Chinese as a language refers to a whole family of dialects and written forms as opposed to a single language. There are approximately 70,000 Chinese characters and phonetic sounds. However, the average Chinese, who reads the newspaper and has been to secondary school, knows only about 5,000 characters. Spoken Chinese is said to be very complex with more than 5 recognized dialect groups, whilst the written form has two recognized alphabetical systems.
There are five major dialects within the Chinese language group - Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue and Hakka. Mandarin is the official language of both, mainland China and Taiwan. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore. Wu is the spoken language around the lower Yangzi River and its tributaries. Shanghainese is a variation of Wu. Min is popular in Taiwan, Fujian and Hainan, though replete with local additions. In English, these variations are considered dialects and therefore referred to as Fukkianese, Kokkianese, Taiwanese and Amoy. Yue is the chief language in the province of Guangdong. Along with the popular Cantonese, Yue is spoken in Hong Kong and may parts of the world - among Chinese settlers in the United States, Europe and South-East Asia. Hakka, the least known of the four dialects, is spoken mostly within south-eastern China and in the Min and Yue regions.
Chinese and certain related languages share a combination of features that set them apart from most other languages of the world. For starters, they are monosyllabic and have less inflection than English. But what really makes the difference is the fact that they are tonal. Since words may be similar in sound, the various tones assigned to words, help differentiate between the meanings of words. For example a distinctive relative pitch that is high or low or a distinctive pitch contour level that is rising or falling, aid in differentiating.
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