The Challenges of Learning Chinese
“The difference between a stumbling block and a stepping stone is how high you raise your foot.”
In our days and age, the Chinese language is rapidly gaining in importance. With over 1 billion speakers, it is the most widely spoken language in the world. Add to that the economic importance of China in the world economy and you end up with a situation where knowing Chinese is a big advantage.
Here’s the big hurdle: to be able to read Chinese, one needs to recognize a few thousand Chinese characters and to memorize all their definitions and pronunciations. This is the most important step when learning Chinese. Chinese characters represent the Chinese alphabet and, as you know, you must learn the alphabet before being able to read in any language.
But first things first. What are those funny symbols that we call Chinese characters?
Learning Chinese Characters
At the dawn of civilization, writing systems were composed of pictograms and ideograms symbols. The sun was represented by a drawing of the sun, a man by a drawing of a man, an idea by the drawing of an action, etc. In many early civilizations, it was later deemed too difficult to express a full range of ideas that way and alphabetic systems based on a set of letters were invented, each letter representing a sound. By learning just a few letters, they could write all the words in their language.
The Chinese, however, stuck to their pictograms, which, after a few thousand years of evolution and simplifications, became those beautiful logograms that we call Chinese characters. The beauty of this system is that characters do not need to change as people’s pronunciation evolves through time because the meaning of a character is not linked to its pronunciation. It is therefore possible to read and make sense of ancient texts written a few thousand years ago, something much more difficult to do with the alphabetic systems, which must evolve with the changes in pronunciation. This is the reason why, for instance, the spelling of old English and Latin is so different than the spelling of modern English and modern Italian.
Another advantage of the Chinese system is that one does not need to understand the dialect of a writer to understand his or her prose. For example, a Chinese from mainland China who speaks Mandarin may have difficulty to understand a Chinese from Hong Kong who speaks Cantonese, but they both can read the same Chinese text.
The price to pay for this, though, is relatively high:
- You need to memorize a great number of characters when learning to read and write. So, instead of learning, let’s say, 26 letters to be able to read and communicate by writing in the English language, you must memorize a few thousand characters.
- If you want to be able to read anything in Chinese that comes your way, you need to learn two versions, simplified and traditional, of some of the characters.
- A character often has more than one definition or meaning. Earliest Chinese characters were initially associated with a single concept or meaning. With time, each character developed more connotations, sometimes totally unrelated to the first meaning.
- When learning to speak, you need to associate a pronunciation to each of these characters and quite a few have more than one pronunciation.
Simplified and Traditional Characters
There are two standard versions of written Chinese: simplified and traditional.
When Chairman Mao came into power in 1949, he decided to do something about the low national literacy rates by decreasing the complexity of the traditional characters. So, with the help of a few linguists, a first list of simplified characters was produced in 1956 and a second list in 1964. This simplification process was applied to a subset of about 2,000 characters amongst all the characters in common use. As such, many characters still only have their traditional form.
Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau and the Chinese immigrant communities established overseas did not adopt the simplified characters as readily and kept using the traditional characters. This explains why signs in the Chinatowns of the world are most often seen written with traditional characters.
To be able to learn Chinese and read everything in the language, like Classical Chinese, texts written before the simplification process or published outside of China, street signs in China towns or recent novels as well as newspapers published in mainland China, you need to learn both forms. It is like learning block letters and cursive writing in English. Both should be learned to be fluent in the language.
Learning Chinese: Pronunciations, Tones and Pinyin
For westerners, Chinese has a peculiar sonority, as it does not sound like anything else on earth! Over the years, a few romanization systems have been created that make use of the Roman alphabet to describe the sound of Chinese, starting with the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci in 1605. The latest system, pinyin (拼音), was developed in the 1950s by the Chinese government. Pinyin is now used everywhere in the world as the romanization standard for Chinese sounds. It is very important for a learner to be familiar with it.
In a nutshell, each Chinese character is pronounced using one syllable, which consists of an optional initial phoneme that has one or two consonants, followed by a final phoneme which may contain one or two vowels, with the possible addition of a ‘n’ or ‘ng’ at the end. Therefore, a Chinese pronunciation written in pinyin looks like this: ai (no initial, final ‘ai’), ma (initial ‘m,’ final ‘a’), yin (initial ‘y,’ final ‘in’), quan (initial ‘q,’ final ‘uan’), huang (initial ‘h,’ final ‘uang’), zhang (initial ‘zh,’ final ‘ang’), etc.
In addition to learning the sound of a character, you also need to learn its tone. Mandarin uses four tones to differentiate characters having the same pinyin spelling, the tone being the pitch of the voice a speaker uses when articulating the character. The tone is very important because it determines the meaning of the character and it allows your ears to distinguish among other characters that have the same pronunciation. If you ignore it, you may create funny or embarrassing situations when you try to speak Chinese. In pinyin, the tone is indicated by an accent over one of the vowels in the syllable. The four tones are:
First tone: A high-level pitch with the volume held constant. Example: mā.
Second tone: The pitch rises sharply from the middle register, increasing in volume. Example: má.
Third tone: The pitch falls then rises. It starts low and falls lower before rising again. In practice, it sounds more like a low register pitch. Example: mǎ.
Fourth tone: Falling pitch. It starts high and drops sharply. Example: mà.
There is also a neutral tone, much shorter and subtler than the other four. A neutral tone sounds like a toned down fourth tone. Some characters are pronounced in the neutral tone when they become part of certain words. There is also a small number of characters that are always pronounced in the neutral tone. In pinyin, it is written with no accent: ma.
Learning Chinese and the Chinese Blockbuster method
The Chinese Blockbuster method tackles and streamlines all the ‘stumbling blocks’ mentioned above that make learning Chinese appear difficult and it simplifies them for you. Compared to other methods on the market, you should be able to read Chinese in record time!
“You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.”
 A logogram is a written character that represents a concept and not a sound.
 Numbers (1, 2, 3…) are an example where we have a similar situation with other languages. All numbers can be read and understood almost everywhere, but they are pronounced differently in each language.
 For example, the traditional character for the verb listen, 聽, was simplified to 听 and the character for horse, 馬, was simplified to 马.
 Pinyin is useful for learning how to pronounce the characters, but not sufficient to understand the meaning of the text if you rely solely on it. The reason is that many Chinese characters are pronounced the same. The only way to understand what the text you are reading is about is to see the character itself. There is no way around it. This is the basis and arguably the hardest part when learning Chinese: to be able to recognize and pronounce the characters you see.
 I encourage you to browse the Web and look for ‘pinyin charts,’ like this one. A few websites allow the reader to hear the proper pinyin pronunciation by clicking on each one. It will be very helpful for you to hear what these syllables sound like.