I knew I will have to start learning Chinese right after our arrival. Everyone who has ever been to China (and I guess it’s not so many people) can tell you that nobody, really NOBODY can speak English. Well somebody can for sure but it’s definitely bullshit to rely on that you will meet this ‘’English speaking somebody’’ (because you won’t)
So I found a language school and started learning. It was quite easy but learn how to count to ten, ask how are you or introduce yourself is always easy… People always ask me if it is hard language. The answer is yes and no. A lot of languages have very difficult grammar (like for example Czech language. It must be a nightmare for foreigners) but Chinese grammar is almost primitive! So it’s not the grammar part that makes Chinese language hard to learn. It is the pronunciation and vocabulary what is a life important!
Because Chinese is a phonetic language which means that you have to be very careful how you pronounce every single word. Chinese language has four tones and these tones change the meaning of the words. If you were born in such environment or have a musical hearing then you are a winner and learning Chinese will be a piece of cake. If not then (same like me) you are fucked. Pardon, I wanted to say: Then your way to fluent Mandarin Chinese will be a bit longer..
Let’s have a look how it works. For example you have a word MA – that can mean mum, horse, to berate or hemp (and many others). You can also put MA at the end of the sentence and pronounce it shortly without a tone and you will turn a normal sentence to a question.
I will give two more examples to be clear. The first one is a word QING. Based on the tone it means please, mood, to invite, clean or celebrate (and many others). The second one is a word ZHU which means pork/pig, to live, pearls or bamboo (and many others). I have to mention here that every of these words have a different character in writing form. Simply – different tone, different meaning, different character.
Sounds funny? Well these words are only one part of all this entertainment. Then we have words that have the same pronunciation (same tone), the same character but still have different meanings. My favorite is a word KAI which means to open, turn on/switch on, to boil water, to be happy or to have a meeting (and many others).
Still funny? Right! Then I’m gonna open the Pandora’s box – written Chinese! I would like to say: If you know Chinese characters you are a master! It is true but only partially. The first problem is the amount of them. It suppose to be a several thousands (but I think nobody really knows the exact number). That also requires several thousands (or more likely hundreds of thousands) hours to practice. BUT! There is one more little detail. It’s not enough just to know every single character but the combination of them! Good news is that the longest word has only three characters, every character has a basic meaning but the bad news is that once you start combining them the basic meaning is gone and you will get a new totally unpredictable meaning. Show you how it works. Let’s take a word SHENG
SHENG – to be born (that’s the basic meaning)
Sheng huo – life
Sheng ri – birthday
Well these two have some connection to the basic meaning. But what about these:
Hua sheng – peanuts
xue sheng – student
yi sheng – doctor
xian sheng – mister or husband
fa sheng – to happen
sheng qi – to be angry
ji su sheng – border
…and many more
So the key of mastering written Chinese is to know the combinations! And there are billions of them!
However, Chinese teachers always say that Chinese language is easy peasy and there is nothing to worry about. And they are right. Chinese language has its system and logic. But it’s a Chinese system and Chinese logic which makes the learning process a bit complicated. But I like Chinese. It’s a nice language (at least the official Mandarin Chinese). Ehm have I mentioned that China has about 54 ethnic groups and each one has its own language? That’s why all Chinese TV programmes have a Chinese subtitles because people basically don’t understand each other. So the subtitles ensure that all people understand what they watch (well all people that can read of course)…
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