. You can learn some calligraphy basics here.