Language Curiosities

Studying Chinese medicine entails some study of the language itself even though (unfortunately) I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Here’s something I find curious about the Chinese language: 

Say you’re trying to talk with someone who speaks another language, like you’re monolingual and you only speak English and you try to talk with someone in Spanish, typically you’ll resort to hand gestures or something to communicate a simple thing, like “Where is the bathroom?”

However, something different happens with Chinese. Characters that make up written Chinese are shared among multiple spoken languages. You can have someone who only speaks Cantonese communicating with someone who only speaks Mandarin and instead of resorting to hand gestures, they can use a language they do share: written Chinese.

While studying abroad in China, I was told that I might see two people get stuck on a word/concept they don’t share a language for and one will draw the character in the palm of their hand to communicate meaning.

This quote from Wikipedia (

“The written form of the standard language (中文; Zhōngwén), based on the logograms known as Chinese characters (汉字/漢字; Hànzì), is shared by literate speakers of otherwise unintelligible dialects.”

So two people who don’t understand what each other says, can read the same paper. Fascinating.

Even two people don’t know written Chinese, with Google translation one can enter “Hi. How are you?” and quickly get the written Chinese for it. It also provides the Pinyin (a transliteration that romanizes Chinese to aid in pronunciation). Neat! USEFUL.


Hi. How are you? – English

你好。 你好吗?- Chinese (simplified)

Nǐ hǎo. Nǐ hǎo ma?  – Pinyin