China takes its place as a major player on the world stage, there is an
increasing need for people from the West to learn Chinese. Many are put off,
however, by perceived difficulties arising because Chinese languages are tonal
and because of the writing system. No one can deny that Chinese is one of the
more difficult languages to master but that should not put you off.
Mandarin, or Putonghua (common language) as it is sometimes called, is China’s national language. Nowadays, it is widely understood throughout the country although older people, particularly in remote areas, may not actually speak it. Many parts of China still have their own mutually unintelligible spoken dialects. Guangdong Province, for example, is home to Yue (Cantonese), which is spoken in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and also local dialects such as Kejia hua (Hakka), Minnan hua and Chaozhou hua. But we digress; Mandarin is the language of government and business and is the one to learn.
Let’s first have a look at Mandarin pronunciation. Chinese languages are tonal; the same basic pronunciation enunciated in a different tone gives a completely different word. Mandarin has four basic tones numbered one through four – high level, high rising, low rising and falling. There is also a neutral tone. Non-Chinese often have difficulty with tones but meaning can usually be determined from context.
With European languages a look at the word will give some idea of how it is pronounced but Chinese characters give no clue (at least to the uninitiated). Fortunately, to help us there are systems of Romanization available, the two main ones being Wade-Giles and Pinyin. Wade-Giles is an old, fairly complicated looking system that nowadays has largely been superseded by Pinyin, the system used in China and that by which personal and geographical names are now rendered into English.
Pinyin is quite simple to learn and there are very few sounds that are foreign to the ear of the non-Chinese speaker. For the learner, Pinyin also has tone marks so that not only the sound but also the tone of the particular word can be identified. It might seem complicated but the whole system was designed to make learning Mandarin as simple as possible and, in fact, works very well.
Once the beginner is familiar with these basics, then spoken Chinese becomes a matter of practice and is just like learning any other language. There is one aspect of Mandarin, however, that makes it simpler to learn than European languages – its grammar is very basic. There are no complex verb conjugations or grammatical structures. And Chinese is very ordered; events in a sentence are normally presented in the order in which they occurred. Locations, too, are described in descending order of size so that, when giving their address, for example, the Chinese will first give their Province, followed by County, town, street and, finally, street number.
With a good teacher and a reasonable amount of effort, the learner should be able to speak and understand some basic Mandarin in a few weeks. But don’t expect miracles. Many is the learner of any language who has attempted to converse with a native speaker only to find that he is not understood or that he has no clue what the native speaker is talking about. Persevere – it will come. To make you feel better, it is worth realising that even Chinese sometimes have difficulty understanding each other, especially if they are from different parts of the country.
The written language, essentially the same throughout China, is a different story. Chinese characters can be baffling but, even here, there is order in what appears to be chaos as each word is carefully structured and has identifiable component parts. Also, the Chinese Government has introduced new characters with fewer strokes to replace some of the older, more complex characters, making it easier to learn to read and write. These new simplified characters are used throughout China and are slowly gaining acceptance elsewhere. Traditional characters, however, are still used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Learning Chinese characters is time consuming and hard work but the rewards are enormous. Imagine walking down a Chinese street and being able to read what the signs say, for instance. But be aware; while it is said that learners need to know some 3,000 characters to be able to read a Chinese newspaper, this is not the full story. Knowledge of 3,000 characters will give you an inkling of the contents but that is all. The important aspect is how the characters appear in combination with each other because, unless you know this, it is possible to recognise every character in a sentence and yet still not know what it means. Writers also allude to events or personalities from China’s distant past, which means that some knowledge of Chinese history is a great asset.
Chinese characters also have another twist. The ability to understand modern Chinese texts does not mean that you will be able to follow old Chinese texts. These are written in literary Chinese, which is almost a language on its own. The words and constructions seem quite alien and even ordinary Chinese have difficulty understanding the less familiar writings. Fortunately, for most purposes, there is no need to worry about literary Chinese unless you have aspirations of becoming a scholar or wish to study ancient Chinese literature or poetry (much of which is available in English translation, anyway).
The bottom line is that Chinese might be difficult but it is not impossible. It all depends on the effort that you are prepared to put in. There are a vast number of good teachers and courses available both online and in schools that will help you through. All it takes is for you to try - you will get hooked.