Shortcuts to Reading Chinese

Shortcuts to Reading Chinese

Most learners of Chinese try to take shortcuts and I was no exception. Learning to read and write Chinese seemed impossible for me to do in a short time, so at first I didn’t bother. When I eventually did decide to tackle this area, I decided to focus on reading rather than writing. It was one thing for me to be able to recognize a complex character at a glance, but it was another thing for me to actually be able to reproduce it on paper with all its minute nuances. I later found that when learning to read Chinese, there are other shortcuts that I could take to make the learning process seem much quicker than it actually was.

In English, it is possible for learners to read a paragraph of text out aloud without having any clue as to what they are reading. For new words, whose pronunciation isn’t known, it is still possible to try and come up with an approximation of what the word should sound like by phonetically sounding it out, which is usually enough for a native English to understand. In Chinese, this process is of course a lot trickier, since you frequently come across characters that are completely unrecognizable, with no phonetic clues to help you out. Whenever I was at this point, I was usually stumped. No amount of prodding or encouragement from a teacher was going to help me since there were no clues at all on how to proceed.

Well the truth is, there were clues, but they were just in different places. Most words in Chinese are formed from two or more characters, so usually when reading, knowing what one of the characters is, is enough to give you a clue as to what the word is or might be. For example, when looking at a menu, I would look for key characters. 肉 was a good one since by studying the characters around it, I was able to figure out what kind of meat was in the dish. I’d recognize 羊肉 as lamb since the 羊 resembled the horns on a sheep. Beef also featured similar characters. I found that by setting the context this way, I was much further ahead than having to sheepishly stare (pun intended) at the menu with no clue as to where to look. Similarly, I was able to spot 茶, so I knew I was dealing with tea. I also knew that 红 meant “red.” So with that, I knew that I was dealing with a type of red tea. At the end of the day, it was much easier to ask the waiter “what kind of red tea is this?” than to simply ask “what’s on this menu?”

Once you get your brain used to looking for clues in this way, you will find your brain automatically scanning texts for characters you know and figuring out the rest from context. I found myself being able to write tests in Chinese despite not being able to recognize many of the characters on the test paper. Here was a typical scenario:

I would see the following sentence: 冬天很冷,可是夏天很热。 At first glance, the only characters I could pick out were …tiān hěn …, kěshì … tiān hěn … My typical thought process was as follows:

“Hmm, I see two 天s there so we might be talking about days. Jīntian? Míngtiān? Zuótiān? No, I know those ones so it can’t be days, so it must be seasons! There are two seasons there – “one is very… but the other is very…” The 冬 character there looks similar to 多. Duōtiān? That sounds similar to dōngtiān – winter?!? If that’s winter, then perhaps 夏天 is summer. So perhaps we are talking about winter and summer. So winter is very… but summer is very… hot and cold?? I remember the character for hot looks a little like boiling water so that must be 热 which would make 冷 cold. I choose answer B: Winter is cold, but summer is hot. As long as the teacher wasn’t deliberately trying to trick you, it was usually possible to determine the right answer this way.

This technique actually works quite well in Chinese because many vocabulary items tend to be grouped neatly. For example all the seasons end in 天, all transportation on land ends in 车, all meat ends in 肉 and so on. You don’t even have to be perfect with it. For example if you looked at the characters for 年,车 and 牛 individually, it would be very easy to confuse them. But that usually isn’t a problem since the characters are usually shown within some context. I would know that 牛肉 was beef since I was unlikely to see the 牛 mixed up with cars or dates.

Obviously the more characters you are able to recognize, the more accurate this technique becomes. Depending on how you look at it, the result of this and some of the listening techniques I’ve talked about previously is that you can either seem a lot smarter than you really are, or that you can learn a lot quicker than you originally thought.

The Truth About Spoken Chinese

Most Mandarin is learned in class

Most people regard “Chinese” as being a single language, as did I while growing up in Canada. My first interest in learning Chinese began about 10 years ago as a result of my having many Chinese associates.

I was very curious about the language they used to speak to each other, so I picked up my first Chinese textbook and tried to practice what I was learning with them. I soon found out that what I was studying and what they were speaking were two different languages.

That was when I learned that the Chinese you hear out West can usually be classified into either Cantonese or Mandarin. At the time, the vast majority of what “Chinese speakers” spoke outside of China was Cantonese. This confused me as I now had to decide whether to learn the official language of China or learn what people on the street were actually speaking.

Fast forward to a few years ago when I first landed in Taiwan and began to seriously learn Chinese. Surely, living in a Chinese speaking country and constantly hearing what I was studying would greatly speed up the learning the process?

I made a new discovery.

While people could understand what I was saying and I could understand them when they were speaking to me, I couldn’t understand them when they were speaking to each other! (Deja vu!)

After more research, I learned that what most people in China learn and speak at home isn’t Mandarin! Every province or region has its own “dialect” that people use to speak to each other, that are as different as English and French or Italian and German. In total there are about 50 distinct dialects across China and overseas Chinese communities, not counting regional variations between them.

This leads to an interesting situation for foreigners learning Chinese and wanting to communicate with Chinese people. A great analogy I heard is to imagine yourself walking into a party dressed up while everyone else is dressed casually. You might hear “Wow, you look great!” or “Nice outfit!” and while it feels great to be complimented, you can’t help feeling left out for being the only “non casual person.”

The prospects aren’t gloomy though. All media is broadcast in Mandarin as that is the official form. Similarly, for business transactions or formal occasions, you can expect Mandarin to be used. It is also the language used when traveling or when strangers meet, so it is definitely the language to learn. The only time local dialects are used is when locals speak with other locals from the same region.

For most learners, I would recommend keeping your focus on the big picture (Mandarin), although you can win yourself some points by learning a few key phrases in the local dialect to show respect.

Overlapping Meanings

Overlapping meanings

This post could act as a counter to the “Is Chinese Really That Hard?” post. One aspect of Chinese that it took me some time to grasp was that meanings in Chinese and English don’t always exhibit a one to one relationship. In the beginning, each time I came across a new word in Chinese, I would look for the English equivalent. That worked fine for common nouns – boy, girl, China, America, but then I started to discover that some words had overlapping meanings between Chinese and English.

Many words have multiple meanings. I learned early on that yīnggāi means “should.” Simple enough I thought, until one day when someone looked at me and said Nǐ yīnggāi shēngbìng le. “You should be sick”? I thought. Why should I be sick?? That’s when I learned that it also has a meaning of “must” as in “You must be sick.” Ok, easy to fathom – it has multiple meanings, just like many words in English.

I then came across words that describe different levels of intensity than their equivalent English counterparts. One of the first words I learned – hěn was taught to me as meaning “very” in English. So to answer Nǐ hǎo ma? you answer Wǒ hěn hǎo as in “I’m very good.” But what if I wasn’t very good? What if I only wanted to answer “I’m good”? Logically that should be Wǒ hǎo. But that was wrong. You had to have the hěn in there, since it actually is a less intensive “very” than its English counterpart. To really answer “I’m very good” you would say Wǒ fēicháng hǎo. Never mind that the dictionary describes fēicháng as meaning “extremely” since its actual intensity lies somewhere between “very” and “extremely” in English.

This creates an interesting situation where it’s possible to describe situations in different degrees in Chinese than in English. For example many teachers are described as being hěn xiōng. Yet if you look up that word in the dictionary you get a meaning of being “fierce” or “terrible.” Hardly words I would use to describe an ordinary teacher (although there undoubtedly are extreme examples who could fit that category). At first I assumed “strict” or “stern” might be a better definition but there are other words in Chinese to describe those terms, so at some point you have to give up on looking for an exact definition since there isn’t one.

For an exercise in futility, you can skim through words in a Chinese-English dictionary to look at all the extraneous definitions (great way to pass the time). Take a look at the variety of definitions for the following words:

Jiāo – to deliver / to turn over / to make friends / to intersect (lines) / to pay (money)
Dōu – both / all / even / already
Jiù – at once / then / only / to approach / to undertake / already
Dài – band / belt / ribbon / tire / area / zone / region / to wear / to carry / to lead / to look after / to raise
Sòng – to deliver / to carry / to present / to see off / to send

So what is the solution to this mess? Learn new characters within context. Don’t worry about extraneous meanings. Learn to use new words within the context you discovered them and master those current definitions before moving on to other usages. While the English meaning is great for getting your foot in the door, rely on examples in different contexts before being satisfied with a definition.

Is Chinese Really That Hard?

Does learning Chinese leave you frustrated?

Many people regard Chinese as being one of the toughest languages to learn. That in itself might be reason enough to learn it, since many like the challenge that comes with it and relish the looks of amazement that passers by give when they hear that you can speak Chinese! In my personal experience however, I found that many of the reasons given for Chinese being so hard weren’t actually that hard when broken down. This meant that I was learning a language that others thought was very hard, when actually that wasn’t necessarily the case (much better than learning something that others think is easy but actually isn’t!) Here are some of the main obstacles that people encounter when trying to learn Chinese, and my personal solutions to overcoming then.

The Tones
This is the initial challenge that most beginners face. How can mài mean “to sell” while mǎi mean “to buy”? So now, not only do you have to remember that shuì jiào means “sleep”, you better remember that there are two fourth tones there or you risk talking about “dumplings” instead of “sleep.” Surely having to memorize the extra tone element on top of each new vocabulary word would drive any learner crazy?

My solution: This issue here is usually enough to weed out most beginners, which is great for the rest of us (less people to share the stage with!). The trick here is that this is only a problem in the beginning. The more you expose yourself to the language, the more your brain will automatically fuse this element into your language learning until you get to the point where you unconsciously start recognizing the tones for new vocabulary. Compare these two scenarios:

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: “Lian he guo”, ok. And what tones does that use?
Teacher: Three second tones.
Student: Got it, thanks!

Student: How do you say “United Nations” in Chinese?
Teacher: Lián hé guó
Student: Lián hé guó. Got it, thanks!

In the second scenario the student has automatically learned to associate tones with new vocabulary. If you were to ask him what the tones were, he would have to repeat the words in his mind first and pull the tones out from there, since the tones and the words are already associated together.

A great exercise to get to this level is mindless repetition of sentences from native speakers, so that you start to develop the ebb and flow of the language by yourself. As you listen to the podcasts in this course, use the pauses provided to repeat after the speaker, even with vocabulary you are already familiar with to get yourself in this mode.

The Writing System
This is of course a challenge for many, including native speakers themselves. One of the reasons given for the slowness in progression of Chinese learners is that because reading and writing takes so long to learn, we learners lose out from the experience of learning from reading. In English, if we come across a word we don’t understand we can easily write it down and look it up later. How do we do that in Chinese when you come across a word you don’t know that uses characters that are equally unfamiliar? How do Chinese speakers look up unfamiliar characters in a dictionary?

My solution:There are a couple of separate issues here. If it’s just learning new vocabulary and language usage from reading you are looking for, there are plenty of pinyin resources out there, including on this website. Similarly, if you come across a new word in your learning, it’s easy enough to write it down in pinyin and look it up in a pinyin dictionary. Learning characters of course is another story, and one that has been touched upon in other categories.

Grammar: This is an aspect of Chinese that is often neglected because it actually is much simpler than in other languages. The extra time put in learning to read and write is offset by the time you don’t have to put in learning conjugations of verbs, tenses and other issues present in other languages. This can be a problem in itself since the lack of grammar rules makes Chinese very context sensitive. Sentences can have multiple meanings that may seem to contradict each other with only subtle clues to distinguish between them.

My solution: The answer here is the same as the answer for tones. Fortunately (or unfortunately for some), it’s not something you consciously study or memorize to understand. You learn by getting the feel for the language from experience. Listen to enough podcasts, and get yourself experienced with enough dialogues and you’ll slowly start to gather a “feel” for the language. You’ll find yourself instinctively responding with the right expressions without even knowing how or why.

The road to fluency: When learning any language, you will find some aspects easier than others. This is a result of usage patterns. In my daily life, I find myself listening to a lot more Chinese than I speak. As a result my listening skills are greater than my speaking skills. Similarly my reading skills are more advanced than my writing skills. The nice thing about all of this though is that my fluency matches my level of requirement. My listening skills are greater because I have to do a lot more listening than speaking in my daily life. Similarly I rarely have to physically write anything in my daily routine (especially in this age of computers), whereas reading is more useful for me, so the latter skill is more developed.

There’s no rule that says all skills have to be equal. Focus on the areas of importance for you and improve those areas first. Learning any language (or any skill for that matter) is only as hard as you make it out to be. Take advantage of the many tools available in this course and on the web to focus on your areas of weakness. Then gloat that you are able to do what so many others have failed or given up on doing. Jiāyóu!

Chinese Handwriting

Traditional Characters Handwriting

Like most of you, when I first began learning Chinese, I was very fascinated with the thousands of Chinese characters out there and the methods that people used to learn them. As I began to learn them myself, I began to wonder how people were able to write so fast if there were characters that required so many strokes. Surely if there was a contest between someone writing a paragraph in English and someone writing the equivalent paragraph in Chinese, the former would easily win! However, upon closer examination, two things became evident. Firstly, the equivalent Chinese paragraph would be shorter (in terms of characters required) than its English counterpart. As well, just like in English, Chinese writers use their own form of short hand to greatly speed up their writing.

As you will see in the following examples, when handwriting in Chinese, strokes tend to be slurred. While to the untrained eye the end result for some characters may not look like the characters they are supposed to represent, native speakers can easily make them out. Compare the following with their typed equivalents.

Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting


Traditional Characters Handwriting