Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese is fascinating and exciting, not weird and stupid

Many articles on this website deal with attitude and this should be taken as a sign that I think this is something very important. I’ve talked to many people about studying Chinese and I’ve read about lots more. There seem to be two different approaches to learning a foreign language and learners place themselves somewhere between these two poles:

Image credit: fotopedia.com/users/kali

  • Chinese is a fascinating language with myriads of unique and interesting features. Studying the language can be likened to a journey in an exotic land where there will always be something new and fantastic to look closer at.
  • Chinese is weird and stupid. Studying Chinese means you have to learn lots of things which are completely illogical and you continuously run into useless and arbitrary obstacles you have to force your way through to get anywhere.

Talking about attitude, it’s not possible to say what is correct and incorrect, but I am going to say that the former approach is more useful if you want to learn Chinese (or anything else, for that matter). Associating negative feelings with learning is generally a very bad idea and potentially disastrous to your studies. If you think Chinese is too hard, perhaps this article might make you reconsider: Learning Chinese is easy.

Few people can adopt the positive attitude every minute of every day, but it’s definitely possible to make a conscious effort to move closer to that goal all the time. Your attitude is of course closely related to why you want to learn Chinese (if you’re forced to learn Chinese, you will probably be inclined towards a negative attitude), but personality is also an important factor. Even though you feel that you’re stuck with a bad attitude, you’re not doomed. You can change your attitude. Really.

Chinese is fascinating and exciting

If you approach the language with an open and curious mind, you will naturally learn more easily and have more fun while learning. Here are some areas where I’ve heard lots of people complain, but which can be sources of great joy if you turn them around and look at them in another, more positive light.

  • Characters are pieces of beautiful art, fragments of living history and a continuous challenge on many planes. Writing calligraphy is an activity which goes far beyond simple writing. Characters are not unnecessary, so complex they can’t be understood or simply a number you have to cram in before you can say that you know Chinese. Characters can be understood and learnt.
  • Pronunciation is a rich world of sound you didn’t know existed before. Meeting someone with a particular dialect is a chance to hear Chinese from yet another angle and trying different accents or dialects is fun. Pronunciation is not impossible and a person who has a different dialect from what you’re used to isn’t stupid because he can’t speak properly.
  • Chinese society is as diverse as any other, perhaps even more so than most, and there are innumerable examples of this to experience and more people to get to know that you will have time to spend. Experiencing another culture can also help you understand your own. Chinese society is not backwards, conservative or dangerous, but it is probably very different from your own.

Chinese is different, not superior or inferior to other languages

The three examples above are different perspectives and not attempts to say what’s actually true; that’s not the point. The idea is that instead of regarding something as a problem or an obstacle, you should try to look at is a friend or a place you would like to get to know better and eventually understand and start to love.

Your native language is also weird and stupid sometimes

If you do encounter something you think is genuinely weird and stupid (it does happen), consider for a while that your language probably consists of lots of equally weird and stupid things that some foreigners don’t think highly of. Do you think that your language is weird and stupid? Probably not, because you understand it.

For instance, measure words in Chinese are put before nouns when they are counted, so “I have two cars” would be “I have two [measure word for vehicles] car”. This sounds very unnecessary to most people, especially when they find out that there are so many different measure words. But something similar is required in some situations in English as well. You can’t say “one snow” or “one water”, you need a measure word such as “fistful” or “bottle”, to complete these sentences. Furthermore, as Jason has pointed out in the comments, the plural marker “s” on “cars” in English in that very sentence is redundant in a similar way to the measure word in Chinese. “I have two car” is perfectly understandable (albeit incorrect) and that would be the case without the measure word in Chinese, too, at least in written form.

Ask basic questions, but don’t question the basics

Asking many questions to verify what you know or gain new knowledge is essential, but contrary to what many teachers tell you, not all questions are good questions. Whenever you ask questions, they should firmly belong to the positive, curious kind. If you ask why a certain sentence is ordered the way it’s ordered because you don’t understand, that’s good, but don’t ask questions like “Why are there so many difficult characters?”, “Why don’t they use tenses like we do?” or “Why can you put the time both before and after the subject?” These questions might be good for a thesis, but the answer (if there is one) isn’t likely to make the average student any wiser.

Don’t forget that Chinese is fascinating and exciting!

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  1. Selly says:

    Chinese is definitely fascinating and beautiful and exciting. There is a weird and odd element to it but for me that’s part of the learning curve and what seemed weird at first quickly becomes beautiful once I understand the reasoning behind it. A possitive “can do” attitude will get you so much further with a lot less obstacles in your way! I love how I seldom hear my teacher say “that’s just the way it is” when we tackle something new, there is always something more behind it and it even makes grammar fun (something I’ve never been able to say about any language I’ve learnt).

  2. I have learned some languages before, English since I was 8 years old, German for 5 years, Swedish for about 6 years and Latin for a couple of months. From those three languages English is the only one that I can speak today, others I’ve give up and forgot. I don’t have any passion for English but it allows me to do many things like watch my favourite TV shows without subtitles, read great books that aren’t translated to Finnish and so on.

    But Chinese is different, that’s my real passion. Some could say my destiny was to learn Chinese because I’ve always been interested in it. It all started even before I was born because my parents were living Beijing when my mom was expecting me.

    Online I’ve met other as passionate Chinese learners as my self and it’s great to see where their passion has led them.

    On the other hand now when doing a bachelor degree in Chinese I noticed that some of my classmates study Chinese because their parents told them to do so, or because it’s beneficial for doing business, reasons that aren’t based on passion. I wouldn’t learn Chinese if it wasn’t my passion, I wouldn’t find the motivation to do so.

  3. Sara K. says:

    “… read great books that aren’t translated to Finnish and so on.”

    Have you used Chinese to read anything great which hasn’t been translated into any European language? Discovering how much wonderful stuff there is to read in Chinese which is not available in any non-Asian language motivates me quite a bit 😉

    While I am not motivated by Chinese itself per se – there are other languages that I think are more fascinating and I’m not studying them right now – Chinese is still quite interesting, and I have a bunch of cultural/social/practical reasons which made me pick Chinese. And I am definitely not studying Chinese because my parents told me to – they actually discouraged me (well, my mother at least) from learning foreign languages, and even arranged to have my foreign language class postponed for a year in high school. That now makes me quite sad, because it would have been nice to have started learning foreign languages earlier … on the other hand. when I did start studying foreign languages, it was definitely due to my own motivation, so it might have been better than having my interest in foreign languages prematurely crushed by early bad experiences.

  4. “Have you used Chinese to read anything great which hasn’t been translated into any European language?”

    Not yet, because my Chinese doesn’t quite yet allow me to read those books and enjoy them, meaning I would need to use way too much dictionary while reading. But it’s my goal to read as much in Chinese as I can, as I love reading in Finnish and English too. If you have some recommendations for great books, I’m happy to hear 🙂

  5. Jason Cullen says:

    I think it’s interesting that you would compare English and Chinese, in the example “I have two cars” or 我有两辆车。Wǒ yǒu liǎng liàng chē. But why reach for such a bad defense? Chinese classifiers are NOT the same as measure words (e.g. a bottle of wine).

    Classifiers are a system of concord; they are ‘redundancy features’ built into a Noun Phrase (NP) to show that a series of constituents construct a single phrase. English, in the EXACT SAME EXAMPLE, uses such a “stupid” (but different) redundancy feature to show concord: two carS.

    Why do we need a plural here? “Two” is already ‘plural’, so why add a plural suffix to “car”? In Hungarian, “cars” is autók (autó ‘car’ + /k/ ‘plural’) and “two cars” is két autó; they simply drop the plural, because it’s already obvious. Chinese (and Central Asian Turkic languages and the Tibeto-Burman languages, like Tibetan) do the same thing. They don’t repeat the plural. But they do show SEMANTIC concord.

    Finally… Hi Sara! Love your website! See you in Canton in 7 months! By the way, wouldn’t you say that it was 缘分 to study Chinese? 😉 I think it was for me! (I find ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ poor translations for ‘yuanfen’, as a) fate and destiny tend to have negative connotations in a culture informed by Christianity, and b) yuanfen has a stronger participatory feel in it, as it reflects the views of a culture informed by Buddhism.)

    Jason Cullen

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Your example is a better illustration of how this works in English and Chinese, but it’s not a very good example if the goal is to use something familiar to explain something foreign, which was the case here. I’m not making a linguistic comparison here, I’m trying to make Chinese look less strange. However, I do agree with you that it’s not an example of English being weird, so I have changed the text to reflect this and also included your point about plural “s” on “cars”.

      1. Jason Cullen says:

        I agree that the goal should be to make Chinese look less strange. However, I believe that is the goal of my examples, which is probably why you incorporated some of my ideas into your text.

        The linguistic arguments were made to make a case; that doesn’t mean I think they should be incorporated into a lesson.

        The fact is though you are confusing measure words, and every language of Eurasia (Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Tibeto-Burman, Turkic, Sinitic, etc.) has these, with classifiers. They’re just not the same thing. When I say 一个人, there is nothing like a mass noun and a measure here. So if you’re teaching grammar, regardless of the language you’re teaching, it’s fine to dumb down the jargon for students (example: when I teach English grammar, I don’t say ‘swim swam swum’ is ‘bare infinitive/base form’, ‘preterite/simple past’ or ‘past/passive participle’; rather, I use V1, V2, V3, and it’s easier to communicate). But you have to be accurate, too, or really weird stuff can pop up later. There’s been some research on this, which unfortunately I cannot cite right now. I’ll just have to say “trust me” for now!

        Best of luck.

        1. Olle Linge says:

          I think I have a pretty good grasp of classifiers vs. measure words (we do have substantial grammar courses in this program after all). This article is actually quite old, though, so I can’t remember exactly why I chose to use “measure word” throughout, but I guess it’s probably because otherwise people would just be confused since most textbooks only use one word. If this article was actually about grammar, I would probably think this through a lot more carefully, but I’m not sure it would help in this case. It might of course also be due to sloppy thinking, but in either case, thanks for pointing this out!

  6. Jason Cullen says:

    Oh, thanks for the citation! 🙂

  7. Dennis says:

    Never knew why, but I’ve had a grudge on the Chinese language since I was little. Yes, chinese might be interesting, but it wouldn’t be as interesting as what you would think.

    You see, being a guy who lives in a multiracial country, you get to know a few languages and start comparing them and then you’ll usually pick one of them to be your favourite.

    So, I’ve friends who chose chinese as their favourite language, while I too have friends who chose the English language. Some are in the middle with no regards as to what language they favour.

    So being one of the guys who favoured English… I have nothing good to say about chinese, nor have I destructive opinions of it.

    Languages are a part of life. Just like choosing your lover, Choose the languages that you like, even if it’s some other foreign one.

    Never ever make fun of other languages until you know how to converse and use them.

    Oh, I’m chinese by the way.

  8. Fen Ma says:

    This is the only article mentioning measure words (or classifier). Some books recommend to learn nouns with their measure word. Sounds reasonable, but even most of this books don’t give the nouns with their measure words or they are only on a beginner level. I didn’t find an online list nouns with correct measure word, so I have to follow a role or find it in context. Do you now a source of such a list?
    Is it even your recommendation to learn this pairs, or is it better to stick with ge 个 and the rules, until one knows better?

  9. Ryan says:

    My girlfriend is Chinese (but incredibly good at English) but the one place she does mess up is uncountable nouns and I can never actually explain when to use either (she wants to refer to the shade in a forest as shades, listen to music vs musics, …). Learning Chinese has made me enjoy pointing out what stupid rules we have in English

  10. Andrew1267 says:

    It’s so true that every language can be weird and stupid sometimes! People start to understand that about their mother tongues too when they start learning foreign languages.

    For those who is interested in learning more about how strange English could be sometimes, I highly recommend a book called “Crazy English” by Richard Lederer.

    A couple citations:

    “There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat.”

    “How can a “slim chance” and a “fat chance” be the same, while a “wise man” and “wise guy” are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while “quite a lot” and “quite a few” are alike? How can the weather be “hot as hell” one day and “cold as hell” another?”

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