What is Language?
|Language is one of the ways we
communicate with other human beings
| What is communication?
It is any means of passing information
Great, let's talk...
Q. Do we all agree that language is one form of communication?
A. I guess so, as I cannot think of any language that
does not involve some form of communication
OK, lets turn this around...
Q. Does anyone agree that communication is a form
of any known language?
A. No, because communication includes other things,
like gestures and eye-contact
Now lets look at any arbitrarily chosen person - perhaps
I know a very great deal about English. This not only
includes various versions of the spoken tongue throughout
UK, and other parts of the world. I also understand
many hidden meanings in any group of English words,
and as applied by the inferences given in the way a
person says them, and their demeanour. I also know idioms
and slang + how to write them. Without using words I
can communicate thoughts and feelings to others, simply
by using facial expressions and body language
Statisticians will relate how maybe at best, only
17% of all inter-human communication is via spoken
(or Written) languages. The rest comes from our senses
For instance, I am a severely linguistically challenged
Brit. After living in Mainland Canton for 6-years, I
maybe have the language abilities of a 3-year-old. However,
I know all the important words to function as an interesting
and entertaining adult. Well, I use words in an adult
sense, and I choose which words and phrases are most
important for me to learn = the first one was '1 beer
please'. However, I managed this on my first night in
China without any knowledge of Mandarin, Cantonese,
or whatever they were speaking. It was irrelevant! I
simply pointed at a bottle of beer on another table,
and the waitress went and got one for me. Simple!
I also obtained several packets of local cigarettes
(My legal prerogative), dishes of foods (?), and made
long-lasting friends. 3 are still in my mobile and email
address book, and I wear one's gifted Jade pendant every
day. How come?
Only a maximum of 17% of Human Language is
Verbal or Written
And this is why I have laboured the point
that 'Your smile is your biggest asset - use it generously'
In the case above I was using pointing and mime + smiling
a lot. The staff and customers all found it quite entertaining,
as did I
Learning a Language
The language that you are taught has to be relevant
to the circumstances and way you will use it.
At school I endured 4-years of learning billions of
French irregular verbs. At the end of it all I still
couldn't hold a simple conversation with anyone - but
my written grammar was excellent. How futile! Years
later I spent a week touring around Northern France.
They didn't speak French there, they spoke Breton. Therefore
what French I was taught at school has been totally
irrelevant during the rest of my life. However, one
term of Holiday conversational Spanish would have been
very useful to me!
In the West I believe we spend far too much time focusing
on grammar, and not enough on actually speaking a language
properly. At school we also teach our children the wrong
languages for the global world they will mature into.
It is similar with learning Chinese. Far too many educationalists
and phrasebooks concentrate on polite and long sentences
rendered in excellent grammar. You can try, but will
not be understood I am sure. For instance: why do you
need to know the Chinese conversation for making a hotel
reservation? You will already have done this in order
to get your Chinese visa! You are far better to learn
a few simple words to start, and use them to accompany
your gestures and mime. This works in real life. This
is why I have written '10 Word Cantonese'.
Regarding Chinese languages, the first thing you need
to decide is which one of them to learn. You should
normally choose Mandarin, which is the official language
of China, and is taught in all Chinese schools. Cantonese
is the only other given full language status by Beijing.
Every city and region will have its own dialect of course,
so if you are planning to live in Shanghai or XinJiang
Uigher Autonomous Region, you may consider their local
dialects to be more useful on a daily level?
When choosing which language to learn, it is also very
important to pick one that you can pronounce. For instance,
Mandarin is spoken using the roof and back of the mouth,
has sharp choppy sounds, and is not compatible with
most Western languages. By contrast, Cantonese is spoken
from the front of the mouth and uses more rounded sounds
which are similar to many Western languages.
If you can pronounce the number 2 correctly in Mandarin
(e'ur), then this language should be ok for you. If
you cannot get anywhere near the sound, then choose
Cantonese or one of the many dialects. Most Westerners
say that Cantonese is far easier to pronounce correctly,
even in spite of the number of tones used (9). Similarly,
if you cannot say 'beer' correctly in Cantonese (bAi
d'zhao), then choose Mandarin (Pe Jew). This is your
So lets say that after several years you become as fluent
as a native speaker in one of the Chinese languages
- this means that you have mastered just 17% of the
communication skills necessary to be fully understood
in China. Fortunately, many of the remaining skills
required are very similar to the ones we already know
- such as smiling and laughing. Others are far more
complex or very different (to the point of being obverse),
and reflect the society and culture
Even if you are a fluent speaker of Chinese, you may
easily give offence if you use Chinese equivalents of
English phrases. For Example, saying 'Hello, how are
you' is considered a normal form of polite introduction
in most Western countries. In China this is considered
to be quite rude and a personal affront. This should
only be used with very close friends. The Chinese would
always say 'Hello, have you eaten (rice) today?'. This
is polite for them.
So what is the point of this page?
It is designed to make you think about language. To
make you consider what your goal is, and how to best
Lets reconsider. There is absolutely no point in you
learning the most polite and grammatically correct forms
of Mandarin - if it is beyond your verbal skills to
actually make the correct sounds. Nobody will understand
There is no point is learning Shanghainese if you live
in Canton or Tibet. Nobody will understand you!
Conversely, there is a lot to be said for learning the
local language or Mandarin - as spoken on the streets
where you live
Virtually all Chinese will respect you greatly if you
try and speak their language, no matter how badly. The
trick is to make it fun - like a game. Learn to articulate
your words by using a lot of gestures - hold up three
fingers when you use the number 3. Learn to mine correctly
- Chinese toilets are a hole in the ground. Mime by
squatting. In Beijing I once mimed a man attending a
urinal. The manageress was called, and I was quoted
150 RMB! ($17)
So in summary, you need to consider the purpose of learning
a language. If it is simply to gain a qualification
in a language you will never use in real life, then
it really doesn't matter much which one you choose.
If you need it for a planned holiday or business trip,
then ensure the course is tailored for your specific
objectives and location. If you need to know a language
because you plan to live in the country, then consider
very carefully which language suits your individual
needs best, and if you can make the sounds required
Your smile is your biggest resource, use it generously
information is as supplied by the Chinese Embassy in
UK, as dated 20th June 2008, and/or other reliable sources.
Please check this information yourself as it may alter
without notice, and whilst we try our best to ensure
it is correct, please do not hold us responsible for
any errors - this is intended as a simple guide only
British Foreign Office
Advice for Travellers
Personal Email Updates
How We Traded Our Ordinary Lives For a Global Bicycle Touring Adventure
Us in China
& Free Online Chinese Language Portal
Thousands of free print-friendly Chinese reference sheets,
tests and revision aids.
Easy Learning format &
Listen to Spoken Words
Chinese Embassy in UK
Information About China
Visa & Consular
UK Embassy in China
Information About UK
Visa & Consular
Information for Teachers
Based in Xi'an,
China's Premiere Travel Agency and International Travel
Committed to providing:
Best travel deals & current information for all
Based in Shangri-la,
Dedicated to Exploring Remote Areas of China
Committed to Nature Conservation and Preserving Ethnic
Cultures & Traditions
Empowering Underprivileged Children
& Their Communities = Worldwide
Excellent and relaxing base to
explore beautiful of regions in all China!
Vast Online Resource