It’s the Mount Everest of languages. The language that everyone tells you not to learn because you’ll never be able to master it. You’ll never be able to speak it. You’ll spend a full year trying to learn it, but you still won’t get anywhere. Chinese. But, is it really that hard? Are you kidding me? No!
When I decided to tackle Chinese, I received a huge backlash. “Chinese? Really? It’s impossible to learn!” But, I still tried, and believe me I’m sure glad I did, because within 2 years I was able to start watching full movies in Chinese (By the way, you ALL should see 北京遇上西雅图 ) and I am now so confident with my Chinese that I have started tutoring on italki and in my local area! But how? How could I conquer the Mount Everest of all languages? Well, it’s because I realized these 3 things:
1. Vocabulary: Easy, Short
As an ESL teacher myself, I know the look of sheer horror when it’s time for students to learn long and complex words. Well good news for you! Chinese vocabulary is a whole lot easier. Let’s compare a couple of words from English to Chinese:
|Underestimate||(5 syllables)||低估[Dīgū]||(2 syllables)|
|Representational||(6 syllables)||代表性[Dàibiǎo xìng]||(3 syllables)|
|Conceptualization||(7 syllables)||概念化[Gàiniànhuà]||(3 syllables)|
|Electronegativity||(8 syllables)||负电性 [Fùdiàn xìng]||(3 syllables)|
The list goes on and on. You’ll notice after learning Chinese for some time that all the vocabulary, regardless of what kind of word you are learning, will usually have between 1 and 3 syllables.
I want to mention some downsides with Chinese vocabulary, though. First, unlike languages like Japanese and Spanish, there are not a lot of English loanwords. That is often an issue for Chinese learners just starting off, but once you get a good vocabulary base, you can use it to piece together a whole load of other new vocabulary words.
Second, Let’s talk about tones. Yes, the annoying part of Chinese. However, as a Chinese learner myself, I can tell you one thing, that some Chinese teachers might crucify me for: don’t worry about tones until you reach an intermediate level. Your main goal as a beginner student should be working on imitating the sounds you hear from a native speaker, try your best with tones, but don’t fret about them until later. People WILL understand you most of the time, trust me on that.
2. Patterns Patterns Patterns!
The Chinese language has developed amazing and interesting patterns that will not only help you to easily acquire and retain words and sentence structures, but you’ll be able to have lots of fun while doing it! Let’s look at some common examples:
|Animal||动物 (moving thing)|
|Delicious||好吃 (good eat)|
|Adults||大人 (big person)|
|Movie||电影 (electric shadow)|
|Computer||电脑 (electric brain) (My favourite!)|
So, you can see that although in English we often have words that don’t capture the true “meaning” of the item, as in: the word cannot be easily split apart and analysed through its components. Chinese learners have a huge advantage as almost all the words can be broken down into their individual character parts. What’s more, as you can see, you can often use the meanings of these individual characters to understand the full meaning of the word. That means that down the road, it will not only be easier to pick up vocabulary, but also to INFER the meanings of new vocabulary. For example, you are reading an article and come across the word 动力. Now, suppose you know that 动 means motion or movement, and 力 means and ability or force, so you can use what you know to infer that 动力 must mean the ability to do motion, or power!
3. Grammar = Piece of Cake
I think the best way to realize this is through some examples:
|你是医生。||You are a doctor.|
|他是医生。||He is a doctor.|
|你是医生吗？||Are you a doctor?|
|他是医生吗？||Is he a doctor?|
|他不是医生吗？||Isn’t he a doctor?|
|你是我的医生。||You are my doctor.|
Are… am… is… As an ESL teacher I see how much all these crazy verbs mess with students’ heads. Chinese grammar is EXTREMELY straightforward; making a sentence is literally like putting a bunch of Legos together. Genders? Nope. Plurals? NOPE! You can see through these examples that the verb 是 stays the same throughout. I don’t want to start blabbering about the specifics of Chinese grammar, but I can guarantee you that you’ll understand how straightforward it is once you start comparing it to English… It’s literally a piece of cake. That being said, once you get into advanced Chinese you will notice the grammar starts to get a bit harder, but it still won’t get anywhere near as hard as in other languages.
Because of this, instead of spending all your free time reading grammar books, the only thing you need to fully master Chinese grammar is to practice by listening and speaking (in that order). Find some Chinese TV shows, listen to them, ACCEPT that you probably won’t understand most of it, but try to listen for some grammar structures that you have learned.
See? Chinese isn’t that hard after all! So close that computer and grab your 筷子; it’s time to learn Chinese! 加油！