It is fair to say that learning Chinese is not for the faint hearted. For the average English speaker especially, the mere thought of delving into the world of Chinese can spark fear. Also, much like Thai, even just looking at the language and characters can be cause for concern.
However, it is not impossible to learn Chinese. Every year, thousands of new students begin their journey of learning the language, with thousands more passing the HSK tests. So, while it may be difficult, learning Chinese is possible and can help improve your employability while opening up the ability to speak with more than a billion people worldwide. To help you on your way, these are some tips that can help you on your way to learn the language.
While these tips may well be applicable for Chinese as a whole, Mandarin Chinese will be the focus, as opposed to other dialects or languages such as Cantonese. Mandarin is by far the most popular dialect and so should be the focus for most peoples’ study.
Remember the Stroke Order
Perhaps surprising for some, characters in Chinese are written in a specific stroke order. As the name suggests, stroke order is the standardized order in which the lines or strokes that make up characters are drawn/ written. There are 8 types of strokes that can make up a character, with a descending order in which they should be written. The basic overview of stroke order is that you should write from top to bottom and left to right. There are other rules and stipulations that should be followed, but that is something that you will need to read into.
It is worth mentioning here that there is a distinction between the Simple Chinese writing system, used in Mainland China and Singapore, as opposed to the Traditional Chinese writing system, used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, among others. While the stroke order applies to both styles, the simplified style is a much easier system to learn as a whole as the number of strokes for many traditionally complex characters are reduced.
While it may seem arbitrary at first, learning this system can aid memory of characters and is just overall an important step in learning how to write in Chinese.
Using the Tones
Chinese is a tonal language, and so the way characters are pronounced affects their overall meaning. Standard Chinese use 4 different tones along with a neutral tone. These include rising, falling, fall-rise, and high tones. The tone used can substantially change the meaning and can be the difference between mom (mā 妈) and horse (mǎ 马), so it is worth treading lightly and focusing on tones from the beginning.
Listening to Chinese conversations is a good way to hear how the tones flow together in a sentence, while reading aloud is a good way to practise and train your voice to differentiate each tone.
What About the Particles?
There is one character you will see and hear a lot and, unfortunately, it doesn’t really translate into English particularly well. The character 了 or ‘le’ has many distinct functions in a sentence. Some of the functions are more complicated than others. The first use is for emphasis when following an adjective. The next use is to demote a change of state. Similar to before, it sort of emphasizes the change and makes it more of a focus in the sentence. The third use is as an aspect marker. It is used to say that an action was completed in the contextual timeframe. Finally, the fourth use is to complement a verb and signify the successfulness of an action. This is just a quick look over its meanings, and to truly grasp what it means, you will need to look deeper in to Chinese grammar as a whole.
This is perhaps one of the more complicated parts of learning Chinese, but it shouldn’t take too long to get your head around, especially if you look at different examples of how it is used.
Watch Out for Regional Variation
China is a massive country – the third largest in the world by some measures. The population is also the biggest on Earth. Therefore, it is understandable that the culture, cuisine and, most importantly, language can vary greatly with many regional variations. The ‘standard’ language is based on the dialect spoken in the capital Beijing (北京). Between each region and city, there are likely going to be some differences in pronunciation of some words. However, with vast migrations from the countryside all over the country into the cities, you will likely come across a number of different dialects even within the same area of a city.
Understanding these differences can be useful when moving around the country and when learning the language. There is nothing worse than thinking you know the language quite well but end up facing a different dialect and accent that sounds almost completely different.
Take Your Time
It is easy to become disheartened when things do not progress as quickly as you had hoped. Unfortunately, learning a language doesn’t happen overnight. With Chinese in particular, it is necessary to learn a whole new alphabet of characters, so things can seem to drag on as you mess up tones or forget the stroke order. However, with almost 200 million second language speakers, you can rest assured that the language is in fact learnable. Time and dedication will be the best bet for mastering the language.
Chinese is seen as the epitome of difficult languages to learn but, underneath the intricate calligraphy and beyond the tones and characters , it is very similar to any other language.
With China’s growing prominence in the world’s cultural and economic stage, understanding Chinese is becoming a more and more sought after skill. Not only does it unlock the potential to speak to around 1.4 billion people, it also opens the opportunity to gain more insight into the history and the culture of one of the oldest countries in the world.
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