Why Mandarin Chinese is not as hard as you think
Chinese has a relatively uncomplicated grammar. Unlike French, German or English, Chinese has no verb conjugation (no need to memorize verb tenses!) and no noun declension (e.g., gender and number distinctions). For example, while someone learning English has to learn different verb forms like “see/saw/seen,” all you need to do in Chinese is just to remember one word: kan. While in English you have to distinguish between “cat” and “cats,” in Chinese there is only one form: mao. (Chinese conveys these distinctions of tense and number in other less complex ways).
The basic word order of Chinese is subject — verb — object, exactly as in English. A large number of the key terms of Mandarin Chinese (such as the terms for state, health, science, party, inflation, and even literature) have been formed as translations of English concepts.
If you know 1000 commonly used characters, you will recognize 90% of the characters in Chinese newspapers.
Chinese grammar can therefore be simply summarized as follows:
• No conjugations: each verb only has one form, and for that matter: no irregular verbs
• No tenses: use of particles to express if an action takes place in the past, present or future. Again, the verb form never changes in function of the tense
• No articles: no such thing as ‘the’ and ‘a’, no le/la, no der/die/das
• No plurals: quantifiers before the noun, or simply the context, will make clear whether we are talking in singular or in plural
• No gender: no masculine, feminine or neuter words
• No declensions of adjectives by number or gender: just like nouns, adjectives never change
• Fixed sentence patterns, no inversion: fixed pattern of subject - verb - object
Chinese vocabulary is built up in a very logical way. Once you know some basic words, your learning process will speed up in no time. As you progress, you will notice that many new words you learn are simply creative combinations of other basic words you have learned before.
How about you guess the meaning of the words below:
1. 电脑 diàn-năo = Electricity + brain = ?
2. 电话 diàn-huà = Electricity + speech = ?
3. 电视 diàn-shì = Electricity + to view = ?
4. 变色龙 biàn-sè-lóng =Change + colour + dragon = ?
5. 长颈鹿 cháng-jĭng-lù = Long + neck + deer = ?
6. 猫头鹰 māo-tóu-yīng = Cat + head + hawk = ?
(Answers: computer, telephone, television, chameleon, giraffe, owl)
All of the above words are examples of how the Chinese use known concepts of single characters to form new words.
As you can see, the Chinese language constructs new words by combining very basic meanings of existing characters, which are usually more than 2000 years old themselves. In Western languages, words often stand much more by themselves, since the alphabet also allows many more letter combinations (syllables) than is possible in Chinese.
Because the Chinese language has so few different syllables, tones are used. In Mandarin, the official standard language, there are 4 different tones, (as well as a neutral tone, which is only used very rarely). The 4 tones allow the syllables to be pronounced in different ways, so that different meanings can be conveyed.
Learning to hear and pronounce these tones correctly are a challenge for anybody who´s never learned a tonal language before, yet its importance should not be overstated either. Usually, up to an intermediate level, it will be perfectly clear which meaning is intended, even if you pronounce or hear a tone incorrectly.
How you can deduce meaning without tones:
1. The context of the conversation
2. The grammatical position in the sentence
3. The fact that many Chinese words are duo-syllabic, reducing the potential confusion