Ontalor's Introduction to Chinese for English Speakers
Usagiboy7 had the brilliant idea of creating lessons so that English speakers could use some of the English for Japanese speakers course to start to learn a bit of Japanese, so I'm hoping they don't mind me stealing that great idea to help people learn a bit of Chinese!
This is just an introductory post to the Chinese language since there is a lot to explain. This post is a review of Basics 1 of the English course for Chinese speakers. A lot of people are concerned that this is a lot of information, and it makes Chinese seem too difficult. Chinese is really hard, but all of the difficulty is at the beginning. Other languages get harder as you go, Chinese just gets easier. If this seems like too much information and you're still curious, just skip to the next post. This information isn't going anywhere, you can always come back and look at it again when you're ready.
To start off, I'm going to use the word Chinese in these posts, by which I'm referring to Mandarin Chinese. As the most common dialect and the official one used in government and the educational system in China, most people are referring to Mandarin Chinese when they simply say Chinese. Within mainland China, everyone learns this standard to be able to communicate, although most are also able to communicate in a regional dialect.
You might start reading this thinking, "Everyone says Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world." But what do you normally think of when you imagine a difficult language? Complicated irregular verb conjugations? Gender? Lots of different cases? A complicated system of prepositions? Imagine a language with very simple grammar, where word forms never change, and there is no gender. Welcome to Chinese. It can be very difficult, but not like any language you've studied before. This post will mostly be introductory information about the language. For many languages, the beginning lessons are quite easy, and then things become more complicated as you progress. Chinese is the opposite. There is a hill that you need to climb over in the beginning, but once you do, it's much easier to progress in the more advanced levels.
The first key is the pronunciation. Although it is much more difficult than other languages at first, once you have a grasp of it, it is actually easier and more flexible than many other languages, as most people within China have their own regional accent anyways. Also, a properly pronounced 谢谢 xièxie (thank you) will often get you lavish praise from native Chinese speakers. Their encouragement can help a lot to keep you motivated! The system you need to learn for pronunciation is Pinyin. There are a couple other systems that are used, such as Wade-Giles, which was used a long time ago, and Zhuyin Fuhao, which is a system used in Taiwan alongside Pinyin, but Pinyin is what you'll need to know.
First, examine this chart: Pinyin Chart. This is every sound in Mandarin Chinese. Once you learn it, you can pronounce every word in the language. I like this chart specifically because you can click any syllable, and options for different tones will appear, which you can then click to hear audio. While learning basic pronunciation, I suggest always using the first tone, which has a straight line above the vowel like this: ā. The chart also will only show you combinations that actually occur in the language, and will link you to characters that have that pronunciation.
Each character is pronounced by a single syllable. Every syllable is built of an initial, a final, and a tone. I think the Wikibook for Chinese does a good job of breaking down the initials, finals, and the tones. Initials, Finals, and Tones.
If the explanation I'm about to give seems too complicated, just work on listening to the chart and imitating the sounds. If you can get that chart down, you're golden.
Most of the initials are pronounced the same in English. For 'p', 't', and 'k', you want to make sure they're aspirated. If you say the word "perfect", after the 'p' you exhale a bit of air before you pronounce the vowel sound. That's what aspiration means.
The tricky sounds are j, zh, q, ch, and x, sh. I grouped them like this because each pair sounds very similar to an English speaker's ear. For example, 'j' and 'zh' both sound like the English 'j' sound. The trick is that j, q, and x are pronounced towards the front of the tongue, and zh, ch, and sh are pronounced towards the back of the tongue as you curl it. Listen to the audio files carefully to see if you can tell the difference. I personally couldn't hear the difference between 'x' and 'sh' until I heard a Chinese person speaking in person.
Make sure to go through the different endings, as some of the vowels aren't pronounced like you would expect. Once you know them, though, they're pretty easy. The final 'g' sounds are not as noticeable as in English, it's mostly there to indicate that you want that last 'n' to be much more nasal like how we pronounce it at the end of the word 'sing'. The two endings that aren't as obvious are 'iu', which sounds more like 'yo', and 'ui', which sounds more like 'way'. The 'ou' ending is pronounced like the English long 'o', while the 'o' ending is it's own strangle vowel sound that you'll just have to listen to. There is also a unique vowel sound, 'ü'. It's like the English 'oo', but the lips are much more tightly rounded.
As for the tones, I know for many people this is the most daunting part of Chinese. Do not stress out about this, because after enough time your brain will get a handle on it. The mindset that helped me most to conquer the tones was completely removing emotion from my voice. As English speakers, we use intonation to convey how we feel, but in Chinese this messes up the meaning. You will eventually learn how to express the same emotion in your Chinese sentences, partly through using particles that convey tone. (A linguistic advantage to Chinese is that because it's a bit robotic, electronic Chinese voices sound much more natural than they do in other languages.) And if it makes you feel better, part of the reason the government chose Mandarin Chinese as the standard instead of Cantonese or another dialect is that Mandarin has four relatively simple tones. Cantonese has nine tones.
The tones are numbered.
The 1st tone is an even, high tone: ā. If you imitate the sound of a bell, "dīng dīng dīng!", that's basically what it sounds like.
The 2nd tone starts low and then rises: á. If you say the word "WHAT?!" like you're surprised, your intonation will copy what it should do for this tone.
The 3rd tone is the tricky one. It starts mid-level, dips low, and then rises back up: ǎ. If you say "uuhhh, mooooooom!" with a sound of disappointment, the "uuhhh" part kindof bounces in tone like the third tone does. It can also change how it is pronounced based on it's position around other tones, but it's easier than it sounds.
The 4th tone is a sharp tone that goes from high to low: à. If someone asks you a ridiculous question to which the obvious answer is "No!", when you say "No!" at them you will be pronouncing the fourth tone. (It took our class a while to figure out why our Chinese teacher just kept yelling "No!" at our answers. We thought she was just being mean, but it turns out she was trying to correct our fourth tones.)
Then there is the neutral tone, sometimes referred to as the fifth tone, which doesn't carry any tone difference or emphasis on it. Listen to the pronunciation of "ma" with the different tones either in the Wikibook link or the Arch Chinese link to start getting the gist, and I hope my non-traditional explanations helped. Feel free to take your time with this part, or come back and work on it later. In a structured Chinese class, the first couple weeks are just focused on pronunciation, so don't worry if you struggle a bit.
This is the hardest part of Chinese in my opinion. Not because the characters themselves are difficult, but just because there are so many. A fluent grasp of Chinese requires being able to recognize about 3,000 characters, but that number seems scarier than it is. A hundred will help you understand a lot of things, and a few hundred will get you pretty far. As you learn characters, you learn parts of them that are repeated, and these are called 'radicals'. Some radicals indicate part of the word's meaning, for example, the character 笔 bǐ means 'pen', and is built of two radicals. The top means 'bamboo', and the bottom means 'hair', which is how calligraphy brushes are made. If you're very serious about Chinese, learning the most basic 100 or so radicals can speed up your learning a lot. It felt like my first four characters took half an hour to distinguish. It's normally hard at first, but once you get good, your brain will be able to see new characters, break them apart, and learn them pretty quickly.
The way in which you draw the character is also important. Every line is drawn in a certain order. The general rules are left to right, top to bottom, outside to inside. This is my favorite dictionary to look up the stroke order when I'm not sure: Stroke order. You simply paste the character into the search bar and it gives you a gif of how to write it. If you're never planning to write Chinese down and only use it on a computer, you won't need to worry about this that much.
For typing characters on a computer or phone, you can Google how to install the keyboard that comes with pretty much all electronic devices. The keyboard looks the same as the US keyboard, and you type in the Pinyin of characters. You type the Pinyin without the tones, although some input methods let you specify the tone so it's easier to pick the right character. A list will pop up of possible character options since many characters are pronounced the same, so sometimes you will have to select the correct character before you continue typing.
As they say in Chinese, 加油！Jiā yóu! Add gas! I'll work on posting the first skill in the English for Chinese speakers course later today. If you have any questions or would like me to explain something else, feel free to ask!
If you made it through this very long post, then I'm sure you're interested in checking out the next post, a guide to Basics 1 in the English for Chinese speakers course.
Thanks, have you ever thought of creating a blog sharing such things like hacking chinese. My biggest regret until is that I have missed the very first important lessons on how to pronounce j, zh, q, ch,z,c... It is still a nightmare to me how to listen/spell them correctly
I might adapt these posts to do that. I think the hardest part of language learning is just lots of exposure and practice with sentences, and it's hard to provide that in a blog, although I can provide the explanations to get people started.
That is not to say everyone has their own language background and method. Chinese is much easier for me due to the close links between chinese and my native language. One more thing, have you thought of contributing for the reverse course: Chinese for English speakers
I haven't applied, but I've been going through the course to report all of the errors I see. When I see a big problem, I message the contributors or post something in the discussion forum.
Thank you Ontalor! Do you want to expand this post to a series? Like, introduce some daily sentences and elementary grammar and characters?
I'm actually about to do a post for Basics 1 of the English for Chinese speakers course! I'll link to it in a few minutes.
Thanks a lot for your efforts! I guess it will definitely help many people!
Just add a correction: Zhuyin Fuhao is still being used in Taiwan when it comes to education (for locals, of course). Most of Taiwanese use it to type Chinese characters. But if you travels here, Pinyin would be the most frequent system you'll see.
Okay, I'll fix that! I knew most Taiwanese people were still using it, but I thought they started switching to pinyin for education. I know Zhuyin Fuhao is a lot harder for foreigners, but I actually like it a lot better. I think it represents the sounds much better. I kinda wish they used it as an alphabet and just wrote Chinese that way because it would be so much easier, but I know that will never happen lol.
Road signs, station names,etc are standardized to Pinyin but Zhuyin Fuhao is still the way of life and I don't see it being replaced nor disappearing anytime soon.
Xie Xie nin .... Sorry, still can't get Chinese characters on my keyboard !
Thanks for your help ... I think (hope - otherwise I look pretty stupid ! ) they were written after my message, either way I'm grateful to you for bringing them to my attention.
Yes, they were written after your post. I included my comment as a response to yours so that Duo would notify you and provide a reason for you to come back and look at the thread again right away.
Thanks for that ... I've now added the input tools so I'll give it a go now :-)) 谢 谢 您 .... Well, that seems to work ok ... , so once again, 谢 谢 您
This has been a truly informative thread. So much so that I'm going to bookmark it. I hope it doesn't get detached from the link.
Thank you, Ontalor! This is a great post!
Other languages get harder as you go, Chinese just gets easier.
I completely agree with you on this.
Three few things I want to add:
1. There are a few combinations missing in the Pinyin Chart.
2. ü is the same as the French u. If you know how "u" is pronounced in French, you just nailed it in Mandarin Chinese as well.
3. You can add an extention called "Google Input Tools" on Chrome if you want to type Chinese. It supports almost all the languages and all the input methods.
The app is called Google Input Tools, not to be confused with a Chrome browser development tool called Google Input which is something else entirely.
Once installed it can be invoked where ever you want to type text, not just on Google products. At least that is the claim, which I'm sure is true. I haven't tried that aspect of it yet.
Right! Thank you! I don't have a comupter so I couldn't double check the name of that extention. I have used it for years so I know it can only be used within the Google Chrome browser whenever there is a place to type texts, if that's what you mean?
Also which works better for you around the time you just started to learn chinese: writing them down over and over again (rote learning) or trying to know how they are formed: like 泪 include 水，目(water from eye -> tears)
When I first started learning the characters, I learned this list. I studied it a bit too much, as many of the later radicals are not used very often, but when you know a lot of the basic ones, you can recognize parts of the characters and learn them much more easily. Just learning them by rote gets extremely frustrating. Most people like to use the different parts to create a story to help them remember.
That is an amazing graphic! I've never seen that before. That would have made learning the radicals much better.
Wow, this is a lot to digest, and a very interesting introduction to Mandarin.
I agree with Trang. though, although these posts are nice and all, they'll quickly get lost in these forums. Perhaps setting up a blog, or using the duowiki's blogs will help you organize the information and make it easier to reference them later.
The wiki also allows for audio/multimedia that can aid in your endeavors.
As far as Mandarin or any language is concerned. I think the biggest difficulty is in people attempting to learn too many things at the same time. For a language such as mandarin, I would much prefer learning the speaking and listening first, and much later focus on writing/reading. Dealing with all four simultaneously results in a huge cognitive load for the average learner when dealing with a complex foreign script.
I have the posts saved, and I might post them somewhere else. It was just a neat idea I wanted to try out that Usagiboy7 had. If it goes well I'll see what else to do with it.
That's actually the biggest hurdle in Mandarin. It's a lot of information in the beginning. That's why most people get stuck and give up.
I understand why people want to learn just speaking and listening first, but since these posts will be specifically directed so people have a bit more access to the English for Chinese speakers course, there is no Pinyin or audio available there. It's all characters.
Also, there's a trap that many Chinese learners get stuck in: they just focus on pinyin first to try to get the basics before learning characters, and then they become forever dependent on pinyin and are never able to read. All Chinese learning sources start off with characters and pinyin side by side to help learners, and once they are able to recognize a hundred or so characters, pinyin is only used to introduce new words. I have met people who have tried to just learn speaking and listening, but I don't think any of them ever made it past about A2 level, even if they were fully immersed and living in China. The fact is there just aren't that many resources available if you're not able to read Chinese, and particularly when you get to the higher levels, not being able to read means you won't even understand what you're hearing. There are tons of similar sounds and homophones in Chinese. Mostly because China has so many dialects, almost all TV and movies in China are subtitled in characters, and if you're learning the language it helps so much to understand. Native speakers will sometimes even miss some things if they don't watch the subtitles.
The characters do slow down the learning process a lot in the beginning, so if someone just wants to learn a few phrases to communicate basic information, skipping them is fine. But for people who want to study it more in depth, skipping the characters at first will seem like it's speeding things up, but then you'll run into a huge wall later on that will be very difficult to get over.
It's interesting what you say about learning by ear vs learning to read. Although I only know a tiny bit of Chinese, I understand how to read pinyin but it hardly makes any sense to me, yet when I see the glyphs I can get the gist of some things but I often have no idea how to pronounce them! I know that is stating the obvious, but from my perspective I put a lot of effort in to not get very far, because I was just directing myself without any external support (which is how I tend to do, well, everything else, usually with success).
At least once a day though I find myself thinking on what could be the 'easy way' to break through this. I know you recommend not trying to just learn by ear, but in my experience the only way I made any progress at all was when I stopped trying to worry about hanzi and just put audio lessons on my phone and walked off into the woods with them. It was only at that point that it sunk in for me that Chinese is just a language like any other, on the surface not even one of the most difficult ones. This was the first time it actually started to stick, because I was just learning the spoken language, and not the worlds most diabolically complex hieroglyphic code.
I'd like to think I am clever, but I am not really a genius, and the weight of trying to process these hanzi without a rich enough background context was sinking me every time I tried, before I had even started. I'd write out a whole book of glyphs, look back at it a week later and most would mean absolutely nothing to me. Every now and then over 20 years, I would have another go, and get nowhere, even though I had been in China in my youth for 3 whole years. This is why Chinese is held up as impenetrable. There is no simple easy way to get on the bus. I'd wager many people try to get interested, then simply turn back in despair because they find that like me, it is too much to take in at once. Even your post here, wonderfully written and comprehensive an introduction as it is (and I actually learned something from it myself, so thanks), it is still a bit of a huge pill to swallow for beginners :/
Basically, Chinese is beautiful, and unlocks a wide world, but it is not for the faint of heart.
That's honestly why most people don't break through. The thing is, in other languages, you slowly uncover what's difficult. You get parts here and there that are hard to deal with, and then slowly learn to juggle them. With Chinese, all of the difficulty slaps you in the face on day one. I think without the characters Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world, but they're not going anywhere. I self-taught myself enough French to skip three semesters of it in college, mostly by learning the more common words and then just watching movies and TV until things magically started to sink in. Learning Chinese doesn't happen naturally that way, so it takes a lot of structure to get it right.
The trick with characters is that you cannot separate them from the words when you're learning. A lot of people think, "Oh I'll just memorize these characters and then I should be fine, right?" That would be the equivalent of learning how to spell huge vocabulary lists of English words without studying what they mean and how to use them. The characters are simply the written version of the Chinese word, but I think many people forget that. People look at 好 and think, oh, there's a character. But if you're learning Chinese, you need to think that it's a word. Learn how to write it if you want, but know that it means 'good'. It will never change its shape, and you need to learn to recognize it. Don't learn characters if you don't know the words that they're in.
But all of the difficulty is in the beginning. In other languages, the intermediate level is where things get really challenging. In Chinese, by the time you're at the intermediate level, you've already done most of the work, and it's pretty smooth sailing after that.
Honestly, if it seems that daunting but you still wanna give it a try, totally skip this post. Go to the next one. Just put the words in the next post into Google Translate and try to imitate the sound as best you can, and just be happy with yourself if you can recognize the different words. The more in-depth information is always waiting if you get curious and want to go back to it. You don't need to swallow it all at once, just dive in and go back as you're reading to absorb more information.
I'm sorry, I wasn't really phrasing myself clearly. I don't find it daunting any more, because in hindsight if I had just had a few simple concepts drilled into me in the beginning, a lot of which you covered yourself here, I would have found it much easier.
But what really interests me, is the question "Is there a way to make Chinese not scary to the average person?". Your introduction is a great overview for people who actually want to learn Chinese and accept that it will be a great challenge, but I wish I could bring it to the level of being able to convince a random bloke at the pub that they can learn it... of course to do that, I should also learn it properly myself first, but I digress :)
To me, there is very little 'common sense' or 'general knowledge,' for lack of better terms, about the Chinese language in the western world. Case in point, almost all of the facts you point out in your post are very fundamental, basic facts about Chinese, and yet every time I have explained any of them to people I know who shows a mild interest, their mind is blown.
Why are we automatically surprised that Chinese is a tonal language full of homophones, when we can point at our own language and ask what the difference is between desert and dessert? Not to mention this: http://www.singularis.ltd.uk/bifroest/misc/homophones-list.html . Or why make such a meal of describing the different consonants in Chinese, when you describe them so succinctly yourself in simple terms? Or the biggest thing, why do we think it must be impossible to rote learn a different glyph for every word, when we practically have to do this in English anyway if we are ever to have any hope of spelling it properly... I've never really been able to spell properly by any other way than simply knowing a certain word 'looks wrong', because copious amounts of book reading drilled them into my head. Whats the difference between that and learning to pattern recognise Chinese glyphs over time? There are so many things that we can point to a familiar scenario in our own language, yet instead we perceive as 'alien'.
Anyway, I hope I didn't come off as argumentative, I just wanted a discussion :). I'm really glad you made this introduction anyway, because it has given me some new insight even though I thought I knew all this. In fact I love the irony you pointed out, that even though Chinese is tonal, it serves me better to imagine it as monotone from my perspective. That's a curious dichotomy that I would never have noticed on my own. I don't know if I will ever be able to learn Chinese, I am still fighting inside myself the instinct that it is just too hard for me, but I will always be interested in it, for me it is the 'one that got away'
No, not argumentative at all! I just wanted to respond because I know the difficulty of it puts a lot of people off, and I really appreciate your input. I think in part the complicated nature of explaining many of things comes from the fact that most learning resources for Chinese are still directly coming from Chinese people. There aren't too many westerners who have dived in and really got proficient, and not enough for them to have built up a strong base of resources. So Chinese people teach Chinese as they learn, and less as we need to learn a foreign language.
For example, I'm always struggling to find a better dictionary. Chinese dictionaries rarely provide the part of speech, which as a language learner is fundamental to me and it flabbergasts me. And it's even more important in Chinese, because parts of speech are really fluid. For example, any verb can be used as a noun to refer to the action of doing that verb. But without parts of speech or explanations, it just looks like they're throwing words around any way they want without rules. It's just that the whole realm of learning Chinese is still relatively new, especially compared to the history of learning Spanish, French, and German, so whereas those languages have tons of resources that have developed over time, resources for Chinese are just now starting to emerge.
I actually have a funny story about making it look not scary. In one of my classes in China, I had a teacher who said she went to a conference, and their goal was to figure out how to make Chinese easy to learn for foreigners. They wondered if it was the characters, and then thought that it must be a cultural problem, because in their view, Chinese people are never very direct when they speak, so you never know what they're really saying and this confuses westerners. I was dumbfounded, and didn't say anything because I didn't want to be rude, but I was thinking, of course it's the characters! Tons of cultures have indirect ways of talking, but none of those languages are unbreachable as Chinese. Chinese people (and in some part people from a lot of countries in East Asia) grow up with these symbols constantly surrounding them, so they really have no idea just how foreign and complicated they look to us and how much trouble our brains have getting around them.
You're completely right about the lack of knowledge and the comparison to spelling in English. I don't know if it will be ever possible to make it not scary to the average person. I'd like to think Duolingo could help a lot with that when they get the Chinese for English speakers course going. And part of me dreams of a world where the Chinese government finally decides, "This is silly! Let's use an alphabet!" There was one time in China when I was really frustrated on the street, basically shouting to my Chinese friend in Chinese that they have the world's most ineffective writing system. I got quite a few weird looks for that one, lol.
I'm happy you replied, I really enjoy the discussion!
Hah, its interesting to hear of a Chinese teacher blissfully unaware of how mind boggling hanzi seem to us - even down to the fact that our logic unconsciously rejects them because we instinctively feel they are inefficient!
As it happens I'm not so sure any more. They are obviously inefficient to learn and to teach, but like you say, in Asia you live and breathe with them all around you. I actually think it would be nice to find some way to incorporate the glyphs into our own culture somehow, at least beyond the superficial level of seeing them on clothes or tattoos.
What if any random Chinese product sold in a western country came self contained with an explanation of itself? What if you found yourself peeling the label off a bottle of Tsingtao, only for it to tell you that the glyphs on the bottle mean 'Green Island Beer'? Trivial as it might seem, any minuscule window into the world of hanzi is a foothold in the sense that once you can recognise and remember a few, you instinctively know how to learn more. It's a sort of soft power. Heh, I'm not sure how but I've sort of unintentionally gone back to my original metaphor of how to explain it to the bloke at the pub...
I think what I am really scratching on is that in our world, the glyphs themselves are silent and impenetrable. We might see them transliterated into pinyin or simply latin script , on restaurant signs or Chinese foods and the like, or on clothes or tattoos as I said, but there is a serious missed opportunity where these instances of Chinese writing in our countries could be actually teaching us en masse, instead of capitalising on their mystery. Am I making sense?
I think that might work for the couple people out there like you and me that are actually interested, but I think for the vast majority of people they would just ignore it like any other foreign script. It's a good idea, but I think people are pretty good at filtering it all out.
Now I want to add a few words about their writing system. As you know, China became unified at a very early period, and remained unified over time culturally and politically (well there have been some separatist movements but overall they did not really go anywhere). There's a lot of theories about it. I personally think it has something to do with the writing system. So you've got people who are speaking completely different-- we call them Chinese dialects-- but they're as different as European languages, so they're speaking completely different languages. And yet, when they read the written language they can pronounce it in their own dialect and it's perfectly fine. So they're connected to the written system in a way that's different.
So the fact that there's a disconnect between the writing system and the way you pronounce it, I think has something to do with why it's been able, classical Chinese has been able, to serve as a unifying feature not just throughout what we think of as China but throughout East Asia.
Plus Chinese writing system is their legacy, it would be sad to see if one day they abandon it like Vietnamese once did (Thought ZhuShan once told me that China's government also wanted to use Latin alphabets to replace characters completely but they failed. )
Yes, they failed epicly thanks to god. (I'm an atheist.)
I think that's the only real modern advantage to having the writing system. I wouldn't want to see them switch to Latin characters, but it would be amazing if they designed something like Korea did with Hangul, a way to encapsulate the pronunciation in a new form of character. Even if they kept some of the meaning radicals, it would speed things up so much just to be able to look at a new character and know how it was pronounced.