When you are talking about Chinese language, it might be a little confusing because there are so many different ways to describe the language: hànyǔ 汉语, zhōngwén 中文, pǔtōnghuà 普通话, guóyǔ 国语, huáwén 华文 and huáyǔ 华语.
Hànyǔ 汉语 and Zhōngwén 中文
Both hànyǔ 汉语 and zhōngwén 中文 mean "Chinese language". Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 is the official standard language of mainland China. Chinese is actually a group of related, but in many cases very distinct, language varieties or dialects. Many students understand 中文 as "written Chinese," and 汉语 as "spoken Chinese." Is this correct? Not really! In modern Chinese, 中文 and 汉语 have the same meaning and, in most situations, are interchangeable.
When referring to the written language, use 中文:
- I can write Chinese 我会写中文 Wǒ huì xiě zhōngwén
- Chinese subtitles 中文字幕 zhōngwén zìmù
- Chinese Wiki 中文维基 zhōngwén wéijī
When referring to the spoken language, the two terms are interchangeable. Be careful! 汉语 (hànyǔ) is easily confused with 韩语 (hànyǔ) which means Korean language.
- I can speak Chinese 我会说中文/汉语 Wǒ huì shuō zhōngwén/hànyǔ
Modern Chinese dictionary 现代汉语字典 Xiàndài hànyǔ zìdiǎn
Dictionaries often relate to the entire language, both spoken and written, including pronunciation. To keep it simple, all dictionaries use "汉语".
Guóyǔ 国语 literally means national language and refers to Taiwanese Mandarin, which is a dialect of Chinese and the official language of Taiwan. It is also based on the phonology of Beijing dialect. However, 国语 has some notable differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation with Standard Mandarin and for Chinese characters, they still use traditional characters in Taiwan.
华文 huáwén and 华语 huáyǔ
华文 huáwén or 华语 huáyǔ is mostly used outside mainland China, like in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, where Chinese is the official language or used by most of the population. For example, a child from Malaysia might say: ”I've gone to 华文学校 huáwén xuéxiào (Chinese school) since I was little.” 华文 and 华语 are both related to huárén 华人 , a name for the ancient agricultural tribes living along the Yellow River. Now huárén more commonly refers to ethnic Chinese people and their language all over the world.
This article is part of our new online Chinese course. An efficient way to learn Chinese language for working and living in China.