Please be sure to check out my sister guide â€œAdvanced Guide to learning Chineseâ€? as well!
For more cool stuff like this, please visit my site at http://rocket-chinese-review.com/free-7-day-chinesecourse/ to sign up for a free 7-day eCourse with audio conversations, newspaper articles and select essay extracts - all with annotations and audio recordings!
Table of contents Click on the page numbers to jump to these sections.
A quick story!
The importance of structure!
Why do people think Chinese is so difficult?!
The two main things that trip people up about Chinese!
Why do you want to learn Chinese?!
Demystifying Chinese - the four structural elements of Chinese !
Step I: Speaking Chinese!
The pinyin system!
Step II: Phrases!
Step III: Writing Chinese!
What are they?!
Step IV: Vocabulary!
So...is Chinese difficult?!
Introduction A quick story A week before it was time to do a test, a student sat down in front of his desk, and groaned at the prospect of having to go through the thick pile the mock papers lying in front of him. This was a revision lesson in preparation for the tests, and he complained to the teacher, “...seriously, this is too difficult to do!”, to which the teacher answered, “not if you know the answers!”, with a witty smile on her face. Pop in Bernadette’s voice (from the Big Bang Theory) as the teacher’s voice and you really get the drama in it. (On a sidenote, if you aren’t a BBT fan...YOU HAVE TO WATCH IT...IT’S SUPER FUNNY...) Anyway, physicists aside, I wanted to start this off with a bit of a conversation that happened inside the classroom when I was in high school. We were having a Math class, and it really was one week before it was time for the test. A friend of mine really said that, and our teacher really replied back to him that way. Thinking back, while it seemed a bit blunt, that statement has a lot of truth in it - nothing is difficult if you know how to do it. It probably doesn’t add any value to the situation, but it stands true nevertheless. So how does this relate to learning Chinese? I wanted to use this to illustrate exactly this - learning Chinese isn’t the easiest language learning endeavor. But by applying certain methods, and by understanding certain facts about the structure of Chinese that sets it apart so much from Latin based languages, you WILL be able to get very far with Chinese.
And when you do, and you look back at all the stuff you once considered difficult perhaps, just perhaps, you might smile knowingly at yourself, saying, “this stuff is pie.” So, before we enter this guide, I really want you to feel comfortable with the notion of learning Chinese - because while it’s difficult, it’s not impossible, and by admission of that, we will bulldoze roadblocks along the way, and breeze through these learning obstacles one by one, reaching a point where you can do what you initially sought out to do - speak with a native! Next up, I want to introduce you to one of my all time favorite quotes as an introduction to my recommended methodology to approach learning Chinese.
Henry Ford As you probably know, Henry Ford is most famous for his pioneering of the assembly line, the concept being that if you divided the assembly of a car into a sequence of steps, you can easily improve the accuracy of each assembly step because you can afford to pay a finer level of attention to each step. As Henry Ford famously said, “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” Since Henry Ford is really smart, I’m going to borrow his approach to explain why Chinese can be broken down into smaller chunks for us to learn and digest. The importance of structure When mentioning the structure of a language, the dreaded word probably flitted across your mind - “grammar”. Or maybe you’re a grammarian, and you dote on it. Regardless, it’s impossible to discuss a language without discussing grammar. For instance, the English language has words that fall distinctly into these eight main groups of words: verbs (e.g. play), nouns (e.g. mulberry), adjectives (e.g. heinous), adverbs (e.g. quickly), prepositions (e.g. near), determiners (e.g. hers), pronouns (e.g. she) and conjunctives (e.g. albeit). That would be one facet of grammar. However, while grammar is part of the structure of a language, I want to talk more about the different aspects of a language from a non-grammatical perspective that serve a functional role within the language. We’ll go more into the details in two sections, and all this cryptic talk will be demystified, I promise you, down to the very specifics of what you’ll need to be expecting, but for now,
please note the importance of structure in trying to simplify the learning of a tough language like Chinese. In the next chapter, I want to briefly discuss the two main reasons why most people perceive Chinese as a difficult language.
Why do people think Chinese is so difficult? The two main things that trip people up about Chinese Firstly, and I suspect you thought of this at some point when hearing the word Chinese Chinese characters. The writing system of Chinese is so complex that even native speakers sometimes get tripped up when dealing with high level prose and interpreting the finer shades of archaic texts. Moreover, let’s say you have mastered writing Chinese characters. While anyone can simply copy a character much like they can copy an illustration, it’s an entirely different challenge to write in Chinese - that’s the real challenge in Chinese - writing it is devilishly tricky and more difficult than many languages because the concept of grammar didn’t even exist prior to the language reform - the roots of Chinese were laid in an intricate system taught only to the privileged back in the olden times when the feudal system still reigned and an emperor sat on the throne. While I stand by it - I’m native and I still need to use a dictionary on the occasion to look up idioms and phrases for the correct usage - there is an important factor in play that can help simplify the process by leaps and bounds. Reverting back to the character problem, though, you might be surprised to know that while Chinese spans close to 106,000 characters, you only need about 2,500 of them to reach a functional proficiency in Chinese. And the words that you typically need to weave your way through everyday life totals to about 600 - 1200, depending on the proficiency you want. While you can’t count on it allowing you to read newspapers and editorial columns discussing the modern political challenges under the current Communist regime, you can probably get through ordering a meal in a restaurant or talking with a Chinese friend.
This brings us to the next point - what you want to do with Chinese. Why do you want to learn Chinese? Chinese is difficult - that is, if you want to reach a level where you’re writing poems and archaic Chinese like the classical poets Dufu, Libai or the authors or classical works like San Guo Zhi or Shi Jing. But I highly doubt you want to reach that level. This is why I started off this section by asking - why do you want to learn Chinese? Answering that question accurately will give you a good estimation of the “difficulty of the Chinese” you’ll encounter. If your answer is “I want to be able to speak it!”, then congratulations...the difficulty will be a lot lower! For the purposes of this guide, I want to use that as a base proficiency (i.e. conversational) we’re aiming for and build upon that argument. Now that we’ve cleared all the theoretical obstacles with learning Chinese, let’s dive into the specific aspects of what we discussed earlier on - structure.
Demystifying Chinese - the four structural elements of Chinese Step I: Speaking Chinese The first step of the language doesn’t involve anything to do with character recognition - it involves speaking. Think about it - does text exist before speaking or the latter? Of course conversations happened before we devised systems to record them via language many, many millenia ago. The first step you’ll encounter in Chinese is the pinyin system. The pinyin system With it, it’s typically split up into two distinct phases: - Learning the five tones of Chinese - Learning how to pronounce the standard 400 sounds with the above five tonal variations The first part sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? We usually use the sound “ma” to demonstrate how to pronounce these five tones. The second part, however, can seem daunting if you don’t your way around the Chinese language yet. However, consider this - similar to English, there are only 21 consonants, which almost sound the same as their English counterparts with a few exceptions which don’t exist in English. There are slightly more “vowels” in Mandarin, altogether, there are 16 - but consider this if you learn all of these 37 sounds, you can literally pronounce any word in Chinese. Cool, eh? http://rocket-chinese-review.com/
So, the next question that’s usually asked - how many combinations between the “consonants” and “vowels” are there? And we’ve already answered that above - about 400. Let’s take a look at the chart.
http://eastasiastudent.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/pinyin-chart1.png And that’s about all for speaking Chinese.
Step II: Phrases This is where you start to learn basic grammar. For example, you might have heard that English is an SVO language, or a Subject-VerbObject (e.g. I (Subject) - like (Verb) - You (Object) ). What about Chinese? It turns out that Chinese is also an SVO language, so you now know how to construct sentences. This simple template can then help you express many, many things. Any and all variations of expressions are simply add-ons to this basic template. Similarly, as you ask questions about how to express things in Chinese, you cover topics like: - Tenses (Chinese verbs don’t conjugate - adjectives and other indicator words or just the general context indicate the tense) - Singular / plural (Chinese nouns don’t have plural nouns - the concept of plural is applied to measure words like “bunch” as in “a bunch of roses”) - How to ask a question (Chinese uses question words like “ma”, which change a declaration into a question) - Adverbs (Chinese has a colorful variety of adverbs, too much to list here :) ) - Conjunctions (these have their corresponding translations and close functions in Chinese) - Particles (This is the more difficult aspect of Chinese - things like “zhi”, which express possession, “yu fou”, which means “whether or not”, etc.) - Prepositions (e.g. jian yu = “In light of”, and a ton of other ones) - Sentence patterns (e.g. yu qi...bu ru, “Rather than...why not...instead”) And it goes on. And once you understand these basic points, you’re good to move on to the next step, which is... http://rocket-chinese-review.com/
Step III: Writing Chinese Now that you have a preliminary understanding of Chinese pronunciation and sentence phrase structures, you can probably construct phrases in Chinese already - however, what about writing using Chinese characters? This is probably the more challenging aspect of this four step plan, however, writing Chinese, like learning grammar, also has its rules. For instance, you’d be pleasantly surprised to know that again, there are over 100,000 characters in Chinese, a very small subset of this make up what I refer to as “base” characters of Chinese. In other words, all other characters that aren’t in this list are simply derived - they contain, in some shape or manner, parts of these base characters. So, if you learn these base characters, you can almost learn all other derived characters easily! Okay, that’s the first bit. Stroke order Next, these squiggly lines will be hard to remember if they were randomly thrown together, but fortunately, they aren’t. You’ll then proceed to learn stroke order, or how to draw those lines in order - and, yes, they conform to a certain order! The most common ones being from left to right, from out to in and top bottom. After you understand these rules, you’d proceed to learn different strokes. I don’t know how to translate these, but all characters are made of these basic strokes, as shown in the below chart. Practice these, and you’re one step closer to simplifying the learning process.
Radicals Finally, the last component of all - radicals. What are they? In Chinese, a word usually has a radical, which has a standard name for when itâ€™s used standalone, and different forms when used in different characters. Radicals are extremely useful in helping you remember how to write a word. If you remember a base word, adding different radicals to it can derive many more characters with their special attributes http://rocket-chinese-review.com/
contributing to the meaning of the overall word, making character recognition and recall much easier. There’s only a limited set of radicals existent in Chinese (214, but the forms are only a few strokes, and only about 50 of them are commonly used) - so it’s really easy to learn them. Here’s a chart containing all of them:
Again, these are how they are written only in a standalone form (the upper part), which are rarely used. When used in a word, they usually have a few variations (the bottom part). That’s the first bit about radicals. Positioning The second bit you have to understand about radicals is how they’re positioned in Chinese words. Most of these radicals are in one of the four directions, namely - left, right, top, bottom. Most of these radicals have a typical position they’re placed, so by remembering this, you can easily remember where radicals are placed with the other part of the character. Meaning Third of all, radicals give you a clue as to what characters mean. For example, the character 艸, and 艹 when used in a word, is usually positioned on top of characters, e.g. 花, which means flowers.
Many words which have this radical represent something to do with plants, and from this, you can attempt to infer from context what it means. And that wraps up our conclusion for writing Chinese. Moving on to the final step...
Step IV: Vocabulary In this step, we challenge the most difficult part of acquiring a language - words. Any good ways to learn them naturally apart from rote? Hmm...not really. But what if I told you that you’ll have a functional proficiency in Chinese with just 1,200 words? (I’ve included this in a separate bonus as well, so you can see exactly what these words are!) Sounds easier, right? These literally are the most encountered words in Chinese, so you’ll probably see them everywhere pretty much whatever you read, making acquisition easier. What’s after that? There are two paths: (1) You go the “conversational linguist” path and rely on a smart phone dictionary to check up unfamiliar terms, or (2) You go the “advanced linguist” path, where you read lots and lots of novels in Chinese to acquire vocabulary. As with any language, the fastest way to acquire vocabulary (depending on what type of vocabulary you want to learn) is to either watch TV dramas (if you want to know more slang words) or read loads of books (if you want to know more high level vocabulary in a variety of contexts, as well as idioms and other phrases). Chinese literature is too varied, so I won’t do recommendations here, but with a quick Google Search, you can easily get the names of the most celebrated works in Chinese literature and select according to your level and interests appropriately.
Conclusion As you can see, the Chinese language is a highly logical language. It also follows a set of predetermined rules and through these, we can deduce many more things to produce an end result - whether that be writing, composing sentences, or remembering characters. And that wraps up our entire discussion of understanding the structure makeup of the Chinese language.
So...is Chinese difficult? I think you can probably tell my stance by now - by doing a structural breakdown of the language into logical units, no, it can be simplified by literally leaps and bounds. So, what’s the catch? In my opinion, there are two things you need in order to learn Chinese well: (1) Time, and (2) Interest. By time, I mean consistency. For instance, I highly advise against an irregular learning schedule, because it simply doesn’t help your retention a single bit. That’s probably obvious. Second of all, interest. Interest is important, but I mean it in a slightly different way. I don’t think you need to love the language (though it’d help if you love Mandarin!), but you do need to not hate it! As long as you’re not here, you’re good. So, with the structure I’ve laid out in this handbook, I hope you can devise your own Mandarin learning schedule through your lessons to help supplement your Chinese learning to accelerate your way through learning the language. The best of luck to you in your Chinese learning journey!
Published on Sep 15, 2013
Your quick start guide to learning Chinese effectively. Is Chinese really that difficult to learn? Find out why this is false, and how under...