A lot of free Chinese lessons online as well as offline start off with telling you that Chinese is one of the oldest, most fascinating languages in the World. At the same time, it’s one of the most widely spread languages, being spoken by over 1.3 billion people, most of which are situated in Southeastern Asia.
The Chinese language is actually composed of several slightly different dialects which share the same structure and rules as well as a good part of the same vocabulary. A comparison can be made between Chinese as a general language and the entirety of Romanic languages. Still, Chinese dialects are a lot more closer to one another than Romanic sub-languages, so whereas a French speaker for example couldn’t understand much of what an Italian is saying without proper study of the Italian language beforehand, a Chinese Wu speaker will have an easier time communicating with, say, a Mandarin speaker.
Speaking of dialects, Chinese has around 6-12 specific dialects, depending on how you count them (and if we count sub-dialects as well). The three most popular however, are undoubtedly Mandarin (which consists of around 800 million speakers), Wu (around 90 million speakers) and Cantonese (80-90 million speakers). Because Mandarin dominates the amount of Chinese speakers by such a large number it’s often the case that an equality sign is placed between the dialect and the language itself.
For the Western World, learning Chinese is, let’s face it, a pain in the rib. Although there are small variations between Western languages, they share pretty much the same rules, phonology and sentence structure as well as the same alphabet. With Chinese, almost everything we know is blown up in the air and it’s quite hard for us to think any other way than what we’re used to. If you take up on courses to learn Chinese, the first step will be to accommodate yourself with all these differences before starting to memorize words, improve vocabulary or learn the alphabet.
Chinese learning methods
Most “learn Chinese” courses as well as almost all organized educational sources start teaching the language to Western students by translating the Chinese ideograms to the Romanic alphabet by using the Pinyin system. After this step has been mastered the learning process is taken from easy to hard, meaning that the first courses will contain the Chinese grammar rules (which are easier to understand and are less complex than some Western languages), go through pronunciation (which is a problem at first but can be mastered after a while), then a vocabulary improvement using texts to memorize words, vocabulary games, audio tapes and the likes and finalizing with a complete focus on Chinese characters and numerals, which are a headache for most students.
Breaking Down Chinese: It's not as hard as it looks!
Every language has easier and harder aspects to learn. Chinese tones, while there are only four in comparison to Cantonese which traditionally has 7 tones, definitely make the language challenging. However, on the other hand, Chinese grammar is easier to study when compared to languages with Latin roots. For example, when studying Chinese, once you've learned a certain amount of characters, (most Chinese words are composite words meaning they are composed of two or more characters), it is a lot easier to understand the meaning of other words or even guess their meaning! For example, dàyī literally meas “big clothes” or “a coat”.
dàren= big+person (an adult),
kǒuyǔ= mouth+language (oral speech),
míngpiàn name+sheet (business card)
duǎnxìn= short+message (text message)
kāiwánxiào= to play/have fun+laugh (to play a joke)
diànnǎo= electric+brain (computer)
liǎnsè= face+color (complexion)
xǐshǒujiān= wash+hands+room (bathroom)
chūkǒu= leave+doorway (exit), and the list of such composite words is endless in Chinese.
Now, guess what the following word means: “xuēzi”=snow+shoes. It means “boots”! You probably guessed that correctly. Here's another one: “xiǎochī”=small+food. In other words, it means “snack”.
This explains why character recognition is such an important part of Chinese language study as well. By seeing the individual characters that make up a word in Chinese rather than just reading their pinyin form, many times you can actually figure out the meaning of the word.
Now, lets actually take a look at Chinese characters. One of the remarkable things about the language is its written form. Chinese characters (Hànzì), in their simplified form as they are used in Mainland China, originate from traditional Chinese characters which all have a story behind them.
人 (rén=person/people) The original character for person had hands and feet. Now it’s simplified. The top is a head, and the person is standing with legs apart.
山 (Shān=mountains) This mountain range has three peaks.
雨 (yǔ=rain) The top part represents clouds, and in the middle raindrops fall from the clouds.
口 (kǒu=mouth) Looks like a wide-open mouth.
日 (rì=sun) This character, originally a circle with a dot in the middle, later evolved into a rectangle.
月 (yuè=moon) This character is in the shape of a tilted moon. The older character was even more tilted, looking more similar to the moon.
水 (shuǐ=water) The middle line depicts water flowing downward. The lines on the sides represent smaller streams that branch off the main current.
火 (huǒ=fire) Here, flames shoot upward from a fire.
Therefore, learning Chinese isn't as complicated as it looks. Not only do many Chinese characters have their own stories to them, but they can also be made up of radicals (smaller parts within a character) that can help us more easily learn Chinese words. Chinese is not as complicated as it sounds either because, as we've explored, a lot of Chinese words can be broken down to more fundamental and basic words that can make learning Chinese vocabulary relatively easy. Furthermore, having a better understanding of Chinese characters and the language will make you better able to understand Chinese culture and history, as well as the people.
Join us at Hutong School and we can help you jump start or continue your Chinese language study, making the most of your China experience. We'll gladly show you just how not hard Chinese is. So join us now. If you join us in December, we'll even give you a 5% discount!