How do you say “English” in English? English, duh~
How do you say “Chinese” in Chinese? Well, it depends. huh?
Let’s start with a survey. Below is a poll I posted on Facebook together with the corresponding responses I received from Chinese learners. Note that this is one of many polls I posted.
After summing up all the votes from various places on Facebook I got the following numbers:
中文 zhōng wén: 68
普通话 pǔ tóng huà: 45
汉语 han yǔ: 26
国语 guó yǔ: 10
华语 huá wén: 8
华文 huá wén: 3
Confused? What’s the difference between these? Let’s go through them all one by one.
中文 zhōng wén
Literally means Chinese text. Although this word literally means Chinese text, it is used to refer to both spoken and written Chinese. This should be the word you use whenever you are referring to Chinese.
普通话 pǔ tōng huà
Literally means common language. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China, it is the common language, hence the name Putonghua. Putonghua is the formal way of referring to Mandarin Chinese as opposed to other Chinese dialects. So if you want to explicitly say Mandarin Chinese you would say Putonghua.
汉语 hàn yǔ
Literally means the language of Han. There are 56 ethnic groups in China. Han is currently the dominant group in China (over 90% of the Chinese population) and Mandarin Chinese is the language of the Han ethnic group. Hanyu explicitly refers to Mandarin Chinese but since Mandarin is the official language of China, Zhongwen and Putonghua have become the words people use to refer to Mandarin Chinese and Hanyu has become outdated.
国语 guó yǔ
Literally means national language. People from Taiwan and Hong Kong refer to Mandarin Chinese as Guoyu.
华文 huá wén
Literally means Chinese text. People from Malaysia and Singapore refer to written Chinese as Huawen.
华语 huá yǔ
Literally means the Chinese language. People from Malaysia and Singapore refer to spoken Mandarin Chinese as Huayu.
OK, there’s actually another one…
中国话 zhōng guó huà
Literally means the Chinese language. This is very similar to Zhongwen and both can be used interchangeably. The only subtle difference would be that Zhongguohua exclusively refers to spoken Chinese. Another thing to note is that people always prefer to use shorter words and since Zhongwen is one character less than Zhongguohua, Zhongwen is the preferred word to use.
Just use Zhongwen whenever you are referring to Chinese or Mandarin Chinese. If you want to say Mandarin Chinese explicitly, then use the word Putonghua. That’s it. These two words are all you need.