Do all Chinese learners learn the Chinese characters?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Hani, Dec 12, 2009.

  1. Hani Registered Senior Member

    I am stunned that Chinese is still written in 2009 by the most primitive means of writing--a logographic writing system-- and that you need to memorize about 4000 weird looking characters in order to read that language.

    This is insane. Even the ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform was more advanced than this. The Sumerian cuneiform characters were about 1500 in the 3rd millenium BC, and by 500 BC the Semitic Akkadians had reduced them to about 500 syllabic charcters. The Chinese writing appear to have never even developed into a syllabary.

    I can't understand how can somebody memorize a character for each word. I am thinking of learning only the Pinyin. What do foreign learners usually do?
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  3. grazzhoppa yawwn Valued Senior Member

    Those 4000 characters are not completely unique.

    Most of them are compositions of smaller, less complicated characters. The decomposition of the complex characters gives hints to the meaning and pronunciation of the complex character.

    This facilitates memorizing those 4000 characters by creating webs of association between many different characters.

    an example in mandarin:

    米 + 青 = 精
    rice + qīng = jīng

    rice is a major source of food, so it provides energy.
    qīng is a phonetic marker. It doesn't really contribute to the meaning.

    the result is a word that sounds like qīng and has a meaning that is associated with "energy".​

    When I learn new Chinese characters, I often feel it is no different than when I was learning new vocabulary words in English. You simply associate the decomposition of the new word with smaller and simpler words that you're already familiar with.
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2009
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  5. Norsefire Salam Shalom Salom Registered Senior Member

    I'm currently learning Chinese, and it really isn't as hard as you make it. Many of the words have similar root parts, or radicals.

    Wo hui shuo hanyu; ni hao ma?
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  7. Hani Registered Senior Member

    Good to know; but still the system requires too much mental effort. I am getting a literal headache by just trying to pronounce the language correctly. It is really awfully difficult.

    I have just started teaching myself Chinese yesterday, but I think you're asking how I am. I am good, thanks. How about you? I hope you are fine.
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The most important reason for not writing Chinese phonetically is that, contrary to what most Westerners assume, Chinese is not a single language. Mandarin and its various dialects such as Sichuan hua is Han Chinese, but Cantonese and the speech of several nearby regions is Wu Chinese. It is as difficult for a speaker of one to understand the other as English and Swedish. For example, "five" in Mandarin is WU whereas in Cantonese it's NG.

    This is not just a slight difference in dialect, like the different ways British and Americans pronounce the vowels in cat cot caught cut. These differences make the words incomprehensible.

    There are several other Chinese languages with millions of speakers, but Han and Wu have the most.

    However, since the written language has been an influence on the development of Chinese as the ancient language evolved into regional dialects and finally distinct languages, all of the Chinese languages use the same words and the same syntax. (Well 98% of the time anyway.

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    ) So any Chinese who knows how to read can pick up something written by any Chinese who knows how to write, and he can read it without knowing which language the writer speaks.

    Chinese writing cannot be made phonetic as long as Chinese people don't all speak the same language.

    The goal of the communist government, of course, is to get them all speaking the same language. Mandarin is taught in all schools, so the day will come when everyone can speak and understand Mandarin even if they speak a different language at home. But that's two generations in the future and possibly three.

    When that happens they've got the phonetic system already devised.
  9. Hani Registered Senior Member

    Well, first of all I think that, contrary to what you think, most people do know that Chinese refers to mutually incomprehensible dialects. However, this is by no means a justification for having a logographic writing system in the 21st century. Many other languages come in mutually incomprehensible dialects too (e.g., Indian languages, Arabic, etc.) and none of these languages solved the problem by doing away with (real) writing-- sorry but this argument makes very little sense.
  10. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    The definition of "dialects" is that they are intercomprehensible. If they're not, then they are separate languages. Obviously there are borderline cases such as Czech and Slovak, Danish and Norwegian, or Finnish and Estonian, which require increasingly substantial effort for intercomprehension as we move forward on that list, yet are still qualitatively easier than a truly foreign language. And there are language continuums, in which neighboring pairs are easily understood but the ones at the end are considerably harder, such as the geographical spectrum from Berlin German to Amsterdam Dutch.

    But the languages of China do not fall into either category. It is a major feat for a Mandarin speaker to learn Fujian hua or vice versa. These are not dialects, they are distinct languages. The fact that they use the same words in the same order, most of the time, makes this a very interesting subfamily of Sino-Tibetan for linguists, and possibly unique among the world's language groups because their evolution was so profoundly shaped by the technology of writing. But it doesn't change the fact that they are not intercomprehensible by any stretch of the definition, and therefore are not dialects. You could lock a person from Beijing up with a person from Hong Kong for three months and they would be no closer to understanding each other unless they found a way to write on the walls. A Czech and a Slovak will be speaking pidgin in a day and chatting comfortably in a week.

    As for "most people," you of course are referring to linguists, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists. The other 99.999% of Americans believe that all Chinese people speak dialects of a single language just like we do. Just ask any dozen of them. Virtually everyone I ever knew who walked through Chinatown with me asked, "So what are these people saying?" When I said I had no idea because they were speaking Cantonese, they replied, "Oh come on now, Fraggle. You've been studying Mandarin for years and you even begged your Chinese girlfriend and all her friends and family to speak it with you. Surely by now Cantonese is no harder for you to understand than Scots English."
    You missed the point completely. Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghai hua and every other language of China use the same words in the same sequence (mostly). By using logograms everyone writes so that everyone else can read their writing. (They write a little formally so the differences practically disappear, but every written language is slightly more formal than its spoken version.)

    This cannot be done with Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali (which are also separate languages, not dialects of one language). They have diverged not just in phonetics but in vocabulary and syntax, just as English and Dutch have, or Italian and Romanian, or Ukrainian and Croatian. They don't use the same words in the same order, so logograms would not help them understand each other.
    As for Arabic, those are dialects of a standard language. I don't know how wide a spectrum the dialect continuum covers, so I can't say whether a Moroccan can understand an Iraqi. But a Libyan can understand an Egyptian, an Egyptian can understand a Palestinian, and a Palestinian can understand a Jordanian. Because of the influence of Islam throughout the Arabic-speaking nations, a standard dialect of Arabic has been preserved that does not represent the colloquial speech of any community, and virtually everyone can understand it (especially in the age of radio and TV). This is what is spoken when people from different countries come together, and virtually all written Arabic is a transcription of this preserved standard dialect.

    You haven't got precise definitions of "language" and "dialect," so without a clear distinction between the two you're being confused. It's a big and important difference.

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