Learning Chinese


li-riverSeeing as I’m known as a “Sino-triumphalist” anyway why not go the full nine yards and learn the language? That is what I’m doing (c. 300-500 汉字 to date) and here are my thoughts so far.

1. Tones. In stark contrast to every major European language, Chinese pronunciation is based on tones. Four of them: one that stays high, one that rises high, one that dips then rises high, and one that falls sharply (there’s also a neutral tone). Very confusing at first, though I’m sure Vietnamese is worse.

2. Hanzi. The written language is based on hieroglyphs, each of which represent an idea or concept that can either stand alone or be combined to form a word. Some of these can be pretty inventive, e.g. a computer 电脑 is composed of the characters for electricity and brain; or to take an older example, a conscience 良心 is literally a “good heart.” A panda is a “big bear-cat” (大熊猫).

The characters themselves can be full of meaning. E.g. the heart (心) plays a big role in many related concepts, such as interesting, lit. “has meaning” (有意思) or “read aloud” presumably with ‘all your heart’ (念).

Or to give a fundamental example take “your honorable name” (贵姓). The first symbol, honorable, has a conchie shell in the bottom half; in ancient times, they were used as currency, and seeing as “honorable people” were those with many conchie shells, hence the character (this association of wealth with honor is intrinsic to all cultures; consider, for instance, богатый (rich person) and a богатырь (hero)). The second symbol, name, combines the characters for woman (女) and the interrelated concepts of life, birth, and livelihood (生); one possible explanation put forth is that ancient China was matrimonial, and names passed down the mother’s side. The Hanzi “to rule” (治) is intimately connected with the idea of managing water, as indicated by the radical for water at the left. These examples can be multiplied indefinitely; suffice to say, the etymology is fascinating.

In the vast majority of cases, the meanings aren’t clear and you have to invent your own if you want to stand a chance of remembering the Hanzi. Random example – the character for Korea (韩国). Being the geopolitics freak that I am, I remembered the first symbol by imagining the top as the North and the bottom as the South. On the left side of 韩, the two sides are separated by a minefield; on the right side, the curl on the southern side indicates that South Korea is the stronger of the two. Of course, after this remembering the symbol for the game of go, or wéiqí (围棋) as it is known in Chinese, became much easier; the left symbol represented a battleground, e.g. like that of the Korean peninsula, but confined to a square board.

I might be weird that way but associating hanzi with something edgy or mildly degenerate can be more effective. E.g., take the character for “want” (要); the lower half can be associated with “wanting” a woman (女). This in turn can make the first character for “pretty” (漂亮) much easier to remember, as the top part of 要 is the same as the top part of 漂. It also has a water radical, so you imagine that woman as a water nymph. The “measure word” (more on that later) for class periods is 节; the symbol at the top of it stands for grass, and can be memorized by thinking about how much you’d rather be smoking it than going to class.

3. Grammar. Is very easy. Almost baby speak. No real past or future tense; perfectly valid to say “Next Thursday I go to play pool.” No gender; even “he” and “she” sound the same, though the Hanzi are slightly different (他, 她). No dative or genitive or objective or those other cases they torture you with in German or Latin (or Russian, for that matter, though never having had a formal Russian education I was lucky enough to escape that). That said usage of the element that indicates completion (了) can get quite tricky when forming complicated sentences. Also, though there are no plurals, when you want to specify a quantity of something, you have to add what is called a “measure word”, so, for example, if you want to say three pens you say 三枝笔, which is the character for three (三), followed by the measure word (枝), followed by pen (笔). There are different measure words for different objects; in this case, 枝 is the general measure word for long and inflexible objects. This can make life difficult, though thankfully in most cases the measure word 个 is standard and will suffice. Nonetheless, grammar is probably an order of magnitude easier than English (let alone Russian or Japanese). It is an incredibly direct and straightforward language.

4. I largely agree with David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, but I think that he exaggerates a lot. In particular, in today’s technological society there are a lot of IT tools that easen the problems he identifies.

  • Pleco is an app for the iPhone (and coming soon for Droid – can’t wait) that is really, really cool. You point you phone’s camera at a character, be it on paper or on a computer screen, and it translates it for you and gives it to you in pinyin. A must have if you go to China.
  • Perapera-kun (Mozilla) and Zhongwen (Chrome) are popup dictionaries; hover your mouse over a character in your browser, and pinyin and definitions come up. As David correctly points out using a paper dictionary is very frustrating.
  • Our bustest bud Google Translate.
  • You have to pay a small monthly fee for it, but Skritter is really useful for assembling lists of Hanzi and studying them. There is an option in the aforementioned Zhongwen program to automatically add words that you look up with it to Skritter with a single press of a key button.
  • You should, obviously, install a program that converts pinyin (the Latinized script) into Hanzi. Windows has it as an add-on.
  • IN ADDITION: Commentator Glossy below also recommends Zhongwen etymology dictionary and Anki flash cards.

5. There is a big debate on the efficacy of Simplified vs. Traditional characters. I’m a firm supporter of Simplified because it is much easier, shorter, and – Traditionalist propaganda to the contrary – in many cases simply more logical. Granted, there are a few changes in Simplified that were idiotic and destructive. For instance, the character for love is 爱, missing out the heart radical that is in the Traditional 愛. This kind of removes the whole point. And 電, with its rain symbol at the top (i.e. associated with thunder, lightning) is a better character for electricity than the Simplified 电. But a few cases like this aside, Simplified is better.

6. Some weird cultural quirks. The word for comrade (同志) has gone from being a standard form of address in the 1950’s to only being used by a few elderly stalwarts and formal Communist Party rhetoric… and the country’s emerging LGBT community! Mao wouldn’t be happy. Apparently, a “red book” (红书) now denotes pornography; I don’t if that has any Maoist connotations. For a man “to eat tofu” is to take advantage of his female friends, so guys, don’t run around being cheesy.

EDIT 7/7:  An additional observation. Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…

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