China has always been an important country. Its history dates back into the dim and misty past and China has, of course, undergone many changes throughout the centuries.
Because of its size and difficulties of travel and communication in the past, China, like Europe, came to have many languages. Today we lump them together as Chinese, but in actuality, some might be compared to the relationship between English and German.
A number of languages are unintelligible to someone from another part of the country. For many years China remained very isolationist, thus insulating itself from foreign influences, but eventually that would have to change.
Today, with modern communication and a single government, the language traditionally spoken in the area of the capital, Mandarin has become the official language of China. This helps to unify communication and understanding throughout this immense country and has become more and more widely spoken.
In the United States, most persons of Chines descent spoke Cantonese, really another language, because of the influx of Chinese labor during the expansion of the western United States.
Today, however, here and abroad, the common method of communication is Mandarin or “standard Chinese” as taught today in schools throughout modern China. Today, nearly all Chinese understand this standard Chinese.
Cantonese, an important language in southern China and Hong Kong, is still widely spoken, but today many understand standard Chinese as well.
One important unifying factor that separates Chinese from most other languages is the form of writing. Although Chinese from far-reaching ends of the country may not be able to understand the old speech of their areas, nearly all can read because the characters, although pronounced differently, mostly have one meaning that all educated persons can understand.
Chinese is an important language, and as the importance of Chinese commerce and industry grows , it can only become more important in the future.
For most students, the thought of learning Chinese, may at first seem formidable. It seems so “foreign”. In truth, Chinese is no more difficult to learn than any language. In many ways the student may find it to be easier. Chinese is a picturesque language and often the simplest phrase evokes clear, even amusing pictures of the subject.
English, to us, may appear to be sophisticated because many words have been adopted from other sources. For example, telephone comes from two Greek roots: tele (far off) and phone (sound). Because of its many years of isolation, the Chinese, rather than borrow from other languages, call the telephone “electric talk”. After all, which is more sophisticated?
This brings us to another feature of Chinese. In written Chinese, a character has one meaning and a one-syllable sound. In spoken Chinese, this means that many words sound exactly alike, so for clarity, most modern words are combinations of two or more characters. Just as electric talk means telephone, most common words, especially those adapted for use in our times, consist of two or more syllables. Electric shadow means movies. Sometimes expressions may sound humorous to us, but in use they sound perfectly normal and make sense. For example you might invite a visitor to “sit a sit”, or simply, “please sit”. If you don’t understand you might say, “look no see”. Chinese waste few words. This has the advantage of keeping the speaker to the point and makes understanding much easier than one might think.
The student will find Chinese avoids many of the difficulties encountered in the study of other languages. Finnish, Russian, even Latin, all have many declensions to learn, plus verb tenses and so on. In Chinese the student has no problem.
There is no declension (distinguishing between subject, object, and mode, etc.) As Gertrude Stein famously said, “A rose is a rose is as…” A rock is the same word no matter where or how it is used. A verb has no past, no future, no lists of forms to learn. To go always remains the same. I go today. I go yesterday. I go tomorrow. That’s clear enough for anyone. No confusion about he/she, etc. One word means either he or she thus avoiding the difficulty in modern English. In the past, English grammar dictated that when writing in the abstract, we would stick to the masculine gender. Today, rather than write him, we may have to write the awkward, he/she, etc. None of that nonsense in Chinese.
Many expressions, as mentioned, are colorful. For example, if one wants to make any sort of apology, one might say “head not rise”. What could be more expressive than a little phrase like that? Obviously if you’re sorry, you can’t raise your head to look the other person in the eye.
Many fear the use of “tones” but this is easily learned, although the student does need a little help. Tones are much easier to learn in practice under the guidance of an instructor than from a book. Too, most Chinese will understand even if you aren’t quite “in tune with your tone”.
As to learning to write Chinese characters, this in itself can be a fascinating sidelight to the study of Chinese. One excellent way to learn is to obtain a Chinese pen (this will be a large brush with a full pointed tip, available at most stores dealing in Chinese merchandise, as well as ink. Books are also available clearly guiding the student through each character. Writing large characters to start, the student quickly gets the feeling for this and progress will be rapid. Most may not realize that characters are not simply pictures in the normal sense. Like writing in our language, each character has one way of forming it. Once this simple way of looking at a character, it is easy for the student, even with a new character, to visualize exactly how to write it properly so that it comes out balanced and legible.
The student who learns Chinese will find that the study is not only much easier than one might think, but it can give any student a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment. Most others will be suitably impressed when the student walks into a restaurant and begins to chat with the waiter in his native tongue, and the waiters will show a renewed respect as well.
Learning Chinese can be not only extremely interesting, but exciting and rewarding. Today with increasingly warm and economic relations with this great country, opportunities for those who understand Chinese can not only be helpful but open our understanding of other cultures and peoples as well.