C is for Chinese

C is forChinese is like Arabic in that it is an umbrella term for several mutually unintelligible dialects. If all of these dialects are included, there are over 1 billion speakers of Chinese. The two most well-known dialects to people in the UK are Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin is the official language of China, Singapore and Taiwan; Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, although Mandarin is also an influential language here and is taught in schools. Mandarin is the language that people learn when they study Chinese as a foreign language.

The spoken language is tonal (ie the voice has to go up or down). Mandarin has four tones: up, down, up-down and flat. Some of the other dialects have many more tones. This is one of the reasons why Chinese is seen to be one of the more difficult languages to learn, because getting the tone wrong can change the meaning of the word! Most words are monosyllabic but there are some compound words.

There are two writing systems, traditional and simplified, which are written left to right. Traditional, obviously, is the original. Simplified was an attempt to improve literacy and has been around since the 1950s. As with spoken languages, there is a split by country between the traditional and simplified forms. Simplified is used throughout People’s Republic of China and Singapore; traditional is used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. The writing system is pictorial, but contrary to popular misconception it does have grammatical words as well as nouns and verbs.

Although often perceived as a difficult language there are some elements which make it easier, such as a lack of tenses and plurals.

Related posts: B is for Basque and Bable     D is for Dead Languages

Learning Chinese

As readers of this blog will know, I love learning new things.  Last summer I spotted an advert for a course in Chinese for primary school teachers, and as MFL (modern foreign languages) is my specialist subject, I decided to sign up.  Throwing myself in at the deep end, I promised my new school that I would set up a lunchtime Chinese club, so I had to make sure I really did learn some!

I must confess, I was a bit worried.  I mean – Chinese is really difficult, right?  It’s doesn’t even have an alphabet, just thousands of characters.  But it actually turned out to be a lot easier than I imagined.  Obviously, it takes years to learn to speak a language fluently, so I have only learnt the basics, but this is what I discovered:

–          It’s a subject-verb-object language, so the word order is the same as English.  This already makes it easier than some languages.

–          The verbs don’t conjugate (i.e. there are no different endings depending on who is doing it – like he lives, they live in English, or il habite, ils habitent in French.

–          There are no articles (English has ‘a’ and ‘the’; French has un, une, des, le, la and les; Spanish has un, una, unos, unas, el, la, los and las; Chinese has nothing)

–          There are no tenses.  In Chinese, the verb remains exactly the same and you know whether it’s past, present or future from the context.

This simplicity actually makes it ideal for primary school children to learn.

Like any language, it does have its peculiarities and difficulties, such as the tones (the way your voice goes up or down for certain words) but this is no more challenging than getting children to understand the concept of nouns having genders (Chinese doesn’t have those) or that ‘you are’ might be ‘tu es’ but might be ‘vous êtes’ depending on who and/or how many people you are talking to.

Of course the characters are tricky but the children in my club really enjoy drawing and practising them, and they have the advantage that children are not influenced by how the word is written, so in general their pronunciation is better right from the start.  The fact that the language isn’t written with an English alphabet doesn’t faze them at all.  (In fact, I also run an Ancient Greek club and the children there are also fascinated by the fact that language can be written using different symbols.)  We all enjoy making up little stories to help remember the characters.  On the course I did, we learned a little about how the characters are made up, with radicals giving an indication of meaning and a phonetic element indicating pronunciation.

And there is far more vocabulary in some topic areas.  For example, English has mum, dad, brother, sister, grandma, granddad, while Chinese has different words depending on whether it’s an older or younger brother, a maternal or paternal grandmother etc.  But for the moment the primary aged children I am teaching only need to learn the ones they require for their own family.

The children and I are really enjoying learning together, and although I will never be fluent in Mandarin, you never know – one of the children I am teaching may be inspired to study it further and become fluent in the future.



Chinese Name

Traditional chinese charactersI was given a Chinese name about 20 years ago, by a very good friend.  Now that I have started learning Mandarin I thought it would be really nice to start using it.

This is it written in traditional Chinese. It’s pronounced Bai Sai Zhen and means “whiter than pearls”.

I’m really honoured to have been given a Chinese name, and I’m going to start using it proudly!