Hello all – this is Matt signing in. Perhaps, like me, you’re beginning a new semester studying Chinese, or else you’re wondering whether or not you should start. That’s the easy part- go for it! Whether you’re living and working in China or are planning to do so at some point, learning Chinese will give you an invaluable window into this maddening, beguiling, enormous, and amazing country.

So, let’s say you’ve decided to learn the language. Great! But before you begin (or even if you already have), I’d like to impart a few suggestions on top of what Tam recently contributed. In particular, here are a few pointers in the form of fallacies that you should avoid if you want to study Chinese successfully. These fallacies I know well for one reason only: I used to follow them all myself.

1. I don’t need to learn how to read and write- I just want to learn how to speak.

Most of us figured out pretty early on that in Chinese, the oral and written languages are somewhat separate. We also reason that because Chinese characters seem impossible to learn, it would make sense to tackle the oral language first and then worry about characters later, if at all. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Alas, it isn’t really true. Chinese characters really aren’t that hard to learn (those eight year olds who shout “hello!” to you on the street all can read) and come quickly provided you practice enough. Also, what you don’t know when you begin studying is how the oral and written languages intersect, and how a basic understanding of Chinese characters enables you to remember words far easier than if you relied solely on memory or pinyin.

If you’re starting school and are worried about your Japanese and Korean classmates being light years ahead of you with characters, don’t worry – you will catch up much faster than you realized provided you do your homework!

In any case – learn characters, even if you think they’re impossible. You might find, as I did, that they’re actually quite a bit of fun.

2. Tones aren’t important- I just need to get words in the right context

Tones, dreaded tones. Not only are you asked to remember new words that have no relation whatsoever to English, you also have to remember their tones! For new students, tones are a major hassle and most try to pretend that they don’t exist. After all, every day you hear Chinese people babbling away at warp speed and they don’t seem to be using tones! If they don’t need them, why do we have to learn them?

First, no languages (except Henry Kissingerian) are atonal. If you tried asking the cute girl or guy in your class out for a date in toneless English, you’ll get (at best) a blank stare. As we know, the same word spoken with a different tone of voice can have a completely different meaning. Think of the word “right”, for example. Depending on how it’s spoken, it can mean either “correct” or “you’re pulling my leg”.

In Chinese, tones have the challenging feature of changing the entire meaning of a word. Get the tones wrong, and you’ll be saying something completely different from what you intended. Most Chinese people are clever enough to figure out what you mean based on context, but confusion still happens. If your goal is to learn Chinese, then why not try to speak the language correctly? After all, in Chinese the same sounds spoken in different tones are regarded as unique words, and screwing them up means you’re not communicating nearly as effectively as you’d like.

Rather than trying to devise complicated methods of avoiding tones, learning them actually is much easier than you think, and after awhile saying a word with the correct tones becomes second nature.

3. I just need to learn how to identify #### characters- then I can read a newspaper.

For some reason, a lot of people believe that if you can master a certain number of characters (a few thousand or so) then you’ll be able to get the gist of a typical article in a Chinese newspaper. This, alas, is a myth. Granted, if you do know several thousand characters, you’ll probably be able to read quite a lot- but that’s putting the cart in front of the horse. Let me explain.

Most Chinese words are made up of combinations of two or more individual characters, characters that have meaning in and of themselves. For example, you might know that the word 机 means something like “machine” and that 会 has to do with “ability”, but you still might not know (unless you’re a genius with lateral thinking) that 机会 means “opportunity”. There are countless other examples of whole phrases or sentences comprised of simple characters that are nonetheless somewhat difficult to understand entirely.

The Chinese language is pretty logical, but learning characters in isolation won’t do the trick. So while you might be looking forward to boasting about how many characters you know (as if you could ever be sure in the first place), forget about it. It’s the words that matter, not the characters.

To sum up my advice in a few pithy words, shortcuts don’t work. I’ve found that only by studying the language very methodically am I able to retain what I have learned, and while writing the same character fifty times in your notebook or reading the same sentence aloud over and over might be tedious, it really does pay off in the long run. Good luck!

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. So nice to find a fellow myth-buster out there. Great stuff on all three counts. If I might add:

    1. I finally gave up my character-avoidance too, mostly cuz it’s just not practical to be illiterate, no matter how well you speak. But don’t you think it helps a helluva lot to be able to speak reasonably well before you tackle characters? I tried characters before I knew much of the language and failed miserably. Now many years later, I’ve begun trying to read again. I find it to be a thousand times easier.

    2. A lot of the “they might think you said fart” or whatever stories are overblown, but the “blank stare” problem is spot on.

    3. Oh I love the “you just need X characters” line. Complete crock. Of course you gotta know’em, but reading is mostly about vocab and grammar.

    You might find, as I did, that they’re actually quite a bit of fun.

    Hmm, I might be going down to India this weekend for an illegal kidney sale. I don’t really need the money but I’ve heard it’s quite a bit of fun.

  2. Great tips Matt, and agree on all counts.

    Your advice about sticking with it and studying your ass off to catch up to the Koreans and Japanese in the class is sound. I wish I had had the fortitude to do so.

    @SYZ: I think anything is easier once you’ve been immersed in it (even passively) for any amount of time. I do agree though that having some sort of spoken foundation will speed things along when it comes to writing. Is why we learn to speak before we learn to write, no?

  3. Welcome Matt.

    I still here people saying that tones don’t matter, but I really don’t think they’ve ever actually spoken Chinese to a Chinese person!

    Also, I too came here with the “speaking” not “reading/writing” idea and soon figured it was actually counter-productive.

    Likewise, the sooner you dare to leave pinyin behind the better I think.

  4. Dead on! The “tones don’t matter” attitude is the difference between someone who’s studied Chinese and someone who can speak Chinese with Chinese people. Sort of the laowai version of “my spoken english very poor”. (But I’m NOT implying that I can make the tones very successfully myself.)

  5. Thanks everyone! Syz- you’re right that having a background in spoken Chinese- even a slight one- makes learning characters much easier. In this sense, people who start learning Chinese only after they’ve been living here a bit (like me) have a certain advantage over people who throw themselves into the written language immediately. Then again, it’s never too early to start learning characters I’d say.

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  8. Points one and two are completely spot on. I have a small caveat concerning point three. Nothing to do the fact that know X number of characters does not necessarily mean you can read the newspaper, but with the bit about characters in isolation. I started off in classes learning the two or more character combos (words), but it was a little frustrating only knowing a character in the context of a word I knew. I’ve since started studying singular meanings for characters and I find it a lot easier to remember words if I know what each of the characters mean. Knowing 机 and 会 separately and then learning 机会 gives me one of those “oooh…now I get it” feelings.

    Words are still essential, but I’m just saying that learning the meanings of characters by themselves isn’t necessarily a waste of time.

  9. @Scoff: I love that “oooh… now I get it” feeling. I agree, and also find that knowing singular characters in their own context helps me remember them when they are in multi-character words as well.

    An example of this from my own (limited) learning was 重要(zhòngyào). I knew the characters separately at first, and then when I saw them together meaning “important” (lit. “heavy” “want”) … the “ah!” moment was one I wont forget.

    I think that’s the best part about learning Chinese, it’s like a bit of a jigsaw puzzle and when the pieces fit together, it’s a cool feeling.

  10. I’ve found an excellent site for Chinese learning – online dictionary

    There’re a lot of features for Chinese learners, like audio pronunciation, flashcards, pinyin assistance and so forth.

    Well, what i like most is the handwriting recognition, amazing! You can draw the Chinese character when you don’t know how to input it.

  11. nciku seems to be pimping themselves across the Web. Not that it’s not unfounded – the site is pretty slick – I just get itchy when my sites get hit with borderline spam.

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