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Learning the Value of Chinese Characters

by Tom Clowers

A lot of people will tell you that learning Chinese is too difficult. The main reason you usually hear for this is that the Chinese language has thousands of written characters that must be learned if you want to be able to read. While it is true that the average Chinese reader needs to know about 3,000 characters just to get through the morning paper, this aspect of the language is not the needless complication it initially appears to be.

To be sure, during the Chinese Republican period (1912-1949), the very height of Modernism, many Chinese scholars and intellectuals were convinced that their own language's complex writing system was hindering literacy in their country. Fu Sinian, a leader of the revolutionary (and very much Western-influenced) May Fourth Movement went so far as to call traditional characters "the product of cow-devils and snake-spirits". Here we might be reminded of similar sentiments coming from advocates of English spelling reform such as Benjamin Franklin or Mark Twain.

What is being overlooked here is that the Chinese language carries a lot of its meaning, nuance, and clarity in its written form. This is something that is generally a component of grammar in Western languages. For example, consider the grammatical contrast between these two sentences:

I'd never heard Vivaldi before last weekend's concert. (a past perfect negative verb with a time referenced adjectival phrase)

我上周才第一次听到那首歌。- wŏ shàngzhōu cái dìyīcì tīngdào nà shŏugē (I - last week - first time - hear that song)

Essentially, while both of these sentences express a complex idea, the Chinese can be broken down into a series of what are basically simple components, whereas the English relies on a complicated set of grammar rules simply to produce the correct verb.

What we're really looking at here is a complex, and intellectually robust written language, sitting on top of a 4000 year old spoken language in which many of the sounds have collapsed into homophones. For example, the second word of that sentence: 上 shàng is perfectly clear in writing, but in spoken Chinese there are at least three common words with the exact same tone and pronunciation:

上 shàng - above
尚 shàng - still
绱 shàng - to sole a shoe

This is basically the writing system filling in for the ambiguities of its spoken language, and what the Chinese characters provide here is not only the phonetic value of a word, but also its meaning. This may see a bit abstract at first, but remember: If you're an English speaker, you already use a writing system that works in a very similar fashion. What do I mean? Well take a look for yourself:

At night, I met a knight in shining armor.

If you're a student of Chinese, or simply curious about the language, just remember: Chinese characters are a key to exploring an even greater part of the language that you may have realized.

About the writer

Tom Clowers is a Cambridge-certified foreign language education specialist with over a decade of teaching experience in the Far East. If you'd like to find out more about this topic, check out his website at MandarinTrainer.com

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