By William Matthews, on 23 February 2012
Learning Chinese is a huge challenge, like learning any language. However, if you are a native English-speaker there is a good chance that Chinese is NOT like any language you have learned before. It is entirely different from European languages; the differences can be welcome and they can be terrifyingly confusing. But they are all interesting (or so you will think until you become sick of them). No words need to be conjugated. So you don’t need to remember any grammatical tables or verb endings. Nouns do not have genders. Sometimes the grammar can seem (and be) very simple. Lovely.
In learning Chinese you will experience periods of very rapid learning followed by long stretches where you don’t feel you are learning anything new. But if you persevere, it is well worth it. The following are just a few thoughts on various aspects of the language.
Chinese characters appear incredibly challenging. They are. There are perhaps as many as 40 000. However, for general fluency 6-8000 should be fine. They say you need 2000 to read a newspaper. This is true if you want to read it very slowly and without understanding all the specifics of a story. BUT the characters are very interesting and reveal a lot about Chinese culture (particularly its ancient culture) – the evolution of many of them can be traced back over 3000 years. They also provide a common written language for China’s hundreds of dialects. If you want to develop a good understanding of Chinese, they are essential.
When you start learning Chinese, it is a good idea to learn the radicals, which are small components of characters. These carry meaning and/or indicate something about how to pronounce the character. I didn’t really learn about this until I took a course on characters at BLCU. It helped enormously and makes it much, much easier to guess characters you don’t know and to learn new characters quickly.
One of the best ways I found early-on was to use flashcards to learn characters. Two good computer programmes are Byki, which lets you create your own cards, and remembr.it, a website-based programme which you use every day and which tests you regularly. remembr.it is more effective unless you have very good self-discipline. Both cost around £20-40 for the full version.
However, flashcards are only helpful up to a point – once you have reached a reasonable level of Chinese they may cease to be useful. I stopped using them last term, and have since found it much more effective to uses Chinese-Chinese dictionaries (particularly dictionaries of usage – BCLU Press has a good one). However, in the early stages flashcards can be extremely helpful in terms of allowing you to memorize new words relatively quickly. I find they are still good for learning individual characters, but they are not particularly good in terms of providing contextual information.
Pinyin literally refers to any form of phonetic writing, including the Latin alphabet. Usually, though, it is used to refer to Hanyu Pinyin, which is the accepted form of Romanization used in mainland China. It is one of the first things you will learn when studying Chinese, and is quite easy to pick up. However, there are some sounds which in English are difficult to differentiate (such as ‘z’ and ‘c’ in pinyin). Chinese, unlike English, has a limited range of possible syllables. This means that many words sound the same – often they will have different tones, but not always. However, the written words (in character form) are different – characters are units of meaning (hence there are so many), and it is perfectly possible to learn either written or spoken Chinese without knowing anything about the other.
Chinese has four tones, plus a neutral tone which varies depending on which of the other tones it follows. The tone of a word is often vital in determining its meaning. This is a nightmare for learners who speak non-tonal languages, and there is no easy way to deal with it. You must just remember and concentrate on each word. This is much more difficult than it sounds – in English, we change our tone all the time depending on the mood we are trying to convey. You will naturally do this when you speak Chinese. BUT if you do this when you speak Chinese, you change the tone of each word and change the meaning, often rendering your words unintelligible. Unfortunately I have no good advice on how to deal with this, other than to make Chinese friends who are happy to correct you constantly.
It may sound odd, but Chinese does not have words in the same way that English does. This is primarily because each character (and syllable) is an independent unit of meaning. Often, creating a word involves simply combining two or sometimes three. However, they are not always combined, and when they are they can be put together in all kinds of combinations, rather like Lego. Moreover, longer phrases are often abbreviated simply by removing characters/syllables – Beijing Yuyan Daxue/北京语言大学 (BLCU), for example, becomes Beiyu/北语, which if read literally means ‘northern language’. Chinese also has particles, which are characters/syllables with no intrinsic meaning but which change the entire sentence. Ba/吧, for example, turns a sentence into a suggestion. Ma/吗 turns it into a question. Le/liao/了 is nightmarishly complicated, usually indicating the completion of an action. However, it can be used in many different ways to indicate subtle differences in time and so forth, and often seems to be used differently in each sentence.
The above four aspects are probably those which, at the start, will seem the most alien and most difficult. However, I have found that as one progresses and becomes used to them, whilst they can remain tedious (e.g. rote-learning characters), they cease to be the most difficult part of learning. This is because once you have gotten past the stage of learning how to buy things, ask for directions and talk about the weather, you start to venture into deeper waters in which the differences between the logical bases of English and Chinese become more and more apparent. You also encounter deeper conceptual differences between the two cultures. I have found this is especially true when writing essays. Last term we had to write several short essays on basic topics. When I went through them with Chinese friends, they often told me the argument didn’t work (for example, it should be presented in a different order). Regarding one essay in particular, what had been a fantastic argument in English totally failed in Chinese. I can’t remember what it was, but it was to do with the meaning of happiness. I had filled up a hundred or so characters of my five-hundred character requirement explaining a point, only to be told that, in Chinese, the entire explanation was redundant as anyone would get it from the first sentence. Great.
Hopefully this isn’t too off-putting. Chinese is a fascinating language, and the more you learn the more you will enjoy it. It will teach you a great deal about Chinese culture, and in the process you will also learn a lot about the idiosyncracies of your mother tongue. The best thing to do is practice every day, and try to immerse yourself by talking, reading and listening to Chinese as much as you can.