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!