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Thursday, April 17, 2014

When Santa brings a Chinese book

Ed Stephens Jr.

If you’re looking for some common elements between the Atlantic and Pacific, something beyond big, hairy cyclonic storms that chew everything up, here’s something for the list: Mandarin Chinese. The Macon, Georgia school system is making Mandarin a mandatory part of the curriculum.

That’s one item in a growing story. Closer to home, a few of the more promising kids in our circles are going to be getting Chinese language books as Christmas gifts. I’m a mere student of the tongue, and probably not even a good student, but even I know there are a few things worth heeding from the get-go, either for students or for Santa’s helpers shopping for an educational gift.

My take is not authoritative. It’s not even competent. But that’s what gives it that wholesome, home-cooked flavor. A perfect touch for the holidays! Hey, who’s your buddy?

If there is an elegant way to paint a slick overview of Mandarin for potential students, well, I can’t come up with one. So I just lump things into three categories: (1) verbal language, (2) phonetic writing, and (3) character writing.

As a backdrop to this, I’ll note that the mainland Chinese way of the language, and the Taiwanese way of the language, have some important differences for students. I’ll mention some distinctions here as they crop up.

Anyway, as for the verbal side of things, all sorts of learning materials are available. There are free YouTube videos, paid online video courses, free audio courses, paid audio courses, computer programs, and so on.

One respected veteran in this crowded field is the Pimsleur audio course. I’ve written about it before and I won’t rehash it again here, but I found the course very useful.

Now I’ll build a bridge from the spoken language to the writing side of things. Let’s say that a friendly waiter in a restaurant tells you the word for your favorite Chinese dish. You want to learn the word, but, if you’re like me, the only way to really remember it is to write it down. So you have to capture the sound of the word with your pen.

In English, of course, that would be easy. English is a phonetic language. We sound things out with our alphabet. But Chinese doesn’t use an alphabet. So people have invented various ways to put these (verbal) words into a phonetically (written) format using our Western alphabet. The most common way nowadays is called “pinyin,” and this is a term that most students will encounter quite often.

Pinyin is a big deal. It’s the first thing we learned in my first Chinese class. However, pinyin is mostly a mainland Chinese thing, and many of my friends in Taiwan aren’t familiar with it at all unless they happen to be language teachers. The Taiwanese have their own phonetic system, but I am not savvy in it.

Pinyin is how I write down words I hear, how I look up words in a Chinese dictionary, and how I use my Chinese word processor. An example of a pinyin word you see all the time is “Beijing,” the capital of China. (As commonly used in newspapers and such, this method dispenses with some accent marks, so it’s not entirely complete pinyin but it gets the point across.)

Learning to use pinyin doesn’t mean we’ve learned to read and write Chinese, it merely means we’ve learned a tool for phonetic mimicry.

Well, now we’re ready for the full glory of the writing: Chinese characters. These are the exotic squiggles that are so famous. Many people study spoken Chinese without bothering themselves with the written characters. By contrast, many, or perhaps most, classroom approaches integrate the characters with their study of the verbal part of things.

Here’s an important distinction to heed: China overhauled its written characters (some of them, not all of them) in order to make them easier to learn, and this form is called the “simplified” form. Taiwan, by contrast, adheres to the traditional characters, which are called, logically enough, “traditional” characters. Many advanced students study both. But for slobs like me who are still stuck in baby steps, I’ve found that trying to learn both is pretty overwhelming. I started off studying the traditional characters but have since shifted to the simplified.

What does this mean for Santas and for potential students? Well, various books generally emphasize various realms, so it helps to have some idea what you’re interested in before you go shopping. Hence my above commentary.

Overall, I suspect that most people are interested in learning conversational skills, and for this need the best book I’ve encountered is Chinese 24/7 by Albert Wolfe.


Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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