Learning to speak and write the chinese language


Instead of simply learning twenty-six letters as in the English alphabet, how would you like to memorize thousands of picture like characters? 

How would you like to write a letter, not by typing at speeds of fifty to eighty words per minute, but by laboriously drawing each character by hand? 

This is part of learning Chinese, both written and spoken.

Chinese is reputedly one of the oldest languages in the world, and perhaps the most difficult. 

The difficulty lies mainly in the fact that the Chinese language does not have an alphabet. Instead, it has thousands of different characters. 

While a standard dictionary for high school students may contain only about 10,000 characters, a comprehensive dictionary contains over 40,000. 

However, it is generally estimated that if a person knows from 3,000 to 4,000 characters, he should do reasonably well in reading publications of general interest.

Characters are the basic units or symbols of the written language and are all monosyllabic. 

While each has its own meaning, two or more characters may be combined to form new words. 

For example, the character “ren”  by itself means “a human”; when combined with the character “min” , the resulting word “ren min” means people of a country.

 “Ren” can also be combined with two other characters “jiann”  and “jeng” to form the word “jiann jeng ren” , meaning a witness. 

In the language spoken today, usually two or three separate characters are required to denote a single concept or term.

Most Chinese characters are made up of (1) the radical, which often provides a hint to the meaning, and (2) the phonetic, which gives a key to pronunciation. 

For example, the “heart” radical  or  is found in characters that express thoughts, emotions, personal characteristics and the like. 

There are 214 radicals listed in most dictionaries, while the number of phonetics varies according to the preference of the individual scholar. 

Though such phonetics originally were used to indicate the pronunciation of the word, owing to changes in pronunciation over the years, these are no longer reliable. 

Thus you may find that two characters with the same phonetic part have no similarity at all in their pronunciation nowadays.

Writing Chinese


You may very well have seen Chinese writings somewhere, perhaps on signs outside a Chinese shop or Chinese product.

A Chinese food restaurant sign.


To you, they may look like some weird drawings. As a matter of fact, a number of characters were originally drawings or pictographs of things they represent, although today the resemblance cannot be seen. 

For example, the word for sun  is a rectangle with a stroke across the middle [ ]. The majority of the characters are formed by combining a radical with a phonetic.

When you examine the Chinese characters, you may notice that they are made up of different strokes. 

According to W. Simon in his book How to Study and Write Chinese Characters, there are at least fifteen different strokes. 

The number of strokes in a character can be as few as one to as many as thirty-five or more.

Speaking Chinese


Foreigners learning to speak Chinese often have trouble with the so-called tones, which are inflections of the voice, serving the purpose of distinguishing one word from another.

In the national language of China, called Mandarin, there are four tones, namely, the upper even, lower even, rising, departing, though some authorities add a fifth, the entering. 

But in Cantonese, a dialect spoken in Canton and Hong Kong, there are nine tones. 

The difference between one tone and another is usually very small and difficult for foreign students to distinguish. 

However, the slight difference in pronunciation sometimes can mean a world of difference in meaning. 

For example, in Mandarin the word for “lord” is “chu3,” while the word for “pig” is “chu1.” 

So when a foreigner wants to say “tien chu3” (heavenly lord, the term Chinese Catholics use to refer to God), if he is not sure of the right tone, he can easily say “tien chu1” and refer to a heavenly pig instead, much to the puzzlement or amusement of the Chinese listener. 

Understandably, a foreigner learning the language must keep his sense of humor to avoid discouragement.

This peculiarity of the Chinese language—a great number of words having very similar or identical pronunciation—makes it very difficult for foreigners to master. 

For example, in Mandarin there are 69 words pronounced as i (short), 7 of which are in tone 1 (upper even), 17 in tone 2 (lower even), 7 in tone 3 (rising) and 38 in tone 4 (departing). 

While in English two different words with identical pronunciation, such as dear and deer, are exceptions, in Chinese they are extremely common. 

So when listening to Chinese being spoken, one has to rely heavily on the context to decide the meaning of the words used.

As expected in a big country like China, there are scores of dialects spoken by the people in different parts of the country. 

In some parts of the country, especially in the south, a traveler may come across different dialects in villages only a few miles apart. 

Sometimes even people of neighboring villages may have difficulty in understanding one another. 

Some dialects are similar to one another, such as the ones spoken in northern China, while others do not even sound remotely similar, such as the Cantonese dialect and the Shanghai dialect. 

These two dialects are completely different not only in their vocabulary, but also in the pronunciation of various characters used in the written language. 

Also, some dialect words are only spoken but have no written form. Indeed, but for the written language, people from different parts of China would have serious difficulty in understanding one another. 

Fortunately and amazingly, although the Chinese speak many widely different dialects, they all read one common language, the written Mandarin. 

With the exception of the Mandarin-speaking persons, all Chinese speak one way and write another way. 

But if two Chinese cannot speak with each other understandably, they can at least communicate in writing.

Learning Chinese


It would be easy to learn Chinese if it were merely a matter of acquiring a new set of words that could be used in the same manner as your mother tongue. 

But this is not the case. Often a person must learn a grammar and a way of thinking that are completely foreign to your native speech.

So to be conversant in the Chinese language requires even more than knowing sentence structure and being able to think in that language. 

Pronunciation, rhythm and intonation vary from language to language.

The person who wants to learn the Chinese language should, therefore, be willing to work hard at it.

If this is your desire, what can you do?

(1.) Find a good Chinese teacher in reputable intuition or through Chinese online lesson services.



(2.) Study the grammar. Read the language as often as you reasonably can.

(3.) Try to determine the meaning of what you read from its context. Check your conclusions against a Chinese dictionary.

(4.) Try as much as possible associate with people who know the Chinese language well, and use at every opportunity what you have learned.

(5.)
Let those who really know the language correct you so that serious mispronunciations and grammatical errors do not become an ingrained part of your speech.

Although a difficult task, learning the Chinese language can be a rich and rewarding experience. It broadens one’s understanding of the Chinese people and their way of thinking.

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