Chinese Corner

The Incision Point5 min read

The first of our weekly language column, ‘Chinese Corner’ – by Liz Carter

Editor’s note: This a column about Chinese for people who don’t know anything about Chinese. From the tones of speech to the characters on the page, Chinese often seems impenetrable to a native English speaker. We’re here to show you that you can learn Chinese, and why learning it is such an engrossing, maddening, surprising and passionate endeavor. This isn’t a language course, there won’t be any tests. But it will be fun, and you will pick up some curse words along the way.
Translator and UCLA East Asian linguistics PhD student Liz Carter is our head guide, ready to lead us into the thicket of puns, humor, rhyme and allusion in Mandarin, the “common speech” of mainland China and the “national language” of Taiwan. Guest contributors will take us on excursions to other varieties of Chinese, the evolution of the writing system, dirty Chinese and other linguistic corners. If you have a question about Chinese that you’d like answered here, send it to [email protected] with the subject “Chinese Corner.” Or tweet a #chinesequestion at Liz @withoutdoing or me @annemhdc. – Anne Henochowicz

Most of us are acquainted with Mandarin, and by that I mean the predominant form of Chinese. We often use the labels “Chinese” and “Mandarin” interchangeably, but in fact there are at least seven major varieties of Chinese, depending on whom you ask. For now, let’s start with Mandarin, what you would learn in school.

There are a lot of reasons to learn Mandarin: it’s beautiful, useful in all sorts of business endeavors, and would enable you to communicate with an additional billion people on this planet. The main problem most people have with Mandarin isn’t deciding whether or not they’d like to study it: it’s deciding where to start.

Formal coursework isn’t an option for everyone. Memorizing characters is, honestly, pretty dull. An immersion experience can seem a bit drastic when all the Chinese you know so far is what you’ve learned from your last three fortune cookies. Unless you already have some background in the language, deciding to study Mandarin can feel like ordering a steak and being served a cow. Also, it’s still mooing.

Which brings us to the incision point, or qiērù diǎn. It’s where you start, how you really get into something. And for many people starting on Mandarin – including the Chinese themselves – the way they begin is with pinyin, the phonetic alphabet used in italics above. It’s easier than going straight into Chinese characters, but still presents problems: pinyin uses the Roman alphabet, but the letters don’t behave in predictable ways. How do you pronounce a “Q” when it’s not followed by a “U”? What is the difference between “Z” and “ZH”? Is it “X” as in Xena: Warrior Princess or as in “X-ray”? And what about tones?

Our purpose here is not to explain how to pronounce everything perfectly, but to offer some words of reassurance: it’s not as hard as you might think. English has roughly ten times as many distinct syllables as Mandarin, even accounting for tonal differences (estimates for English range from 10,000 to 15,831, while estimates for Mandarin range from 1,200 to 1,512). Statistical analysis shows that the a mere 100 Mandarin words – 70% of them monosyllabic – make up almost 80% of everyday conversation. And even tone deaf people can learn tonal languages. Believe me, I have heard plenty of native Mandarin speakers whose karaoke performances left much to be desired.

If pronunciation isn’t a deal breaker, then what about the main writing system? Each Chinese syllable is represented by a character. For example, qiērù diǎn is written as 切入点. If you’re presented with writing in Chinese characters and no one has told you ahead of time how to pronounce each one of them, you’re kind of at an impasse, whereas most anyone who’s learned their ABCs could read aloud a page of English they don’t understand. This is the main reason that Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages for English native speakers to learn.

The bright side is that the writing system is also not as hard as you might assume. In practice, only a few thousand characters are necessary for literacy and ordinary use –  3,000-4,000 is Jerry Norman’s estimate. I have more cat pictures than that on my phone right now, and I haven’t even had this phone that long. It’s another matter entirely if you want to become a Sinologist, but if you just want to learn to write and read, there’s never been an easier time. In fact, once you’ve learned pinyin, you’re halfway to being able to write in Mandarin, as predictive text and typing software allows you to input pinyin and choose from possible Chinese characters (or emojis).

Perhaps most importantly, the process of learning characters becomes progressively easier as you learn. For the majority of Chinese characters, there is at least some clue as to how it is pronounced in the way that it is written. Knowing some characters will enable you to make educated guesses about how to pronounce new characters and remember them more easily.

All that said, this column is not about teaching pinyin or Chinese characters in a comprehensive way. This column has a very simple incision point, one that has been the motivation for my four-year, thousand-tweet Today’s Chinese project: we will start with what’s interesting. Any practice has to be interesting to be sustainable. It has to be sustainable if you’re going to do it for any length of time, and it goes without saying that most practices, especially learning Mandarin, are going to take quite a length of time.

Future editions of Chinese Corner will run the gamut: bathroom graffiti, obscenities, online slang, and censorship circumvention are all on the docket. And language learning is an essentially social activity, so we welcome any suggestions, questions, critiques or ideas, tweeted to me @withoutdoing or sent to the editorial inbox at [email protected]. ∎

The header image for this post is a detail from “Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru“, by the Song dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian, a public domain image under Creative Commons license.