This subject has come up on several posts so I am throwing in my two cents worth.
Chinese grammar is easy. It is hard to make a grammatical mistake. Compared to languages with complex grammar, in Chinese (and Japanese)you can almost say things anyway you want.
Making most of the vowel and consonant sounds of Mandarin Chinese is not difficult for an English speaker.
The difficult problems are 1) tones and 2) characters. In both cases the biggest obstacle is the fear of the learner that both are so strange that they cannot possibly learn the. Well, you can.
With tones you have to first identify the tone and then practice. Just like all pronunciation. Begin by recognizing that English is full of tones. In Mandarin there are 4 tones. 1 High flat 2 low to high 3. mid to low to mid and 4 high falling. If you said a phrase like "I really don't know" in English, the "I" would probably be tone 3, "really" would be tone 1 and tone 3, "don't" would be tone 3 and "know' would be tone 4. If you said "howdy" the first syllable is probably tone 2.
Characters have to be learned using two standard principles. Never learn them out of context. Learn characters from your reading and listening. Second, frequent relearning. I would write them on a piece of paper with squares. I start the first character on the left hand row and write it ten times or so. Then I put the sound or meaning into a square three rows over, and start another character. I write it 10 times and put the sound or meaning a few rows over. Soon I run into the first character again and have to remember it and write it. I started with 10 characters a day and got up to 30 a day.
Of course like everything about language learning you have to be resigned to forgetting most of what you learn and having to relearn it a few times before it sticks.
My son learned Chinese characters for Japanese using some memory system and it seemed to work for him.
In this day and age, the fact the foreign learners of Chinese characters will never have elegant calligraphy is really not an issue. If you write in Chinese at all it will probably be with a word processor.
The whole character based writing system is really very impractical. But once you get used to it, it is quite interesting. I miss the characters in Korean since everything is now written in Hangul. It would be easier for me if they had kept the characters.
What can you tell us about Vietnamese? Phonetically, it seems a lot more complex than Chinese with regard to tones and nasals. There are also these quirky consonants.
Never tried it but hope to put it on our Linguist system next year. Then I will learn it.
Perhaps the Chinese should adopt Hangul, with a few minor modifications and additions to fit Mandarin/Putonghua pronunciation, of course. Some food for thought...
Now, an anticipated counter-argument: There are too many dialects/languages in China and they can't be represented by a single phonetic alphabet. Here's my response: Some Chinese dialects/languages, like Shanghainese (which is spoken by approx. 90 million people within a 150 mile radius of Shanghai), aren't even represented with the current characters, so a change in the writing system won't make too much differene. As for those that ARE represented by the characters, such as Cantonese, they can be represented using different Hangul characters- if French and Spanish can be written in different ways using the same alphabet, then why can't Mandarin and Cantonese? They're as different from each other as French and Spanish, aren't they?
About the charachters, are therre any patterns to them and how do you know how to pronounce them?
the chinese charactors as same as english words, which can be devided into independent characters and composed characters, as the english prefix, root and suffix with the different forms. Futhermore, the prefix, root and suffix(i dont know how to say it in Chinese) in chinese either present the pronounciation or the meaning of the character, so which is helpful in learning by heart. see this links for your reference.
There are radicals in Chinese characters which are themselves the characters for water, metal, tree, word, heart etc. and appear as components (usually on the left hand side) of other characters. They provide a hint of the meaning of the character. Often the right hand side of the character will provide a hint to the pronunciation. While these hints help, you still have learn each character.
The relationship with English is not really helpful. Rather, since most words in Chinese are actually compounds of two characters, it is each of the characters in a compound word that most approximates the components of English words, in my view.
If the Chinese were to adopt a phonetic script, why would they possibly choose Hangul which is used in only one language. They would be far better off to go for an alphabet system, Roman, Cyrillic, Indic, Semitic which is more widely used. I am sure there are arguments for the intrinsic value of each of these alphabets, including Hungul, but since language is for communication, choosing an alphabet system that is widely used in the world would be the most important consideration I think.
Right now Shanghainese, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers can all read the same texts. You would suggest a phonetic script so that they would no longer be able to read the same literature. I think the language would have to be standardized first. It ain't going to happen soon.
By the way, Shanghainess consists mostly of words that can be represented by Chinese characters. Where did you get the idea that this is not the case?
Actually the Chinese use a Latin transcription, Pinyin, which serves to facilitate learning the language for people who do not speak Mandarin as their native language (but it is not meant to be a phonetic trans. It is fairly phonetic, though some letter combinations have a different sound value than we are accustomed to. On the other hand, it is only the traditional Chinese script that ensures mutual intelligibility, as speakers of all Chinese dialects (or languages?) can read it. This is, I think, an important unifying factor in a country where the number of inhabitants exceeds one billion.
Actually the Chinese use a Latin transcription, Pinyin, which serves to facilitate learning the language for people who do not speak Mandarin as their native language (but it is not meant to be a phonetic transcription for official use). It is fairly phonetic, though some letter combinations have a different sound value than we are accustomed to. On the other hand, it is only the traditional Chinese script that ensures mutual intelligibility, as speakers of all Chinese dialects (or languages?) can read it. This is, I think, an important unifying factor in a country where the number of inhabitants exceeds one billion.
Sorry for posting twice, the first message was incomplete.
It is not really true to say that there is no past tense in Chinese. Events happen in the past and every language has the ability to express that concept. In English if I say "I go" it is the present. If I say "I will go" the form of "go" has not changed but the tense is now future. In Chinese if we say "wo qu" it means I am going. If we say "wo yao qu" it means I will go, and if I say "wo qule" it means I went. Often in Chinese we would add another word to make sure the past context is clear, like "wo yijing qule" "I already went" .
Pardon the clumsy pinyin romanization. qu is pronounced chu with the u pronounced as in the French tu.
You do not need to ask our pardon for the "clumsy" pinyin romanisation. You used the proper transcription system, after all.
Argh...I want to murder, grr, kill every time I hear some laowai pronounce "zhu" as "zoo". Pronouncing "xu" as "zoo" is understandable but "zoo" for "zhu"??? "Zh" is, after all, a fairly standard and common phonetic transcription for a sound similar to the English "j". Think Brezhnev, for instance.
Presumably one purpose, if not the most important purpose, of a system of romanization is to render the pronunciation of Chinese easily understood by people who do not speak Chinese. Pinyin is sometimes deficient in this regard. The old Wade-Giles system was far superior.
Pinyin uses "Chi fan" for eat when the pronunciation is "chr fan"
"Xian" when "Sian" is the pronunciation
"Jiang Qing" when "Jiang Ching" is the pronunciation
"Zhu" is not the same sound as the "zh" in Brezhnev. But what is wrong with Ju instead of the clumsier "Zhu"?
It is not that PinYin is diffiucult to learn. It is just that it does not always represent the sounds of Chinese in a way that is easily inderstood by someone who does not already know Chinese.
In fact the whole idea of the Chinese deciding a system of romanization for others does not make sense. Every language should have its own romanization system. Different languages have their own transliteration of languages that use other alphabets. Chinese is no exception with the most unrecongizable transliterations of foreign names using characters.
I say down with pinyin.
You say Wade-Giles is superior?
All right, "chü" is better than "qu". And "Jiang Ching"- I would agree.
But "teng" is much more innacurate than "deng" and "hsiao" is no less confusing than "xiao" in "Teng Hsiao-Ping"/"Deng Xiaoping".
And "sian" is NOT the pronunciation of "xian". Oh no no! Oh, maybe it is in the substandard, lousy pronunciation of the Taiwanese louts but in standard Putonghua, oh no no! The Chinese "x" does not exist in English but the closest approximation of the sound, though not the mouth position, is "sh".
Children in China learn many new words by matching hanyu pinyin and character so it's not only foreigners who use it. Many more Chinese use pinyin than foreigners because Chinese isn't a very popular foreign language outside China. So, I say, vive hanyu pinyin.