One of the first questions foreigners get asked in China is whether they speak Chinese or plan to learn it. Most will undoubtedly say yes. But what exactly they mean by “learning Chinese” can be quite different from person to person. Some foreigners just want to say enough to get by in the market. Others want to learn to read newspapers or listen to television. Still others want to be able to study classic Chinese literature. The goals for learning Chinese are as varied as the people here learning it.
I really want to learn Chinese at a deep level this year. That means learning not only to read it but also to write it. It means not only learning to listen to it but to speak it. Usually the first skills to come in language acquisition are the receptive ones (listening and reading). Harder to master are the productive skills (speaking and writing). I want to develop both types of skills, as quickly and as in depth as possible. I also want to be able to type Chinese, which requires additional training but pays dividends because so much communicating is done over email and cell phone text messages.
As you might imagine, learning to read, write, type, listen to, and speak Chinese is a complicated task that requires a lot of work. Here is a little insight into the challenge:
Reading & Writing
To read and write Chinese, you need to know a word’s character. Just to make things interesting, the Chinese actually have two types of characters for each word – traditional and simplified. While I am ambitious, I have decided just to learn simplified for now. Generally, you mostly will see simplified in use today. Traditional characters are mostly found in classic texts, which I am not planning to read for now.
Learning to read Chinese characters is straightforward enough. Writing characters requires a lot more time and practice. There are two reasons why:
- You have to learn the basic stroke types. Strokes are the building blocks for characters, and they function like letters do for writing English words. Just like you need to know how to write the letter “a” before you can write the word “apple,” you need to know how to write the “heng” stroke (a straight horizontal line) before you can write the character for “wǒ” (I/me).
- Once you have learned the stroke types, you need to learn their order. Just like it is important to get the order of letters correct in English, it is important to get the order of the strokes correct when writing Chinese characters.
Listening & Speaking
Both Chinese listening and speaking skills are tough to develop for a native English speaker. The first reason why is that in order to learn to speak Chinese, you need to learn the phonetic writing system. Chinese characters aren’t themselves phonetic, so to learn how to pronounce each word, you actually need to know how it is spelled in pinyin, the official Chinese phonetic alphabet. While learning pinyin is an extra step, it is a helpful one not to be taken for granted. Before 1954, there was no standard phonetic alphabet or pronunciation for Chinese, which must have made it even harder to learn.
Another reason learning to listen to and speak Chinese is difficult has to do with tones. Chinese characters are all one syllable, which results in many characters sharing the same phonetic spellings. The way Chinese differentiate them orally is by giving each word one of four different tones (five if you count the neutral tone).
But even if you know your tones, you still can have a hard time listening and speaking. That’s due to the fact that Chinese is famous for its many homophones (words with the same pronunciation but different meanings – think sea and see). Famously, the word “ma” can mean over 20 different things when spoken. When written, each one of these words has its own character.
Once you know how to write each word in pinyin and can recognize its proper written character, you have all the Chinese skills you need to type. But there are some technological tasks you need to complete too. First, you need to activate Chinese language on your computer from your control panel. Then it is suggested that you install a special program that does a better job at updating vocabulary and recognizing patterns in your typing.
The typing process is a simple one, and the more you do it, the quicker you become. Basically you use your standard keyboard to type the pinyin of a word. As you type, it presents you with a list of characters that use the inputted pinyin. When you see the character you want, you click the associated number and it enters it on the screen.