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How to write Chinese : A Guide for Beginners

1876 How to write Chinese A Guide for Beginners (1)

About Chinese

A Chinese language is a group of languages used majorly by people in China and Taiwan. It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Based on region and culture, the majority of individual dialects of the language are categorised in 7 major dialectical heads -

  • Mandarin -- Primarily spoken in North and South-western China, Mandarin is the most widely used dialect. It also includes the Beijing Dialect, which forms the basis of standard Chinese in the country.

  • Wu -- Mainly spoken in Shanghai, Zhejiang and the southern parts of Jiangsu and Anhui.

  • Yue -- Includes Cantonese and is spoken majorly in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau.

  • Gan -- Spoken in the Jiangxi region

  • Xiang -- Spoken in Hunan and Hubei region

  • Min -- Spoken in Fujian and eastern Guangdong regions and is the base language for Taiwanese

  • Hakka -- Spoken by the Han people and in regions of Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia

In the 1950s and 1960s, several characters were simplified by the Chinese government to make them easier to learn and improve literacy rates in the country.

These are known as 'simplified characters', as opposed to 'traditional characters', which are still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Learning basic Chinese 

In the Chinese language, there are 214 radicals or components which are derived from the Kangxi dictionary written in the 18th century. Each radical is a unique component which has meaning. Learning these 214 radicals should be the first and foremost step in learning the language. However, in everyday usage, roughly only 100 or so radicals are used in abundance. There is another interesting fact about the Chinese language alphabets, which is that they don’t exist!

Further, learning to write in Chinese includes the formation of characters, which are combinations of radicals used in different ways to accord meaning to the characters. Talking about characters, we can safely equate them to alphabets. Hence, Chinese letters, or Chinese alphabet (characters), are over 50,000 in number, though a comprehensive modern dictionary will rarely list over 20,000 in use. An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters, but you will only need about 2-3,000 to be able to read a newspaper.

The third part of learning to write in Chinese is word-formation. Characters are snapped together to make Chinese words. This could be understood better through the diagram below:

In the above diagram, we start with the component 子. This means “child/infant”. Next, the character 好, which means “good”. Look on the right of the character, and you'll see 子. We would say that 子 is a component of 好. Now look at the full word 你好 (“Hello”). Notice that the 子 is still there. Thus, the character 好 is built of the components 女 and 子, the character 你 is built from 人 + 尔, and the word 你好, in turn, is constructed out of 你 + 好.

It is therefore essential to know that Chinese is constructed from 214 radicals or components, out of which, only 50-100 are commonly used. So if you learn these radicals first, you can learn how to write in Chinese quickly. Usage of radicals in different permutation and combination is used to understand how to write Chinese. Thus, using mnemonic devices to understand the basis behind the logic of a word can go very far in understanding and developing a generic vocabulary in Chinese.

Methods of learning Chinese 

Chinese is a linear and logical language, but its departure from rules of other major languages used in the West like English and rules of grammar and gender which are common both in major languages like English and Hindi makes it difficult for new learners to grasp.

Another major obstacle in learning Chinese is that it is not a phonetic language. Spoken Chinese and multiple dialects are varied from how it is written and this can create difficulties for beginners. However, with dedication and practice, people can learn and understand Chinese in the following way:

  1. Traditional Method: This method is recommended for learners who have dedicated time on their hands and the patience to learn the language from scratch. This method is recommended for young learners and children who begin learning a new language early on in their schools or as part of an extracurricular activity. This method involves sheer repetition of writing and learning radicals and characters and practising them till the same form a neural pathway of memory in your brain. This is the method used by children in China as a part of their curriculum much like alphabets and letters are taught to children in school for any other language. This method takes at least a decade to retain.

  2. Modern Method: This method is used as a dedicated method used by teachers around the globe to teach Chinese to beginners. This method relies on the use of spoken Chinese as well as practising written Chinese dedicatedly to learn. This method is known as the “IPRU” method.

  • “I” -- I for Inputting correct and widely used characters and radicals to a beginner so that they can move faster towards learning functional Chinese without having to learn excessive and unnecessary characters.

  • “P” -- Stands for Processing Chinese from word to character to radical to strokes in a trickle-down method to understand the genesis behind why a radical is written the way it is written and so on.

  • “R” -- Review is perhaps the most important of the word steps which borrows from the traditional way of using tests, reviews, repetition etc. to learn what has been followed in the first two steps.

  • “U” -- Usage of words and characters learned systematically in daily life and in conversations/writings so that the same can be understood, processed and retained by the learner faster and better. Usage can also be done by using everyday items and social media by reading pamphlets of electronics, signboards, advertisements etc. to understand the language.


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