I’m a real languages fan and the latest language project I’m working on is to learn Chinese. Up to now I’m really enjoying the experience and last year I even visited China to test out my skills – as you’ll want to learn the culture with the language! For those thinking about learning Chinese, here are a couple of considerations I wish I knew when I started.
Learn Chinese – But Which Dialect?
Whilst I specifically learn Mandarin, the standard dialect of Chinese that a lot of people speak, different regions have different dialects. The differences between some are actually 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 just spoken, and use mainstream Chinese characters for writing with. You need to target your dialect to where you think you’ll visit. For Hong Kong and Macau you will most probably want to learn Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Whilst a lot of people in these regions learn basic Chinese Mandarin, you’ll find that you can communicate much more effectively in the true local language. If you would like to learn Chinese for the fun of it, learn Mandarin for sure.
Do I have to learn characters?
No! The wonder 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 instance:
The simplified Chinese character for I (as in me) is (if you cannot see this character you might need to install a language pack).
The Pinyin for the character is ‘Wo3’. Written (as opposed to typed) Pinyin differs – the written Wo3 has a small ‘u’ on top of the O, indicating how exactly to say the word to tell apart 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 a lot better 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 type system in the 20th century to create simplified Chinese, which is now the standard generally in most parts of China and in a few international Chinese communities. Based on where you intend on travelling, you need to target the type system you learn if you opt to learn written Chinese.