Guest post by Adam Menon
We’ve all heard that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Many Westerners spend years living in Chinese-speaking communities without being able to pick up any more than a few basic phrases.
And who can blame them when you look at all the time and energy required to learn Chinese?
First, there’s the tones. It’s bad enough that you have to remember a word in Chinese; you also have to remember what tone that word uses — otherwise your pronunciation will be unintelligible.
Then there are the thousands of characters that have to be learned. In order to learn to write a character, you have to painstakingly spend hours developing the muscle memory required to remember it. And don’t forget to use the correct stroke order when doing so!
Is all this trouble really worth it? Surely the time and effort required to learn Chinese could be better spent developing your business. Just hire a translator!
However, the reward for those who make the effort to learn Chinese are certainly very great. Being able to speak the language of your clients can go a long way towards making them feel at ease. This ease can lead to trust, which is crucial in earning their business. Speaking their language lets you become one of them, rather than an outsider.
The good news is that you can take the gargantuan task of learning Chinese and break it up into four distinct sections that can be learned separately. This way you can choose to learn just the basics first and then build off of them.
Like any language, you can separate the task of learning Chinese into the four distinct skills:
Unlike other languages that share similar scripts or tonalities with English, there is a distinct skill set required to master each of these components in Chinese.
A great way to help you understand what you’re hearing in Chinese is to learn pinyin, which translates Chinese into words you can read by using the English alphabet. There’s a bit of a learning curve here as some words like xi, cuo, hen, ren can have different pronunciations than what you might immediately expect.
Fortunately, the pronunciation of most words in pinyin are somewhat more intuitive, so once you master the ones that aren’t, you can begin transcribing what you hear into a legible form.
If you want to be able to speak Chinese that others will actually understand, then you’ll need to master the tones. A word like “ma” can be said in five different ways with five completely different meanings. You’ll need to make sure you’re using the right tone to avoid communicating a wrong (and potentially embarrassing) meaning.
Fortunately, pinyin makes use of tone marks above words to indicate which tone should be used when pronouncing the word — ma can be separated into mā, má, mǎ, mà and ma.
The trick, when learning a new word, is to remember the tone as part of the sound. So instead of trying to remember “ma with the third tone,” just remember it as you hear it: mǎ.
By just focusing on pinyin and tone marks, it’s possible to become functionally fluent in Chinese, which is enough give you a significant advantage over other westerners who didn’t bother to come this far.
You’ve also now eliminated some of the biggest headache when it comes to learning this language — the characters.
Should you feel adventurous and actually want to take your Chinese fluency to the next level, it is possible to separate the arduous task of learning Characters into reading and writing, which require completely different skill sets.
Firstly, you could choose to forego writing altogether and just focus on reading. From the thousands of characters out there, you only need to learn about 3000 of them to get to 99% literacy. Some characters even use combinations of other characters; for example, a tree is 木 and a forest is 林.
It’s simpler to recognize the meaning of a character by just looking at it, versus learning the skills to be able to reproduce it on your own through writing. In this way, you might know that 林 means “forest” even though you couldn’t write it out on your own.
The other good news is that by focusing on learning to recognize characters and the associated pinyin for them, you automatically gain the skills needed to type them out. Simply use a pinyin input method editor (IME) on your computer or mobile device to type out a character and then select from the character choices given to you.
The final level of difficulty (should you wish to approach it) is to learn to actually write out characters on your own. In addition to recognizing the characters that you see, you’ll now need to learn the actual strokes and stroke order to reproduce them on your own.
Fortunately, there is a set of stroke order rules that you’ll need to master that makes it easier to know which stroke to write first and to reproduce any given character the way it should be written.
By understanding the skills required for these tasks, you can take the initial, daunting task of “learning Chinese” and break it down into separate, manageable components. By figuring out your own personal language goals and why you want to learn Chinese, you can skip the skills you don’t need, thereby taking the path of least resistance to achieve your aim.
Adam Menon is a Canadian entrepreneur currently living in Taiwan. He has run a host of businesses there in the last 10 years, most recently at work developing online courses to teach Mandarin Chinese and Chinese characters. His recent companies include www.ChineseLearnOnline.com and www.ReadTypeChinese.com.