Why learn Chinese?
My reason for learning Chinese was simple. I’m addicted to learning new languages and now seems as good a time as any to learn it.
They say that Chinese is hard, so I figured I’d see whether this is true or not. It turns out that while Chinese or Mandarin (Beijing Chinese as opposed to Cantonese, Shanghainese or another dialect) does have its challenges, it also has rewards.
What are those rewards, exactly?
For simple sentences, Chinese word order is the same as English. More complex sentences are a bit different but still logical.
I am a teacher
Wǒ shì lǎoshī.
Have you noticed that there are three words instead of four? That’s because Chinese doesn’t use articles. Yet another easy-making aspect of the language.
In terms of conjugation and pluralization, Chinese requires little to none.
Rather than saying that something or something is, was, will be, has been, had been, etc., you just add little markers that universally represent that the action occurs in the past, future or whenever it fits in time.
Essentially, your sentences become.
- I eat.
- I eat now.
- I eat yesterday.
- I eat tomorrow.
- I eat one day.
This frees your mind up for other challenges.
And what are those challenges?
The pronunciation and script. Let’s talk about pronunciation first.
Chinese is a mosaic of choppy syllables laced together among tones. (I mean this in the cool way.)
How tonal languages work
Since Chinese is a tonal language, the aspect that we would normally use to express emotion is reserved for another function – saying entirely different words.
If you say something in a sharp scolding tone and then say the same thing in an inquisitive tone, what you will have is not a correction and a question, but rather two different words altogether.
Now, say the same sound as though you are singing a note, and you’ve got yet another word.
Now, if you say that sound again, as if to say, “Oh that’s interesting.”, and you’ve got another.
How many tones are there?
Don’t worry, in Mandarin, there are only four and they are pretty much described you’ve just read (although the order is different).
The order is:
- 1st tone: singing (as in singing the scales)
- 2nd tone: questioning
- 3rd tone: expressing interest
- 4th tone: scolding
You might also wonder,
How do you keep track of all these tones?
How do you express emotion?
I’m told that the tones are actually easy to keep track of because real-life Chinese interactions are more about the entire sentence you speak rather than the individual words.
For example, the word for very and the word for and can sound very similar in Chinese (to my ears anyway).
They both sound a little like “hun” (Pinyin: hěn and hé).
If you show up at a restaurant and say, “I AND hungry”, the waiter will just fast forward to suggesting a super-sized dish, because you obviously wanted to say
very instead of and.
I am yet to test this out, but this is what I am told and it makes sense to me.
There are however situations where the tone matters a bit more. Sometimes another word might work in terms of syntax, but it might not be what you want to say.
For example, the words for ask and kiss are wèn and wěn , respectively.
Using the wrong tone could cause you to ask someone “May I kiss you?” instead of asking them “May I ask you?”.
Then again, the odd awkward moment makes for great comedy, and I am told that the Chinese have a sense of humour rivaled by only the British. Read into that what you will. And speaking of reading…
When we first learn Chinese, we use Pinyin, a system of writing that looks like this.
My suggestion is that you move past Pinyin as quickly as you can, so you can get used to reading Chinese characters more naturally.
Reading and writing
The next challenge is getting used to reading and writing in Chinese.
When I first started, so many weeks ago (OK, four weeks ago), I wondered whether my approach to writing should be one of the following:
- Literacy is important. Deal with the writing system, full stop!
- Got an iPhone? Cool, you’re set! Who hand writes anything anymore?!
- Learn the language using pinyin and figure out characters later.
I chose option three and later learned that option one is the best. Why? It turns out that writing the words help you to relate to them better, which in turn, enables you to memorize them more easily.
So, then? How do you learn vocabulary?
This requires two skills – recognition and reproduction.
For the recognition, there are many resources, but one of my favorites and most fun is:
Chineasy: A pictorial method of learning Chinese characters
What makes this method fun is the fact that it helps you to relate to each character. You may notice that I keep using this word relate.
Since Chinese characters are pictographs, they give you a fuzzy meaning based on a Chinese way of thinking. This means you can’t approach words the same way you might approach words written English or Spanish. You may have to take into account, the other characters and figure out the meaning. In some cases, the meaning is idiomatic. For example.
This is why you have to relate to the word.
Disclaimer: Yes, I know this is sexist. I don’t make the language. I’m just learning it. Also, I chose these because they are among the first hanzi you learn as a Chinese learner.
How to write Chinese characters
Learning how to write requires a different approach. You have to learn the right stroke order. You might look at a symbol like this and think. Well, it doesn’t matter as long as the character looks right when I’m done, right? Well, not exactly.
It turns out that if you don’t write the characters in a particular order, you might not be able to write the character because certain strokes won’t fit. I guess thousands of years and billions of people have figured out so it’s fair to say those billions of people have had thousands of years to figure this out. I’ll take their word for it.
So what’s the stroke order you ask? Here it is.
Rules for basic stroke order
And voilà! With all the above in mind along with a few MOOCS, the odd YouTube clip, a solid grammar book, a textbook or two, some flashcards and tutelage, I’m off to the races. Well, not quite. But at least it’s a start.
Next stop HSK 1.
If you’ve got any good auto-didactic tips, comments, corrections, etc. Let me know in the comments.