by Joe Varadi
Is it just me, or is there a shortage of content on Medium about culture, travel and language beyond these here United States? I’m gonna do my part to change that …
As a student of the Chinese language, many years past, I found myself searching for metaphors to describe the learning process. Metaphors — ok, similes in this case, technically speaking — not only serve as a study aid, but also as a way to describe my experience to others. One of the best analogies that I’d come up with was that Chinese is a many-layered language. Studying it is like peeling a large onion.
And no, not because the endeavor will make you cry.
1. Exotic Phonetics — Forget what you knew
The outer layer is where we learn to speak all over again. For those of us whose mother tongue is non-tonal, this means having to de-learn some of what we learned as babies and toddlers. We have to get our minds around the idea of the four tones of Mandarin (five if you count the neutral tone, even more if tackling other dialects like Cantonese). Also, we will need to train our ears and tongues for the subtle differences between the j and zh, q and ch, x and sh consonant sounds.
Listening to native speakers proves difficult at this early stage, because their speech glides along with such speed that we cannot make out the individual sounds and tones. Trying to learn phonetics from a native speaker is like trying to steal steps from a professional ballroom dancer. But that’s another analogy …
But it’s important to point out that tones are not the insurmountable barrier that they are sometimes made out to be.
Every language uses tones — to differentiate statements from questions, for example, or to infuse speech with emotional qualities like excitement or surprise. Chinese just happens to use them in shorter bursts, in a way that determines the role of each syllable in the sentence.
There is no substitute for complete immersion, but regardless of where you are, find yourself a trusted instructor or native speaker friend, to guide you through this initial stage. The best teachers will slow things down, exaggerate, over-pronounce — to help you absorb and assimilate these exotic phonetics.
Early on you will have to master a Romanization system, one that matches Chinese sounds to familiar written symbols. The choice depends on several factors, like which text book you are using, and also your native tongue. Fortunately, Hanyu Pinyin, developed in Mainland China in the 1950s, has been widely adopted around the world. If you are studying in Taiwan, learning Bopomofo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) in addition will prove invaluable.
2. A Lineup of Strange Characters
The next layer is to string together the sounds and tones to make word-fragments, or syllables. Chinese calls these 字 (zì), and each syllable is represented in writing by a single Chinese character.
At this point, it is important to dispel one of the great misconceptions about the language, and emphasize that:
Chinese characters cannot be studied one by one!
Often you will hear that as a student you must memorize one, or two thousand characters to become proficient. NONSENSE! Learning characters in isolation is almost useless, because their meaning changes and gets clarified in the context of a larger phrase or expression. Therefore, it is essential to focus on studying phrases and expressions.
To illustrate this point, it is not enough to simply learn the character for “car”, 车 (chē), or even the more specific term “automobile” 汽车 (qìchē). You must add to your vocabulary expressions like
- “to drive” 开车 (kāichē)
- “to break, while driving” 刹车 (shāchē)
- “to park” 停车 (tíngchē)
- “parking spot” 停车位 (tíngchēwèi)
- “train” 火车 (huǒchē)
- “train station” 火车站 (huǒchēzhàn)
This stage also leads to some interesting discoveries about how the rhythm and tone of characters changes depending on how they are paired with each other. One technique I always found useful was to associate certain words — seemingly unrelated — like “strawberry”, “dolphin”, “actor”, “United States”, because in Mandarin they share the same tonal pattern. (See my article on tone combinations for more information on this very practical learning technique.)
At this point, you will usually learn some grammar and basic sentence structures. Compared to most Western languages, Chinese grammar seems relatively simple at first. There are no verb conjugations, no noun inflections, no use of noun gender. But this is no time to slack off — you’re still busy peeling back the outer layers.
3. Cracking the Code
If you decide to learn to read Chinese — and this is a big if — you find yourself faced with a considerable obstacle. How do you even begin to approach this problem? You must stare at these strange-looking figures as much as possible. Your brain will start to pick up on patterns, to help you file away this new information.
One such pattern is repeating radicals. Most characters have a radical that buckets them into a category, like water, person, speech, movement, etc. Slowly, your patience begins to pay off, as the characters start to look less and less intimidating.
Using this eyes-only, hands-behind-the-back method, it’s possible to learn to recognize dozens, even hundreds of characters. But to break this limit, you must also begin to draw characters, and use the muscle memory of your hands to teach your brain. This is not writing yet, but it’s extremely useful for growing your reading vocabulary.
With a large enough vocabulary, you may begin to read entire sentences or passages. Here lies another challenge of the Chinese language. The traditional written form is a stream of characters, with no spaces to help you segment a sentence into words and phrases. To read fluently, the reader should be able to quickly scan for pronouns, prepositions and measure words, as these are the natural delimiters of the Chinese sentence.
4. Mastering the language
The remaining layers are a deeper understanding of grammar, the knowledge of Chinese sayings and proverbs, and when to use them, and of course the ability to write. Anyone who has gotten this close to the core has made an enviable accomplishment.
The unique thing about Chinese is that unlike many other languages, where speaking, reading and writing are learned more or less in parallel, in Chinese these can be arbitrarily separated. While this doesn’t make for an easier language, it allows you to focus on the skills to meet your own goals. You may decide to learn to speak it but not to read it. Or if you don’t have the time or inclination to write it, you may still reach a respectable reading level.
Chinese is not for everyone. If you wish to travel to China and communicate on a basic level, a handful of common expressions from a phrase book will serve you just fine. I’ll sneak in one last metaphor — be prepared to swim against the tide, as everyone who’s ever taken an English class will insist on practicing with you, and will initially resist your attempts to converse in Chinese. But if you have set some loftier goals for yourself, such as the ability to decipher a Chinese menu, to speak with your significant other’s family in their native tongue, or if you simply have a love of languages — roll up your sleeves and start peeling!
Thanks for making it this far!
You may also enjoy this, one of my favorite stories about living in Taiwan.