by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, & Chinese linguist and teacher
Founder, Break Diving, Inc.
In 2014, I quit my job as a public defender in New York and… moved to China! Shanghai, to be precise. While working part-time teaching at Wall Street English, I studied Chinese virtually full-time.
So many people tell me that they want to learn Chinese, but then get scared, and for two reasons:
1. The characters scare them.
2. The tones scare them.
Well, I’m here to tell you that neither of those two things should scare you, because while they are a seemingly steep learning curve, they are not that big of a deal, and here’s why: you already know how to read characters, and the tones don’t matter.
WHAT?! Is this guy crazy? Well, yes, I am, but not when it comes to what I just wrote above.
First, if I write this, do you know what they mean:
Yes, you do, and it’s almost absurdly obvious that you do.
Well, do you get my point? They are all symbols that mean something. And you memorized them, did you not? Well, Chinese is no different. You can easily memorize the characters. Here’s an example: 你好！So that first character is ni(3) and the second one is hao(3). Just ignore the numbers for a moment, and remember: ni hao, pronounced, knee how, means: Hello!
So, if I show this to you again: 你好, you should know that those two characters mean: Hello!
Now, anytime I write 你好 you are going to know exactly what it means, and you should also remember that it’s pronounced: knee how.
But it is written as ni(3) hao(3). This funny way of writing with the numbers is called PINYIN. Pinyin is the anglicized way of writing Chinese, and yup, virtually everyone in China (except maybe the WWII generation) knows how to write pinyin, because that’s how we write Chinese characters on a computer or phone: we write the pinyin and then we choose the right characters (which are called: hanzi).
In any case, you remember that 你好 means Hello! The (3)’s mean that when you say each of the tones, it starts high, goes low, and goes high again. If you were singing, imagine the song started on a high note, and then slide down to a low note, and then slide back up to a high note. If you don’t really know what I’m talking about, it’s okay. First, you can get a course or teacher to help you hear how it sounds. Second, it doesn’t really matter as you are getting started! Keep reading!
You see, here’s a little secret: while the tones ultimately are important, if you simply speak in long sentences, the context will let everyone know what you really wanted to say. For example, let’s say you are at a horse stable. The word for horse is ‘ma’. While yes, the word “ma” with different tones has many different meanings, i.e. mother, to scold, horse, question, etc., if you are at a stable and say, “I’d like to buy your horse” but you use the tone for “mother” instead, it’s not a big deal. Sure, whomever you are talking to may chuckle a bit, but ultimately he will know that you want to buy the horse, and not his mother! 😀
In other words, you do not need to have perfect tonal pronunciation when you start. Yes, eventually (and quickly) you are going to want to perfect those tones, but for starters, don’t worry about it so much that you never start.
While both the writing and the tones freaked me out a bit at first, after about a month or two, it become second nature. I promise that if you just START, you will quickly realize that there is no reason to be scared of Chinese just because of the characters and the tones.
Oh congrats! You just learned how to read two Chinese characters(你好), and it wasn’t that hard. While it may seem impossible to learn 100 of them, or 1000, or 3000 – 5000 total words (how many you need to learn to become totally fluent), you can do it. I started with just 你好 and then passed 100, and then 1,000, and so on. And I can actually read Chinese children’s novels now! Not yet fluent, but… getting there!
And now… 再见！(This means goodbye! Ain’t that cool: now you can recognize TWO words in Chinese. Yeah!)