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10 secrets about learning Chinese that should be general knowledge
Learning Chinese is considered to be one of the hardest things in the world. Whether the reputation is fair can be discussed. We have arrived at a time when everyone should have at least a basic idea of the Chinese language. Because even if you still have nothing to do with China, you don't know when that will happen.
This article will give you a quick overview of how the Chinese language works. And with that you will be able to avoid embarrassing questions, such as: How many letters are there in Chinese?
For those short on time, we have a quick summary:
- Chinese is made up of more languages than just Mandarin and Cantonese
- It is a non-alphabetic language: the basis of the language is written characters.
- Chinese is made up of two languages: spoken and written.
- What you know as “vocabulary” does not exist in Chinese.
- Chinese has no grammar - none that you know as grammar.
- The plural and singular are foreign words in Chinese
- Chinese basically works like Lego bricks. According to the Indo-European language logic, Chinese is a baby language
- The complexity of the language is expressed with complicated words / characters, not with complicated sentences.
- Everyone can invent any new words, the most important thing: without rules!
- There is usually no such thing as absolute correctness in Chinese
Reading time for this article is approximately 10 minutes.
10 secrets about learning Chinese that are (actually) general knowledge
I added the “actually” and then put it in brackets because I am of the opinion that not everyone knows these 10 facts, but everyone should know. 1/4 of humanity speaks and uses Chinese, regardless of whether it is their mother tongue. Whether you have already decided to learn Chinese or you just wanted to find out something about it, the article will definitely help you to establish a connection to the 1.4 billion people in some sense. And now I'll finally tell you the 10 secrets of learning Chinese:
Secret # 1: Chinese is made up of more languages than just Mandarin and Cantonese
Chinese is the generic term for all possible dialects in Chinese, because Cantonese is "just" a dialect, even if many do not want to admit it.
It can be explained particularly well in German, as we can find a good example for everything in German.
The "Mandarin" is "Standard Chinese", like standard German in Germany.
Only one subtle difference is that in China there is an oral exam for Standard Chinese (Mandarin), while in Germany you only have a vague idea of what Standard German is. There are state exams and certificates for teachers or television and radio presenters in China. This is used to determine whether a person's standard Chinese is good enough to carry out the relevant job.
"Cantonese" is just a dialect, such as Bavarian.
From big cities like Shanghai, Xiamen to small towns, every city and region has its own dialects. These vary from similar to impossible to understand. But all write the same with Chinese characters. It works like in German: Even if it is pronounced very differently, the writing remains the same.
In the linguistic world, what is a language and what a dialect is is controversial. But to make it easier for you: If you think Bavarian is a different language, you can also understand Cantonese and other dialects as several languages. If you think Bavarian is a dialect, Cantonese and others are just dialects too.
Languages like Uighur, Tibetan and Mongolian are separate languages. Like French in Saarland.
Unlike the dialects, languages such as Uighur, Tibetan, Mongolian, etc. are separate languages. These have a different language logic, grammar and their own script. When these people learn Chinese, they are really learning a foreign language.
Anyone who has already dealt with this topic should have actually found the article on Google: Difference Between Chinese and Cantonese. This article on Mandarin is also worth reading.
I now have an English blog. The article "Is Chinese a language" explains this topic in more detail.
Secret # 2: It's a non-alphabetic language: the language is based on characters.
Many Indo-European native speakers find it particularly difficult to learn Chinese because they cannot imagine how a language can be built up without letters. It is also correspondingly difficult to explain to someone how such a language basically works if he / she has never known another language that is NOT based on the alphabet.
I explain it with a typical German word: "Fussball". This consists of “foot” and “ball”. These two words can also be used separately elsewhere:
Now imagine this: “Foot” is not written like this, but as “足”, and “Ball” is written as “球”. But if it is pronounced "football" anyway, it would look like this:
Now imagine, instead of "fu: s bal" it is pronounced as "zú qiú":
And with Chinese you always orientate yourself first to the meaning and not to the pronunciation. Word formation therefore begins with “foot” and “ball” and not with “ABCD”. You can always build words with these cornerstones, e.g. "foot bath":
Or "basket ball" (basketball):
That means the smallest unit is the sign, and that is often a word in itself. Therefore word formation works differently than with letters.
If you are even more interested in this topic, you might be interested in this article with more details about the Chinese language.
Secret # 3: Chinese is made up of two languages: spoken and written.
As mentioned in Secret # 2, when you learn Chinese you will quickly find that you are actually learning two languages. Because once you learn how something is pronounced, and you learn how it is written. But if you haven't understood beforehand what it means to learn a language based on characters, you will quickly become overwhelmed.
Because for all Indo-European native speakers, and, you can still expand to Arabic, Japanese, Korean ... for all people who only know that languages are based on an alphabet, writing serves as an auxiliary tool to note the pronunciation and to use it finally to notice. When learning Chinese, you inevitably have to do this twice, because what is spoken has nothing to do with what is written. Those who have not recognized this will have particularly great difficulties learning Chinese.
Secret No. 4: What you know as “vocabulary” does not exist in Chinese.
That, of course, has to do with Secret Nos. 2 and 3 again. Because the language is not based on an alphabet, and because the basic building blocks are characters, there are no such terms as “vocabulary” in Chinese either. Words and sentences are formed with the characters, so the number of characters is always used as a yardstick. A high school graduate knows an average of 6600 characters.
However, it is completely unclear how many words he / she can form with it. It is therefore particularly important that you use the characters you have learned particularly often, because this creates a lot of chances that you will learn or form new words that have completely different meanings without having to learn new characters.
Secret # 5: Chinese has no grammar - none that you know as grammar.
Hopefully you will realize in time that “learning languages” is a very western world. Because now we come across a term that doesn't actually exist in Chinese. There is grammar in Chinese, but it is so insignificant that you can and should ignore it for the time being when learning Chinese.
There are no cases, tenses and everything else that you know as grammar. Therefore, sentences are usually formed as follows:
"You go buy things?"
"Yes, I'll go buy things."
Yes, that actually makes learning Chinese so easy! Therefore, you should really make it clear to yourself: What makes learning Chinese so difficult has been artificially created with Western language logic!
That is why it is so important to us that when you learn Chinese you should first learn to speak and understand before you can read and write.
Secret # 6: Singular and plural are foreign words in Chinese
Yes, that goes even further: the two terms do not exist either. These also only exist in an alphabet-based language world.
It is perfectly correct to say: 3 apples, 4 trees, 5 days ... There is no plural.
It can only happen when addressing a word “们” (men). But this is not really the expression of the plural, but serves as a direct form of address, most often used in a speech such as “Dear Sir or Madam”. I would leave that as an exception anyway, so that the essential thing in learning Chinese remains that you do not have to and should not learn singular and plural.
Secret # 7: Chinese basically works like Lego bricks.
Now you can imagine to some extent that learning Chinese can also be a lot easier. Because a sentence or word mostly works like Lego bricks. The sentences are always used in the infinitive and singular form, without tenses and cases. Because there are no letters, there is no upper or lower case. The sentences are much easier than in German if you understood:
Secret # 8: According to Indo-European language logic, Chinese is a baby language.
The complexity of the language is expressed with complicated words or characters, not with complicated sentences.
Everything finally comes together. I was asked this question at least 3 times, even if the questioner was always a little embarrassed: Is Chinese really such a primitive language? You can hardly imagine how demanding a language can be when the grammar fails?
That is also the reason why Chinese is both particularly easy to get started with and offers a lot of upward potential. Because Chinese is not based on an alphabet, there are an infinite number of characters that can be learned. There are a total of about 83,000 characters that have been recorded. This means that a person's intellectuality is not expressed through grammatically complicated sentences, but with characters that others do not know. The more characters you know, the more sophisticated and intellectual you appear.
For the simple word “red” e.g., and I don't mean “pink” or “dark red”, but simply the word “red” there are innumerable expressions, and the more unknown the expression, the more educated one appears. Therefore, the beauty of the language is lost particularly quickly when trying to translate from Old Chinese into another language, since most languages do not have that many words for the one word to be translated. Then a poem usually looks pale because half the beauty consists of using the most varied of words.
Secret No. 9: Everyone can invent any new words, the most important thing: Without rules!
I mentioned in another article that when I was learning German I was told that I couldn't invent my own German word as long as I didn't have a German passport. I'm glad that I can now enjoy this privilege!
But I can tell you something really great: When learning Chinese, you don't have to worry that you have formed the wrong word. The Chinese language is a living Latin. This gives anyone who can speak Chinese the power to invent new words. The only requirement for this: You have to be able to speak a little Chinese so that you can use Chinese logic and not German logic to recreate the words.
We take another example with the "foot". If you now try to form more words with “foot”, the word “pedestrian” may come to mind. However, this word only works with German logic, because the word "Gänger" does not exist in German, it can only exist in connection with other words, such as "Doppelganger". But you couldn't just say, I'm a walker.
In Chinese there is of course an expression "pedestrian":
However, it does not mean that you shouldn't create a new word anymore, but that you should first try to get to know this linguistic logic better. If you want to form words even without knowledge of Chinese, you could also do it, with one rule: Each word must be an independent word.
Secret No. 10: There is usually no such thing as absolute correctness in Chinese
This is the point that I cannot stress enough: When learning Chinese, you shouldn't pay attention to mistakes!
Because there is no grammar in Chinese, “right” or “wrong” is often not that important. Mistakes in learning Chinese are not really mistakes, but unfamiliar expressions that, as a native speaker, you don't use yourself. Even with pronunciation, you shouldn't pay too much attention to correctness.
Only very few Chinese are proficient in correct pronunciation in standard Chinese. This is because Standard Chinese is based and expanded on the Beijing dialect, i.e. less than 1% of the entire population speak Standard Chinese as their mother tongue. Everyone else has to learn Chinese as well, like you and me. Yes, my mother tongue is also a dialect, not standard Chinese. China proudly claims that a total of over 80% of the population speak Standard Chinese, and 92% of city dwellers speak Standard Chinese (according to Wikipedia). But very few of them manage to speak standard Chinese correctly. This may make it easier for you to deal with your possible mistakes.
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