The Chinese Language

One of the things I meant to make this blog about is learning languages, particularly Chinese, though I also have studied German and dabbled in Dutch and Japanese. I’ve spent about eight years sporadically studying Chinese, entirely through self-study methods, and probably achieved the level of an average 2nd-year student in an instructed program. Although what I’ve done is slow, I was able to work it around my day job, and following my interest as it ebbed and flowed. One month I might study intently for an hour or so each night, and then in another month do no studying at all. Again, not the quickest way to learn, but hopefully what I have managed to learn over the years will stick even if I slow down even more.

The Chinese Language, Its History and Current Usage, by Daniel Kane, is a book that won’t teach you Chinese, but it will orient you to the language and give you a sense of why its 5000 year history makes it so fascinating to study. This might be necessary as you spend the first few weeks or months just learning to contort your mouth into the sounds of Chinese without learning much in the way of actual words. And you’ll need to do that because Chinese distinguishes several sounds (such as pinyin “j” and “zh” or “q” and “ch”) that will sound exactly alike at first if you previously spoke only English or other western European languages.

Kane leaves the difficulties of pronouncing Chinese for a late chapter, starting instead with the nature of Chinese characters. Since most language-teaching books start with the spoken language and only introduce the characters slowly, this is a nice balance. The characters are inherently fascinating, with a kind of grammar or algebra of their own in their construction. When studying them you’ll continually find new connections between them, such as the construction of 红, “red”, from an ancient character for silk (on the left) with 工, “gong”, indicating the sound (which has actually morphed to “hong” since the character was developed.

There are also chapters on the history and dialects of Chinese, so you’ll be able to explain to your friends why you’re studying Mandarin rather than Cantonese; and on the basics of Chinese grammar.

Then comes the chapter on pronunciation, including the difficult consonants mentioned above, and of course the dreaded tones, another critical stumbling block for westerners learning the language. This chapter is not as helpful as finding an audio source to learn from (for example, try Chinesepod, but I’ll come back to that in a later post), but still worthwhile for returning to after you’ve been struggling with the language for a while.

The final chapter is “Beyond the Basics”, which is a nice glimpse at what you might learn in future study, and the way language can help to develop cultural connections.

I’m not sure whether to recommend this book to be read before beginning Chinese study, because while there’s no knowledge pre-supposed, there are long lists of examples that won’t be helpful until after you begin studying. A better use for the book might be to read it a chapter at a time in parallel with other study. This book will then help to flesh out the story behind what you learn from other sources that seek purely to teach the language as a means of communication. In self-study I like to continually move backward and forward in the material, first reading through some new material, then going back to it several times interspersed with starting on further topics. The structure of this book, the reverse of most beginning Chinese textbooks, will inherently lead you into this back-and-forth method if read in parallel.

If you’re trying self-study this book will be especially useful to fill a need that a classroom teacher would otherwise satisfy. But even if you have a classroom teacher, I recommend this book for bringing together a lot of knowledge that is otherwise spread around between various resources, but handy to be reminded of all in one place, and helpful to have as an alternative perspective and explanation of a lot of difficult material you’ll need to learn.


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