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The Dictionary of Chinese Characters

From Jon, published on 05/03/2018 We Love Prof - AU > Languages > Chinese > An Introduction to the Chinese Writing System
Contents
  • The Chinese Writing System
  • Learning Chinese Pronunciation
  • Vowels in Chinese
  • How Can You Learn to Read Chinese?
  • The 26 Letters of the Chinese Alphabet
  • Learning to Read Chinese with a Private Tutor

With nearly 2 billion speakers that can read, speak, and write in Mandarin Chinese, learning the Chinese language is essential. While several different dynasties may have changed it, the written version of the language dates back nearly 4,000 years.

Originally written to transcribe spoken Chinese, the writing system that created traditional Chinese characters, is used by several Chinese languages, and continues to baffle foreigners is as popular as ever among those who use it as part of their mother tongue.

While people in the West have avoided learning Chinese for such a long time because it was considered too different to their own languages, that’s beginning to change.

Let’s have a look at how Chinese characters are written, stroke order, and how you use the Pinyin system for romanizing them. Whether you’re just planning a trip to China, are moving there as part of a university exchange, or have an important interview with a Chinese company, this should come in handy.

The Chinese Writing System

Often known as characters, 汉字 hanzi, or “Han characters”, the logograms used in the Chinese writing system are used in a completely different way to the Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic alphabets. For those who want to learn Chinese, learning about the writing system isn’t optional!

How many Chinese characters are there? In addition to learning to read the characters, you’ll also need to learn how to correctly pronounce them. (Source: Bukejiuyao)

However, in order to make their language more accessible, the Chinese government created a “phonetic transcription system” called Pinyin in the 1950s that helped revolutionize the way in which foreigners (particularly those in the West) learned Chinese.

In fact, Chinese is completely devoid of a phonetic writing system. As we touched upon before, the writing system is “logographic”, which means that individual words are indicated by symbols.

Unlike alphabets which use combinations of letters in order to create words, Chinese creates meaning from these symbols.

As one of the oldest writing systems around, the Chinese writing system has had more than enough time to influence its neighbors like Japan, for example.

While the writing system can strike fear into the hearts of even the most avid learners, you can take solace in the fact that there’s no such thing as upper and lower cases and that it was later simplified to make Chinese vocabulary easier for both native and foreign learners.

The Kangxi Dictionary (which was made at Emperor Kangxi’s request) includes over 47,000 characters and linguistic experts recommend that if students want to learn Mandarin Chinese enough to read the newspaper, they should familiarize themselves with at least 5,000 different characters. However, trying to find a word in Chinese dictionary is a nightmare if you have no knowledge of reading and writing. With the economic growth of China, it’s becoming increasingly important that we master these symbols.

You too can learn how to write Chinese characters!

Learning Chinese Pronunciation

In order to be able to speak Chinese fluently during Chinese lessons or while in China, you’re also going to have to learn how to correctly pronounce words.

How much do private Chinese tutorials cost? Which is the best way to learn Chinese? Going to China, of course! (Source: PublicDomainPictures)

As you’ll be using this in everyday conversations, Chinese pronunciation is essential when it comes to learning Chinese. Whether you’re traveling, studying, or working in China, good pronunciation ensures that you’ll be able to make yourself understood.

It goes without saying that the different melodies, rhythms, and tones of Chinese are famous for being rather complex. Each syllable has an initial, a final, and a pitch that will influence how you have to pronounce it. These syllables can be put together in small groups.

However, these syllables are not words and there are very few of them. While there are thousands in languages like English, French, and Spanish, Chinese has slightly over 400 different potential syllables.

You might find this quite surprising when find out that each traditional Chinese character corresponds to a single syllable. Most words in Chinese are monosyllabic or made of a combination of two or several syllables. This fact should make learning Chinese a little less scary.

Vowels in Chinese

Just like in Hebrew or Arabic, signs are used above vowels in Chinese words. These signs tell the reader which tone they should use when pronouncing the word or syllable. Tone is a typical aspect of Chinese which differentiates it from non-tonal languages such as English.

Which are the best ways to learn Chinese? A lot of people in the West struggle to read Chinese characters. (Source: PublicDomainPictures)

During your Chinese tutorials, you’ll learn that there are four different tones (as well as the neutral tone) in Chinese which is applied to every spoken syllable. The neutral tone is pronounced softly and shortly. The four other tones fluctuate between five different pitches. Chinese, just like music, pays particular attention to pitch.

Here are a few rules for the tones in Chinese:

  • When the third tone follows another third tone, the first one is pronounced like the second tone.

  • When the third tone is placed before another tone, when it dips but never goes back up.

  • When the fourth tone followers another fourth tone, the first one is pronounced like the second tone.

How Can You Learn to Read Chinese?

The Chinese writing system has put off quite a few aspiring learners. With 5,000 official characters, 10,000 if we include special and obsolete characters, learning to read in Chinese can take a lot of time and effort.

Where are the best places for learning Chinese? While there are plenty of digital resources for learning to write in Chinese, sometimes the old ways are best! (Source: Donations_are_appreciated)

You need to be aware that a Chinese character is made of several points. Additionally, you need to be aware of the meaning of each character’s shape. You then need to be able to work out how to pronounce the character and apply the correct tone depending on where you find the character. Finally, you need to know how to write the character without any help and respect the order of the strokes.

When it comes to learning the character, students should familiarize themselves with the characters slowly. Avoid using approaches that are too “academic” as you run the risk of demoralizing students.

Generally speaking, the most common method for learning Chinese characters is to treat every individual character as a separate entity.

To learn Chinese characters, you have to learn how to write them (in the correct order) and repeat this until you’ll never forget them. This traditional  kinesthetic learning method builds upon the way that Chinese characters are taught in terms of difficulty and can help the brain to associate the movement with the characters.

Most teachers agree that students should completely learn certain characters before they even begin to think about learning some of the others. The only way for the student to progress is to learn to both read and write Chinese characters. The challenge is making sure that they can recall how to both read and write the characters at a later date.

There are new teaching methods being developed that seem to be in complete contrast to this method. They’re based on the fact that learning Chinese is seen as a way to communicate in both writing and speaking. They’re used in classes in China and elsewhere.

Discover the best way to learn how to write hanzi

The 26 Letters of the Chinese Alphabet

A ā

B bèi

C

D

E 饿 è

F 艾弗 ài fú

G

H 阿什 ā shí

I

J

K

L 艾勒 ài lè

M 艾马 ài mǎ

N 艾娜 ài nà

O ó

P pèi

Q

R 艾和 ài hé

S 艾丝 ài sī

T

U

V wéi

W 独布勒维 dú bù lè wéi

X 伊克斯 yī kè sī

Y 伊格黑克 yī gé hēi kè

Z 贼德 zéi dé

How Do You Use a Keyboard in Chinese?

Since Chinese uses a logographic writing system, typing Chinese is far more complex than typing non-logographic writing systems like the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets.

How many Chinese characters do you need to learn? It’s often easier to write Chinese characters by hand rather than using a computer. (Source: PublicDomainPictures)

A typical Chinese printers needed  to use at least 6,000 different Chinese characters. Chinese and Japanese typewriters only started popping up at the beginning of the 20th century and were invented by Hou-Kun Chow. The original designed made use of around 4,000 Chinese characters.

Chinese Calligraphy: Art and Writing

Traditional Chinese writing uses brushes and ink. The materials used are often known as the Four Treasures of the Study (文房四宝; Wénfáng Sìbǎo). The shape, size, tension, and type of hair used in the brush, the color and density of the ink, and the absorption rate and texture of the paper are the main physical properties that influence Chinese calligraphy.

When it comes to Chinese calligraphy, there are 5 conditions that must be met in order for it to have any artistic merit.

The characters must be:

  • Correctly written

  • Readable

  • Concise

  • Adapted to their context

  • Aesthetically pleasing

Would you like to know more about Chinese calligraphy?

Learning to Read Chinese with a Private Tutor

Private tutors could be the answer to learning to read Chinese.

The advantage of private tutorials is that your tutor can adapt their lessons to your strengths and weaknesses while focusing on the things you find the most difficult.

They can also carry out a personalized and educational appraisal so they know exactly which characters you need to study and the best way for you to study them. Private tutors can use some of the most interesting and effective teaching methods.

A lot of tutors will even offer discounts if you reserve several tutorials at once. This is a great deal for both the tutor and the student.

When choosing a private tutor, you should look for tutors whose native language is Chinese. This can give them a far better understanding of the language than non-natives. However, you should also check that they’re a qualified and experienced educator, too.

It’s much better to have a tutor who’s familiar with proper pedagogy and exams such as the HSK, who can draw upon years of teaching other students, and can build an effective student-teacher relationship with their tutees.

If you can’t find any suitable tutors near you, don’t worry! There are plenty of Chinese tutors who are happy to give private language tutorials over webcam (normally using Skype).

Discover how to master writing Chinese characters… 

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