(This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of Paper Jam)
Nǐ hǎo! Hello! 4/20 is coming up! Do you know what that means? It’s Chinese Language Day! This celebration was created by the UN (the United Nations) to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity. 4/20 was chosen as the day to celebrate because, in China, it’s the day that the mythological figure Cangjie is celebrated and he is attributed to creating Chinese characters.
Chinese is the most spoken native language in the world (one billion+ native speakers!) and has many dialects but Mandarin is the most spoken in the language family. Cantonese is the second most spoken form and is used in Hong Kong and Macau.
First, the language uses tones (different pitches) that can change the meaning of a word. For example, “ma” (pronounced like the “ma” in “Mama”) has five different meanings depending on how you say it. There are four tones (and a fifth for questions).
The 1st tone is flat (Mā), the 2nd is rising like you’re asking a question (Má), the 3rd lowers and rises (Mǎ), the 4th drops like you’re saying “No!” (Mà), and the 5th is neutral-very quick like “yeah” (Ma). In Pinyin(the romanized form of Chinese [putting it into our alphabet]), the tone is showed by using tonal marks, but tones can also be distinguished with the numbers 1-4 (depending on what tone you are using), so Nǐ hǎocan also look like Ni3 Hao3: the 3 represents that it is the 3rd tone (lowering and rising).
Now, you already read Nǐ hǎo, and this means “Hello” and just by learning how to say this, you have learned two other words as well: Nǐ is “you” and hǎo is “good.” This is what Nǐ hǎo looks like: 你好. What’s cool about Chinese is that the writing system is designed of characters instead of letters so it uses images to represent words. Many characters are made up of different bits of other characters too: for example, 好 hǎo (good) is made up of the characters for “woman” and “child”.
女(Nǚr/woman) + 子(Zi/child)= 好(hǎo/good) Woman + Child = Good
Nǐ shì xuéshēng ma？
Are you a student?
Literal translation: You are student?
Wǒ shì xuéshēng.Nǐ ne?
I am a student. What about you?
Literal translation: I am student. You?
Congratulations, you have learned how to say 你好. Again, Chinese is the most spoken group of languages in the world, and many businesses and government agencies are looking for speakers to work for them. If you ever decide to learn Chinese, it will also make learning Korean and Japanese easier. You can download the app Duolingo to get started on learning Chinese or any language you’re interested in. Make sure to remember to celebrate the language and culture on 4/20!