We all know that China has become a world player at many fronts. Not only because China’s economy has significantly grown over the past few years, but also, simply because it is big. Yes, China is big, not only in geographic size but also population wise. The country currently has a population of about 1.5 billion citizens and makes up roughly 18.41% of the total world population. So, it’s safe to say that there are a lot of Chinese people out there. Which means that there are also at least as many Chinese speakers out there! As a matter of fact, there are around 873 million native speakers and 178 million that speak Mandarin as a second language. This makes the total of Chinese speakers around the world 1.051 billion, which is significantly more than the 510 million English speakers. Learning Chinese doesn’t seem like such a bad idea now, does it? However, you should keep in mind that just like in other languages, there are different varieties and dialects depending on regions. Chinese has around 13 main regional groups, meaning that there are several varieties of the Chinese language. Their regional groups include Mandarin, Cantonese, Wu, and Min.
History of Chinese
For those already studying Chinese, you can probably already testify this language is not easy to learn. Can you imagine that years ago, the Chinese language was even harder? The language has come a long way since then. The Chinese language itself is one of the oldest languages out there. Researchers believe this language has a history of thousands of years. You can probably already imagine that a language with such a long history has changed a lot over the past centuries, decades, and as a matter of fact, still continues to do so. The most common Chinese verbal dialects are Cantonese and Mandarin. Where Mandarin is the official state language of China. However, there are also two different ways to write in Chinese: traditional and simplified Chinese. One type of verbal dialect does not automatically resort to either the traditional or simplified way of writing. The combination of the written and verbal dialect depends on the geographical region in question. For example, in China and Singapore, they speak both Mandarin and use simplified Chinese for writing. However, in Taiwan, they speak Mandarin but they use the traditional way of writing. Whereas, in Hong Kong, they speak Cantonese but write in the traditional way. The verbal dialects mainly differ due to the tones. As many Chinese language learners know, the tones are the hardest part to learn. It is crucial to know and to be able to pronounce the tones correctly, as the meaning of a word largely depends on it. That is why learning Chinese is so difficult as the importance of the tones and intonation determine the meaning of the word. It should be noted that Mandarin only has five tones, whereas Cantonese has nine!
Mandarin and Simplified Chinese
Mandarin, which became China’s national language, together with the simplified way of writing was aimed to unify the country. Mandarin has been around for much longer than simplified Chinese.
The simplified way of writing Chinese was established in 1949 by the Communist party. The aim was to increase literacy, by ‘simplifying’ the traditional way of writing. This was accomplished by using fewer strokes for complex characters.
The simplification of Chinese writing has had quite a big impact on the way the language is used. Simplifying the Chinese characters caused some words to lose some of its meaning or even change it.
Like any other language, time changes languages. The same goes for simplified Chinese, which also kept evolving. Over time, new concepts and words were added, also certain meanings would change. In addition, traditional Chinese also changes as times passes, due to the fact of the geographical distance between the regions that use traditional or simplified Chinese. The gap between these two writing styles has and will keep growing in the future.
Another important component of the Chinese language that we should not forget is, Pinyin. This is the Chinese phonetic instructions for mainland China. It is the official romanization system of the Chinese language, and was developed in the 1950s by many linguists. Before Pinyin, other romanization systems were in place. Nowadays, Pinyin is a very useful tool for Chinese language learners as well as entering Chinese texts in electronic devices.
Technology is changing the language
Forgetting how to write
It is safe to say that the language is changing. Time and geographical differences play a significant role in these changes. Nevertheless, a big factor that’s causing the language to change, is us. Societal standards, political and cultural views are for example changing. But one of the major factors that is influencing the way we use language is the advancements in technology, creating a digital society. The rise in using cell phones, computers and other electronic devices, has enhanced globalization. It is easier to become more educated because information is readily available. With that, the exchange and exposure of languages has increased enormously.
Also, handwriting, in general, has been influenced, simply that we do it less and less. This also goes for the Chinese hand writing; the younger generation is using their electronic devices more and more. Pinyin is actively used to write Chinese characters on phones and all other types of electronic devices. This takes away from the art of writing and also the ability of being able to write. Most of you probably already know, that Chinese characters are written in a very specific way. Chinese characters are made up of different strokes, which have to be written in a certain form and order. You can probably imagine that when you don’t practice you slowly lose the skill of how to write. In addition, it has been scientifically proven that handwriting helps us retain more information than typing does. So, as people continue using keyboards they slowly forget how to write. But they are also more inefficient in retaining the information they type.
It’s limiting us
Not only has technology made communication more convenient, but it has also made us lazy in some ways. Technology has increased our communication speed, as it often anticipates what we want to say. In that way, our grammar and handwriting have been negatively affected. The same goes for Chinese, when you write in pinyin, your phone tries to anticipate what you want to say and already gives you the Chinese characters to pick from.
But also, time has changed the language. New concepts and words have emerged as time passes by. The existing characters are incapable of portraying these new concepts and words. Therefore, the Chinese are trying to close this gap by adopting a more phonetic way of writing rather than the graphic ways of writing. Pinyin enables people to write anything they want and how to say it.
The Chinese scripts in some ways have limited Chinese the way they can express themselves. The newer and younger generation no longer accepts this. They prefer to write in roman letter due to the freedom that comes with it. The writing of Chinese characters is therefore endangered. Which can have some political implications. The freedom of writing is fueling the idea that everything is possible, which empowers the Chinese mind. The inflexibility of the Chinese scrips in some sort of way reflects the inflexibility of the Chinese state.
Why is this change bad?
Decreasing ability to write in general is bad as it takes away from your creativity. We’re following what technology is offering us. The art of writing Chinese is disappearing, while at the same time, it, therefore, becomes more valued as it is slowly changing and disappearing. Also, our ability to read hand-writings is declining as we are less and less exposed to it.
So, what does it mean?
So, we can now conclude that advancements in technology can be both empowering and limiting. It empowers us by exposing us to more information. The increasing use of electronics and the internet has made us available to information 24/7. It is now easier than ever to access and spread information, however, to whomever and whenever we want.
Nevertheless, it has limited us in ways which we might not consider a limitation (yet). In ways it has made our lives easier and more convenient, however, it has therefore also made us lazier. Doing research for school projects is easier as our information database has improved and expanded tremendously. It is now also easier to plagiarize and copy someone else’s work. Writing reports, doing group work has also become a lot easier. Nonetheless, it’s not doing any good for our writing. More people have difficulty reading their own handwriting. So, all in all, technologies have improved the information we share and create. While it has also simplified the way we use our language, in the sense that it predicts the general phrases we frequently use. Therefore, using typed ‘technology pre-determined’ sentences and vocab has decreased the need for handwriting. Thus, it is safe to conclude that technology can limit or empower you, it all depends on how and why you use it! Being aware of the changes it has caused and the harm it is doing, will enable us to limit its negative impact on our language.
Do you want to become one of the 1.051 billion Chinese speakers? Come learn Chinese or do an internship in China! Still debating whether you’re ready to go on an adventure by coming to China? Check out these tips on how to get around China, and feel better prepared. Or check out this blog post about why you should take a gap year!