Differences between spoken Chinese and written Chinese

It is pretty hard for students when they first start reading long analytical Chinese articles which are written in a formal style, such as Chinese newspaper stories. These writings have long sentences, special sentence structures, and many abbreviations. There are also tons of synonyms, and idioms. 

Before we delve into the differences between spoken Chinese and written Chinese, we need to acknowledge that there is no clear distinction between them. We do hear written Chinese being spoken out, such as in an official speech, and even in movies. The latter is particularly interesting. Many students watch movies for the purpose of learning spoken Chinese. But in movies, we can hear sentences like this one, “将军意下如何?”, which, if in a daily conversation, would be expressed as this, “你觉得怎么样?”. The vice versa is also true. There are novels and newspaper reports, especially some news stories in WeChat, which are written in a pure daily conversational tone.

As for the differences between spoken Chinese and written Chinese, there are many. Below are three major ones.

Vocabulary

There are many words which are most likely to appear in a written form. If we hear them in daily conversations, we feel strange. For example these words, “梦呓” and “同窗”, which, in daily conversation, would be, “说梦话” and “同学”. It is pretty common to introduce some one, saying “她是我的高中同学”. If we change this sentence into “她是我的高中同窗”, this sentence would sound weird to native Chinese speakers. 

These written expressions come to us from a much older period of time. Gradually, many ancient expressions faded out in daily use, but have remained in written forms, such as “如何”, “昨日”, “是否”, and “何时”. These words have been replaced by others in daily interactions, “怎么样”, “昨天”, “是不是”, and “什么时候”.

Abbreviation

When in a written form, many words which contain two Chinese characters get reduced into just one character. The most common ones are the names of countries, provinces and cities. For example, “中国和印度” becomes “中印”, “河北” becomes “冀”, and “上海” becomes “沪”. Thus, a daily expression “王经理和几个同事昨天到了上海” can be written down as “王经理一行人昨日抵沪”. 

Also, many proper words, names of associations or events, which contain a string of Chinese characters are often reduced into two or three characters. For example, “奥林匹克运动会” becomes “奥运”, “广州进出口商品交易会” becomes “广交会”, and “美国联邦储备局” becomes “美联储”. 

These abbreviations can be difficult to recognise if students have not seen them before.

Special sentence structure

Quite often, the written Chinese uses special sentence structure to weave in several short sentences. One of my favourite structures is “就 ...” , which indicates the central issue, such as, “中美就贸易问题举行谈判”. This sentence includes the following two short sentences, “中国和美国开会谈判”, “谈判的核心内容是贸易问题”. (For other meanings and usages of “就”, read here.)

There can be very long sentences, which can be quite confusing to students. It takes time for students to unpack these sentences into several shorter sentences. 

The best way to improve reading comprehension, i.e. to unpack long sentences, is to read more. However, if students read long articles for the sake of reading long articles, it usually does not work well. Students can get so bored that they fall asleep. It is much better for students to read what they find interesting.

Mixed styles

We said earlier that there is no clear distinction between spoken Chinese and written Chinese. And different writers use different styles when they write. 

Some writers prefer to load their articles or books with ancient expressions. There are others who like to use “half formal - half casual” style. And some writers write only in plain daily conversational Chinese. 

Fortunately, there is no causal relationship between writing in a formal style and writing compellingly. Writing in plain everyday Chinese can be equally compelling and exciting as writing in a formal style. 

Welcome to the world written in Chinese!