Friday, April 18, 2008

How to Read and Write in Chinese

Definitely not the easiest of languages to learn, for us westerners, but Chinese is becoming an increasingly influential language member on the international stage, so whether we like it or not, we’re pretty much forced to take a look at it. True, not everyone needs to learn Chinese for business purposes for example, but there are people that are fascinated with the Chinese culture and would like to learn how to read and write in Chinese. Others simply want to take up on a hard language to test their skill, or to prove themselves true polyglots (some linguists say that you’re not a true polyglot, unless you learn a language that’s completely different from yours – as is the case with Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and so forth, for us westerners).

Actually, the US State Department made a survey and ranked language by difficulty and as it turns out, Chinese (its Mandarin branch actually) is the toughest language to learn for an English-speaker, on a list of over 100 languages. So if you’re really set on learning this language, know from start that it won’t be easy.

One of the problems in learning Chinese is obviously, its system of characters. This is sometimes wrongfully filed as an alphabet. Chinese characters don’t form an alphabet, instead each word has its own specific character, made up of straight, curved and jagged lines and dots. There are over 50,000 of these characters, so you have a titan’s work ahead of you.

One of the worst problems we face when learning Chinese symbols is that we try to memorize each word by hard, which is a rather silly and unproductive tactic. When we grew up as kids, no one forcefully made us learn all the words in our vocabulary, we assimilated most of these words naturally, taking them out of their content. This is how you should learn how to interpret Chinese characters, because they’re not just random patterns of lines and dots, they’re actually very carefully constructed and the symbols can be understood from the context after a while.
Sure, some symbols are very similar and you may have problems confusing them for one another, which is where practice kicks in. No real way to go around this problem, other than sheer practice, or carrying around a character dictionary with you all the time. It’s also understandably a good idea to start off with characters that are written in a clean, clear fashion, so as not to spur any additional confusion.

Writing the Chinese vocabulary symbols should not be taken for granted, even if you are somewhat skilled in deciphering them. It takes a steady hand and again, a lot of practice to get all characters right, much like it took you to learn how to write alphabetical symbols as a kid (of course, you only had to learn 35ish characters, not 50,000). Good luck, you’ll need it :)

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