As China’s economic and cultural influence in the world grows, so does the attractiveness of being able to speak Chinese. However, many people see it as a difficult language to learn, in particular because of the writing system with its thousands of characters. The truth is that Chinese is actually one of the easiest languages to learn to speak. And it’s fun and simple to acquire a basic understanding of the written characters too.
First let’s take a look at the spoken language. Although there are many regional dialects, including those of Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, by far the most widely used and understood version is Mandarin. So it’s wise to start learning Mandarin Chinese. Compared to European languages, English speakers will find the sentence and verb structure of Chinese very easy to understand. Like in English, there is no gender, no male, female or neutral objects and no declension. Sentence structure is mostly exactly the same as in English, without the reversal of adjectives and verb position that is usual in European languages.
But its gets better. Verbs keep their form regardless who is performing the action, there is no conjugation. And more, there is no past or future tense of verbs. The time frame of an action is indicated by adding when the action took or will take place.
And although the root words of European languages derive from Latin, Greek or Germanic words (words which you and I probably don’t know) the root words of the Chinese language are only Chinese. So the more basic Chinese words you learn the easier it is to understand compound words in Chinese. And the majority of Chinese words consist of only one or two syllables – so they are easy to remember.
Now to written Chinese. The classical Kangxi Chinese dictionary contains 47,035 characters. That’s a lot to remember, right? Well consider that some classical English dictionaries contain anything from 450,000 to 1 million words. And yet a recent Cambridge University study concluded that English Sunday newspapers contain an average of only 600 words. Actually, practical usage of a language does not require an enormous vocabulary.
A Chinese newspaper may contain around 3,000 characters. The most well educated readers may have a knowledge of between 4,000 and 5,000 characters. That still sounds tough, but actually the characters themselves contain common strokes representing root words. These strokes are known as radicals, of which there are about 300 significant ones and only about 100 radicals in common use. Now learning to recognize 100 radicals is really not that big a deal, is it?
Next, let’s look at pinyin. As Chinese characters represent words or combinations or root words, there is no indication of how the word is pronounced. So in the 1950’s China introduced pinyin, a system using a Latin like phonetic alphabet to represent Chinese words as they are actually spoken. It’s much like reading English except that there are accents indicating how the letter is pronounced, going high or low, or both, or staying constant. Pinyin is widely used in educational books as a way of indicating pronunciation. In today’s multi-media world, learning this artificial form of written Chinese is not absolutely necessary. It’s just a question of what works best for you.
Finally, a lot of people find it sufficient to learn only spoken Chinese without learning written Chinese or pinyin at all. That’s one way to go! But if you really would like to appreciate the heart and culture of China, it really helps to have an understanding of the written language too.