Chinese is about as different from English as you can get. And one of the things that English speakers find alien and difficult about it is the tones.
Not that tones are unusual, globally speaking. According to the Wikipedia article, Tone (Linguistics):
Tonal languages are common in East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas; as many as seventy percent of world languages may be tonal.
However, all languages have intonation. The presenter of YoYo Chinese, Yangyang Cheng, uses this (without actually making the distinction) as a way of making tones seem more familiar, in one of her excellent videos on tones: link to it here.
When I was a teacher of classical guitar, I encountered a number of people who claimed to be 'tone deaf'. Now while this condition does exist, it is actually quite rare. What these people more often suffer from is a lack of musical training or singing experience. And by way of evidence of this, I would cite, long before I took up the study of Chinese, the ability of all Chinese speakers to handle the required tones. I have never heard of any Chinese person unable to speak their own language on account of being 'tone-deaf'. So while most abilities tend to involve some combination of nature and nurture, the ability to master Chinese tones lies firmly in the nurture camp.
I have come across the occasional Chinese-made-easy book that plays down the importance of tones, even to the extent of not bothering with them at all. (I'm not going to cite them.) This is a mistake. It is hard enough getting Chinese speakers to understand or even pay proper attention to our stumbling attempts to speak their language; they're not expecting it, and the default assumption is that English speakers are not really up to it. There's a credibility barrier to jump. To overcome that barrier, we have to speak as authentically as possible, which absolutely means getting the tones right.
If you don't know the tone, you don't know the word. The tone must be assimilated along with the syllable itself (and ideally the written character too), rather in the way that a gender must be learned along with a new word in a Romance language such as French.
Last time, I identified learning the script as the single hardest challenge facing the student. In some ways, Chinese is easy, but the fact that Chinese children attain literacy some years later than their European counterparts goes to show that, as you might expect, reading and writing in Chinese is inherently more difficult than in English.
My response to this challenge, at the most general level, is simply to give the task the attention it requires. Unless you are blessed with an eidetic memory, or at least, you are a generation or two younger than I, you will need to spend some time absorbing each new character, learning it properly, and re-learning before it starts to fade.
This much may seem obvious, but I know from my own learning history that I have been too easily satisfied in the past with learning a character just well enough to be able to recognise it later. But being only weakly learned, they were often quickly forgotten.
This task can be broken down. Most characters consist of several components, or sometimes just one. One of these components is primary, called a radical. Radicals are important if you look characters up in a dictionary. But this is something I never do, since apps like Google Translate, or that can scan and translate Chinese script are now available. Nevertheless, I have found that learning the radicals is helpful.
Usually, the radical carries some hint of the meaning of the character, and there is often another component that carries a hint of the pronunciation.
For example, the character
Consists of the water radical, 氵(in its full form, this appears as 水) ...
… and the phonetic component, 羊.
The water radical vaguely hints at the meaning (one possible meaning, anyway), which is ocean.
The phonetic component gives the pronunciation quite closely: it is yáng. The meaning of the phonetic component is usually wildly irrelevant; yáng means ‘sheep’. The second tone is correct: but that is pure coincidence.
By the way, most Chinese words consist of two characters. So while 洋 can just about convey the meaning of ‘ocean’ on its own, a more likely translation is 海洋, or hǎiyáng.
The ‘components’ are mostly found on the radicals list, but often they are not.
Vague hints of meaning and pronunciation are generally all you get, however, from the semantic and phonetic components, as the characters of today have evolved over millennia, and the rationale for how a modern character is made up can be indiscernible.
By the way, the pictorial type of characters, as depicted for example on the header picture of this blog, include only about 5% of characters, while the semantic/phonetic kind are about 80%.
It is sometimes claimed that a good understanding of semantic and phonetic components is a considerable aid, and can enable the student to discern the likely meanings and pronunciations of characters never before encountered. This is not, however, my own experience so far, and while the vague hints they do offer can definitely be helpful, my impression thus far is that the claims for this approach tend to be exaggerated.
The next post will present my own methods for memorising characters.
Welcome to Mark's chinese blog
It's great to have you visit.
In this blog I am going to offer random comments, at no particular level, aimed at helping and encouraging fellow learners of the language. That language, by the way, is Mandarin Chinese, using simplified characters. This language has many names in Chinese, such as Putonghua, or Common Language.
So, a topic to get us started: is Chinese difficult?
You may look on this as a question in the form of, Is the Pope a Catholic, etc., but in fact the answer is equally Yes and No. The No part is more surprising and interesting than the Yes part. So, boring part first.
Chinese is a language totally alien to the English speaker. There is no common vocabulary to help out, and no connection to Latin or other Indo-European languages. This, of course, is an important part of the attraction, and certainly counts as one of my reasons for choosing to learn it. And while getting the pronunciation of the consonants and vowels (called Initials and Finals in the context of Chinese) approximately right is not too hard, there are many pitfalls, and getting them exactly right is quite a challenge. Then, of course, we have the notorious Tones. Surprisingly, most of the world's languages are tonal in some way or degree, English being in a minority in this respect. I will, naturally, have more to say on these questions in due course.
Then there is the rather staggering fact that written Chinese is not based on an alphabet; it is a non-phonetic language in a radical sense (as opposed to the weak sense of 'non-phonetic' whereby English tends to depart from an essentially phonetic basis, giving rise to the curious concept of 'spelling').
Instead, every word is represented by a character, or a combination of two or sometimes more characters, so that the written form of every new word has to be learned as a unique pictorial form. Estimates vary as to how many characters must be learned to attain literacy, but one estimate (from the Asia Foundation) is between three and four thousand. It is a vague number, because each new character learned, as full literacy is approached, tends to be used less and less often.
I'm just getting serious about learning all those pesky characters properly, and while it's fun, it's also a long haul. For me, it's the hard part. I'm not personally phased by tones, or other aspects of pronunciation, or by word order. It's trying to remember all those little pictures, as my ability to remember stuff declines with age.
However, Chinese has its easy aspects as well. Foremost is the glorious fact that verbs are absolutely never conjugated. I be, you be, they be, yesterday he be, tomorrow she will be. And other parts of speech have no cases (which is also somewhat true in English).
Hence, irregular verbs, and even the regular ones, and grammatical cases as found in European languages such as German, Czech, Hungarian, etc. are seriously alien aspects of language, from the Chinese point of view. In this way, they have it harder than we do.
Where a language is not conjugated or inflected, there will be a corresponding reliance on word order. And part of the case for saying that in some ways Chinese is not difficult, is that English, because the use of cases has been largely and increasingly abandoned, tends to share this reliance on word order. Where a language is heavily inflected, with consistent use of cases (such as nominative, objective, and dative), sentence construction tends to be relatively independent of word order. Something to watch out for in Chinese studies is the correct word order for various grammatical constructions. There is a certain similarity to English with a basic Subject - Verb - Object form, but beyond that, the Chinese way of ordering sentences tends to be both specific and idiosyncratic.
So actually, while the importance of word order in general might be a plus, getting used to Chinese word order might be seen as a minus (unless you're like me).
An absolutely vital aid to the English learner is the romanised form of written Chinese called pinyin. This system offers a bridge to the pictorial script, and considerably eases the difficulty of learning vocabulary. It also offers an insidious temptation to cut out the proper script altogether, a policy actually pursued, for example, in Chinese for Dummies.
No Chinese examples in this introductory post, but there will be.
I am a native English speaker, having a lot of fun learning Chinese. I think (and hope) I have a certain knack for understanding what the language is about, so that I might be able to offer something your usual Chinese class does not.