The challenge – Prelude

Some time ago, I posted my disagreement on Chinayinyang’s “Chinese language, an easy and fun language to learn” post. I was subsequently challenged to solidify my arguments. Well then, challenge accepted.

This post summarizes the language elements with which I – and my fellow-students alike – struggle.
In future posts, I’ll elaborate on each of them. Additionally, I’ll describe how I try to overcome the problem.

Speaking – The tones
In the Chinese language, there are 4 tones according to which each word is pronounced. The ‘same’ word with a different tone, is actually another word. This means that speaking a sentence is a kind of song in which each word has a certain tone. Missing a tone means risking not begin understood. Try for yourself by singing ( yes indeed ) the following sentence out loud; using combinations of do, re, mi and fa : “You can observe a lot just by watching.”(1)

Writing and reading – Characters
Western languages have an alphabet with, give or take, 26 characters. Words are mere combinations of these 26 characters. The Chinese language has a different character for each word. Memorizing characters/words is therefore a fairly daunting task, considering you need to know about 1500 of them to read a plain news article.

Speaking – Reading a text
There is a strong connection between the characters in a western alphabet and its pronunciation. Reading words from a text takes you fairly close just by sequencing the letters – even if you are clueless about its meaning. This connection is much weaker in Chinese. Knowing the word is required for reading it correctly. Now, you could argue the value of being able to correctly read words you don’t understand.

Speaking – Tongue-twisting consonants
Most sounds are perfectly doable for Western mouths. Some of the consonants, however, are truly hard. Experience shows ( see Bonuskarte ) that coming close is no cigar.

Surprisingly, grammar is not too difficult. Every language has its peculiarities, so does Chinese. But all in all, it’s very manageable.
So is the vocabulary ( disregarding the memorizing of characters for a moment ). It requires study and repetition, just as for any other language.

More on the tones next time.

(1) From the illustrious Yogi Berra.


2 Responses to The challenge – Prelude

  1. Speaking the tones, as I explained, we already use tones, is just a matter of training, You can wait more posts about the subject in my blog For example English has his kind of tone, a strong syllable (SEElable, not syLLAble or sylaBLE), that makes difficult to understand when not spoke correctly. I’ve heard from other students that if you miss a tone by the context you are able to identify the meaning (as most words have the same tone and different meanings). I’m a musician, I don’t have the best ear in the word, but I assure that the tones has almost nothing similar with musical notes, May be if you understand the grace notes, but the pitches don’t have influence.
    Writing the characters: Chinese have a five basic components that they are written (horizontal stroke, vertical stroke, left curving stroke, dot, and bent stroke). of course there’s the 256 radicals, probably less than English; the 1500 words is the number of words to be considerate literate, they can be 8000 I’ve heard, far less then the 3000 (sorry for the poor quality of the font but I think is probably less . But the two system are too different and these kind of comparisons are not fair.
    Speaking the characters. Most of them have a phonetic component that indicate the sound of the character; 求 qiu and 球 qiu, 中 zhong 种 zhong, 米 mi 迷 mi (have you seen my last post about my technique to learn the pronunciation of the characters?). The same problem we have, for example in English, where an Y can be pronounced ah ee (spy) or ee (suddenly), I can be pronounced ee (tic) or ah ee (I), A can be pronounced oh (war), eh ee (a), e (about), ey (a), H can have no sound, be paired with ch with a sound or h like in “holy”
    What is these “tong twisted” consonants, can you say then in pinyin? for example saying amour like a french may seem difficult to some languages, others not, I don’t think the consonants are a problem, the vowels are :).
    You didn’t make the most important: make the western or other languages look funnier or easier to learn, what I think I did in a certain degree, in the limited space of my single post.
    Of course no language is easy to learn, hence when you said you are learning 2 years of Chinese, don’t seem much for learn a language, specially with certain methods: like learning some phrases 2 hours per week, I have past experience with other languages (french, japanese, english and spanish) and Chinese don’t seem to be harder or less fun.

  2. Allen Capoferri says:

    Quite an endeavor!

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