Updates On Learning Chinese

It’s been a few weeks since my last post on learning Chinese, so here is new info for anyone interested.

1. In case you missed a late update to the original post: “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…”

2. Many Chinese province names are amazingly literal. For instance, Shandong (山东) means “east of the mountains”; Hebei (河北) and Henan (河南) mean north and south of the river, respectively, while Hubei (湖北) and Hunan (湖南) mean north and south of the lake; Guangxi (广西) and Guangdong (广东) refer to west and east widths, respectively; Yunnan (云南) has connotations of south clouds; and the island province of Hainan (海南) means south sea. Likewise for cities. Xi’an (西安) is the western peace; Shanghai 上海 means “on the sea” (sort of like Приморье?); and, of course, the various jing’s denote capitals. So Beijing (北京) is the north capital, Nanjing (南京) is the south capital, and Dongjing (东京) – otherwise known as Tokyo – is the east capital. The very name of the country is literally the “Middle Kingdom” (中国).

3. A friend (and 同学) recently told me that when he was traveling in China this past year, he came across a group of schoolchildren on the train out on a school excursion. They were eager to practice their English and they spoke surprisingly well. This wasn’t Beijing or Shanghai, but a relatively rural backwater. This anecdote supports the contention made on this blog that human capital in the youngest Chinese generations is at least as rich if not more so than in the West – what percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language? – and as such this guarantees the country’s rapid future development.

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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).

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Top 10 Most Useful Languages

Knowing a second language is a highly desirable trait in today’s world, especially if your work or hobbies have an international focus. But for most people, learning languages is an arduous undertaking, constituting a big investment of intellectual resources. The best advice is to learn something you enjoy or gives you meaning, as by far the biggest challenge in learning any language is maintaining the motivation to keep studying and improving month after month. But if you’re one of those who have difficulties choosing, perhaps this list will help. I rank the languages based on their global importance (demography; economic & political influence), ease of learning, and personal usefulness (e.g. good tourist destinations; are in demand).

1. English is first, without competition. It is the world’s lingua franca, with people from different non-Anglophone countries frequently using it to communicate among themselves. About a third of the world’s population understands it to some extent. Almost all international business, academic, and diplomatic discourse is held in the language of Shakespeare. In many European countries, it is now hard to hold down high-paying professional jobs without some command of this language. Fortunately, English is relatively easy to learn.

2. Español is arguably the second most desirable language, at least for Americans. It will facilitate communications with Spanish-speaking citizens (especially in the south), as well as enrich travels in Latin America or Spain. It is a UN language. But best of all, the language of Cervantes, Borges, and 700 million other people is by far the easiest to learn on this list.

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