A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Chinese
You decide to learn a foreign language and mention to someone that you’d like that foreign language to be Chinese. Their reaction is the same as if you’d said “I’m going to build a rocket to the moon!” This makes you doubt your decision.
Why should I learn Chinese?
Let me set the record straight. There are many reasons why Chinese would be a great second language to learn. First, there are over a billion people in China now, and business is booming. It’s home to one of the world’s top trading companies and is an IT giant, responsible for major communication breakthroughs like predictive text. It’s also the most widely spoken, and one of the fastest growing languages, in the world.
Isn’t Chinese Difficult?
Aside from the business benefits, Chinese isn’t all that hard to learn. It has a reputation for being insanely difficult, but really, it isn’t. It has no genders, cases, tenses, or formal, honoring components, which we will explain below. It is a tonal language, but this isn’t terrible to pick up. There’s even a phonetic alphabet that will work until you feel confident enough to go for the traditional script. Basically, it’s a historically misunderstood language that deserves your attention.
So what’s the plan? Let’s look.
The Pinyin System
If you’ve listened to others who tell you that you need to learn 2,000 to 5,000 written characters to learn Chinese, you can take a breath. China developed an extremely simplified phonetic alphabet called “Pinyin” that will allow you to function in the written language until you get your feet under you.
Don’t approach this alphabet like English, however. It has its own sound systems and rules and you should spend some time learning it so that your pronunciation is correct and clear. Later, when you feel more confident, you can decide if you want to learn the true script and make your decision about traditional or simplified characters.
True Chinese writing is a character system with each character representing a word. There are two styles, traditional and simplified. Deciding between the two systems will depend on what your plans are for learning Chinese. If you’re working in Hong Kong, for example, you will want to focus on the traditional character system. If you plan to be on the mainland, simplified is the ideal choice for you.
It’s possible to learn both systems, but whatever you decide, stick with that system until you have a complete understanding of it.
The Four Tones
Most people focus on the tones of Chinese when proclaiming it the hardest language in the world, but this is a huge misconception. Chinese is actually a simple language system.
Firstly, there are 4 tones as well as an additional “toneless” or a neutral tone. These tones give words meaning. A word with a rising tone will have a different meaning than the same word said with a falling tone.
It’s not difficult to hear these tones with plenty of practice. We actually modulate our tones all the time to give meaning to collections of words, so you can learn this system, too. They are:
ma1 or mā (high level tone)
The tone of your voice if you started singing a pitch – “aaaaah.”
ma2 or má (rising tone)
The questioning tone of your voice – “Huh?”
ma3 or mǎ (falling and rising tone)
The tone of your voice when you say “meow.”
ma4 or mà (falling tone)
The ordering tone of your voice when you say “Stop!”
Once you get past the tones, the structure of Chinese is actually very simple. First, there are no tenses. Verbs themselves do not change for the past, present or future. Instead, Chinese uses a system of word markers to show time.
There are no genders. If you spent time learning any of the Romance Languages, such as Spanish, you will remember having to learn that nouns have masculine or feminine endings, and adjectives are changed to reflect these. In Chinese, everything is one form.
Chinese doesn’t have cases either. If you’ve spent time learning a language like German or Arabic, you’ve probably been frustrated having to change noun forms based on what purpose the noun serves in the sentence. English still preserves the case system in pronouns, for instance – “he” versus “him” versus “his”. This system is not used in Chinese.
Greetings and Requests
It doesn’t have the honoring grammar found in many other Asian languages. There is no need to learn different vocabulary and grammar constructs to talk to your boss and to talk to a friend.
China is an emerging world power with a booming economy and world leadership in the technology industry. Chinese is spoken by over 800 million people in China, and in other Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand, and Laos, among others.
Employers will take notice of someone who has put in the time to learn a supposedly “difficult” language, making you a standout candidate for a variety of jobs. You won’t have to tell them, however, that their ideas about Chinese have missed the mark. It can be our secret.