Chinese is a fascinating, captivating, and even lyrical language. With China being a commerce and industry center and a major world market player, there are many people who are interested in the country, its culture and its language.
But while the Chinese language is interesting and is now fast catching the attention of many language learners, it is one of the most difficult to learn. For people used to alphabetic languages, Chinese characters are a mystery because they offer few pronunciation clues, compared to other languages where you can get some clues from the context.
The English language has only 26 letters which, when combined, form thousands of words. In Mandarin Chinese, a learner has to memorize around 3,500 characters to enable him or her to read written Chinese fluently. Even native speakers of the language say that they too forget some common characters from time to time.
Some experts think there are alternatives to learning Mandarin more effectively, though, so let us explore them and see if these will help you learn the language faster and easier.
Structural Relationship of Mandarin Chinese Characters
Beijing Normal University physicist Jinshan Wu is a network theory specialist. It’s a new mathematical science and he and his colleagues have looked into the structural relationships among Mandarin Chinese characters because they want to build a new learning scheme that will dig deeper into the connections between characters.
In their study, the researchers explained that there isn’t as much diversity and arbitrariness in the characters as there seems. There are only a limited number of radicals or sub-characters and these are made up of a group of standard strokes or marks, and these radicals usually have clues about the pronunciation or meaning or both of these features.
Pinyin is the official Romanization system for standard Chinese (Mandarin). It is used to teach the Chinese language using the English alphabet and diacritics to indicate tones, which makes Chinese pronunciation easier for language learners. As an example, the word “bath” in Chinese in pronounced xǐzǎo in Pinyin. Xǐ is written as 洗 while zǎo is written as 澡. Both have the same radical on the left, which stands for water, and the right hand side of the characters suggest their pronunciation.
Liu shu are the general rules for building the characters from the sub-characters (radicals). For example, mu is the word for wood, written as 木. Forest is lin and written as 林 or senlin (森林). Based on the rules of liushu, Wu and his team drew the structural relationships between the common characters, all 3,500 of them, with 7,000 links. From that they were able to glean that 224 radicals are used in combination for only over 1,000 characters, which were the basis for the rest.
The network they were able to map was hierarchical, which is like a tree with a few central nodes or trunks and several branches. The researchers concluded that the best way to learn would be to start from the lower levels or the trunks before moving up to the branches.
More Effective Learning
Wu and his team believe that the most efficient way is for the learner to start with the basic components, because less effort is involved in learning complex characters. They cite as an example the word “bright” or ming (明), which is a combination of ri (日), which means “sun” and yue (月), which means “moon.”
It will be easier in the long run to start with a trunk with the most number of branches, working from the bottom. It will give the learner the chance to learn many more words, but while some may not be commonly used, it is also advantageous, as recognition of other words in the network will be enhanced.
The best way to approach this, according to researchers, is to give priority to the characters according to the frequency of use. It allows the learning path to widen through the network while you learn, starting from the most common characters.
To give more credence to the system they developed, they compared the efficiency and effectiveness of their strategy with a popular book used in primary schools in China that covers 2,475 characters and another book used when learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language. They found out that they were able to learn more characters using their efficient method. Additional to this fact is that the learner is able to tailor the study based on his/her learning strengths.
Although it will take more time before we know if this method will allow students to learn Chinese characters more easily, it has great potential, because right now, there is an ongoing debate about changing Chinese language teaching methods.
Other Learning Approaches
While the above is a scientific approach to learning the Mandarin Chinese characters, there are other fun approaches that take away the boredom of learning a foreign language. Still, your effort and determination are the things that will get you through the lessons.
Online, you’ll read about several learners sharing the things they learned and the methods they discovered on their own to make learning the language, specifically the characters, faster and easier for them.
You may already know that Mandarin and Cantonese have several tones. Mandarin has four stress-timed tones, while Cantonese, which is syllable-timed, has six tones. Beginning learners will definitely make errors with the tone. However, one of the best advice is to ensure that you are not limited by the tones. Instead, accept the fact that you will commit errors at first, but do not take it to heart and just let your sense of humor take over. With more practice, you will definitely get it.
Determine how best you learn and use it. Some of you might favor using the textbook method where an instructor provides the lessons. If this is the case, it is best to sign up for Mandarin Chinese language classes. If you are more of a one-on-one learner, it may better for you to look for a private tutor.
Others recommend language immersion, wherein you opt to stay in the country where the language is spoken for some time. It is a great opportunity because not only will you be able to learn the language from native speakers but you will also get the chance to see the country, learn its culture first-hand and be in constant contact with its people.
Connecting with People
Whatever method you use, constant practice should be exercised, as this is the only way that you can commit the lessons to memory. One of the best ways is to find Chinese friends, online, from your school or your community. Request that your friends speak Mandarin whenever you’re together.
You can watch Chinese movies, with the intention of listening to the tones; hear the words spoken in context based on the storyline and the inter-human character connections. Hearing the language spoken constantly is what will aid you in speaking Chinese like a native.
You could also try listening to various songs in Mandarin to help you with pronunciation. Children’s songs are good ones to start with. Pair it up with reading children’s books, which are often written in dual script – you’ll be able to see the characters and the phonetic sounds in pinyin.
You can follow the methods Chinese children are taught, by recognizing the characters through association, which means that you can approximate a character’s meaning by knowing what the components mean. At the same time you can learn the pronunciation by association, as the characters’ sound are based on their components, as well.
Learning Through Pictograms
London-based and Taipei-born author and entrepreneur Shao Lan Hsueh came out with a book called “Chineasy.” She said that it could simplify the characters with pictograms, which can aid English speakers learning Mandarin Chinese. She said that the idea for the book came to her when she was thinking of ways to teach her children, who only speak English, their mother’s language. Her book shows the connection between the word and the characters by using simple designs with overlays.
The method, according to her, shows important glimpses into Chinese history and culture. The character for the verb phrase “to come” resembles wheat because this particular grain used “to come” (imported) from Europe. A square character represents the “mouth” and two of these translate to “shout.” The character for a tree together with the character for a person mean “to rest” because in Ancient China, it was typical for a man to lean against a tree to rest.
There is no sure-fire shortcut to learn the Mandarin Chinese, just like any other foreign language. However, if you can find the learning method that works best for you, the simple ways to learn reading and pronunciation through association and pictograms or trying to inject more Mandarin into your daily routine, you’ll find ways that will enable you to learn the language faster and easier.
Sean Patrick Hopwood is a polyglot and a language enthusiast. His goal in life is to bring world peace through education, tolerance and cultural awareness. He is also the President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc., a global translation company that offers certified Chinese translation.