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…

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Yalensis says

    @anatoly: On “measure words”: Very interesting… I had heard about that particular grammatical challenge which exists in Chinese and several other related languages. In English one sometimes also needs to find appropriate “measure word”, for example, if you go to a store you would say, “I want to buy 2 apples” (no measure word needed), but if you are at the candy aisle, “I want to buy 2 [bars of] chocolate” instead of “2 cholates”. In American cafeteria I want to buy 2 of those tiny tubs of jelly to put on my bagel, I guess it should be “Please give me two [containers of] jelly,” but if I cannot think of the word “container”, I find I can get away with, “Please give me 2 jellies,” which is grammatically incorrect, but the person behind the counter knows exactly what I mean. In Russian cafeteria, one can always get away with the generic “две штуки” followed by the name of the object in the genitive case.
    BTW, good for you to pursue this study of Chinese. Somebody has to do it, so I am full of admiration for those who do. (Myself, I promise I will learn Chinese on the day they reform their orthograpy and implement a phonemic alphabet! Actually… if you can give me a list of all the vowels, consonants, and tones in [I assume – Mandarin language?], I will personally invent a nice alphabet for them, even without knowing a single word of their language– I promise!)

    • The logical choice would be pinyin as many people are already familiar with it – including the Chinese themselves, schoolchildren learn their tones from it.

      But pinyin looks really ugly and I hope they maintain the Hanzi system.

      • Yalensis says

        Doesn’t matter if alphabet is physically “ugly”, IMHO. Could construct an alphabet from emoticons :0 🙂 🙁 or Mahjong symbols, if necessary. Or even Morse code. A symbol is just a symbol. Could be completely arbitrary. Could be designed by a monkey with a sheet of paper and a Sharpee pen. Only thing that matters is what symbols stands for (=the distinctive sounds of human speech). Cite Shakespeare: “A rose by any other name…” yada yada. Nothing to prevent Chinese from keeping their traditional orthography and calligraphy as elective disciplines, in the School of Art, where it belongs.

        • Don’t tell a guy his learning activities are pointless 😛 Probably the Chinese could have a Korea-style alphabet which would still look “Asian” but be practical. I don’t see them in any rush to change however..

          • Yalensis says

            Well, it’s obviously not pointless if that’s the only option. But if there were other options… Like, what would you think about a guy who insisted on doing calculus problems using Roman numerals, just out of traditionalist stubborness, wouldn’t you consider him somewhat eccentric? Actually, I personally know a computer programmer who writes web pages in Assembler instead of HTML. His code works, but he is rightfully considered a nutcase by his peers! And I admit that’s my opinion of the Chinese — they’re CRAZY to continue with this madness when somebody already invented a much better way to read and write. (And ditto that for the Japanese…)

            • But there is one advantage to written Chinese. The same written text can be parsed as Mandarin but also Cantonese or any other Chinese language

              • Yalensis says

                Yes, that is true, and I am guessing that is one of the main reasons why they kept his hieroglyphic alphabet. Switching to a phonemic alphabet would require separate written languages for Mandarin and Cantonese. (In the same way that there are separate written languages for Russian and Ukrainian.)

              • Not sure this plays a great role. China isn’t India. The CCP tries to displace regional languages in favor of Mandarin anyway, so this feature of the hieroglyphic system probably isn’t all that awesome (for them).

              • AK, it seems that the system doesn’t go so deep so i have to reply to myself.

                Displacing the language of the poor is easy but don’t try it with the economic elite. Franco tried it with Catalan and failed miserably. I don’t think that the current CCP can be compared with Franco so to add to the list of languages that are globally more useful to learn than France i would Cantonese or Shanghainese

            • Changing the system, IMO, would only have been of use a few decades ago or earlier.

              But what’s the point today? Latest census shows literacy rate of 97%, so any effects of speeding up spread of literacy that would have come from a simpler system are now irrelevant.

              Information technology allows characters to be looked up quickly. Cell phone penetration in China is already at c. 70% and in a few more years I’m sure they’ll all get Pleco-style auto lookup dictionaries. Converting pinyin to hanzi when typing is already very easy.

              Basically, I just don’t see the point. Changing the system now will only create a lot of confusion and destroy a distinctive part of the national heritage (yes, it may exist in “School of Art”, but what percentage of the population will care to study it?).

  2. What about learning oral Chinese and then using software to convert the characters into pinyin? Would this be one of the easiest languages to learn? There must be SOME grammatical clusterfucks. Or maybe not? Hmm…

    • Well, learning oral Chinese is much easier if you learn pinyin, as it shows you what all the tones are (that’s how their schoolchildren do it actually).

      Some people just learn pinyin and Chinese without the Hanzi, making them illiterate, but able to talk (even fluently) to corporate execs etc. In fact AFAIK that’s what “Business Chinese” courses teach you to do.

      • I will consider this. If oral Chinese is as easy as you say one would really be foolish not to learn to speak to the world’s rising third economic superpower.

        • Yes, oral Chinese is easy. There are about 92 thosand something hanzi, so every Chinese learns new characters all his live. However, the claim that there’s no logic behind the hanzi is wrong, my Chinese teachers always explained us all the little radicals they are composed of (they’re very logical) and what the depictions want to show. I’m not so far by now(750), but I think after 5,000 hanzi I’ll be able to get the meaning of many new ones just by looking at the composition. Still, if you really want to learn Chinese, learn oral Chinese first and after you are able to speak and watch TV, you can start with the “alphabet”, otherwise it takes you 2-3 years to be able to talk about the wheather and you don’t memorize so easy because the knowledge stays out of a fluent and versatile context for a very very long time.

  3. Japanese doesn’t use measure words, but it has multiple different counting systems depending on what you’re counting. So, “five” can be several different words depending on whether you mean five people, five kittens, five pens, or the abstract number. (Strictly speaking these aren’t counting systems but words formed by different counting words, but the effect is the same — you have to learn different words for counting people, pencils, kittens, and so forth.)

    English has a few tone codes! Okay, very few. They’re mostly used to distinguish among homonyms that are different parts of speech. Did you object to this object? Were you content with this content? Let me present you with this present.

    Doug M.

    • Yep. Japanese is hard. Perhaps, the hardest. The guy in my class who studied it agrees Chinese is substantially easier.

      • grafomanka says

        For me Japanese seems a lot easier, at least pronunciation wise. I spend a year in Japan as a kid and picked up a lot of the language so speaking/pronouncing seems intuitive. Whereas Chinese with all those tones comes across as very hard, almost impossible. But the Japanese writing system IS hard. I made some attempts to master it later but I think without actually going back to Japan and surrounding myself with the kanji it’s difficult to achieve a substantial progress.

        My parents knew a foreign guy in Japan who spend 17 years there, spoke fluent Japanese, but never learned to read or write. Despite the fact he run a couple of successful businesses.

        • The Japanese themselves can barely handle this writing system. It is not unheard of for Japanese nationals living abroad for extended periods to forget the kanji. Now they rely on computers: the word processor gives you a small menu of the kanji once you type in the hiragana.

          I would say speaking the language is the main thing. Contrived writing systems are not the language itself, just a recording medium. If the medium takes orders of magnitude more effort than the original content, then it is pointless.

          • Agreed. English and French writing are frickin’ arbitrary and by no means the “natural” way these might be written. (E.g., largely forgotten etymological spelling.)

            • Yalensis says

              Now you’re catching on, my friend! English and French are badly in need of spelling reforms. The very idea of a written language needing children’s “spelling bees” is anathema to linguists. Spelling should be as easy as counting from 1 to 10. Some examples of languages with great spelling systems: Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Polish. Russian okay, but not as good as the above. Hebrew bad. Not familiar with Arabic, so I can’t judge. Apologize for all the great alphabets I didn’t mention simply because I am not familiar with them…

      • Oh, there are languages that are much, much harder than Japanese — whether you measure it as “harder for an English speaker” or “just frickin’ hard”.

        Two that I’ve come in contact with personally: Georgian uses an ergative grammar that is deeply alien and non-intuitive to Indo-European speakers, and combines that with seven noun cases, an agglutinative system for verbs and verbals, and some fairly freaky phonology. Meanwhile Javanese — the language spoken on Java, by 70 million people or so — has three different modes or registers depending on formality, with each mode being almost a completely separate language: different words, different phonology, different grammar. It also has a complex agglutinative grammar and some insane number of honorifics and humilifics that must be memorized before you can dare begin to actually use the language outside the classroom.

        Japanese is hard, but it’s not /that/ hard. Also, Japanese are pretty forgiving of foreigners trying to speak their language. (This is not the case with everyone. Javanese, for instance, often prefer that foreigners use Indonesian.)

        Doug M.

        • I know little about that language, but from history I would guess that there’s significant Sea-Indian, Sea-Arabian and Chinese influence, especially on the higher levels. What’s your opinion, does it help to know some of these languages?

    • Yalensis says

      @doug: That’s interesting. Russian also has a weird thing with the numbers 2,3, and 4 where the noun following the number is in the (genitive) singular rather than plural. Then, starting with the number 5, everything is in the plural. Apparently this is a relic of the Common Slavic “dual”, then used just for the number 2, which was considered a special number (probably because so many important body parts come in twos, according to my professor). So, nouns that came in twos had a different ending, was neither singular nor pural, was called “dual”.
      Example from Old Russian medieval epic “Slovo o pluku Igoreve”, in this scene Igor is greeting his brother Vsevolod, who is always accompanied by the sobriquet “wild bull” (буй тур).
      Vsevolod (“Wild Bull”) says to Igor: “We are both sons of Sviatoslavlich,” and since he is referring to TWO guys, he uses the dual case: “oba esvia” (оба есвѣ), instead of the normal plural “we are”, which would be “jesmu”.

      • Polish and Czech do similar weird stuff with numbers; it must be a Common Slavic thing. In Polish, I learned the phrase “dziecko ma rok, dwa lata, sześć lat” (“the child is one, two, six years old”) as a memory aid. And what makes it extra weird is that, when you get to 21, the whole cycle repeats! (“21 year”)

        Polish also does a weird thing where they use the genitive plural when referring to men *in a nominative sense* (“Dwóch panów są w mieszkaniu” – “Two men are in the apartment”). I have no idea where that comes from.

        Polish and Czech also have this crazy “plural for men” (e.g. “české knihy” [books] but “čeští vojaci” [soldiers]) – but I don’t want to scare anyone further, so I won’t describe it in detail.

        • Yalensis says

          Yeah, the “21 year” stuff is the same in Russian, although Russians say “god” instead of “rok”, but use same word in genitve plural (Russian = “let”, Polish =”lat'”, from the Common Slavic word for “summer” — “many summers ago…”) I think that’s a Common Slavic thing. On the other hand, Russian doesn’t have anything like the “Dwóch panów są w mieszkaniu” thing: In nominative case Russians would say “dva muzhika” (genitive singular, descended from Common Slavic dual). So, Poles say that for all substantives of the masculine gender? Or literally just the word for “men”?

          • Only for masculine personal nouns: men, soldiers, bureaucrats, etc. Not for inanimate masculine nouns.

            I was putting together data for a possible article on unnecessary complexity in language, and this “masc. personal” stuff was one example. You don’t need to mark this info, because we already know that we’re dealing with male human beings; no need to create a separate category for them. Ditto with the special form of the nom. plural that these take.

            • Yalensis says

              Come to think of it, Russian does do something analogous to that, distinguishing “animate” vs. “inanimate” masculine objects/beings in the accusative case. For example, you would say “ja vizhu stol” – “I see the table”, with masculine accusative null-ending; but “ja vizhu soldata” – “I see the soldier”, with masculine accusative a-ending. This rule would hold for any masculine animate being, a man, a bureaucrat, even a male animal (“ja vizhu psa” – “I see the dog” ) or imaginary creature like a ghost. But not a plant (sorry, plants, you’re simply not ALIVE enough!). Sometimes even native Russian speakers get confused if something is animate or not (“I see the paramecium?…”) Since this ridiculous feature is similar to Polish example, I am guessing is something that both languages inherited from Common Slavic. Is certainly not something that people would just coincidentally come up with on their own. (Like, sitting around campfire at night, “Okay, guys, how can we make our language even MORE complex than it already is… Wait, I just thought of something: animate vs. inanimate masculine objects!”)

  4. To me a page of traditional characters looks better than a page of simplified ones. Maybe it’s because of the higher density of strokes, maybe the shapes themselves are more elegant, I don’t know.

    I’ve invented mnemonically-useful stories, including some degenerate ones, to “explain” the shapes too. I guess most people do that.

    Zhongwen.com has mnemonically-useful etymologies of about 4,000 characters. It’s also available as a book, which I’ve had at home for some time now.

    Anki is another thing I’ve used a lot. It’s like flashcards, only smarter. If you’ve answered a card correctly several times in a row, you won’t see it again for months. If you keep failing a card, the program shows it to you more often. I’m afraid to put Anki’s URL here ’cause the commenting system will probably again take it for spam. But if you Google for Anki, it will be the top link.

    When I first got the idea to try to learn some Chinese, I was surprised by how many times more books and other learning materials there were for Japanese than for Chinese in English. Anki, for example, was created to help people memorize Japanese kanji, not Chinese characters, though one can use it for anything. This may change in the future, but Japanese culture is still considered cooler among both hipsters and geeks than Chinese culture. It would be interesting to quantify to what extent different languages overperform or underperform in popularity with respect to the economic strength of the populations that speak them. French, for example, has been outperforming France’s economic and political might for a long time. If you go into an American bookstore, the language with the second highest (after Spanish) number of dictionaries on sale will always be French, never German or Chinese. Chinese won’t even be in the top 5. A language’s actual percentage of all dictionaries, textbooks, etc printed minus the expected percentage based on the relevant countries’ share of global GDP equals the prestige of the culture in question? French culture has a lot of international prestige. One might have to correct a little for the difficulty of the languages in question of course.

    • language books don’t age much so they can still reprint the same books from 25 years ago. There is also not much international demand for culture in Mandarin while in Japanese you have the whole manga universe. It is also very recently that the Chinese economy became bigger than the Japanese.

      ps. There is also Wuxia but all the Hong Kong Kung Fu films were in Cantonese, not Mandarin

    • Thanks, I added your recommendations. I’ve downloaded the Anki program and will see what I can do with it.

      The greater popularity of Japanese has, IMO, mainly to do with the fact that 1) they’re a rich country already and 2) emerged as a big language by the 1980’s when US execs began flocking to learn it because it was perceived as having the secrets to management success. I think much the same process is beginning with China, although on a much larger and more sustainable scale; if and when it develops to its full potential, China will be ten times bigger than Japan (and much bigger than the US).

      And it helps Chinese is easier than Japanese, too.

      I think that French is so highly esteemed is due to (1) an attractive history, culture, culinary might, etc; (2) yes, has aristocratic connotations and allows one to show off; (3) the main rival, Spanish, is more popular, but is tainted by fact that Americans associate it with poverty of southern neighbors and immigrants; (4) what other languages are there to compete with it? German is hard and doesn’t sound nice to Anglophone ears (though it has managed to develop a “hip” reputation, along with Japanese); Russia is hard and language of commies and crooks; Portuguese – don’t all Latin Americans speak Spanish anyway? I’m guessing the thought process goes something like this.

      • It’s interesting this isn’t just the case for North America though. French is the second most taught second language in the world, just ahead of Spanish and way behind English. The teaching of French hasn’t really declined overall despite common French declinist rhetoric!

        I think the country is strangely well-positioned: It is the most immediate “Other” of both the United States and the United Kingdom, it is “the other” lingua franca of international organizations and of the European Union. And of course there is the history, culture, philosophy and literature… all mountains that many people have wanted to climb although I would say the country’s intellectual and political elites today aren’t living up to one tenth of its heritage.

      • French is also easy for English speakers as half the words are the same unlike Mandarin. And for an European perspective twice as many people speak French than Castilian in Europe as their mother tongue.

      • And it’s terrible to listen to a native French speaker who tries to express something in English 🙂
        But I want to add that German has the greatest number of native speakers in the European Union and is even known by more people in the European Union than French. However, our colonial empire seems to have been a failure, except in Namibia where there’s significant German settlement it didn’t catch on. On the other hand the Second French Empire is very clearly visible on a map of languages. Yes, French is a beautiful language derived from a great culture.

  5. It’s really quite amazing how well French has done, considering there’s only France, a few small Western countries (Quebec, Wallonia, parts of Switzerland) and impoverished African countries that speak it.

    • Not really. 200 years ago France was the dominant force in Europe when it had a bigger population than Germany and Russia combined. It has a film industry that sells internationally. France is still the lingua franca of food and wine and most importantly it has a serious snob appeal.

    • The total population of Francophone Africa is about a third of a billion people. Only about half of them actually speak French, mind — but that’s still a lot.

      Doug M.

      • Yalensis says

        From Wikipedia:
        “The official languages of the United Nations are the six languages that are used in UN meetings, and that all official UN documents are in. They are:

        Chinese (Mandarin)
        Spanish (Castilian)”

        Since French is an official UN language, that also gives it a lot of status.

        • grfomanka says

          Also to work for EU you typically need to speak French (which is why I’m learning it tho I would rather spend time learning Spanish).

  6. Much respect for daring to take on the behemoth that is Mandarin. I’m having trouble even with Russian, which I’m learning at the moment myself – mainly with verbs, since so many of them resemble one another and they are so long. The aspect deal doesn’t exactly facilitate things either. It’s such a fascinating language that I keep coming back to it time and time again, but I wish it was somewhat simpler (of course, my native language, Finnish, is anything but “simple” in itself too, but hey, I didn’t have to learn that one…).

    • Finnish is a fascinating language. I studied it for about 2 weeks some years ago, and still vaguely remember its structure. Is it possible for Finnish speakers to understand the Volga-Finnic languages spoken in Russia (Mari, Udmurt, Komi and so on)?

      • somefinnyeaisaiditafinn says

        No, unfortunately we can’t understand them (this obviously aside from sentences that have been intentionally put together using words shared by Finnish and Mari, for example, to prove the linguistic links). The languages you mentioned probably have more in common with Russian nowadays. The only exception is likely the dying Karelian language in the Republic of Karelia, assuming that we don’t consider it a remote dialect of Finnish (which I don’t think should be done). That one can be understood.

    • Many consider Finnish to be one of the hardest languages. From what I’ve seen of it I have to agree…

      Don’t worry too much about grammar. Unlike with English, its complexity means that even many well educated Russian natives continue making grammatical mistakes in speech and writing.

      On the plus side, rules are consistent (unlike with, say, English) and once you get the flow you’ll be able to easily understand virtually anyone from Russia thanks to how little influence dialects have (as opposed to, say, Chinese, or even French).

      • Russia is a language that spread out. French and Chines just declared that everybody spoke the same language in France and China even though Occidental or Cantonese isn’t French or Mandarin.

    • Yalensis says

      @finn: So, I take it Finnish doesn’t have “aspect” in verbs, like Russian. What does Finnish do with verbs? They say every language has a “catch”: if the nouns are easy, then the verbs are hard; or vice versa!

      • Verbs are quite easy in Finnish and are pretty much as regular as in Spanish, without fifteen million different tenses to use them in. The main difficulty in Finnish for foreigners is mainly that around 90% of the vocabulary will be completely alien, and the grammar is quite complex too – I’d say it is both easier and harder than Russian in certain aspects. There are no genders, but other kinds of dickery can spoil a language learner’s day (look up “consonant gradation” for one). There are also 15 cases (i.e. the final letter of a noun determines meaning, Russian has six) out of which around 12 are used in regular speech.

  7. Well since I’m the one who called you a “Sino-triumphalist” in the first place, I suppose I should ask just how far you intend to take this and what you aim to do with it. Being a linguist myself who has gone down some obscure paths (Czech, Lithuanian, Yiddish, etc.), I will never discourage anyone from studying a language…but I think if you tackle one of the big ideographic Asian languages, you’d better be *really* interested in it to justify all the effort and headaches involved.

    • In no particular order…

      (1) I comment quite a bit on China and don’t want to fall into Averkian ways of relying on “translation, acquired knowledge (of the subject matters), good contacts (to interact with) and a good intuition (on the involved topics).”

      (2) Future superpower! 25 Korea GDP’s by 2030!

      (3) Bound to have a lot of interesting debates and discussions. For instance, do any Western think-tanks or academics seriously discuss concepts such as opinion-poll based rule or Comprehensive National Power? It now has more think-tanks than the US and such questions are discussed there. Needless to say, some 1.3bn people in the throes of rapid social change will generate a lot of other interesting stuff.

      (4) It really isn’t that hard. Probably 75%+ of the difficulty is in the Hanzi, otherwise its simpler than most European languages.

      (5) If worst comes to worst and I don’t progress far, at least I will have reduced my chances of being featured on this website. 🙂

      • Yalensis says

        Even if you become an expert in Chinese writing, I would still advise against getting a tattoo! (People with tattoos have a harder time finding a regular job.)

  8. Zoroaster says

    “Hieroglyphs”? I don’t think that word means what you think it does.

  9. Added a bit about how Chinese, because of grammatical simplicity, sometimes feels like slang (e.g. ebonics) to speakers of more formalized languages such as English.

    • Yalensis says

      Hey, thanks for fixing my IMG tag, Anatoly! The point I was trying to make with that symbol/hieroglyph (still don’t know the difference) is that some linguists (namely, semoticians) do claim you could build a universal “written” language (independent of all spoken languages) based on hieroglyphic symbols. Based on universal semantic substantives like “person”, “fire”; and basic verbs like “run”, “walk”, etc. In other words, you could take Chinese system and work it out to the Nth degree, creating a universal written language. If such a thing could be invented, it would be a great boon to humanity; but personally I am skeptical that it is possible.

  10. Yalensis says

    On ebonics: I believe is a “dialect”, not a “slang”. English linguistics is not my specialty, but I have read a couple of books by (African)-American linguist John McWhorter, who specializes in English-language creoles and has written a lot about ebonics as well. He argues convincingly that “ebonics” is a fully-functional dialect, like Castilian Spanish, with its own phonology, morphology and syntax. Grammar is somewhat simplified from standard English, but not to the degree that would make it a pidgin. McWhorter also refutes the notion that it is a creole. Is not a creole, just a regular dialect. Also, the fact that this dialect happens to be a major source of modern urban slang words and expressions is what causes the confusion between dialect and slang.
    I am not black myself, so I don’t get a vote, but I would propose the term “Standard American Negro Dialect” (SAND). A good example of written SAND: the lyrics to the opera “Porgy and Bess”. One can also find many written examples in the works of American southern writers (or the works of Mark Twain), attempting to duplicate the speech of negro characters.
    The reason I do not like the term “ebonics”, it makes people laugh, because they confuse it with “jive talk”:

  11. Hey Anatoly, would you be so kind as to recommend any good (preferably online) resources you’ve come across to help learn Mandarin? I’m sure many of your readers would appreciate it. Thanks!

    • What I’ve mentioned in the post, plus:

      * Chinese Pod is widely considered to be the best online program for Mandarin learning. (No personal experience so can’t confirm).
      * If you can’t find Chinese people willing to converse with you in real life, a good idea may be to find them on Craiglist. The typical charge is $10 for a 1 hour conversation via Skype, but doing this once or twice a week is well worth it if you’re serious about developing your conversational skills.

  12. Hey,I am a Chinese person,I know English quite well and trying to study Japanese now.From my personal experience from contacting with these three languages,I can tell that Japanese is the hardest. Many people say Chinese is hard,but I don’t think so,maybe it is a little difficult to deal with the tones for people whose native language don’t have this feature.But once you get used to how it works,learning Chinese is really a piece of cake.Since Chinese is so grammatically simple,as long as you know the Chinese words and connect them in Subject–verb–object order,it will make sense,and you won’t be troubled by complicated change in verb form,because none of them is present in Chinese, add “了or 过,“ in the end of the sentence to tell the past tense or judge by the words of time.In addition,Chinese is also very logical,for example,电话 electric talker =telephone ,手机 hand machine=cellphone,电脑 electric brain=computer,牛肉 cow meet=beef ,猪肉 pig meat=pork,鸡 is chicken so 公鸡 male chicken=cock,母鸡 female chicken is hen,etc. So in many cases,all you need is to memorize the basic words,and all the others can be understood even you don’t learn them ’cause they are almost all composed by these basics and can be simply understandable by first sight.
    English is much difficult,’cause the limitless vocabulary (Chinese words are mostly composed by some basic words,and when a new concept appears,the basics can be put together to describe it,but in English,mostly a new word which has no connection with the already known words has to be create,thus the vocabulary of English is growing like limitless. And the complicated verb change is also a headache.
    Japanese is actually the most difficult of the three.Although Japanese borrowed many Chinese words,but it is a Subject-objective-verb language,you will always not know what happened untill the last word of a sentence has been said.Since Chinese words are not designed for Japanese,so when they adopt Chinese characters,they will tend to keep the meaning the same as in Chinese but give a Japanese sound,this causes that the same Chinese character in different Japanese words will pronounce differently,’cause they have already had their own sounds for different objects,but they are connected in meanings so when write in Chinese,these connections will be expressed.(just like 牛 is cow, but in 牛肉, beef is pronounced).Further more,Japanese has the verb forms changed in different tenses.So for a westerners, Japanese is both difficult to write and hard to handle the complicated grammar.

  13. Don’t forget to pick up either the Kangxi or Xinhua radical lists. That makes characters much easier; instead of reading them as whole characters or lists of strokes, you have standard decompositions and both radical lists provide enough coverage that you can cover 99% of characters, especially with simplified, with them and then just use stroke annotations.

    Also, if you’re serious about the characters, please don’t forget that reading and writing memory systems are separate things and you MUST practice the art of writing, but if you’ve picked up Skritter you must know that.