WordsThere is no alphabet. You do not spell words. Each Chinese character has a meaning (which can vary depending upon context). A sequence of Chinese characters can have a meaning totally independent of the meaning of the individual characters. The number of characters is fixed. There are no new characters being introduced. So a character may have several possible meanings. You can determine the meaning of the character only from the context within which it is used. We have similar multi-use words in English.
English: "spring" = a coil of wire, a source of water, a season, to leap, to arise unexpectedly
NamesPeople's names have to come from the available character set, like: Snow, Sky, Happiness. You can distinguish between a noun and a proper noun only from the context.
Noun: "Snow melts." Proper noun: "Snow said."
Foreign WordsMany Biblical words, especially foreign proper names, do not exist in the Chinese vocabulary. Therefore, there is no character for them. These names are represented in Chinese by a sequence of characters that sound like the foreign word.
English: Jesus Chinese: 耶稣 (which sounds like "Yē sū")
DictionarySince there is no alphabet, there is no alphabetical order of the Chinese characters. That makes it very difficult for a beginner to look up words in a Chinese dictionary. The dictionary is sequenced by the number of strokes required to draw each character, and the order that those strokes are drawn. Online dictionaries, such as http://www.mdbg.net are highly recommended.
Simplified CharactersIn the 1950's China radically reduced the number of characters and reduced the number of strokes in many characters. This simplified character set as used in mainland China is used exclusively for this website. The pre-1950's traditional character set is still used in Taiwan and other Asian areas.
PronunciationFor a beginner, there is nothing about the Chinese character that suggests how to pronounce it. In fact, the same characters are used by many Asian languages and dialects. Each person reads and understands the same meaning of the written character, but speaks that word in his/her own language or dialect. The citizens of China share a common written language even though they may not understand the spoken words of another area of China.
TonesChinese is a tonal language. Each vowel can be spoken with four variations in tone or the absence of a tone. Each tone produces a new word. The same word spoken with five different tones has five distinct meanings. In essence, English has five main vowels and Chinese has thirty-five.
English: aeiou Chinese: aāáǎà eēéěè i ī í ǐ ì oōóǒò uūúǔù"
PinyinTo interact with western culture, China has developed a phonetic system called "Pinyin" that uses the alphabet you are familiar with to show how that character should be spoken.
English: everyone Chinese: 众人 Pinyin: zhòng rén
NounsNouns have no singular/plural, no variations in form.
English: "man / men, child / children, book / books"
Chinese: "man, child, book"
PronounsPronouns have no variations in form. English uses "I" as the subject and "me" as the object, or "he" as the subject and "him" as the object. Chinese has only one character for "I" and the translation to English "I" or "me" is determined by the context.
VerbsVerbs have no tense, no singular/plural, no variations.
English: "I eat. He eats. We ate. They have eaten."
ParticlesSome characters are grammatical markers. They do not translate directly into English, but they indicate how other characters are to be translated. These particles can identify a relative clause, show passive mood, show possessive case, add emphasis, etc.
AspectsThe Chinese language does not employ tenses to indicate the time (present, past or future). But there are aspect characters which indicate the stages of the event being in progress, in continuation or as having been completed.
Classifiers (Measure Words)English has classifiers such as: a flock of geese, a pair of doves, a sheet of paper, etc. Every Chinese noun has a related classifier that is usually required when referring to a number of or a specific item. (Nouns that cannot be counted, such as knowledge or advice, are an exception to this rule.)
English: "I see two cows."
Chinese: "I see two head of cows."
ArticlesThere is no definite article "the" or indefinite articles "a" or "an".
English: "The book is on the table".
Chinese: "Book is on table". To refer to a specific number of items (including just one), the count and the correlated classifier (measure word) is required.
English: "a soda"
Chinese: "one bottle of soda"
Word OrderSubject + verb + object is the basic word order in a Chinese sentence. However, many variations exist. Topic + comment is a frequent structure, often separated by a comma.
English: "I have read this book."
Chinese: "This book, I have read." Prepositional phrases (preposition + object) usually appear before the verb.
English: "He goes to town."
Chinese: "He to town goes." Time phrases occur before the verb.
English: "I was writing letters yesterday evening."
Chinese: "Yesterday evening I was writing letters." Subordinate clauses occur before the main clause.
English: "I drank milk when I ate dinner."
Chinese: "When I ate dinner, I drank milk." A question can be formed by adding a tag at the end of any statement. (There are many other forms of questions.)
English: "Are you Chinese?"
Chinese: "You are Chinese(question tag)" To a native English speaker, Chinese grammar seems complex. The detailed grammar rules you would need to write correct Chinese would fill a textbook. The following are over-simplied guidelines to allow you to get started reading and understanding. You will be exposed to many variations as you spend more time in the Chinese text.