Is it really possible to learn Chinese?
Yes. At first it goes slower than European languages, because Chinese has tones, characters and very different grammar. More time, diligence and ideally a teacher’s help is needed to master the basics. After that – it’s like any other language: you learn new words, phrases, practice speaking fluency and listening comprehension.
What are tones?
These are changes in pitch when you pronounce a syllable. Different tones mean different syllables. Just like in Russian you can’t confuse “by” and “bi”, otherwise you won’t be able to distinguish “life” from “beat”, in Chinese you need to distinguish “mā” and “má”. You simply can’t do without knowing the tones. Look at this example: mǎi means “to buy”, while mài means “to sell”. Fàngdú means “to poison”, but fángdú is an antonym – “antidotal, antiviral”. If you ask for tang in a cafe in China and get the tone wrong, be prepared that instead of soup (tāng) you’ll be brought candy (táng). And the hero of this song wanted shuǐjiǎo – dumplings, but said he wanted shuìjiào – to sleep.
Where can I listen to tones?
- Table of all syllables in Chinese with audio for each tone
- Game for practicing tones and transcription
- Goeast Mandarin youtube Channel – You can listen here to how native speakers pronounce whichever word you need.
What else is difficult about Chinese?
You can’t deduce how to read a character from its appearance. Pronunciation, writing and meaning are three separate parts of a character. In English, spelling is connected to pronunciation. You learn an English word and its Russian equivalent. Dog = sobaka. But here you need to learn and practice all the connections – from the character recall reading and meaning. From the sound – meaning and character. And so on. Dog = 狗 = gǒu.
Isn’t it impossible to remember a picture for every word?
Firstly, a word usually consists of two characters, that is, far fewer signs than words. Secondly, characters are not pictures. They have structure and components, like a construction set. A character consists of strokes. A stroke is basically what you draw without lifting the pen from paper. Strokes make up graphemes. Unlike a stroke, a grapheme has meaning.
灬 – fire 石 – stone 言 – speech
Characters are made up from graphemes. A character also has a reading.
How do graphemes come together into characters?
A character can have one grapheme or more.
There aren’t actually that many graphemes, the most common ones number around a hundred. Study the graphemes you’ve come across more than once. If you learn them, you’ll be able to assemble characters from graphemes like building blocks, instead of having to remember many thousands of unconnected pictures.
Graphemes in a square can be adjacent vertically – 李, horizontally – 和, or one can surround another inside, like filling in a dumpling – 国. And any combinations are possible. If you know the graphemes and understand the structure, even the most complex character will look if not familiar, at least understandable.
Is it very difficult to write characters? How does one learn?
Trace model books, like in childhood. Our hands are used to curvy slanted flourishes, so a lot of practice is needed. Place tracing paper over the model book page and trace the characters right over it. This is harder than it looks. The hand finds it awkward. By writing characters, individual graphemes and even just strokes, you get used to new movements, stroke order and the proper trajectory of the hand.
My handwriting is bad even in English, how precisely do I need to copy characters?
The types of strokes, proportions, presence or absence of intersections and hooks should match.
Simple strokes – vertical, horizontal, flick, dot. Then more complex – add a hook to a simple stroke. Compound – like two or three simple strokes fused. They can connect smoothly, roundly or sharply, at an angle. In Russian you already know what you can change and what you can’t. You can write a, A or а – and it’s the same letter, but if you add a tail to б pointing left, it becomes a different letter.
Two characters can differ by one stroke, one hook, one curve. Compare 贝 – shell and 见 – see. You need to understand what stroke you’re writing now and how it relates to the others.
Strokes can touch, intersect or stand apart from each other. A person isn’t a robot and can’t precisely hit a moving target with a pen. If strokes don’t intersect, it’s better to leave a gap between them than to accidentally stray somewhere. A small gap is normal, an extra intersection is a mistake.
One character occupies exactly one square and shyly avoids the edges, like the dirty walls of an elevator. No matter how many strokes, be it one or forty, it all neatly fits in the center – 大 and 翻 alike. While graphemes inside a character are close to each other, like players in Twister. Often you can’t draw a straight line through a character without hitting anyone, look:
Is stroke order important?
Yes, very. Firstly, over thousands of years the Chinese have figured out the most convenient order. Secondly, when you speed up even a little, strokes start to change, merge. Your characters will only be recognizable if they change the same way as everyone else’s. For example, the character for mouth looks like a small square 口. It’s written in three strokes:
On the left is the printed mouth character. In the center and right is the same character written by hand in the correct order, but quickly.
If you write the strokes in a different order, you’ll end up not with a character but just an abstract shape. The three versions on the bottom look more like a square than the three at the top, but they have nothing to do with the mouth character. The trajectory of the hand is more important than even the visual appearance.
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