If you’ve ever wanted to learn Chinese, you might be relieved to know it might not be as difficult as you might think. I started learning written Chinese (hanzi) a month ago and wanted to share some tips I’ve learned along the way.
I regularly talk to a friend in Beijing to help her practice her already excellent English.
A few weeks back, she said, “Perhaps I should teach you some Chinese, too?”
I was somewhat unenthusiastic, partly because I’d heard that Chinese was insanely difficult for a native English speaker to learn and I don’t really believe that I have a gift for languages.
It’s not that I have anything against learning a foreign language. I use Duolingo on a regular basis to build my German skills and when my wife and I went to Greece, we both attempted to use some Greek while we were there.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that she wasn’t content for me to just learn Mandarin (the spoken language). Nope, she wanted me to learn Hanzi too. I have to admit, learning written Chinese seemed a little ambitious, given my lack of skill with foreign languages.
I’ve been surprised at my progress.
What is Hanzi?
Hanzi is the written language that’s used across China.
It’s thousands of years old but back in the 1950s the Chinese government simplified many of the characters to make them easier to write, to improve literacy rates across the country.
The same characters are used across China, in Hong Kong and to some degree in Japan and Korea too. How they’re pronounced is completely different though (even in different dialects within China). In Japan the characters are called Kanji.
One of the things that put me off when my self-appointed tutor suggested I learn the Hanzi too is that I already knew there were thousands of them. The prospect of trying to learn between 50,000 and 110,000 hanzi characters (depending upon which dictionary you’re looking at) was a little bit scary.
After a little bit of research, I felt much better:
- Even an educated Chinese person will only know 8,000 of them.
- You can read most of a Chinese newspaper, knowing only 900-1000 of the most commonly-used characters.
- To pass the Chinese government’s official proficiency test (the HSK) at the highest level, you only need to know 2,600 characters.
English is the same – we have around 170,000 words in our lexicon but you only really need to know 10,000 to be speak and understand English fluently.
How to learn written Chinese
The key to learning Hanzi (apparently) is to learn the most frequently used characters first.
Fortunately, the hard work has already been done for me, there are a few places that provide lists of the most frequently used characters for non-native speakers to learn. There’s a handy chart on Hanzicraft, for example.
The really good news is that every single Hanzi character is actually constructed from a set of 200 ‘radicals’. Radicals are just smaller shapes that are used together to form the character.
The radicals serve as either a semantic (meaning) component or a phonetic (how it sounds) component within the character.
I’ve been assured that if I can learn to write 200 characters, I can write them all.
Words in Chinese often use more than one character
I used to think that each word in Chinese was represented by one Hanzi character but that’s not true at all. Many words will use more than one, the meaning changing depending upon how characters are combined.
The Chinese for ‘car’ is 汽车 (Qìchē). That’s two characters. The first character (汽) means steam and the second character (车) means vehicle or machine. How cool is that? Steam Machine!
When I started to discover how the words were combined in descriptive ways to form new words, it started to become quite fascinating. I’ve always loved how German words are combined to form longer words.
What is Pinyin?
Pinyin is kind of like a pronunciation guide for the Hanzi.
Take the word for me/my/I 我, for example. The pinyin for this word is Wǒ.
To the novice Chinese speaker (i.e me), the temptation is to just pronounce it as “Wo” but the key is above the letter, ‘o’. The mark above the character is telling you which tonal shift to use when pronouncing the word – which in Chinese is really important if you want to be understood. In this case, the mark indicates that you should start with an upper tone, going down as you voice the ‘o’ and back up again.
This aspect of Chinese actually panicked me a little but with a native speaker helping me, it’s becoming much easier than I imagined.
In English, we think that we don’t have to worry about tonal inflection when speaking but we often use tone to indicate emotion or sarcasm.
The five tones used in Chinese
There are five tones used in Chinese (one of them actually being neutral, meaning that it’s spoken without tonal change).
The marks used above the letters in pinyin show you which tone to use when speaking the word.
I’ve created a chart below to try to explain what the marks mean but you’ll really need to hear them spoken to understand. It’s not as difficult as it sounds.
Starting at a higher tone, the tone is lowered as the sound is voiced.Starting at a lower tone that goes higher as the sound is voiced.
Down then up
|There’s no tone change on this one.||This one is a long, sustained tone. As if you’re singing a single note.||Starting at a higher tone, the tone should become lower||Starting at a lower tone, the tone should become higher||Kind of like a tonal bounce, the sound starts higher, goes lower then higher again.|
Conclusion & Handy resources
I’ve started my journey learning written Chinese and I have to be honest, it’s not as difficult as I’d first imagined. I appreciate that it’s going to be a long journey if I’m ever going to master Chinese but my first steps have been encouraging. 🙂
If you’ve got any tips about learning written Chinese or this article has been useful to you, leave a comment below!
Here’s some handy resources that I’ve discovered along the way:
- Hacking Chinese Resources Page
- Hanzicraft Usage Frequency Table
- Writtenchinese.com Online Dictionary