I’m a real languages fan and the latest language project I’m working on is to learn Chinese. So far best ways to learn mandarin ‘m really enjoying the experience and last year I even went to China to try out my skills – as it’s also important to learn the culture with the language! For all those thinking about learning Chinese, listed below are a couple of important things I wish I knew when I started.
Learn Chinese – But Which Dialect?
Whilst I specifically learn Mandarin, the typical dialect of Chinese that most people speak, different regions have different dialects. The differences between some are actually not too large (e.g. Beijing Chinese and Singapore Chinese) but others are almost a totally 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 imagine you’ll visit. For Hong Kong and Macau you will most probably want to learn Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Whilst most people in these regions learn basic Chinese Mandarin, viewers 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 certain.
Do I must learn characters?
No! The beauty of learning Chinese nowadays may be 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 will not be writing characters. Hanyu Pinyin is the international standard for romanisation of Chinese characters. Pinyin was invented to greatly help foreigners learn Chinese and occasionally school children learn it aswell – however most Chinese won’t understand you if you make an effort to write Pinyin – they associate characters with the sounds that people would associate to the romanised Pinyin. For example:
The simplified Chinese character for I (as in me) is (if you cannot see this character you may want to install a language pack).
The Pinyin for the character is ‘Wo3’. Written (instead of typed) Pinyin differs – the written Wo3 includes a small ‘u’ on top of the O, indicating how to say the word to tell apart it from other ‘Wo’s.
If you simply wrote ‘Wo’ most Chinese wouldn’t normally understand you. In the event that you said ‘Wo’ they would.
There are two different character systems, aren’t there?
Yes, there’s Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Simplified Chinese is a lot easier to learn than Traditional Chinese (simpler 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 generally in most parts of China and in a few international Chinese communities. Depending on where you intend on travelling, you need to target the character system you learn if you decide to learn written Chinese.