Learning Chinese Language

Chinese Characters

The Chinese language is one of the most difficult languages in the world, and learning the Chinese language is an excruciating process. Benjamin Stecher, a foreigner in China, shares his struggles and joys through his studies of the Chinese language

I have been engulfed in learning the Chinese language since the moment I arrived in China nearly a year and a half ago. The Chinese language continues to be a painful ride with no end in sight. It is agonizing to think that if I had devoted the same amount of time to almost any European language, I would have already been done. Yet along the way there are enough delights to keep one duly entertained until that fateful day when it will all come to an end. God I hope there is an end.

Much has been said of the dreaded tones and how a simple mistake in, for example, the sound ‘ma’ leaves you cursing the heavens or talking about a horse rather than referring to your mother. However, for those of you just setting out on your own journey through learning the Chinese language, fear not, tones are only important when pronouncing individual words. When stringing together sentences, context usually supersedes any tonal ambiguity that may cause misunderstandings.

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When I first began learning the Chinese language it seemed to me as though the Chinese speak to each other as children would. The confines of their language often leave them forming sentences in seemingly the simplest way conceivable. From 认识你很高兴 (pronounced – ren shi ni hen gao xing; transliterated – know you very happy; translated – it is nice to meet you) to the oft borrowed 好久不见 (hao jiu bu jian; long time no see) .

Yet, before I come off sounding too disparaging of one of the oldest languages in the world, I must point out the intricacies that make learning the Chinese language such a fascinating journey for so many. There is a certain beauty in being able to encapsulate entire ideas in sentences only a few syllables long. The Chinese language has been in use by an immense population for nearly five thousand years, and so many of the words in Chinese trace their etymologies back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years; These facts have left the language with phrases, idioms, and proverbs – all its own.

A few Chinese language phrases:

刀子嘴,豆腐心 pronounced – dao zi zui, dou fu xin; transliterated – knife mouth, tofu heart; translated – have a mouth as sharp as a dagger but a heart as soft as tofu.

杀鸡给猴看 - sha ji gei hou kan; kill chicken give monkey see; to kill a chicken before a monkey – to incite fear in the monkey, originating from the warring states period when deterrents were in wide use.

国家利益高于一切 - guo jia li yi gao yu yi qie; country interest then all else; put public interests before everything else – often used by party spokesmen, usually also meaning that all citizens must put the interests of your country before those of your family.

骑虎难下 - qi hu nan xia; ride tiger difficult off; once on a tiger’s back it is difficult to get off.

马无夜草不肥,人无横财不富 – ma wu ye cao bu fei, ren wu heng cai bu fu; A horse cannot get fat without being fed at night, nor can a man become rich without earnings apart from his regular salary.

What Makes Learning the Chinese Language So Interesting?

The characters and words that make up the Chinese language often contain meanings rooted deep in the history of the Chinese people. The word 马上(ma shang, at once/immediate), is comprised of the character for horse, (ma), and the preposition, on, (shang). Together they make up a word that is a living testament to the history of a place where horseback was the quickest means of conveying messages, travelling, and transporting goods, as well as a score of other duties that generations relied upon when something needed to be done at once.

Another example is 矛盾(mao dun, conflict/contradict). The word is comprised of the symbol for a spear, , and that of a shield, . Now if you stare at the characters long enough you might be able to convince yourself that they resemble the objects they describe, but keep in mind that the modern Chinese script bears little resemblance to its original form (for more, click here). What is apparent is the meaning derived when two opposing forces, such as a spear and a shield, meet – a contradiction.

A few more words and phrases in Chinese:

(an, peace) – the character is comprised of the symbol for a women under the symbol for roof. Taken to mean either a woman sitting peacefully at home or a man can only be at peace if there is one woman in the house.

(nan, man) – the character for strength under the character for field.

自闭症(zi bi zheng, autism) – characters: self close disease.

However, because of the symbolism inherent in Chinese characters, one often struggles to imagine where some of these terms originate. For example, the Chinese word for a toilet is often translated as 马桶(ma tong), the symbols for a horse and a bucket, leaving one to shudder wondering where its origins may lie.

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About the Author

Benjamin has been teaching and studying in East-Asia for much of the last five years. Born in Kenya but raised in Canada, Benjamin now lives in Shanghai where he has been working and studying since the summer of 2010.