China babyInnovative new apps can help break the cycle of expat illiteracy in China

By Aaron Posehn

Most people think that learning Chinese is hard, and they’ll probably also tell you that learning to write Chinese characters is even harder. But whether or not this is true, as an expatriate in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong (and even Singapore), not having a firm grasp on how to speak and write the language often does more harm than good.

If you’ve ever been to China, even for just a short business trip or vacation, you might have noticed that many foreigners there cannot speak the local language, this usually being Mandarin.

This is analogous to any number of foreign visitors coming to your country and just disregarding the local language because they simply don’t have to learn it. After all, if you move to the right places, this is definitely doable, but you end up greatly limiting yourself with what you can do and with whom you can interact. It creates “pods” of people, or little societies that can be difficult to break into or out of. It also limits communication and opportunities.

Take, for example, the expat manager in China who negotiates wholesale prices with several factories. Not having a good grasp of the language severely limits his ability to “function as a Chinese person.” Of course, he would never be completely treated or seen as a local anyway, but the point is that at least his understanding of what’s going on would be drastically increased. It’s very limiting to only hear the (translated) conclusion of a meeting simply because you couldn’t understand the discussion that was held up until that point.

Similarly, even if you’re only in China to teach English short term, not knowing how to speak the language (at least a bit) or how to recognize the script can still restrain you from fully experiencing the country and its people.

Of course, many foreigners don’t feel the need to interact in a profound and personal way with locals; staying somewhere short-term seems to have a certain way of decreasing your responsibility towards everything, with just a focus on having continuous fun all the time (this seems to be a world-wide phenomenon though, as I have also seen many people from other countries acting the same way here in Canada when they come to study or work for, say, less than a year).

This isn’t a moral judgement in any way, as I have acted like this abroad, and if you’ve traveled significantly I’m sure you have too. But it is an observation that by only experiencing a foreign country together with people like yourself and who speak your language, you often limit the experience that (hopefully) made you want to go there in the first place.

Sure, you can get by in China without speaking Mandarin, as many people do, but asking for directions has never been so difficult to do with a person who doesn’t speak English. You can point and gesture, but do you really want to do that more than once or twice? Granted, you might know Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong like the back of your hand by this point, but what about when you visit another city? Are you satisfied with gestures yet again?

Writing Chinese characters is an equally valuable skill to have. No one will say that it’s an easy thing to learn, but it’s also not such a huge feat as to be unattainable. Most of the difficulty simply comes from people’s unwillingness to try, automatically labeling such a skill as too hard or too boring to attain.

But the payoff is immense! Not only can you read everything around you, but you can now navigate your surroundings by yourself and understand hazards (as well as non-hazards, like where to buy ice-cream on a hot day!). I can’t tell you how many times being able to read a menu has allowed me to order what I wanted right away, not needing to guess at what’s in the dish (just ask the waitress in Chinese if you’re still not sure), or even what the dish is supposed to be in the first place.

Luckily, there are many tools are your disposal these days that can help you to learn Mandarin and Chinese characters, some of the most popular ones being ChinesePod, Skritter, and Popup Chinese, as well as the Pleco and Nciku dictionaries.

However, another good new app by Aaron Edrupt, called nommoc, has recently been released to assist you with the struggle that is learning Chinese characters. It is essentially a listing of 7000 characters, divided up into the 2500 most commonly used, 1000 less commonly used, and an additional 3500 more general use characters that are even less common.

This choice of division is interesting as it helps to limit your frustration by not giving you nommoc2everything at once, instead letting you choose which types of characters you want to learn first. The other reward is that by learning just the first 2500, you’ll know 98% of the characters needed for use in daily life (they’re that repetitive, so lucky for you!).

It’s also worth mentioning that not every character is truly unique in its form, as I described in my ChinEASE eBook published earlier this year. Just as all English words are made up of only 26 letters, most complex Chinese characters are also just made up of a small amount of simpler “base” characters (about 200). This cuts down the supposed complexity even further.

After downloading nommoc to your iPhone or iPad, you work on the characters one at a time. Each screen is dedicated to a single character, where you’ll find the pronunciation, the meaning in English, other words containing that character, and an animation for how to properly write it. Below all this is also a large space for you to practice the character for yourself until you get it right. After that, simply swipe the screen and go on to the next character in the list for as long as you want.

So try it for yourself. Although learning Chinese isn’t a simple walk in the park, it also isn’t impossible to learn, and learn well. It may take a while, but sticking with it and understanding the very benefits of increased communication, better business relationships, and ease of movement will hopefully be enough to help get you started.
Aaron Posehn graduated of the University of British Columbia majoring in Asian Area Studies and specializing in China, Taiwan, and India. A frequent blogger on China-related topics, he is also the author of “chinEASE,” an eBook that teaches beginners how to easily learn Chinese characters.