The Important Basics To Cover in Chinese Language Learning

By Mason Richardson

Why Am I Writing This?

I've been learning Chinese since I was a child. But being in the language environment I was in, I wouldn't consider myself as a native speaker of Chinese. Even now, I find it difficult to converse very fluently with native Chinese people from China. I have the tendencies to always put in some English vocabulary or terms that I can't express in Chinese without a moment's thought. However, my knowledge about Chinese is still good as I majored in Chinese in university and I've been giving tuition to many for quite a few years.

Since the time when I finished college, I have come to believe that to succeed in learn Chinese, one would need passion, as well as proper coaching and the right learning tools. I have my own unique philosophy and pedagogy about how to go about learning the Chinese language. I always get very annoyed when I read on the newspaper on how the schools in my country is going about teaching Chinese to young children, because they are doing it in the wrong way and missing some key aspects in imparting the language and learning skills.

So here I am, hoping to write an article that would help others learn some correct concepts about Chinese that would help them in their learning!

The Three Aspects of Language-Pronunciation, Semantics and Language Symbols

The many learners of Chinese most often would lament that Chinese language is far from easy to achieve proficiency. They normally concentrate in learning how to communicate in Chinese.

However, they don't realize that due to the language's linguistic features, there exist a very close relationship between Chinese sounds, Chinese characters and their relevant meanings. When we chose to ignore learning the form and the meaning so that we can tackle the speaking part more efficiently, we actually are increasing the difficulty for ourselves. Let me explain, Chinese sound variants are very limited, and so the language turns to its symbols to encode the various different meanings, or semantics in the language. The result is that one sound, including its tone, can actually mean many, many things. For example: ji1 (first tone of the pronunciation "ji" in Chinese pinyin) can mean "small table", "hit", "chicken", "accumulate" to name a few. How do we know what someone is referring to when we hear the sound? We do this by learning the Chinese characters when we learn the corresponding pronunciation. When put into context, we would be able to call to our minds just what "ji" refers to. Do note that if we mispronounced the first tone into a 2nd tone, we would actually be meaning another set of very different things.

I have always been an advocate of memorizing the basics when it comes to Chinese learning, as oppose "creative learning". It's not that I don't believe that creative learning doesn't work, because I believe it does. I only know that you can't apply creative learning to Chinese language learning and don't expect the students to memorize and still get proficient in Chinese. I mean, memory even affects the score of IQ tests, not to say learning a foreign system where there is grammar rules, pronunciations, meanings and contextual usage all jumbled together.

Beginners learning the Chinese language often could not understand why the characters that they have mastered could turn out to mean very different things when stringed together with other just as familiar characters, especially when these characters happen to show up so frequently.

Well actually for me, I would advice that you don't need to memorize every single word that you come across, because that would be impossible. (I forgot to mention that in Chinese, words and characters are two separate concepts, because usually a word would consist of two or more characters, also not necessarily so.) However, what you do need to do is to memorize those characters that have the highest frequencies of occurrence and understand their individual root meanings. This will immensely speed up your absorption of new words as these new words are formed by the characters you already know, and you would be able to fairly accurately guess their meanings when combined.

There are bound to be words that can't be guessed from the basic meanings of each character that forms the word. However before you jump to a conclusion saying that most combinations can't be guessed, I need to tell you the ugly truth that many Chinese characters have multiple basic meanings. Some basic meanings can even be more than one. You might start to wonder just how large the amount of basic meanings you need to commit to memory.

How do you prevent yourself from instantly forgetting everything that you've learned? You simple have to practise. Make sure you have the chance to see the Chinese character, listen to its pronunciation, see it in use and use it yourself, and connect the usage with actual experiences. The more senses and experiences that can be hooked to a particular piece of information, the better we'll remember it. It's even better if you can associate with feelings that you felt regarding the particular situation when you used the word. An example is that you would never forget a word if there was ever an occasion when you used the word wrongly and resulted in a very embarrassing situation.

How to Keep the Fire Burning

Some people never really finished learning the language they set out to learn. The blame it on the language, they find excuses that it is just too time consuming, or that there wasn't anyone to practise with.

Motivation is crucial to maintain our passion in learning and it also adds fun to learning. Steve Kaufman, who have till date mastered ten languages, would tell you that the only way to keep yourself interested in language learning, is to continue to find reading materials that are interesting to you.

He believes that we must find that piece of article that is interesting to us, that would encourage us to find ways of finishing the article, that story, or any piece of writing for that matter. That is the motivation that will help us learn. The rest is just up to the brain. If you're curious and interested enough, you will definitely find the resources to acquire the knowledge. People actually learned Japanese just so that they can understand Japanese anime (a form of cartoon). Most who didn't would also prefer to watch the cartoon in Japanese without being dubbed in English. Another great example is the Korea show "Running Man" and the song "Gangnam Style", most teenagers are learning Korean just so that they can feel more "engaged" to their Korean idols.

Other motivators definitely play a part too. We can design milestones for ourselves to achieve and then reward ourselves for it. We can also keep progress reports and find the particular TV show or music video on the language that we're learning to motivate us.

Learning Resources

You need the right tools to get the right job done, and done well. The same can be said for Chinese language learning.

For example, you cannot do with at least one dictionary for you to look up your unfamiliar words, or a couple of audio tapes so that you can listen to the correct way of pronouncing the various sounds in Chinese. You will need to get assessment books to do some written exercises so that you know where your standard is at, or at least complete some tests to see if you have absorbed what you have learned. Go through resources so that you make sure that every aspect is more or less touched upon, from speaking and writing, to usage and grammar. Also make sure some "survival topics" are taught. You wouldn't be considered knowing Chinese unless you know something about Chinese culture and Chinese food, and how to order your Chinese food in Mandarin Chinese!

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