Everything about China and it's culture

Everything about China and it's culture

Start Early, to Learn Tones and Characters

As long as China is on the rise, one can expect that interest in the Chinese language will grow.

We have heard claims that Chinese is among the world’s most difficult languages, if not the most difficult language, to learn. This is bit of an overgeneralization, as it really depends on who the learner is and what aspects of the language we are talking about.

Chinese is not necessarily harder than, say Korean, for English (non-heritage) speakers. After all, the grammar is rather simple: There is no need to conjugate verbs (for example, the verb “to go” in Chinese is always qu 去, no matter it is ‘we go’, ‘they went’, or ‘she goes’). Word order, unlike, say, Korean, is very similar to English (e.g., wo ‘I’ + qu ‘go’ + nali ‘there’). Nouns do not have to change to reflect differences in number (singular vs. plural) or gender (as in Spanish and French).

The most difficult part in learning to speak Chinese may be in figuring out the tones. Chinese is a tonal language, where pretty much every word must be uttered with a particular tonal contour, and this has to be memorized.

With different tonal contours imposed, ostensibly identical sound combos, which tend to be short, can render completely different words and meanings (e.g. gou with a falling-raising tone (as in a V shape) means ‘dog’, whereas gou in a sharp falling tone (as in a \ shape) means ‘enough’). To the novice learner, speaking Chinese is akin to singing. Worse yet, tones in isolated words may need to be adjusted when put together in an utterance.

The character writing system is another major hurdle for English learners, because the system is non-phonetic and non-alphabetical. There are thousands of them and many look extremely complicated.

Yet, the characters are not totally random. Once you have learned how to decompose the characters, you will realize that many share the same or similar components (called ‘radicals’), and they may tell you something about the sound or the meaning of the character. Once you have learned 400-500 characters, chances are that you have encountered some of the most commonly used components, and you can use them as building blocks for comprehending and producing other characters.

The younger the leaner is, the easier to master a language. This is also true for Chinese learning. Not surprisingly, then, we have seen a lot of success stories from young children in American schools. Adults will always have a hard time learning a new language, no matter how hard one tries, especially when the language in question shares very little with your native language in terms of history and culture.

What all this means is that for Chinese language education in the U.S., it is always a good idea to start the learning process as early as possible; and between the spoken and the written language, try to focus on the spoken language first and worry about the written part later. For the writing system, English-speaking learners need to be a little patient, knowing that after some initial hardship, a break-out moment will eventually arrive, and after that, characters may no longer be as daunting as they first seem.

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