The challenge – A language with a complex character

Western written languages are based on alphabets. You know that an alphabet works as follows:

  • It consists of a limited set of characters
  • A word is defined by its sequence of characters, not by an individual character

Chinese do not have such a thing. Their writing system evolved from drawing pictures. A word then, is a pictogram. As a result, there are thousands of characters/pictograms. There is, however, structure in their pictograms:

  • Chinese characters are often composites, where one part adds meaning to the remainder of the character. The most common are the so-called ‘radicals’. For instance
    • the radical of grass ( 艹 ) as in 茶 ( tea ) or 药 ( medicine )
    • the radical of mouth ( 口) as in 口语 ( spoken language ) or 吃 ( to eat )
  • Chinese words often contain 2 characters, of which one influences the other. For instance 外 means ‘out’ in many ways: 外语 ( foreign language ), 外边 ( outside ) or even 外婆 ( mother in law, as in ‘old mother outside of your own family’ ). An excellent etymological breakdown of 婆 is given by Yellowbridge here.
  • There is more logic in Chinese characters, but I haven’t figured that out yet.

Needless to say, there are a lot of characters. And, despite all the structure and logic in their formation, it is a substantial effort to master the necessary quantity to read or write any decent text.
Also, the characters are much more complex than their western counterparts. Memorizing characters requires a lot of practice. Surprisingly, complex characters are usually not a problem when reading texts. Of course, there’s the context of the text which helps, but there is more. I recognize the overall pattern of the character better than I’m able to reproduce it. This means also that reading a lot doesn’t help in writing.

I started out my first year in memorizing and writing lists of individual words – flash-card style ( as, again, in Yellowbridge’s ). That is fine as long as one’s vocabulary is too limited to write even the simplest of texts. But it is boring. Today, I write short texts or translate parts of a magazine’s article. I use a dictionary to find words I do not know. This approach is much more interesting. And – thanks to a very fine teacher – I get my texts duly corrected; see Carnage and mayhem.

I try to practice reading as well but find my vocabulary still too limited. There are still a lot of words I need to look up, which takes away the pleasure of reading.

Previous post on this topic – The Challenge – Speaking in Tones.


2 Responses to The challenge – A language with a complex character

  1. Marc B says:

    great first step into chinese

  2. Pingback: The Challenge – The sound of the character « Willy Druyts learns Chinese

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