The official language in China is Mandarin, or putonghua. Mandarin is completely foreign to English, as well as most languages spoken outside of East Asia, because it is a tonal language.
Mandarin consists of four tones: flat, rising, dipping and falling. To non-tonal speakers, the different tones of the same pronunciation can be confusing. For example ma pronounced with a flat tone means “mother.” Pronounced with a dipping tone it means “horse.”
The glue that holds all Chinese speakers together is the written language. Consisting of characters, the language allows all readers to understand the written word, but allows for many different pronunciations of the same word. Regional dialects are still very common in China. For example, in the Sichuan Province, home to China SSTers, most natives speak sichuanhua, or Sichuan language. Instead of four tones, it has only two.
Cantonese is another primary language in China, but is mostly spoken in Southeastern China in cities such as Hong Kong. It has nine tones compared to Mandarin’s four.
To help Westerners learn to pronounce Chinese words, a Romanization of the sounds was developed. Known as pinyin, it consists of all the different sounds that constitute Mandarin. While it allows foreigners a method of pronunciation, it is still challenging to learn the different sounds.
Ni hao – meaning “hello,” its literal translation is “you good.”
Ni hao ma – add a simple ending and hello becomes “how are you?” A literal translation might read, “you good, huh?”
Wo renshi ni. Hen gaoxing – “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”