Chinese is the most spoken language of the world, with more speakers than the next two, Hindi and Spanish combined.
Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and Taiwan and is one of the official languages of Singapour. In English, it is often just called "Mandarin" or "Chinese". In China, it is called PutonghuaGuoyu (國語), "the national language." It has been the main language of education in China (excluding Hong Kong) since the 1950s. Standard Mandarin is close to, but not quite identical with, the Mandarin dialect of the Beijing area. Note that while the spoken Mandarin in the above places is more or less the same, the written characters are different. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau all still usetraditional characters, whereas China and Singapore use a simplified derivative.
All Chinese dialects, in general, use the same characters in reading and writing. The Hakka language (客家話, 客語) is spoken in the provinces Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Hunan, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, and in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hainan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Surinam, and overseas Chinese communities. A Cantonese speaker and a Mandarin speaker cannot talk to each other, but either can generally read what the other writes.
In mainland China and Singapore, simplified characters are used. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and many overseas Chinese still use the traditional characters.
About one fifth of the people in the world speak some form of Chinese as their native language. It is a tonal language that is related to Burmese and Tibetan. Also, the unrelated Vietnamese language (which uses a distinctive version of the Latin alphabet) language has borrowed many words from Chinese and at one time used Chinese characters as well.
Chinese languages are known to be "tonal" with approximately 400 syllables and one of the ways to increase the range of meanings to words is to give syllables different tones.
In short, the tone in which a word is said affects its meaning. The four Mandarin tones are high, rising, low, and falling.
For example, the word ma, said in the four tones, has four different meanings:
Ma (high tone) means mother
Ma (rising tone) means linen
Ma (low tone) means horse
Ma (falling tone) means to scold
Chinese, like most other Asian languages such as Arabic, is famous for being difficult to learn. While English speakers would initially have problems with the tones and recognizing the many different characters (Chinese has no alphabet), the grammar is very simple and can be picked up very easily. Most notably, Chinese grammar does not have conjugation, tenses, gender, plurals or other grammatical rules found in other major languages such as English or French.
The pronunciation guide below uses Hanyu pinyin, the official romanization of the Republic of China. Until recently, Taiwan used Wade-Giles the system, which is quite different, then switched toTongyong pinyin, only slightly different from Hanyu pinyin, and now officially uses Hanyu pinyin just like the People's Republic.
Mainly from: Wikitravel