The Chinese Alphabet at a Glance

chinese alphabetIt is widely known that the English language is considered one of the hardest to master, in large part because there are so many rules regarding the different phrases, forms, requirements, irregular adjectives and so on that make up the language. Though many debate that it fails in comparison to learning Cantonese, Arabic, or Japanese, none of those holds a candle to the complexity that is the Chinese language (also called Mandarin), which ranks high on the list of difficult languages to master as a second language. It is essential to have assistance when attempting to learn the language, but you can check out courses on Udemy such as this  helpful Mandarin course for beginners.

Every word in Chinese is a completely different symbol. These may not be distinguishable to those of us who aren’t native speakers the language, and those who are attempting to learn Chinese often don’t understand how specific words (or phrases) are pronounced even if they identify the symbol itself. There are also many different Chinese alphabets that were adapted into the standard Chinese writing system. Usually those whose first language is anything other than Chinese don’t quite understand that there really isn’t an “alphabet” like in the sense we’ve come to understand – especially if English is your first language.

Characters

Chinese characters are not considered letters, but rather represent a concept, object, or even an idea, whereas letters in the English language represent a certain sound. These are called logograms, and happen to be the oldest continuously used system of writing in the entire world.  Characters number in tens of thousands as opposed to the 26 letters in the English alphabet! In order to be considered literate in China, actual written Chinese requires an extensive knowledge of at least four to six thousand characters.

Pictograms

Around 4 percent of Chinese characters are pictograms. This makes it crucial to memorize the pronunciation of each individual word and character – you cannot spell things out as you can with words in other languages. This can be difficult if you are an outsider.  Most Chinese words consist of just a few basic syllables, such as “ta” and “wo”. However the difficultly lies in the fact that each syllable exists in four tones:

  • First Tone: a level tone so it doesn’t go up or down.
  • Second Tone: this tone rises (as if you were asking a question).
  • Third Tone: this tone goes down and then up (as if you were just surprised to hear something another person said).
  • Fourth Tone: this one goes down as if you were angry at something, so you would sound darker.

Pronunciation plays an extremely important role in learning Chinese, so a survival course in Chinese pronunciation for beginners is a great tool to have if you’re just starting out.

Structure

The structure of the Chinese alphabet differs from Latinate letters and script in many ways. In addition to the aforementioned pictograms, characters in the Chinese alphabet may also indicate abstract ideas (such as pairs or the number three), or other characters may be composited together to create a new character with a new meaning. Additionally, some pieces are used on multiple characters, and can be used to indicate words that share the same idea (such as characters that denote words relating to people).

History

The colorful history of Chinese characters is said to have been dated back as far as c. 6500 BC, though this date has been wildly debated since experts claim that there is no actual basis that constitutes the existence of the characters during that time period. Experts claim that characters were created by Cangjia, a bureaucrat who worked under the Yellow Emperor.

The legend goes that while hunting on Mount Yangxu, Cangjie stumbled upon a large tortoise, whose unique looking veins struck his curiosity. He saw logic in the pattern of the veins and went on to study different animals all over the world. He also studied the pattern of the stars as well as landscapes on earth and invented a system called “zi”, which is known as the first Chinese characters.

For travelers looking to travel abroad to China and study their rich history, Udemy has this fascinating course created especially for people looking to travel to China and who don’t understand the language.  

Calligraphy

Chinese calligraphy a beautiful art form made up of beautiful brush strokes. Each character has a set number of brushstrokes, so you cannot add or subtract from the original character, or it will lose its meaning. Even though you can’t add or subtract from the strokes themselves, strict regularity is not required in Chinese calligraphy. This means each stroke can be accentuated for a particular dramatic effect.

Now that you’re familiar with the basics of the Mandarin history and methods, there are steps that are needed to be taken in order to begin to learn the alphabet itself:

  1. First and foremost, attempt to familiarize yourself with the basics (isn’t it always best to start at the beginning? Know that characters can consist of up to 64 strokes and must be penned in a distinct direction.
  2. Identify the necessary characters needed to understand everyday conversation. So, like it was stated before – even though there are tens of thousands of characters, you would only need to learn about six thousand characters.
  3. Basic characters come first! So you should always study the characters for the days of the week, numbers and even personal basic conversations.
  4. Research a suitable course to follow which will help you progress at a much faster pace. For example, Edemy offers an excellent elementary class for Chinese pronunciation that is a stellar jumping off point. 
  5. Practice, practice, practice. It’s critical that you practice writing the Chinese you’ve picked up.

There are many components to remember when it comes to successfully learning the Chinese alphabet. Because it’s a collection of dialects rather than just a single language, it can prove rather difficult to learn. However, the challenge is well worth it.