Skip to main content

Chinese, a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, is the most widely spoken language and the language with the longest continuous written history in the world. Modern standard Chinese, Putonghua/Guoyu, is a standardized form of spoken Chinese, based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese. One of only six official languages of the United Nations, Chinese is spoken not only in China, Taiwan, and Singapore, but also throughout Southeast Asia, North America, Europe, and anywhere large Chinese communities congregate. In 2010, Chinese was named one of the languages considered critical to U.S. national security by the U.S. Department of Education.

Unlike most languages, Chinese is tonal. It also has a unique logographic writing system that provides for easy visual comprehension. Knowledge of the written language opens up the culture of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. The grammatical structure of Chinese is related to the particular way of “Chinese thinking.” For example, in Chinese, there is no inflection based on person, tense, number, gender, or case. Instead, context and word order are used to determine grammatical relationships. Beyond the Chinese language, traditional Chinese culture —from Confucianism and Taoism to martial arts and Chinese cuisine— has had an enormous influence on the nations of East and Southeast Asia, most notably in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.

Chinese has many important dialects, including Cantonese, Hakka, Min Nan, and others. These dialects are not automatically intelligible to a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese. Written Chinese, however, is uniform regardless of the dialect of the speaker.