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Lesson Transcript

Victor: 大家好 (dàjiā hǎo), I’m Victor.
Amber: Hey. And this is Amber. Welcome back to ChineseCLass101.com and our All About Chinese series. And today we’re going to expound on something very close to Chinese hearts, Victor, aren’t we?

Lesson focus

Victor: Right. We’re talking about Chinese characters, the writing system today.
Amber: Right. And how do you say Chinese characters in Chinese?
Victor: They’re known as 汉字 (hànzì).
Amber: 汉字 (hànzì), which is fourth tone, neutral tone, right?
Victor: Right. 汉字 (hànzì).
Amber: The good thing about this is that you probably didn’t know that learning Chinese was also going to be art class. How fun!
Victor: Yeah, Chinese…
Amber: Some finger-painting, something like that, Victor?
Victor: Yeah, definitely, it’s…
Amber: You can use your fingers, right? Yeah, the Chinese people do.
Victor: Really, the Chinese characters are a form of art, really, and such an important part of the language and culture.
Amber: Yeah, Chinese people are very passionate about Chinese characters. And no wonder, because it is the oldest written language in the world, today.
Victor: Yeah, there are examples of written Chinese dating back to 500 to 950 B.C. on bones and turtle shells and things.
Amber: Yeah, have you ever seen something like that? I heard there’s something called Oracle Bones, for divination or something. Have you seen those, Victor, in China?
Victor: I haven’t seen those myself, but they’re definitely around.
Amber: Well, I asked you because I have.
Victor: Oh, ok.
Amber: I want to brag for a moment.
Victor: How are they?
Amber: About how I'm more Chinese than you. Well, once I was in Beijing and a friend of mine, he lives there, he took me to this site of an archeological dig, and they had discovered two tombs from the emperors who lived at the same time that Jesus was on the Earth.
Victor: Oh, wow. That’s really exciting.
Amber: Yes. And what was very exciting is that on some of the artifacts, which were kind of bone-like objects, I presume, there were Chinese character. And I could read them, because they were very simple ones. They weren’t one of those 32 stroke ones. They were more like “people”, “mouth”.
Victor: That’s good. Definitely has a long history. And it’s amazing how they’ve been preserved so well.
Amber: Yeah, and you know, those simple pictures, those simpler times when it was just “mouth” and “people” on the bones… Well, those simple pictures are still the root of the Chinese characters that we learn today, that we see today.
Victor: Right, they’re definitely put together in ways that are usually quite logical and easy to remember.
Amber: So we talked about these simple pictures that were used way back then, and even Chinese characters today can be broken down into these picture elements within the character, even though now they’re much more complex a lot of them.
Victor: Right. And these smaller pictures within the characters usually give you a hint as to the meaning of pronunciation.
Amber: Yeah, but I have to say – disclaimer – I have heard this claim by many Chinese teachers, but it’s not always true.
Victor: It’s just like any other language, cause there’s always exceptions, but for the most part, if you get the rules, you get into it. It tells you a lot, actually.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: So for example, for some simple objects, like the characters for “people”, “hand”, “foot”, “mountain”, “the sun”, “the tree”, just like small, little pictures. Once you see it, you think it’s really interesting.
Amber: Yeah, and it’s true because, I mean, if you squint your eye a little, maybe, you can see that it looks like a tree or a sun or a hand, kind of… The elements are there.
Victor: Right, just like the one for “mouth”. It literally just looks like a square mouth.
Amber: Yeah, I mean maybe just think of it as impressionist art rather than very detailed art.
Victor: Right.
Amber: And then you can kind of figure out the picture within the character.
Victor: And then slowly learn it.
Amber: Yeah. So, amazingly, after 3,000 years, you can still tell what they are.
Victor: Ok, now, these simple elements that we’re talking about, they have a special name, right, Victor?
Victor: Right, they’re called radicals.
Amber: Totally radical. They’re so radical because they’re what you use to look up Chinese words in a dictionary. It’s actually quite organized, even though it’s so artistic. Not like a disorganized, sort of, all over the place artist. Quite logical…
Victor: Right. It’s a little time consuming at first, but then you get used to it pretty quickly.
Amber: And another thing about the radicals is that you can sometimes see them a bit more in the traditional characters. In the simplified characters, sometimes the radicals have been taken out, isn’t that true, Victor?
Victor: Yeah, definitely.
Amber: So what do you like better, Victor? I mean, I know you’re from Tamila, in China, so do you like simplified characters better or traditional?
Victor: I only learned how to write simplified, but I can read traditional as well, because there are similarities that you can see the resemblance, for the most part.
Amber: You’re so diplomatic. I didn’t say that. I said which one do you like better?
Victor: I really don’t have a preference. They both work and you see both forms, although simplified more in mainland China. But right now, some of the business in places, so that means you use more traditional as well.
Amber: Well, I'm not very diplomatic, cause I’ll say right now that I like simplified way better because it’s easier.
Victor: It’s easier for people to learn, definitely. Yes.
Amber: However, a lot of learners I know prefer traditional because they feel that there’s more hints within the character as to the meaning of the character. You can see the radicals always or… I can see their point. But to me, it just looks like, the more strokes, the more mumbo jumbo.
Victor: Oh, yeah, definitely. I can’t even write in traditional myself so…
Amber: Ok, so how many characters are there altogether?
Victor: There are…
Amber: Be honest, no diplomization.
Victor: 50,000 characters.
Amber: Oh, my god.
Victor: In Chinese. And you have to learn every single one of them.
Amber: Really?
Victor: No.
Amber: Wait a minute.
Victor: Definitely not. So there are about 50,000 characters altogether, but you definitely don’t have to learn even close to that many. Most of them are really obscure and you don’t need to know them at all. 3,000 or 4,000 is enough.
Amber: Yeah, and it kind of depends on what your purposes are, right? If you’re going to be a translator, the more, the better, you’ll be a quick translator. However, day to day life, I mean, there’s always… I mean, you can always use the point method or get your friends to write down things for you if you can’t. It all depends on your goals for learning Chinese. I'm giving people a way out if they need it. But yeah, so even 3,000 or 4,000, I mean, compared to 50,000 it seems a lot more doable. So yeah, 3,000 or 4,000 doesn’t seem that bad, and also you can just think about how great it is when you learn characters. Oh, you can do with it.
Victor: Yeah, definitely. You know, you can read people’s tattoos or tell them it does not mean what they thought it did.
Amber: I know, usually the tattoos are kind of the equivalent of Chinglish T-shirts, aren’t they? It’s like, for Chinese people, is it weird? What’s a weird tattoo you’ve seen? I’ve seen “chicken”. Do you want to have a tattoo that says “chicken”?
Victor: Actually, I think most of the tattoos I have seen are pretty good.
Amber: Yeah?
Victor: Yeah. They tend to mean what people thought it meant. But some, yeah…
Amber: Like you might get 猪 (zhū), which is “pig”, right? Do you want to be a pig? Well, in Chinese it might be alright, but I’ve seen some of my Chinese friends laughed at the tattoos. Another really good motivator for learning Chinese characters, when you’re in China, often the menu’s not in English.
Victor: Yeah, definitely.
Amber: Or you can’t read during English that is on the menu cause it’s translated so crazily.
Victor: Exactly. I’ve known friends who speak Chinese and they’ve been able to score free foods from the owners, because Chinese people love it when you speak Chinese.
Amber: Hey, that works too. But, the thing is, if you don’t know Chinese characters, you might end up ordering something very scary. That is the point. Ok, so to make it also more easy for people, Victor, come on, give us a few more hints. There’s have to be some things that will make it easier for us when we’re learning the characters.
Victor: Like we said earlier, the little pictures give you hints to what they mean and what they know. It’s kind of like combining English letters, kind of learning for the SATs, you kind of learn all these strategies… Same thing in Chinese, and once you get the handle of it, you start to follow or to realize these rules, and even though you don’t know all the characters, you can make good, very reasonable guesses.
Amber: And I think a really good tip is get some children’s books. A lot of people learn that way. Start with “see harry jump, see dick jump”. Once you learn the basics, actually the truth of the matter is 3,000 or 4,000 characters are good to learn, but the most frequent, maybe 500 you learn, you’re going to see all the time.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Really, it’s the last 2,000 or so you have to tackle. But if you’ve learned 500, you can already read a lot of really essential day to day things.
Victor: Definitely. Yeah. Start with the simple ones, you’ll probably feel more like you achieve something.
Amber: Yeah, it’s true, it will be encouraging. Don’t start with those obscure… don’t just start reading the dictionary. Put it that way – don’t start at A, if there was an A, and start reading through. Ok, so now all these nice pictures and everything, but really, now we’ve come to a really important thing, which is pronunciation. We look at a character, sure, we can see pictures there, but it doesn’t tell us how to pronounce Chinese. So what do we do, Victor? What have you guys done for us?
Victor: Luckily, we have this system called Pinyin to help.
Amber: Yes, and actually I know it’s true you didn’t create Pinyin for us. It’s actually taught to children, in schools, right?
Victor: Right, right.
Amber: To help them learn…
Victor: That’s the first thing the kindergartners in China learn.
Amber: So just think everybody, you can revert to your childhood, hang on to your youth, and you can be like a kindergartener again.
Victor: But this is how Chinese people learn Chinese, so I guess that’s…
Amber: If it works for them, it will work for you. So we have this system called Pinyin that’s a phonetic system that teaches the standard pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese. So basically in the West, when you see Chinese names in the newspaper, or Chinese city names, sometimes you see these weird Xs and Zs, right? And nobody really knows how to pronounce it? Well, that’s Pinyin.
Victor: That’s actually Pinyin. Right.
Amber: So all those Xs and Zs, it’s actually – don’t be deterred – it’s actually very easy to learn because a lot of the letters sound similar to the English pronunciations. There are some definitely that are different, but once you learn the pronunciations, you can pronounce any Chinese word, even if you don’t know the character.
Victor: Yeah, and definitely one way to enter Chinese characters on computers.
Amber: That’s right. So that is my method, because I am a little bit character challenged, but I can type characters, so that works. In this day and age, you don’t really have to use the paint brush and stroking on the, you know… Good. Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Pinyin yet, we have good news for you. You’re not going to be left to your own to learn it. We actually have on our website, ChineseClass101.com, an interactive Pinyin chart.
Victor: Yeah, and it shows all the combinations of initials and final sounds possible in Chinese.
Amber: Right, so then this initials and finals, we should discuss this a little. Unlike European languages, it’s not consonants and vowels that make up Chinese words in Pinyin. Actually they have a set of initial sounds and a set of final sounds, and they can be combined in different ways to make the 400 or so sounds of Chinese.
Victor: Right, and just one word of caution. You kind of mentioned this already, but Pinyin cannot be read like English. Even though there are a lot of similarities, but there are also differences, so you should pay attention to those differences. Like 很好 (hěn hǎo), in Chinese, you’ll say 很好 (hěn hǎo), so it’s more controlled, in a way. But in English, it will sound like “henhao”.
Amber: Yeah.
Victor: You see the difference very…
Amber: Very common mistake. Even though it’s spelled H-E-N, it is not hen, it’s 很 (hěn).
Victor: 很 (hěn).
Amber: But this, we promise you guys, is very easy to master. Basically in a day or two, you can learn the sounds and master the pronunciation.
Victor: Right. And there are only about 400 different combinations, so it’s not that difficult.
Amber: Yeah, it’s not like the 50,000 characters. But that kind of brings us to another point, which is why are there only 400 sounds in Chinese? However there are 50,000 characters. This comes down to the fact of homophones.
Victor: Right.
Amber: A big word that means there’s a lot of words that sound the same.
Victor: Yeah. And to distinguish those, Amber, how do you do that?
Amber: Well, from these 400 sounds of Chinese, there’s actually other combinations that can be made through adding tones.
Victor: Right. The much dreaded tones for many beginners.
Amber: Yes, but they’re not to be dreaded, actually, because they’re kind of like music. I mean, just think of it this way, Victor, if you have a song that you get in your head, you don’t think about what note or what tone, I mean you just sing the song, right?
Victor: Right, exactly.
Amber: I think of learning Chinese tones that way. Once you learn them, there seems to once a point where you don’t have to overthink them, and they just naturally come.
Victor: Yeah, that’s good. That’s good to know, especially coming from you. Hopefully our listeners will also catch up on that.
Amber: Especially coming from me. Ok, yeah, that’s true. So, Victor, knowing that there are so many words in Chinese, is that going to be a problem? Do people get mixed up about… cause, for example, the word MA, right? There’s four ways of saying it. Like 骂 (mà) means “to scold”, right? What about “mother”, is also 妈 (mā), that first tone, right?
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: 妈 (mā) is “mother” and then there’s 马 (mǎ), which is “horse”.
Victor: Right.
Amber: So do people get confused when they’re talking?
Victor: That’s why it’s important for people to have a good grasp of the tones. Because what you just said, the same sound with different tone can mean drastically different things. So although there are not impossible to grasp, but they are very important, so you should definitely learn them and take them to hear.
Amber: You could say a swear word.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: But generally I find that, because of context, as long as you get the tones right, even though the words sound similar, they can… Chinese people generally will know what you’re talking about.
Victor: Right. And especially for a foreigner or you’re a new, beginner, learning Chinese, Chinese people give you a lot of leeway. They don’t expect perfect Chinese from you, but…
Amber: Maybe they don’t understand you, but at least they’ll pretend they do.
Victor: And you’re right, the context, definitely… And sometimes even in Chinese, the same sound in different context will mean different things. So you really have to pay attention to the situation.
Amber: That’s true. And one method I have seen Chinese people use a lot, Victor, cause sometimes even Chinese people will maybe hear a word and not be able to decipher which word it is, and they will actually trace the character into their hand.
Victor: Right.
Amber: Because a lot of characters will have the same exact tone and sound. So maybe there’s eight different words that have the same tone and sound, and then they’ll just write the character sort of into the air or into the palm of their hand. I was like, “What the heck is that? Get a pen. I can’t read your fingers.”
Victor: Right. Right.
Amber: Yeah, but anyways, in time you’ll probably be able to do that too and you’ll feel pretty cool.
Victor: Yeah.
Amber: Anyway, so don’t, don’t worry. These tones, these characters, everything will come step by step. Don’t get overwhelmed. Just think of it like all of the exercises that your right brain will be getting, cause you know that a lot of languages don’t use the right brain, right?
Victor: Yeah, it’s like a workout for your brain. And definitely we’re here to help you through it, so there’s no need to worry.
Amber: That’s right. So Chinese characters aren’t as hard as you might think. You might just enjoy learning them. Some people really get into it, Victor.
Victor: Yeah.


Amber: So that was Lesson 2 in our All About Chinese series – All About the Chinese Writing System, Chinese Characters. We hope that helped you guys learn a little bit more, but you can also come to the website and look at some real Chinese characters!