On the subject of learning Chinese for an English speaker:
As a westerner having taken part in the process of learning Chinese, all I can say is that at first, it seems like an insurmountable task. One of the things that makes it so profoundly difficult is the fact that, unlike when learning another European language such as French or German, there are no familiar words (officially known as cognates in linguistic terms) to make the process easier. If one is learning Spanish, the new learner can quite easily make the connection between related words such as “aeropuerto” for airport or “delicioso” for delicious. In German, one will be happy to recognize the words “Buch” for book and “Wasser” for water, even if the spelling and pronunciation is somewhat different than in English. Such words act as “familiar faces”, so to speak. When it comes to Chinese, however, there are very few words that are easily recognizable. Of course, there are a fair share of loan words from English and other languages, especially when it comes to places, familiar products and very modern terms. But the vast majority of everyday vocabulary is fairly inaccessible, with perhaps the exception of words like “Chao mian/炒面”for the Pan-Asian borrowed food term “chow mein”.
One of the main things to keep in mind when attempting to learn any foreign language is that language requires a certain persistence and interest. An American may picture him or herself speaking fluent French, sipping white wine at a fancy table, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette, carrying on and on with great levity and gusto, cracking jokes and laughing. Such a scene is perhaps appealing to imagine, but it also bears little resemblance to reality. Foreign language learning is a rigorous process that one must begin, and continue with, until the speaker’s particular communication goal has been reached. Whether this means that the speaker had set out to be perfectly fluent, or just to be able to say, understand song lyrics in a foreign language, that is up to him or her. But with the communication goal of fluency in mind, there is little way around the fact that the foreign language learner has a difficult task ahead of him/her. And when it comes to becoming fluent in Mandarin Chinese, the reality that a serious commitment is required should be evident from the very start of the learning process. So far I have not written these things for the sake of shocking my readers, but rather, so that they may realize right off the bat that they need to be as hard-working and serious about the process as possible.
I would, however, like to emphasize that getting to be fluent in Chinese is certainly possible for a westerner, as I myself have been through this process. In addition to the lack of cognates with other European languages, Chinese also has the system of characters that are, to say the least, quite complicated. How does a person even begin to sort through them? How many do you have to know of them in order to read and write? Since most people who are not familiar with Chinese know very little about the characters, a lot has to be explained about them in order for them to make sense. But I would like to reiterate that Chinese characters are learnable. If they weren’t learnable, then why would they have been in consistent use over the past 3,000 years? And why are they still in use today in newspapers and in books? Just because we as letter-using Westerners can’t imagine that anyone could learn to read something so complicated, doesn’t mean that people don’t actually learn to use them.
So we have a whole set of factors that make Chinese very difficult for a westerner to learn. How do we, as English-speakers, even begin to attempt learning it? Well, there are a lot of things that actually make the process manageable. If we simply realize that it is very different from anything that we have tried to learn before, that we cannot rely on cognates like we rely on in Spanish and German, and that we will be forced to start learning a new writing system entirely from scratch, then we can wash away very unhelpful preconceived notions about the language that will hinder our progress towards fluency in it. And when we get rid of the things that will hold us back from learning, then we will see that some aspects of Chinese are actually easier than English. Much of the grammar is remarkably straightforward and simple, as opposed to learning a language such as Russian or Japanese (which, besides sharing the same writing system, has very little in common with Chinese). One of the surprising things about Chinese grammar, once a student has been learning it for some time, is that it is startlingly simple and easy to learn. And, it is also very flexible. After some time, learners of Mandarin Chinese begin to appreciate the simplicity and flexibility of the grammar, as well as the beauty of the Chinese characters, which are all based on meaning as opposed to sound.
More about the characters
When looking at the menu of a Chinese restaurant that has a Chinese translation for each of its dishes, we might be struck by their complexity, and instantly recoil in horror at the thought of being forced to memorize them. But this instinct to become fearful is somewhat of an overreaction. The characters look like tiny pictures, and there is a new one for every single word, right? These two assumptions are only somewhat accurate.
1. The characters are based on pictures. Thousands of years ago, when they were all developed, they were not exactly intended to be read along as a text; rather, they were what is referred to as pictographs, much the same as ancient Egyptian had a system of hieroglyphics for inscribing complicated stories on the walls of their sacred buildings. Pictographs are nothing more than small symbols that stand for something tangible. Now, in English, about 1,200 years ago, we adopted what is known as the “Latin Alphabet”, and this was intended as a way so that we could write down exactly what was said on a piece of paper. Being able to write down exact words and thoughts is the function of an alphabet, and throughout the world, there are many examples of different alphabets besides the Latin one—the Russian, or Cyrillic, alphabet, the Arabic alphabet, the Korean alphabet known as Hangul—just to name a few. But with pictographs, one must keep in mind that their function is not to record exact words, but rather, to keep track of things in an inexact way. Back then, there would have been no books or newspapers; rather, people remembered stories and events, but they saw no need to write things down word for word. With pictographs, it was possible to record information, but it was up to the reader to fill in the gaps with whatever words he or she wanted to use; what mattered most was that the information was correct, not the words. A further advantage of using pictographs as opposed to an alphabet is that the pictographs were universal. With languages, it is natural for there to be great variation from region to region. In modern linguistics, this is what is known as a dialect continuum. Instead of just having one language like we do in modern America, the language would gradually and predictably change from town to town. From one end of ancient China to the other, one would find two completely different languages. If the people in this time and place were to have developed writing systems for every different region, then there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of different writing systems. Using pictographs was simply the most practical thing to do, given the situation, and it enabled the people to develop a universal writing system that was much easier than having to learn many different, yet related, languages.
2. Given the history of the development of Chinese characters, and how they at one point were indeed rough transcriptions of little pictures, over the course of several thousand years, the characters had to be adapted to be much more precise, in order to record exact words and thoughts, simply for the sake of recording the massive amount of research and writings done by scholars, scientists, poets, religious thinkers and philosophers, as well as the every day work done by officials and administrators. So over time, the characters were changed so that they represented syllables. In modern Chinese, one character equals one syllable. If you are not quite sure what a syllable is, let me briefly refresh your memory: a syllable is defined as the smallest unit of sound in a language. The word water is made up of two syllables: wa and ter. In contrast, the word book has only one syllable. If you are involved with music, chances are that you are already well aware of syllables. Chinese words tend to be shorter than English words, however, they are not always one syllable. Chinese has a lot of syllables that sound exactly the same; consequently, one can look at the entire language as a “Lego” set. One syllable by itself probably won’t mean much. But combining two or more syllables together, the syllables turn into words. When it comes to using the characters to keep track of all the syllables, there is often a fair amount of repetition in using the same character over and over again. Often, syllables that rhyme use a similar character.
The most important thing to take into account when it comes to learning how to write the characters, is while some characters take more than 30 pen or brush strokes to complete, all the characters are composed of much smaller strokes, or units, called radicals. When attempting to learn how to write, one will recognize hundreds of different radicals. So instead of seeing the full character (which, to the untrained learner, looks like a bunch of random squiggles), one should look at the different radicals. Characters are sometimes very simple, and other times, they are very complex. Often, one character will be a composite of several less complex characters. A lot of times, characters will rhyme with one another. And remember, one of the main benefits of using Chinese characters is that characters are always based on meaning. So it is very common to have one character that is pronounced the same ways as another one, but to add another radical on to it so that it has a different meaning. If you will notice the following three characters, as an example of this pattern:
考=kao (to test) VS. 烤＝kao (to roast) VS 拷=kao (to copy)
Notice how in all three words “kao”, the same basic component 考 is present. By adding other radicals, the initial character is modified so as to differentiate between the different verbs. So by learning the first character 考, it becomes a lot easier to learn the next two characters 烤 & 拷.
The 9 Basic Points of Chinese Grammar
We have already discussed that Chinese is very different from English, but it is very difficult to prepare the new learner for this reality. What can be done to better prepare learners? The only true thing that we can do at this point is to list some of the most obvious differences, using linguistics.
1. Chinese is a topic-comment language. This means that the way that most sentences are formed does not require the use of prepositions—words in English such as “with, for, under, on”, informational words which are used to relate one noun to another, usually having to do with physical location, but sometimes an abstract relationship. The fact that Chinese is classified as “topic-comment” makes it fundamentally different—grammatically speaking—from European languages. To illustrate this difference, let’s start with a simple sentence: “I go to the store.” In Chinese, to say this, you would relay all the same information in this sentence except the preposition “to.” 我去商店(wo qu shangdian). 我=I, 去=go, 商店＝store(the or a store is implied). The English sentence “I go the store,” without the preposition “to”, is very improper. Although we can generally understand what it means without saying “to”, it is just a part of the way we as English speakers think for us to need “to” in there. The specific information that is already encoded in the word “to” is very hard to describe, but we already know what it means.The topic-comment pattern of Chinese is by far the most important grammar
concept in the language, and it penetrates the learning process all the way down to
the deepest levels. The lack of prepositions means that speakers of the language
always have to be careful about what they say in order to properly express what
they mean. How do you suppose that a Chinese speaker would express the
following English sentence in Chinese? “How do you feel about the results of the
election?” Without being able to say the prepositions “of” or “about”, an English
speaker feels somewhat helpless. However, a Chinese speaker simply does not
expect information to come from something like “of” or “about.” Because of the
topic-comment pattern, the Chinese speaker is simply allowed to say, “The
election results, how do you feel?” Though we as English speakers may see this
lack of prepositions as a simplification, we are a lot better off if we accept right
away that this is how Chinese speakers think of things around them.
2. Chinese words are like Legos™. As we discussed earlier, every Chinese character represents exactly one syllable in the language. Though some words in Chinese are represented by one character and consequently, one syllable, most words consistent of 2 or more characters and syllables. To add to the learner’s confusion, these characters are mostly interchangeable—in fact, Chinese speakers don’t really think of a “word” in quite the same way that English speakers do. Really, they think of words more as parts of bigger, abstract “concepts”. As an example, 衣服 (yi fu, the 2 syllables corresponding to the 2 characters shown above), means clothing. However, we can roughly say that the first character, 衣 (yi), represents the essence of clothing, perhaps by corresponding to the English word “apparel”. The 服 (fu) part doesn’t really mean much, other than implying that the “essence of covering one’s body with fabric”, or ensuring that the 衣,(yi) has a physical shape. Now, let’s think about the English word “laundry.” We as speakers realize that this word has a direct connection to clothing, or “apparel” if you like. But based on the word “laundry”, if you are not an English speaker already, you would have no idea that this word has anything to do with clothing. In Chinese, however, it is a lot more obvious what the word means, because it has part of the word for clothing involved in it， 洗衣 (xi yi). The first part, 洗 (xi), means “wash”. So by putting these two characters together, we get a word that can be recognized fully as specifically pertaining to what we as English speakers recognize as “laundry.” All these characters can be taken and rearranged with other characters to make practically infinite combinations. 洗碗 (xi wan) means to wash the dishes, 洗澡 (xi zao) means “to take a shower”. The conception of a word, to a Chinese person, is slightly different. Whereas an English speaker puts more emphasis on the phonetic value (the actual sounds that are made by the mouth when speaking the word) of words like “shower” and “laundry”, a Chinese speaker puts much more value in which characters are used to make up a word or a phrase, and the character’s semantic value, or absolute meaning.
3. The 的concept. Chinese uses a character, which is more like a connector as opposed to a character with a real meaning, known as 的, which is pronounced “de”. This character is used with enormous frequency throughout the language, and it is quite impossible to say anything without it. The first and most common use of 的 is to mark possession, which we do in English by adding an (‘s) to the end of a word (Mark’s hat, the dog’s bone, the sisters’ television). Or, we simply use the preposition of (The end of the day, the meaning of the story, etc…). But the Chinese language does not quite work the same way in this regard. To them, 的(de) is just a connector. 我(wo), the word for “I”, when followed by 的 (de), becomes “my” （我的,wo de). 我的猫 (wo de mao) means “my cat.” 猫的碗 (mao de wan) means “The cat’s bowl”. Since 的 (de) is a connecting word, it can be used in the same way to represent the preposition “of” in English. One can say “the meaning of the story”, 故事的意思 (gu shi de yi si). However, we must keep in mind that in Chinese, 的 (de) serves merely as a connector between main noun and another noun that relates to it. This concept can also be expressed by using the words “that”, “which”, or “who” in English. “The movie that I saw”, “the paper that I wrote”, the “the person with whom I had dinner last night. In Chinese, all these phrases, which involve two related nouns, can be expressed with the character 的 (de). However, in order to translate these phrases into Chinese, the learner must first think of what is actually the main noun in the phrase that needs to be translated. The first phrase that was listed above gets translated to “我看的电影”, (wo kan de dianying), or “I saw 的（de) movie.” 的(de)can be used to express all kinds of extremely long and complex related thoughts. With Broad Sky Alternative Language Academy programs, our approach is to help students understand the 的(de) concept in as short a time as possible.
4. Chinese uses aspect instead of tense. In grammatical terms, one of the most important issues that a learner of a foreign language deals with is dealing with the order in which events have happened, and being able to discern between events that have already happened, and those that are still in the process of happening, or haven’t happened yet. In English, we use something called tense, which is a “fixed structure”, so to speak, that is attached to the verb, that implies a time that something happened. To express that something happened in the past in English, there are several things that we can do: attach an ed ending to the end of the verb, as in walked. Or we can say “I was walking”. The modified structures let us know, as speakers of the language, that this information has already happened in the past. There are also many other modifications that can be added to the verb to walk, that allow us to know more specifically about the time of the event. “I have walked” implies that the speaker has indeed, at several points in the past, done this action. “I have been walking” can imply that the speaker has been out for a walk for an unspecificied period of time. Chinese, however, relies on the context in which events have happened, as opposed to adding fixed structures on to the verbs. Other words are simply added to make the speaker aware of at what point the events have happened—the main questions being, have they already happened? Are they still going on? Have they happened before? For every situation, Chinese has a special set of words to be more specific about the time of an action, so having a past tense marker ends up not actually being necessary. The character 了(le), for instance, implies that the action being discussed is over. Putting 在（zai）before the main verb implies that the action is happening right now. 过（guo) after the verb lets the speaker know that the action has happened in the past before, but at an unspecified time, and also for an unspecified number of times. Also, different verbs are used in different contexts so as to differentiate between different kinds of actions. Think about the following example: What is the difference between saying “I see her every day around 5 o’clock”, vs. “I saw her standing on the street corner”? Both sentences use the same verb, and there is a different tense. But to a Chinese speaker, the difference is not merely in time, but in the actual action; the same verb is used, but it is used in a different context. Seeing someone every day paints an entirely different situation than if a person “spotted someone on the street corner at a specific moment in time”. To a Chinese speaker, recognizing that difference of what is going on also requires that a different verb should be used. A Chinese speaker may use the verb 听（ting)by itself to talk about listening to music, but will use the verb combination 听到(tingdao)to explain that, at a particular moment in the past, he or she heard a noise. The absense of fixed tense structures is one of the more prominent, and also difficult features, for an English-speaking learner of Mandarin Chinese to grasp.
5. Complementary verb combinations add specificity to Chinese grammar. We have already mentioned that Chinese grammar uses neither prepositions, nor tense. Instead, Chinese tends to “double up” on verbs, so as to be more specific. For example, the verb 走(zou)can be used with another verb to give the meaning of the English word “away”. As an example, the word 拿(na) means “to take”. By putting the words 拿(na)and 走(zou)together, 拿走 becomes the verb phrase “to take away”. In addition, there are many other complementary verbs that can be used to make actions more specific. As we have already discussed that a prominent feature of Chinese grammar is an overall lack of fixed structures, such as suffices (endings), prepositions and tenses, we can now begin to see that one of the ways that Chinese makes up for this lack is by adding complementary verbs. A person can say
6. Chinese using something called “stative” verbs. In Chinese, there is no exact translation for the verb “to be.” The verb 是（shi) roughly corresponds with the verb “to be,” but it is only for saying that one thing is something else, such as saying, “this is my mother.” (这是我的妈妈／zhe shi wo-de mama). This verb is only used when one is introducing something to someone (whether it is a person or a thing), or when one is saying that someone or something is something or someone. When it comes to talking about adjectives, a Chinese speaker will simply use the adjective without any verb. For example, observe the following sentence: 今天的天气很冷／jintian de tianqi hen leng， or “today’s weather=jintian de tianqi/very=hen)/cold=leng. Though grammatically in English, we might be tempted to say that in the Chinese sentence, there is no “verb”, we should instead be willing to expand our definition of what a “verb” is. To the Chinese speaker, the word “冷／leng” actually means “to be cold.” From his or her perspective, being able to simply say “cold” should be enough—why should a person have to say that the weather is cold?
7. Chinese uses a special verb only for location, which roughly corresponds with the English phrase “to be at.” This verb is 在（zai). When a speaker uses it by itself, it merely ties a person to a specific location, but it doesn’t specify where said speaker is in relation to said location. If I were to say, “I am at the hospital”, or (我在医院／wo=I zai=am at/yiyuan=hospital),the person to whom I was speaking could not really tell exactly where I was in relation to the hospital. So in order to specify my location, I would simply add the word 里（li)to the end of the sentence: 我在医院里／wo zai yiyuan li. The “li” is like a preposition, and it means roughly “in.” But since, as we have already discussed, Chinese is a topic-comment language, we must remember that it does not directly connect any words together, but rather, it is more like an information add-on at the end of the sentence. To say that a book that is on the table (书在桌子上／shu zai zhuozi shang) is literally translated “book/at/table/top.” The topic-comment pattern runs strongly and consistently throughout the entire language.
8. Chinese is a tonal language. Chances are, you have heard this a few times before. But the chance is equally high that you do not quite know what it means. Sure, you might have an idea, but this may sound somewhat unspecific to you. Sure, every sound has a “tone”, so therefore every language must be tonal, right? In a certain sense, yes, every language is tonal, in a way. In English, we use tones, but we use them mainly to express emotions as we say things. We use a rising tone to ask questions, we use another tone when we are being sarcastic, and we use yet another tone when we are emphasizing words. But chances are, you have probably never paid much attention to whatever tone you were using, because that is just the way you talk. So what does this mean in relation to Chinese being a “tonal” language? A tonal language, according to a linguistic definition, is a language in which the tones of words has a direct affect on their meaning. Whereas in English where the tone of
a speaker’s voice can imply a question, in Chinese, tones are mainly used to
differentiate between syllables. When we talked about Chinese characters, we
already discussed how one syllable equates exactly to one Chinese character, as opposed to there being a set amount of letters in a particular syllable. We can
imagine that Chinese started using tones to differentiate between syllables as a
way to add more sounds to the limited number of syllables that already existed.
Whereas in English, we can see how whoever was in charge of making up new words relied on simply thinking of increasingly complex sets of consonant
clusters (consonants that are stacked together with no vowels inbetween, such as
splinter, sprint, cloister, scramble, or even world). It should be noted that
Chinese does not have such consonant clusters, and it can be postulated that the
existence of different tones assigned to different syllables acted historically as a
compensation for the lack of complex consonant clusters (and to a smaller extent,
diversity of final consonants, or a consonant that comes at the end of a syllable,
such as in the word flat). Or perhaps it can be said that English developed
complex consonant clusters and a wide variety of final consonants as a
compensatory mechanism for its lack of tones.
9. Chinese uses countless sets of four-syllable phrases called 成语 （cheng yu), that exist in order to explain everyday situations, but by employing a set of short-cuts, thus sparing both speakers and listeners from listening to one or perhaps several unnecessary sentences. 成语 （cheng yu) are not the same as the English equivalent of idioms, since an idiom still must follow basic rules of grammar in English. English, as well as Chinese, employs a countless number of fixed expressions that may or may not make sense to the foreign language learner that has thitherto never been exposed to a particular idiom or fixed expression. Chinese 成语 (cheng yu), however, are unique in their function as a language short-cut. Let us take the following example of one such short-cut in Chinese. The following cheng yu translates roughly to “to hope that one’s son becomes a dragon”: 望子成龙 （wang zi cheng long). This four syllable phrase has no true English equivalent, but it is generally used to imply (and since the dialogue about women’s rights has begun in China) the hope that a parent experiences for his/her child to be successful. If not for these four syllables, one would have to say the following sentence: 父母常常希望自己的儿童变成非常成功的成年人, 当他们长大。(fumu changchang xiwang ziji-de ertong biancheng feichang chenggong de chengnianren, dang tamen zhangda--remember that when reading pinyin, every new syllable corresponds to exactly one character, and spaces between the romanized letters signify that the word counts as a separate vocabulary item, just as in English)As can be seen in the previous example, the four letter cheng yu has thus saved both the speaker and listener from having to listen to an entire sentence, to which the speaker must have already put thought into. 成语 might even be considered as a type of meme, a type of cultural idea that merely exists in the minds of people, but about whose origin no one was actually present in order to witness. English, of course, has its own types of vocabulary memes, but we commonly refer to them as fixed expressions, as opposed to following a four syllable pattern. This type of four syllable pattern is very much in line with what we already know about Chinese—namely, that Chinese is a topic-comment language. Though the syllables by themselves do not actually make any sense to a Chinese speaker, their placement within a four-syllable pattern/meme is automatically recognizable and completely in line with the Chinese conversational habit of introducing a new idea, and then adding more information to it, if interest is taken in the particular topic by the listener. In the case of the “parent hoping the child becomes a dragon” topic, part of Chinese cultural conditioning would presumably entail that the listener, if not interested in the topic, should at least have some pre-formulated opinion or answer to say in response, even if the listener does not want to dwell for very long on said topic.