Background to the Chinese language

Chinese is a tonal language with a character-based writing system. To understand what this means we can compare it to English. In English the word “horse” can only have one meaning, no matter which tone you use when you pronounce it (e.g. say it in a rising tone or falling tone does not change the meaning of the word).

In Chinese however, if you say “ma” it can mean “mother”, “horse”, “scold”, or “hemp” depending on the tone you use when you pronounce it. For example:

ma1: mother
ma3: horse
ma4:  scold
ma2:  hemp

(If you are unfamiliar with the tones, visit here:

This can make Chinese a fun and challenging experience for English speakers. Imagine asking a stranger for directions but because accidently use a falling tone you’ve said the word “kiss”.

qing3wen4: “may I ask…”
qing3wen3: “may I kiss you”

This is what we mean by a tonal language – the tone you use literally determines the meaning of EVERY word. In English, we sometimes use tones but mainly to add colour and expression, not a core part of the language which determines the meaning of every word.

A character based writing system means they use what look like little drawings to express words. The major difference from English is this: In English you can generally discern a word’s pronunciation by it’s letters, because English has a phonetic alphabet (a b c d). In Chinese, there are several thousand characters, and you simply have to memorize the pronunciation of each one – if you don’t know a character, unlike English you can’t figure out the pronunciation by looking at it, you’ll need to look up a dictionary (in fact, sometimes a character does give HINTS as to it’s pronunciation, but never complete information – elaborate on this. Also, you need to remember 1. the phonetics 2. the tone).

When you learn English, the spoken and written systems are connected phonetically. You learn the alphabet and English pronunciation and you can pretty much pronounce any word you see (you might not know the meaning of words, but you can pronounce them). In Chinese, you need to memorise the pronunciation and meaning of the various characters. To look on the bright side… Chinese does have one advantage in this regard. Written English carries information about the pronunciation of the word, but not the meaning. Chinese characters contain just a little information about pronunciation, but also some information about the meaning of the word

Here’s a little understood fact. In English you need to learn a 26 letter alphabet and you’re set to go… In Chinese there are roughly 120 “radicals”, which are basic components (building blocks) of characters which you need to learn, it’s just like learning the 26 letters of the alphabet, except there are over 100!

When you can write these 120 radicals, you start seeing characters in a whole new light. Instead of a character being a bunch of squiggles, you instead see it as being composed or usually 2 or 3 of these radicals. Just as an average English word may be composed as 5 letters, an average Chinese character is typically composed of 2 or 3 radicals. So you can think of Chinese radicals as being something similar to the English alphabet, but instead of 26 there are 120, but that’s not so bad because each character is made of just 2 or 3 of these (as opposed to 5 or 6 letters). After spending a few weeks practicing the radicals, you can look at practically any Chinese character and be able to memorize it in a few seconds.

WHAT TO AVOID:  A common approach is to learn common characters without learning the radicals first, this is like studying English words without first learning the alphabet, making it almost impossible. For example, the Chinese character for “good” is “好”, which is often one of the first characters students start with – it should not be. Because this character is actually made of two components, nv and er. You must first master the components before learning characters which are made from them. So in this case, the student should have already mastered the 120 components (which include nv and er), and then a character like HAO would be learned and understood very easily. I cannot emphasize this enough.

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