How To Learn The Hard Chinese Language

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So, yeah, of course, there is a city in China called Chongqing, and yes, there is a city also called Linglong, and yes, actually I checked, there is a city also called Ding dong. So – that’s not my point, that’s not what I’m trying to talk about today. I’m trying to talk about 5 misconceptions that I had, and a lot of people have about the Chinese language. Now, the stereotypical language that you probably hear that you think is Chinese is actually Cantonese. For example, let’s have a little conversation here about going to get some barbecue. 

They sound completely different, don’t they? So, a lot of people actually think that Chinese – because Chinese is a tonal language and there’s 4 tones. That means that you can’t use a tone of voice to kind of change your meaning. For example, if I say *sarcastically* “Wow, that’s great.” or I say *enthusiastically* “Wow, that’s really great!” A lot of people think that in Chinese that you can’t do that since there’s 4 strict tones. Now let me tell you the exact same phenomenon in Chinese exists just like in English. 

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Now another misconception is that Chinese is one language, and that’s simply not true. Now, of course we have different dialects and kind of different accents in America throughout the entire country: “Not like you think it is. It’s not because – it’s not like – it’s not like the show, and-” “It’s *mumbling* they’re think in’. *laughter from audience* “Tennessee’s got a thought- they’re thinking’ about it.” But in China the different dialects are almost like completely different languages. Now of course you’ve heard of Mandarin Chinese, and that’s obviously the ‘top dog’. That’s what most of the country, I believe 92% of people speak. 

But there’s tons of other dialects like Cantonese, Jin Chinese, Hakka, Minnan Hua, not only is the accent completely different, but they use different phrases to even greet each other and different phrases and different grammatical structures. As you can see, these are completely different. Now, the good news is you don’t have to waste your time learning these dialects unless you want to impress some local people. 

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There’s a local guy here in my city, he was actually from India, but he living in Huizhou so long that he was in Huizhou when people only spoke Hakka. So he learnt Hakka before he learnt Chinese, and at the end of the day, now everyone is Huizhou speaks Mandarin so it’s not not super useful, although it is kind of a cool party trick. Now, another misconception is that Chinese characters are ‘letters’ (as some people call them in the West) are like mystical runes. Now, actually only 20 – 30% of the Chinese characters came from the oracle bones that everyone hears about. 

And actually characters, although they’re super, super complicated and hard to learn, actually are composed of all kinds of different radicals that make up each other, so it’s akin to a kind of- an English alphabet except much, much more diverse and much more complicated. But what that means is that a lot of characters are composed of the same radicals, so there’s not some ancient or secret meaning behind them. 

For example – I’m gonna aim this at the tattoo artists of the world – a lot of Westerners go into tattoo parlours thinking that they’re gonna get some epic symbol like ‘dragon’ or ‘love’ or ‘trust’ or ‘friendship’ kind of- or ‘power’ (I’ve seen this) tattooed on their body. And actually, what they’ve done is akin to writing the word in English, like ‘dragon’, on your body. “Dude, check out my new tattoo!” *hardcore rock music* It’s not cooler and it doesn’t have any more significant ancient meaning. I remember I was working years and years ago, and a woman kind of came up to the register and I had just started to learn a few Chinese characters (this is in America). 

And she comes up to the register and she has, uh, character ‘力 (lì)’, which means power, on her arm. And I said “Wow, that’s a cool Chinese character, it’s means power.” And she goes “No, it means the strength to overcome any adversity because my mother had breast cancer and she got over it.” And I said “Well, it just means power, it doesn’t have any significant meaning.” And she was just all huffed and puffed out of there because there was some sort of cultural significance in her mind of her tattoo when in fact, at the end of the day, it’s kind of like getting English words on your body. 

Now my last and final point is actually that Chinese is the hardest language in the entire world. You hear this all the time. And if you look at the (?) or the very famous FSI language charts, this is the Foreign Institute of Language in America, the military rates Chinese as a level 4 language- (to passer-by) “What’s up?” a level 4 language, which actually means that it takes the most time to learn and study, compared to the other languages, like, even really difficult ones. For example, I learnt Finnish, um, when I was really interested in Scandinavia. 

*speaking in Finnish* I must tell you this: Finnish is much more difficult to learn than Chinese is. Now, Mandarin gets a bad rap because what they do when they compile these charts and these difficulty scales is they put Mandarin in the top one because they’re including writing and reading, and reading and writing in Chinese is absolutely one of the most difficult things you can do. The character system is SUPER complex and it takes forever to learn all the radicals and their composition, but the actual speaking of the language is much more simple, especially compared to a European language that might be a little bit more comfortable for us because it’s related to English. 

But at the end of the day, Chinese grammar is much more simple than most romance languages and European languages, and actually it didn’t take me too long to pick up speaking in Mandarin Chinese. Thank you so much Laowinners! I hope you liked this ‘Top 5 Misconceptions about Chinese’ and I hope you’re not scared off by charts and rating systems and people saying that Chinese is super hard to learn because, at the end of the day, it’s not that difficult compared to other languages, it’s just the writing and reading. Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed this episode and I will catch you on the next one.


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