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The Amazing Chinese Language. Part 1.

December 15, 2008

I have decided to get away from politics and culture for a while. As interesting as a little analysis is, it is a key aim of this blog to help people actually do business in China as well as understand China.

I plan to write a few posts about language- hopefully not too divisive a topic!

Looking at the last few posts we might surmise the following:

  • Watch what you say and do- insults can be perceived even when you don’t mean one.
  • If you are going to use Chinese as the front cover of your magazine (or marketing document/ website/ enormous tattoo on your back)* then you’d probably best get some help with the language and make sure the person who is helping you is a) not an idiot and b) doesn’t have a sick sense of humour.
  • Always get an expert to help you choose a Chinese name for your business and make sure you have a Chinese name for your business to at least look like you mean to stay in China longer than just to extract a quick profit.

Over the next couple of posts I will be talking in more depth about the issues surrounding learning Chinese, whether or not you should even bother and how to go about it.

Firstly, in this post we’ll look at Chinese as a concept and some of the things to consider before learning Chinese. Chinese is an absolutely amazing language- some people believe that all languages are created equal and to say that one language is better than other is wrong.

I profoundly disagree.

  • Chinese, as a written language, is ideographic, the characters are not all pictures but many came into being originally as pictures. Only about 5% still bear any relation to their original picture. I will not go into detail now about how the characters are made up and formed but there is at least some method to it- you do not literally have to learn thousands of pictures and it does all start to make sense after a while.
  • This means that when you read Chinese you have a very different experience to reading English and it is rather enjoyable.
  • Contrary to popular belief you absolutely cannot separate the sounds from the writing. When you read the characters, they still trigger a sound in your head like that of a language with an alphabet- you do not scan them soundlessly.
  • You can learn to speak Chinese without learning to read and write. But you shouldn’t. I have never started anything with the intention of never being any good at it- you simply cannot ever grasp Mandarin without having some understanding of characters. The sounds are too similar- you have to be able to distinguish homophones by being able to write them. Trust me, it may be painful at the start but you will never regret gaining at least a basic knowledge of the written language.
  • Chinese, fortunately has a really simple grammar. No cases, declensions, tenses, voices moods and all that yucky stuff to learn. Conceptually Chinese is actually pretty simple, the bad news is that as there is little grammar you do have to wrote learn sentence patterns and that can take a bit of work. You don’t have to be smart to learn Chinese but it does take a lot of work.
  • If you don’t learn your tones from day one, and I mean actually learn them and get them right then all Chinese will think you are retarded and not be able to understand a word you say. Get your tones right or you have wasted your entire effort learning thousands of words.
  • Do not get overly hung up on Simplified (Mainland) and Traditional (Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao) writing forms, personally I do not care much for simplified Chinese and prefer the full form but really, you only need learn simplified to start with. Much of the simplified language is based upon forms of the same character that have been in use for hundreds of years and it is the only form used in Mainland China. If you can, learn both forms for each character but if time is an issue, simplified will do just fine. You can always go back and learn the traditional forms later when your brain is more used to learning characters.
  • There are many dialects of Chinese but all you need learn is Mandarin. You will find wherever you are in China they will have a different dialect and will switch into that one to stop you understanding but that happens to Chinese people too. Learn to speak Mandarin well and you will get by pretty much everywhere.

So we have a few basic ideas down. In the next posts I will talk about where to start learning, good courses, how much time you are going to have to devote to it and maybe even put a few exercises down to help you.

* If you are considering any of the above please do contact me at chris@sino-cass.com.au and I will gladly proof things or translate them properly for you.

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