I’m a real languages fan and the latest language project I’m working on is to learn Chinese. So far I’m really enjoying the experience and last year I even went to China to test out my skills – as it’s also important to learn the culture with the language! For those thinking about learning Chinese, here are a couple of important things I wish I knew when I started.
Learn Chinese – But Which Dialect?
Whilst I specifically learn Mandarin, the standard dialect of best ways to learn mandarin that most people speak, different regions have different dialects. The differences between some are really not too big (e.g. Beijing Chinese and Singapore Chinese) but others are almost a completely different language altogether (e.g. Mandarin and Cantonese). Some dialects are only spoken, and use mainstream Chinese characters for writing with. It’s best to target your dialect to where you think you’ll visit. For Hong Kong and Macau you’ll probably want to learn Cantonese instead of Mandarin. Whilst most people in these regions learn basic Chinese Mandarin, you’ll find that you can communicate a whole lot more effectively in the real local language. If you just want to learn Chinese for the fun of it, learn Mandarin for sure.
Do I have to learn characters?
No! The beauty of learning Chinese nowadays is the presence of Hanyu Pinyin, or Pinyin for short. If you just want to learn spoken Chinese, there’s still some writing involved, but you won’t be writing characters. Hanyu Pinyin is the international standard for romanisation of Chinese characters. Pinyin was invented to help foreigners learn Chinese and occasionally school children learn it as well – however most Chinese will not understand you if you try to write Pinyin – they associate characters with the sounds that we would associate to the romanised Pinyin. For example:
The simplified Chinese character for I (as in me) is (if you can’t see this character you might need to install a language pack).
The Pinyin for the character is ‘Wo3’. Written (as opposed to typed) Pinyin is different – the written Wo3 has a small ‘u’ on top of the O, indicating how to say the word to distinguish it from other ‘Wo’s.
If you simply wrote ‘Wo’ most Chinese would not understand you. If you said ‘Wo’ they would.
There are two different character systems, aren’t there?
Yes, there is Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese is much easier to learn than Traditional Chinese (less complicated characters, etc.). Traditional Chinese is now only used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The Chinese government redeveloped the character system in the 20th century to produce simplified Chinese, which is now the standard in most parts of China and in some international Chinese communities. Depending on where you plan on travelling, you should target the character system you learn if you decide to learn written Chinese.