Learning Mandarin Chinese — The Five Things You Need To Know.
(Hi Everyone! I’m Monroe. I’m now going to help you start learning Chinese. Ready?!)
First, my credentials: I lived in Shanghai, China for one year, and studied about 20 hours of Chinese each week. I have since passed HSK4 which is the 4th highest out of 6 language tests offered by the Chinese government. Having passed HSK4, I can legally apply to Chinese universities and apply for official jobs at Chinese organizations. I am now studying for HSK5. Sound good?
Okay, let’s get started!
There are FIVE things you need to know about the Chinese language that will make everything a lot easier for you as you get started.
First: HANZI. The Chinese characters you see (like: 我 or 感) are called “Hanzi” (pronounced: Han (like Han Solo) and Zuh (like the Muh in Mother).
But how the heck did I type those characters on a computer?! Did I actually write the characters out? While I could have done that via the tools I have, there is actually a much easier method: pinyin.
Second: PINYIN. The ‘anglicized’ version of each hanzi is called “pinyin” (pronounced just like it looks). The pinyin for 我 is wo(3) and 感 is gan(3). (They mean ‘I’ and ‘feel’ respectively).
Since these are the anglicized versions, how do the real Chinese write the characters? Perhaps surprisingly, they do it in the exact same way: VIRTUALLY EVERY CHINESE PERSON IN MODERN CHINA USES PINYIN. They (and I) write the characters in our phones and computers using pinyin, then we choose the one we want, and voilà! It’s on the screen.
Do they still write the characters by hand? Yes, they do, and so do I, but that’s only when not using a computer or phone.
But wait, what are those numbers in parentheses after each pinyin anglicization up above? A-ha, good question. That’s the tone.
Third, THE TONES. Yes, there are indeed four tones (and a no-tone), but it’s no reason to worry. Why? Keep reading.
While true, having tones does mean that the same word can and often does have four (if not five) different meanings, and while yes, you must learn the tones to speak Chinese well, I do have some good news for you. And this is something very few teachers will tell you — it’s something I had to figure out on my own: LENGTH & CONTEXT ARE KING.
In other words, when learning most foreign languages, you are told to speak in short simple sentences so that you don’t confuse the listener with your bad pronunciation. However, in Chinese, precisely because of the tones, if you speak in short sentences, and use the wrong tone on a word, you are going to confuse your listener. For example, look at these two sentences. First do you notice the difference:
They are both written in hanzi, and they are exactly the same except for one minor (but significant) difference. Can you spot it?
Answer: the third hanzi is slightly different in each sentence.
You see, the first one says: Your mother is really big. The second one says: Your horse is really big. Potential for horrible confusion right? Not necessarily, if you use long sentences and context.
See, Mother is ma(1) — first tone. Horse is ma(3) — third tone. In this case, if you’re in a situation where you’re in front of a horse, but you mess up the tone, and say ‘mother’ [ma(1)] instead of ‘horse [ma(3)], context will probably make clear that you’re referring to a horse, and not to the person’s mother. And vice-versa. Right?
Well, usually right. Sometimes context alone won’t bring the clarity you seek. The solution, then, is to make your sentences longer.
For example, if you’re referring to someone’s mother, the Chinese usually add another 吗 after the first ma, for clarification. So instead of saying: “Is she your mother?” You would say, “Is she your mother mother?” It would look like this: 她是不是你的妈妈 ？ I know you don’t understand the characters, but look at the last two: they are the same, repeated twice.
My point is this: the tones are incredibly important. However, not having the tones 100% perfect when you’re starting out is not a big deal at all.
The great news is that if you simply speak in longer and more detailed sentences… the context will almost always override your mispronunciation. So believe it or not, in Chinese, as a beginner, the MORE you say THE BETTER!
In Chinese, to say I’m hungry, it’s simple: 我很俄。 However, whenever I said that in Chinese while living in China, for some reason, Chinese people had no idea what I was saying, even though I was in a restaurant. So what did I do? I made the sentence longer, adding just two characters: 肚子 and thus creating a longer sentence 我肚子很饿。Translation: my stomach is very hungry. And believe it or not, I have never been misunderstood on that particular phrase since.
But what about all these characters? Why can’t they just have an alphabet?
Fourth: THE CHINESE ALPHABET: Great news! Chinese does have an alphabet. Ready for the punchline? There just happen to be thousands and thousands of letters, haha!
Actually, in all seriousness, there are no letters. Just thousands of little symbols that have individual meanings. Sounds impossibly daunting, right? How are you ever going to learn to interpret symbols?!
Guess what: you already do.
See the “?” and the “!” that I just used in the paragraphs above? You knew exactly what they meant, right? That’s all Chinese is. Symbols with meanings. The ! means “surprise/excitement” and the ? means “question”.
Well, 你 means “you” and 因为 means “because”. And you will learn them, slowly, one by one. You’re not going to learn them all in a day. One by one, and before you know it, you start to see patterns, and realize that the Chinese characters all have a lot in common, and — whoah — they are easy to read and write! Wait, write?
Fifth: WRITING. Yes, you need to learn to write.
Many teachers don’t agree, and think it’s too difficult to teach real writing (yes, with a pen!). Many students also shy away, either through fear, or because they believe in this digital age, it’s simply unnecessary.
I disagree on all counts: it’s not hard, there’s nothing to fear, and if you can’t write with a pen, you are — ta da — illiterate. What happens if you don’t have a phone, or the battery is dead — are you really going to write in pinyin? First, it’s lame. Second, pinyin is not Chinese. Third, what if the person you are writing to doesn’t know pinyin? I know up above I said that everyone can read and use pinyin. It’s not true. There are many (particularly the older generation, but even among the millennials) who write on their phones by drawing the actual characters — they don’t know pinyin at all.
The most important reason to learn to write, however, is that it forces you to truly learn the characters, stroke by stroke. And this makes is far easier to read them when you see them because you’ve dissected each one, stroke by stroke.
Oh, and when you whip out your pen and start writing in Chinese, you will see jaws drop. I’m not just talking about your non-Chinese friends’ jaws — I’m talking about the Chinese too. They will be blown away.
CONCLUSION: So those are the first five things you need to know about learning Chinese.
Even if you don’t live in China, I gotta say, being able to talk exclusively in Chinese when I got to the local Chinese restaurants here in NY is worth its weight in gold. And the looks I get from the other patrons — oh man, they think I’m some superhero celebrity.
So have I convinced you yet? Ready to get started? 你准备好了吗？
If so, check out my Chinese (and other) tutoring services: www.wyzant.com/tutors/unstoppable
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If you mention this blog, and that you want to study Chinese with me, I will drop my rate CONSIDERABLY just for you. :D