First, a disclaimer: this is not intended to be authoritative, or anything even near authoritative. These are merely my own opinions and observations, culled from about 5 years of studying Chinese. Take them with as large a grain of salt as you should everything else on the internet.
So, you want to learn Chinese? Great – but first some notes:
First off, “Chinese,” as such, doesn’t exist. It’s a myth, an idealised standard to which nobody really adheres. “Chinese” would better be defined as a family of languages and dialects than as a language unto itself. However, for purposes of this essay, let’s use “Chinese” as a shorthand for “Modern Standard Mandarin.”
Chinese is hard. Of course, any foreign language is hard to a degree which varies based upon how close your own language is to the language you want to study, but in the case of Chinese, which is related to nothing except its subdialects and (if we are to believe the linguists) Tibetan, it’s a pretty safe bet that your language has little to nothing in common with it. *
There’s no alphabet. You knew this, of course; who hasn’t seen Chinese characters on a sign, t-shirt, or hipster tattoo and wondered at a language that’d use those?
Not only is there no alphabet, there’s not even a single way of writing it: there are two (overlapping) character systems, fanti and jianti, usually translated as “traditional” and “simplified.” On top of that, there are variant forms of characters, and then the nightmare that is cursive Chinese, and then the various forms of calligraphy. Anyone wishing to study Chinese will have to learn to write at least one of the three, and read at least two.
That doesn’t sound like much at first – of course you’ll need to know how to write it; isn’t that the whole point of learning another language? – but in fact, learning to write is substantially harder than learning merely to read, by virtue of what I wrote above: that there is no alphabet. You will not be able to reproduce a character by the phonetic clues that you’d get with other languages; that is, knowing how “paralegal” sounds will not necessarily give you any clue as to how to write it. And there’s a substantial chance that there are two, or more, ways to write the characters in question: see above, variant, traditional, and simplified characters.
Even if you choose to be illiterate in Chinese – which is a mistake, but many have done it – you’ve still got to worry about speaking.
On the face of things, this isn’t so bad; Chinese has much fewer possible phonemes than most other languages, and so your chances of being able to pronounce a given syllable correctly are actually pretty good – or would be, except for one small problem.
Make that four small problems: the tones. (Actually, there are five in Mandarin, if you include the neutral tone,and when you get into other Chinese languages like Cantonese or Shanghainese – “dialects,” in Chinese linguistic terms, although this is only true inasmuch as French and Spanish are related dialects – there can be eight or more.) The pitch of a syllable changes its meaning; the example you’ll usually see given is that the word ‘ma,’ depending on tone, can mean ‘mother, hemp, horse, or curse.’ If you say it with no tone then it becomes a sentence particle used to indicate a yes-or-no question. Or something else entirely.
This is a concept that it just not present in English, or in any other nontonal language. Saying something with the tone that feels natural from your native language – e.g.: “Huh!” “Huh?” “Huh…” – will change the meaning of what you’re saying. The tonal nature of Chinese means that until the tones become internalised – which takes a long time – you will have to be on your guard, lest ‘math’ accidentally come out as ‘blood transfusion,’ or ‘accent’ come out as ‘oral sex.’
Allow me to say this again, in case you missed it: EVERY SYLLABLE IN MANDARIN CHINESE CAN BE SAID IN ONE OF FIVE POSSIBLE WAYS.
This is where literacy helps out, as if you don’t know how a character should be read, you can at least consult a dictionary, or – if none is handy – write the character down to ask someone how to say it.
So literacy sounds good, huh? Sure.
There is a common myth that 2000 or so characters are all you need to read a newspaper. This is a lie, a foul, vile, devilish untruth, but it’s spread for a reason, and that reason is this: the nature of Chinese words (ci, in the Pinyin romanisation of the character for ‘word’) is such that most of them are comprised of two or more zi – characters. This doesn’t sound like a big deal – after all, if you know the characters that comprise a word, you must know the word itself – until you realise that for a hypothetical foreign speaker of English, knowing the words “size” and “down” doesn’t necessarily mean that they will know the meaning, or appreciate the connotations of, “downsizing.” (Or, to paraphrase David Moser, from whom I’m kind of stealing this point anyway, knowing “up” and “right” isn’t the same as knowing “upright.”)
Thus, while a native speaker of Chinese may only need to learn 2000 zi – “characters,” or “written-word-elements” as I’d prefer to think of them in this context – to read a newspaper, that’s because they already speak the language. You, as an outsider to the language, without the spoken lexicon that would give you the necessary background, will need to learn both the word-elements and the words themselves, which requires much more work and time.
Good. We’ve scared off the lightweights.
The truth is that Chinese is hard, for the reasons I’ve set forth above and many more that aren’t coming to mind right now. That being said, it’s not quite so bad: the word-elements I mentioned often work together in logical or at least understandable ways, so that xiao ( “small”), da (“big”), and xue (“study, learn”) react to form xiaoxue (“primary school”) and daxue (“university”). A good chunk of the time, if you’re dealing with modern Chinese, you’ll have at least a decent shot at guessing the meaning.
The characters? Hard, yes, but once you’ve gotten a couple hundred under your belt, you’ll be able to remember and reproduce them much more easily by dismantling them into their component parts and remembering that, for example, zui (“most, -est”) is ri over er over you.
Other characters give you clues as to their pronunciation. Xiang (“think”) is another character pronounced ‘xiang’ over an element meaning “heart.” Chao (“copy [e.g. notes]”) is an element meaning “hand” added to another character pronounced ‘shao.’
(Astute readers will have noted that of all of the romanised characters I’ve included above, none has been accompanied by any indication as to what tone it should be read in. There is a reason for this: while the PRC’s official Pinyin system of romanisation – which is what I’m using – does indicate tones via diacritical marks, most of what you’ll see on store signs in China or on the internet doesn’t bother with indicating tone. When tone is given online, it’s usually in the form of numbers, e.g. wo3 shi4 ou1 bo2 en1. I find this ugly, and anyway this isn’t a lesson for people studying Chinese, who will have probably learnt the characters I’m mentioning within their first couple weeks of class anyway.)
The tones are one of the hardest parts of learning Chinese, because while you can guess at characters (“Gee, gou [hook]…probably just the ‘metal’ element plus the ‘gou‘ phonetic…”), you really can’t fake the funk with tones. After you’ve managed to learn how to remember the correct tone per character, which is hard enough as is (un…less… you… speak… ve…ry… slow…ly), you’ll have to get the hang of producing them in connected speech, where they mutate promiscuously based on context.
There are also characters that can change tone based on meaning (read with the third tone, one of the characters pronounced hao means “good;” with the fourth tone, the same character means “to be fond of”) or flat-out change pronunciation. Screwing up will render you laughable, if not unintelligible. With time and work, though, the tones will become second nature; the more you practise, the luckier you get.
So what it all boils down to is this: Chinese is hard. Learning it takes a lot of work over a long period of time.
I am not saying this lightly, or exaggerating, as I have done earlier in this essay. If you want to learn Chinese, you will have to invest years, and really work at it.
This may be a good time to ask yourself why, exactly, you want to learn Chinese.
“Because I’ve heard the CIA/Armed Forces/whatever is looking for people fluent in Mandarin” is not a good answer.
Neither is anything beginning “In tomorrow’s economy…”
Neither are “I like kung-foo movies” or “I like Chinese food,” in case you were wondering.
When you get right down to it, the best reason to learn Chinese – the best reason to learn anything – is that you want to. It doesn’t have to be any more specific than that; all that matters is that you want to do it, and (afterwards) that you keep wanting to do it. If you don’t love something, you can never be good at it.
There comes a point (or many points) in everyone’s study of Chinese – usually around three in the morning, while they are sitting at their desk writing and rewriting and re-rewriting characters – where they look back at what they’ve accomplished and wonder why they ever got into such a thing. Even if they have been warned beforehand – which is my purpose in writing this – they still can’t help but feel that they didn’t really know, going in, exactly how difficult it would be. They may wonder why they didn’t just study something nice and easy, like, say, neuroscience.
But most of these people then take a second look at what they’ve learnt and decide that it’s been well worth it, that every scrap of effort they’ve put in has been rewarded a hundredfold.
And then they go back to studying.
I’ve been one of these people many times throughout my study of Chinese, and I hope that you will be too. Good luck.