Chinese Character a Day Returns!

My apologies for the delay in updating this website, thank you for your patience with me. I will be working with my assistant Danielle to post a weekly blog that features different methods of learning Chinese, and wanted to start off with a list of questions about the Chinese language and my responses. Hopefully you will find this useful as we begin our lessons.

1. How does Chinese differ from English?

Unlike English, Chinese is a pictorial language.  There is no alphabet and no connection between the shape of the word (writing) and how it is pronounced (sound).  Every word is a picture and needs to be memorized separately.

2. What is the difference between simplified Chinese characters and traditional characters?

Traditional Chinese characters were standardized by the First Emperor of China 2200 years ago.  When Mao Zedong became the ruler of China in 1949, he introduced simplified characters to make learning Chinese easier for the millions of peasants who could not read and write.  Simplified characters resemble traditional characters but the words have fewer strokes and are easier to write.

3. Is the grammar in a simple Chinese sentence the same as in English?

There is practically no grammar in Chinese.

Instead of saying:

a.     I am eating cake now.

b.     I ate cake yesterday.

c.     I have eaten cake before.

In Chinese you will say:

a. I eat cake now.

b. I eat cake yesterday.

c.  I eat cake in the past.

4. What are radicals?

Radical is part of a Chinese Character.  For instance, the words 汁 (juice), 池 (pool), 汗 (sweat), 江 (river)    all have the radical (three dots) on their left.  These three dots usually mean that the character has something to do with water.  Radicals are used in Chinese dictionaries to organize Chinese characters.  If you are looking for the word 汁 (juice) in a Chinese dictionary, you would look for the three dots radical section to search for it.  All Chinese words are classified by their radicals.

5.  Can you explain about the different tones when speaking Chinese?

Spoken Chinese is a monosyllabic language.  Each word has only one syllable.  Because of this, tones are used to differentiate different words.

For instance the four characters 妈 (mother) 麻 (numb)  马 (horse)  骂 (scold)  are all pronounced MA.  How to tell one MA from another MA?  By using tones.

There are four tones in mandarin (the dialect spoken in Beijing).

A.  First tone.  High level.  妈(mother) is pronounced MA

B.  Second tone.  Rising.     麻 (numb)  is pronounced MA

C.  Third tone.  First falling.  Then rising.  马 (horse) is pronounced MA

D.  Fourth tone.  Falling.     骂 (scold) is pronounced MA

6.  What is the benefit of learning pin yin and the characters simultaneously?

Pinyin means matching a Chinese character to its pronunciation by means of the alphabet.  Nowadays, most Chinese people use pinyin to text or email their friends.   It’s much easier to type MA and choose the Chinese character you want on the computer (or mobile phone) than to write it by hand.  By learning pin yin along with the shape of the character, you will know how the word is pronounced.

8 replies
  1. Molly 富曼茉莉
    Molly 富曼茉莉 says:

    马教授, your website is a most generous and excellent idea. I look forward to more lessons. 谢谢你。

  2. annie
    annie says:

    I had some very basic chinese vocabulary lessons in high school. I am asian American and is super excited to learn chinese language form you Ms. Mah. I know i must learn my roots and traditional culture. You have my respect and admiration.

  3. Anna
    Anna says:

    Adeline, You are a great person. You have overcome so much and to be in this position is incredable. You really are a role model. We studied Chinese Cinderella at School and after I immediatly read Falling Leaves and fell in love with it. (Especially the referance to ‘Let It Be’ as the Beatles are my fave band!)
    Thank You Adeline From Anna XX

  4. Kerstin
    Kerstin says:

    Dear Dr. Mah
    I am very happy that I will finally resume studying Chinese with you again…I missed you alot

  5. Pat
    Pat says:

    That’s the best and–to a naive Westerner–the most understandable explanation of Chinese grammar I’ve seen. Thanks! Actually, I believe a culture that can exist without pluperfects or past perfects must truly be advanced. (I learned to diagram sentences when I was young and that’s not a task for the faint of heart.)

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