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Taking the best online language courses can be truly life-changing–providing you not only the ability to learn a new language at your own pace, but potential opening you up to new opportunities in your career, travel, and personal enrichment. But one of the most popular languages to learn– Chinese– can be a bit tricky: should you learn traditional or simplified Chinese?
Chinese, of course, is one of the most prominent languages in the world and is being learned by adults and children alike. Aside from soaring popularity for online courses, Chinese is also making its way into elementary schools in new ways, as highlighted when Arizona Preparatory School held its first Mandarin Chinese spelling competition in May 2021.
The bee, held via Zoom, included Gavilan Peak School, Glendale’s Desert Sage Elementary, and Arizona Language Prep, for an exciting three school competition
But this trend isn’t limited to one elementary school: the Association of International Educators claims we’ve entered a new era for Chinese Language’ learning, citing the 115 increase of students learning Chinese in college in under two decades, according to the Modern Language Association.
But while it’s true that students– from elementary school to adult learners– are embracing Chinese language learning, many aren’t aware that they have another decision: traditional vs simplified Chinese.
Main Differences Traditional vs Simplified Chinese
The main differences between Traditional vs Simplified Chinese are:
- Traditional Chinese is widely used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, whereas Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia
- Traditional Chinese can be read both vertically and horizontally, whereas Simplified Chinese is only read horizontally
- Traditional Chinese has some of its own punctuation practices, whereas Simplified Chinese mostly adopts Western punctuation
- Traditional Chinese consists of many characters, often complex, whereas Simplified Chinese has both fewer characters and fewer strokes
Is It a Good Idea to Learn Chinese?
The first decision you need to make is if learning Chinese is a smart decision for you. Of course, learning a new language has numerous benefits in itself, and you don’t need to have specific goals or plans as to how you’ll use Chinese to enroll in a course.
But if you do enroll in an online course, whether that’s for a language course or something entirely different, like machine learning courses, you’ll need to be ready for a self-paced model, where a lot of personal responsibility will impact how well you learn.
That said, online or traditional courses, here are a few key reasons why learning Chinese– simplified or traditional– may be a good idea for you.
Second Most Common Language
Mandarin Chinese is the second most common language in the world, spoken by approximately 1,117 million people, second only to English. Rounding out the top five most common languages in the world are Hindi, Spanish, and French.
As the second most common language, Chinese (both simplified and traditional) is a gateway for communicating and understanding more people around the world and, of course, within the United States. Along with learning any language, you’ll also brush up with culture and more.
Especially in the business world, knowing Chinese of any form can be helpful, as China and Chinese-speaking populations are increasingly key players in business and countless industries. Members of my own family have been required to travel to Mainland China, and even for those who do not, it’s undeniable that countless industries benefit from understanding the Chinese language.
Travel and Teaching Abroad
ESL jobs are not just available in the United States, but abroad– and increasing numbers of Americans are teaching English to Chinese students. You don’t have to know Chinese to do so– but knowing Chinese can be helpful, both for connecting with students and even just getting around. Of course, if you’re into travel, you also don’t ‘need’ to learn Chinese, but, once again, it can be helpful for your travels and make the experience more enriching.
How Do I Start Learning Chinese?
If you’ve decided that you want to learn Chinese, now you need to decide how you want to learn. Chinese is offered through online courses like Busuu vs Babbel, though you can also take it in traditional classrooms. Availability, pricing, and flexibility are all pros to learning online. Some language courses even allow you to download lessons so you can learn both offline and on the go.
How can I learn Chinese by myself?
Many claims that they can learn Chinese by themselves– through watching music videos, reading free articles, and maybe buying themselves a Chinese for beginners book.
While it is true some dedicated and talented individuals can teach themselves Chinese to a certain extent, it’s also true that Mandarin Chinese is often listed as the hardest language for English speakers to learn. With its own alphabet, not to mention a heavy reliance on homophones, idioms, and aphorisms, it’s by no means an easy language to learn.
For that reason, I recommend taking an online or traditional course, and, if you need to and can, seek out a tutor as well. Even for basic Chinese, simplified or traditional, accept that you can’t learn Chinese overnight, and be prepared to put in both hard work and patient perseverance.
Should I Learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese First?
The next step you need to take is deciding whether you want to focus on simplified or traditional Chinese first. Note that I didn’t say one was better to learn. The truth is, whether it’s better to learn simplified vs traditional Chinese depends on why you’re learning.
Another factor to consider? Many courses either teach only one form or, they offer to teach versions of both– that’s something you need to clarify before you enroll. I recommend, if possible, learning both at some point. But here’s a breakdown of simplified vs traditional Chinese.
What are the main differences between Traditional Chinese vs Simplified Chinese?
If you just want the Spark Notes version of the main difference between the two options, here it is: traditional and simplified Chinese differ in the characters they use. An easier way to think about it is that Simplified Chinese is a modem, pared-down version of Traditional, Standard Chinese.
Traditional Chinese follows the traditional, widely accepted characters that have a rich history. These characters are used for widespread government and official purposes. Traditional Chinese is read either horizontally or vertically, uses its own single quote mark system, has more characters, and more complex strokes for every character.
Simplified Chinese, as a newer language, has fewer characters, and those characters are simpler, made with fewer strokes. Punctuation, such as quotation marks, tends to lean more heavily on Western language traditions, and it’s always read from left to right.
Is Traditional or Simplified Chinese easier to learn?
Any form of Chinese is difficult to learn– even if you have the best online language platforms guiding you along the way. That said, simplified Chinese is called Simplified Chinese for a reason: with simpler character strokes and fewer characters to remember, Simplified Chinese is easier to learn.
How long has Traditional Chinese vs Simplified Chinese been used?
Traditional Chinese, interchangeably called Standard Chinese, is commonly spoken in China, Taiwan, and Singapore. While there are some dialect variations (see the frequently asked questions), both ‘school taught’ standard Chinese is the same as Mandarin.
Taught in schools, used for official government purposes, and widely recognized, traditional Chinese– and its evolution– can be traced back to the Ming and Quing dynasties during the Late Empire, but it wasn’t until the Republic of China was established that it took shape in the more standardized form used today.
In 1912, a commission on pronunciation was formed, and delegates were assigned, along with an official dictionary. During the 1930s, the commission established vocabulary for ‘everyday use’, and the language was officially adopted as the official standard language in the mid-1950s.
Simplified Chinese has a far more recent history, and is considered a relatively new language. While its origins are ancient– perhaps as far back as the Qin dynasty, in the 200’s BC–the form we use today was established much later.
It was during the 1930s that Simplified Chinese first sparked more interest when around 300 characters were introduced for public use, though using Simplified Chinese had been suggested as a way to help make China more modern and future-forward back in the early 1900s.
Seen as a way to improve literacy rates, simplified characters came in waves, only to be rejected: the 1930’s batch was, for political reasons, initially rescinded. The 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s continued to see such patterns: some promoting small groups of characters to be released, only to have to later retract them.
Finally, in 1986, a fuller list of simplified characters– a little under 6,200– was made established for public use. It continued to go through changes. By 2013, an official Table of General Standard Chinese Characters was released, which included simplified characters.
Is Simplified or Traditional Chinese better for translators?
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in translation, there are certainly pros and cons to both forms of Chinese– but Simplified Chinese may prove more useful if you have to decide between the two.
Simplified Chinese will be more accessible to others that may not know Traditional Chinese. It’s quicker to learn, easier to translate back and forth, and more– not to mention that now Simplified is the preferred, widely used version is not only in Mainland China but also in Singapore and Malaysia.
By learning Traditional Chinese, you can also learn Simplified complements later on and will have a full overview of the Chinese language as a whole. It’s also useful if you’re interested primarily in translating for Taiwan and Hong Kong, which both widely use Traditional Chinese.
Is Traditional or Simplified Chinese better to learn for journalists and teachers?
Whether you’re an educator or journalist, knowing Chinese can be quite useful. It’ll make you more versatile, allowing you more insight for teaching or writing abroad, and well-rounded as a whole. While both Traditional and Simplified Chinese have their place, which is more helpful to you depends on where and how you use it.
For covering, working, or teaching in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia, this is your best bet. It’s also quicker to pick up– and if you’re teaching English in one of these countries anyway, it’s enough to gain an understanding of the Chinese language.
Taiwan and Hong Kong, again, mostly use this form of Chinese, so teaching or working within these countries is going to favor learning Traditional Chinese.
Is Traditional vs Simplified Chinese better for business professionals?
Assuming you have some education, experience, and great business courses under your belt, Chinese is undoubtedly a useful language to learn. If you have to decide between just one version. Simplified, as it is more commonly used, is going to be preferable– but here, I actually think you’d do best to eventually learn both. That allows the greatest degree of versatility, and room for movement depending on your company and position.
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: Traditional Chinese is the umbrella term for all Chinese dialects that use full, ‘traditional’ characters. The most commonly taught dialect is Mandarin Chinese. You can learn both simplified and traditional Mandarin Chinese. Other dialects include Wu, Gan, Xiang, Min, Hakka, Yue, Jin, Huizhou, and Pinghua. However, Mandarin constitutes over 65 percent of Chinese speakers and is nearly always what most courses offer.
Answer: Mandarin Chinese is considered the hardest language for native English speakers to learn, but Arabic, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Korean are also known to be especially difficult– and anyone looking to learn these languages would benefit from interactive language learning courses, with quick feedback.
Answer: The most commonly used and spoken languages in the world include English, Chinese, and Hindi.
Answer: What language is easiest to learn depends on your native language. For native English speakers, French, Spanish, and Italian are considered the easiest. Other honorable mentions for languages you can learn easily, according to Babbel, including Swedish, Dutch, and Portuguese.
Final Decision: Learn Simplified Chinese First, Both if Possible
Simplified Chinese is easier and quicker to learn, and is more widely used. For these reasons, for most people, I’d recommend learning Simplified Chinese first. That said, learning Traditional Chinese can be useful for many reasons, and you can even enroll in courses that offer both.
Where can I learn Chinese?
Whether you’ve decided on focusing on Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, or maybe both, there are many online courses you can take. Here are a few of my recommendations.
FluentU offers a 14-day trial, with options for learning on the go. You’ll have access to videos from Native speakers, apply learning to real-world situations, and download lessons to your liking. Learn More Here.
Rosetta Stone is relatively affordable and has been serving schools, businesses, and individuals for over twenty-five years. You have the option for personally tailored learning plans, pronunciation feedback, and even options for group coaching. Learn More Here.
Looking for a more laid-back course style, along with some lessons on culture? Edx offers unique lessons for someone interested in learning not just the language, but some other aspects of Chinese culture. Learn More Here.
Duolingo is another great online language learning platform for learning Chinese. Duolingo offers short lessons, perfect for anyone with a hectic schedule, with immediate feedback and grading, options to learn on the go, and a fun template that will also appeal to younger students. Learn More Here.