The Chinese Language

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Do you think you know enough Chinese to read these signs?
One of the things that I learned when Julie and I turned our waterfalling attention internationally was that travel was all about building bridges between your own perception of the world and the actual experiences in the real world. And so I realized that one of the best ways to build this bridge was to try to learn the local language as this would help me to keep an open mind and be prepared to expand my horizons as I went. Besides, I feel that trying to speak the local language (no matter how awkward it might be at first) goes a long way towards being encouraged while also being greeted with kindness as opposed to the opposite reation when you expect or even demand the locals to speak English.

In the case of Chinese, I admit that Julie and I probably have a bit of an advantage in that we've been exposed to the language (at least as far as Mandarin is concerned though Julie also knows some Cantonese and Hainanese). So we're used to the speed at which Chinese is spoken, but I can guarantee you that reading and writing Chinese leaves a lot to be desired. Even keeping a conversation going in Chinese is not a sure thing despite our background and exposure.

Prior to our trip to China in 2009, I had spent at least a year going through some self-learning courses to at least try to learn how to read Chinese. Even after our trip, I followed up with more lessons through text as well as audio. I guess this was one of those examples where you really have to use it or lose it. Thankfully, Chinese is being spoken in more parts of the world than ever before. So even if you're not making a visit to a Chinese-speaking country, you're likely to run into people or communities all over the world where it might be useful to know the language.

Anyways, the point of this page is to familiarize you with the language of Chinese and perhaps motivate you to give the language a go. Despite my background, I'll admit that I'm probably not where I should be with my Chinese yet if you're starting off with the language, you might think it'll be a long while before you get catch up to Julie and I. Nevertheless, in this page, I'll delve into what I went through to get up to my current understanding of Chinese. I'll also try to divulge all that I know about the language to at least get you acquainted with it. Hopefully, you'll find this page useful...

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Most of what I know about my Chinese largely came through my family, especially my mother, father, and grandmother as well as other people they know who we've met. I remembered they tried to make us go to Chinese school on weekends during our elementary and junior high school years, but it eventually wasn't sustained (who wants to go to school and lose half the Saturday learning Chinese when you can be out playing?).

It wasn't until we were preparing to go to China in 2009 as well as trying to interact with my grandma more during her waning days did I return to structured self-learning of Chinese. My primary goal was to increase my vocabulary as well as try to at least read signs and perhaps a menu totally in Chinese. We already had a functioning knowledge of the language so getting back to conversational Chinese wasn't as high of a priority.

Nonetheless, I went through a series of textbook and audio courses so I could use my work commute (typically an hour at a time consisting of a combination of driving and the metro) to essentially learn while I was a captive audience. I'll go further into a review of these language courses in the next section.

I could listen to the audio CDs in the car, and I could read through the textbook little-by-little on the metro. This method allowed me to go through the lessons at my own pace without costing me any of my free time outside my normal day-to-day work routines. In fact, I could argue that doing this during the commute was a far more productive use of this time than say listening to talk radio or whatever else was on the radio. It's infinitely better than filling up my mind with road rage. I was even able to review or go back through chapters before proceeding onto the next chapter once I was learning while on the train.

I would try to find excuses to test my reading comprehension of Chinese by reading signs or menus whenever we were in Chinese communities like Alhambra or Rowland Heights. If I didn't understand what was shown, I'd ask Grandma, Mom, or Dad what they meant. I'm sure they were happy I finally got back to improving my native language. In any case, all the effort got me to at least be able to partially read most signs. My cousin (who's a Chinese school principal) said my proficiency was at about a 1st or 2nd grader level, but I figured that was way better than being completely illiterate.

With all this background and preparation, I felt fairly ready to take on our Chinese trip in 2009, but we'd find out later that we still had more to learn...

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Learn in Your Car Chinese Level 1 [Overall Rating: 1/5]:
This product was pretty much like the other Learn In Your Car products in that it's really a series of vocabulary and basic expressions and phrases that you listen to and repeat over and over again while in your car. They teach you the official Northern Chinese you're likely to hear in Beijing so they have the -er sound at the end of many words. And it's definitely different from say the Taiwan-based Chinese that I was exposed to most of my life.

The expressions eventually became pretty random after the very basic words and expressions in the very beginning, and so the content became random and lacking in context. Given this pattern of irrelevance, I didn't feel compelled to buy any more Learn In Your Car courses even though I felt Level 1 was pretty remedial and I should've gone to Level 2.

Integrated Chinese Level 1 Parts 1 & 2 Textbook, Workbook (Simplified), Audio CDs [Overall Rating: 3/5]:
I forked over the money to essentially buy up all of Level 1 of Integrated Chinese including its character workbooks and especially the audio CDs. I wanted to make sure I covered my bases so it was a bit of an investment that costed me upwards of $100 total.

That said, this was a very beginner-level lesson that walked me through a series of situations from greetings to hobbies to eventually travel and other relevant topics much later on. Unfortunately, the lessons seemed to be a bit on the remedial side, and even my Grandma chided me about these lessons saying it was way too easy. And to a point, it probably was though it did use the formal Beijing Chinese vocabulary and accents so perhaps it was good to see a slightly different form of Chinese being used than the Taiwan-based Mandarin that I was exposed to all my life.

The lessons went through key concepts like the tones, the radicals, getting you familiar with pinyin, and they walked you through each dialog or example sentences in both simplified chinese as well as in pinyin. At the back of the book, in addition to a basic vocabulary index, they also repeated all the dialogs using traditional characters, which I thought was useful.

However, the lessons didn't have keys to the exercises so it was pretty much totally self-learning but without any guides to correct you as you go. Nonetheless, the dialogs did inject a little bit of humor in there as I recalled one dialog where one friend who wanted to lose weight asked his friend for advice on how to do it yet he refused every bit of advice. There was also another dialog where a guy couldn't get the hint as he was pretty persistent about asking a girl out yet she tried to let him save face and let him down easy.

Still, I would have liked to have seen all the dialogs and exercises strung together in a coherent narrative to really amp up the fun factor. The more entertaining or dramatic the dialogs, the more the context of the vocabulary and expressions would stick. So ultimately, I thought of this course as a pretty average one, though I was told by a co-worker from North Carolina that they actually used this text in his Chinese school so perhaps there's some validity to this course.

Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters Volume 1 HSK Level A [Overall Rating: 4/5]:
This book was actually a pretty humorous way to think about Chinese characters and remember them through made up stories and pictures based on their constituent radicals or subwords that more complex composite words are built-upon. I thought it was pretty ingenious, and I actually had a bit of fun going through this book (or at least the first half of it).

But as I went further and further through the book, there were fewer drawings and more complex stories to remember. It also didn't help that most of the words were presented with the made up stories, but what was really missing was the context in which the words would be used in real life. So that kind of made it even more difficult to remember the words introduced later on in the book.

By the way, this book emphasizes simplified Chinese characters and the pronunciations and tones use the pinyin system. I'm not certain how effective the Tuttle method would be with traditional characters since by that time, I eventually went back to reading sentences and seeing words in their context to glean their meaning (instead of trying to remember them one-by-one).

So I'd say the word-for-word learning and lack of context would probably be the weakest part of this resource. Nonetheless, I love the creative and fun approach to tackling reading and writing Chinese characters, and it actually made it fun before it eventually got to a point of diminishing returns later on in the book. So for that, I gave it a pretty high rating of 4 though I'd have to say that this resource alone is not close to enough to really be able to read and write Chinese.

Speak Mandarin in Five Hundred Words [Overall Rating: 2.5/5]:
This book was actually given to me by my cousin who was a principal at a Chinese school. I basically used it as a supplemental resource for further practice and vocabulary expansion. The key difference with this textbook versus the ones that I had been using up to this point (around 2012) was that this book focused on traditional Chinese characters as well as having a bit of a more Taiwan-style slant to the Mandarin.

Either way, I went through the lessons and exercises and tried to make sure that if there were new expressions and words, that I would remember them. Otherwise, most of the lesson felt pretty remedial, and there wasn't much that was remarkable about it.

It probably took me a couple of weeks of getting through this entire book during my commute time.

Go Chinese Textbook and Workbook (Traditional) 200, 300, 400 [Overall Rating: 2.5/5]:
Even though the Amazon link only shows the 200 textbook, I also was given the traditional character workbook for 200 as well as both the textbook and workbook (traditional) for levels 300 and 400. Once again, my cousin (the Chinese school principal) gave them to me so I could practice some more Chinese, and once again, the emphasis here was on using traditional characters as well as a more Taiwanese slant to Mandarin Chinese as opposed to the more official version taught in most foreign language courses that use the Beijing style.

Since there were more courses to go through, I gladly used my commute time to power through the textbooks. The CDs that came with the lesson were more on the software interactive side where I couldn't use them in the car and I had to use to be in front of the computer to use them. So that really made it less palatable for me to fully go through all that this course had to offer, as a result.

Other than that, the course itself was pretty standard, and the dialogs were also pretty standard. No real fun factor though they did have chants and songs in there, as well as class exercises, which really made me think that these books were to be used with very young students in a Chinese school setting. There were no answer keys so when I went through the exercises, I didn't have anything to correct me when I wasn't sure about the answer.

So in the end, this wasn't a remarkable product and I gave it a pretty middle-of-the-road average rating given that it was pretty much what I would expect a formal school resource to use.

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Here's a list of very basic expressions that I have come across that you might find helpful. To learn more expressions or go through a much more comprehensive list than this, please check out more authoritative language resources.

  • 你 好 (Nǐhǎo) - Hello / You good?
  • 在 见 (Zàijiàn) - Good-bye (literally "see [you] again")
  • 谢 谢 (Xièxie) - Thank you
  • 别 客 气 (Bié kèqi) - You're welcome
  • 对 不 起 (Duìbǜqǐ) - Sorry; can also be used to say "Excuse me"
  • 请 问 ... (Qǐng wèn...?) - May I ask ...?
  • ... 在 那 里 ? (... zài nǎlǐ?) - Where is ...?
  • 厕 所 (cèsuǒ) - Restroom / Bathroom (use with the above sentence if you want to ask where's the restroom)
  • ... 是 什 么 ? (... shì shénme?) - What is ...?
  • 懂 不 懂 ? / 你 明 白 吗 ? / 我 不 懂 / 我 不 明 白 (dǒng bu dǒng? / nǐ míng bái ma? / wǒ bù dǒng / wǒ bù míng bái) - The first two expressions ask, "Do you understand?" / The last two expressions say, "I don't understand"
  • 你 要 什 么 ? / 我 要 ... (nǐ yào shénme? / wǒ yào ...) - What do you want? / I want ...
  • 你 找 什 么 ? / 我 [ 要 ] 找 ... (Nǐ zhǎo shénme? / Wǒ [yào] zhǎo ...) - What are you looking for? / I'm looking for... [I want to look for...]
  • ... 怎 么 走 ? (Zěnme zǒu?) - How do you get to ...?

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I'm sure there can be any number of words that would be helpful to know, but I'm going to do things a little differently and try to bias this vocabulary list with things more related to waterfalls or other geographical features or even transport-related words. I figure that might at least help you read some maps or at least have a better understanding of what some of the local place names mean.

  • 瀑 布 (Pùbù) - waterfall. Example: 黄 果 树 瀑 布 (Huángguǒshù Pùbù) is the Yellow Fruit Tree Waterfall
  • 山 (shān) - mountain. Example: 长白山 (chángbái shān) is the Everwhite Mountain
  • 河 (hé) - river. Example: 黄 河 (Huánghé) is the Yellow River
  • 江 (jiāng) - river (major). Example: 漓 江 (lìjiāng) is the River Li (the famous river between Guilin and Yangshuo) and 长 江 (Chángjiāng) is the Yangtze River (or literally the Long River)
  • 谷 / 峡 谷 (gǔ / Xiágǔ) - valley / canyon. Example: 云 谷 (yǘngǔ) is the Cloud Valley in Yellow Mountain; 大 峡 谷 (dà xiágǔ) is the Grand Canyon
  • 洞 穴 (Dòngxué) - cave. Example: 千 佛 洞 (qiān fó dòng) is a Thousand Buddha Cave and 龙 宫 洞 (lónggōng dòng) is the Dragon Palace Caves
  • 湖 (Hú) - lake. Example: 镜 泊 湖 (Jìngpō Hú) means Mirror Lake
  • 林 / 森 林 (Lín / Sēnlín) - woods / forest. Example: 桂 林 (Guì​lín) means Osmanthus Woods and 地 下 森 林 (Dìxià sēnlín) means underground forest
  • 国 家 公 园 (Guójiā gōngyuán) / 国 家 级 风 景 名 胜 区 (Guójiājí Fēngjǐng Míngshèngqū) - National Park / National Scenic and Historic Interest Area. Example: 九 寨 沟 国 家 地 质 公 园 (Jiǔzhàigōu Guójiā Dìzhi Gōngyuán) is Jiuzhaigou (Valley of the 9 Villages) National Park or 九 寨 沟 风 景 名 胜 区 (Jiǔzhàigōu Guójiājí Fēngjǐng Míngshèngqū) is the Jiuzhaigou National Scenic and Historic Interest Area, which is the more common name than "national park" in China
  • 大 街 (Dàjiē) - avenue (or wide street)
  • 路 (lù) - road. Example: 南 京 路 (Nánjīng Lù) is the South Capital Road or just Nanging Road and 丝 绸 之 路 (Sīchóu zhī lù) is the Silk Road
  • 地 图 (Dìtú) - map

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Do you think you know enough Chinese to read this sign?

I'm not going to lie to you. Learning Chinese is a pretty ambitious endeavor. It's not impossible, but you must have the will and persistence to keep at it. That said, I know of Caucasian people whose Mandarin is vastly superior to mine (and my late Grandma and sometimes my parents let me know about it) though in almost all instances, they've lived in a Chinese-speaking country long enough to be forced to adapt and pick it up and use it far more than in our Americanized culture where we only use it if we have to. In only one instance did I meet someone who learned it well without having lived there because his girlfriend (then wife) practiced with him and kept encouraging him.

That essentially underscores a key aspect of language learning...

You gain fluency and mastery of a language far faster if you're fully immersed and forced to speak the language than if you're just learning academically. Even with the resources that I've highlighted above, it's no substitute for the real thing, but at least it will acquaint you with how the language works (the grammar and vocabulary) and perhaps if you keep at it long enough, you'll be confident enough to try in the field and thus continue learning the language on an even deeper level.

If you're trying to learn how to read the signs or the non-English publishings and menus, you're going to need even more patience and persistence than learning conversational Mandarin. To make matters worse, there's also traditional Chinese characters versus simplified Chinese characters. The traditional characters differ in that they often need more strokes than their simplified counterparts for specific words. Fortunately, the controversial premiere Mao Zedong made pinyin and simplified Chinese the official convention in an effort to increase the country's literacy rate. However, pinyin also had the added benefit of helping out Western speakers by essentially Romanizing Chinese with accents to denote the tones you're supposed to use in the pronunciation. That helps immensely with reading signs and even looking up Chinese places on the internet!

All I can say about the written language is that you'll need to get familiar with radicals and how they hint at the meaning of the word. The stroke order of each character also helps you to remember how it's written, and dictionaries even categorize and organize words by radical position as well as stroke quantities. The rest of the written language will require some degree of memorization though sometimes you can have fun with it by envisioning stories or pictures for particular words. Whatever helps you remember better, the more power to you.

Another complication to the language is that there are many Chinese dialects from Cantonese to Taiwanese to Tauzhou to Hainanese to even more regional dialects like the Shanghainese dialect as well as the Sichuan dialect among others. Mandarin is the official dialect and is widely spoken, but in different regions, the various dialects can be quite different. It's kind of like how Spanish differs from French, Italian, and Portugese though the Chinese dialects aren't considered distinct languages like their Latin counterparts, but I think they probably should be considered separate languages despite the common written form. Anyways, if you're learning, you'll probably want to keep to Mandarin since that's the National Language unless you have certain personal obligations (e.g. family).

Do you think you know enough Chinese to read these signs?

So given all that I've said above, is it still worth going through the trouble to learn Chinese? We'll like I said earlier, the language is being spoken in more and more parts of the world. Julie and I remembered seeing Chinese workers even in remote parts of Northern Zambia, and we've seen many Chinese people in Canada. Of course, there are large Chinese populations throughout California, and we even saw Chinatowns in places like Paris, France. Plus, the growing affluence of Chinese from the mainland meant we were running into more Chinese people even in places like the Maldives, and we've even encountered Chinese tours in our National Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. So I'll leave it up to you to answer the question of whether you want to go through with learning the language, but if you do learn it, I can say that your ability to connect with more people around the world will have grown that much more!

Well, that's all I'll say about the Chinese language. Indeed, understanding both the spoken and written language require a different way of thinking than the Westernized languages, but in the end, I think having different languages is what makes the world the diverse and colorful place that it is. And you'd be surprised at how just making the effort to learn another language and using it in foreign lands will go a long way towards building bridges that make us realize that we're all different yet we're all the same.

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