How to learn Mandarin Chinese characters

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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18 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    Mao was considering replacing characters with pinyin writing in the Roman alphabet during the early days of the PRC but his advisers convinced him to simplify the characters instead. Characters are also why many anime fans end up stumbling when it comes to learning Japanese.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I go back and forth on whether that could have worked. I actually tend to think it could have. After all, speech is intelligible to speakers, so stripping the extra information provided by characters ought to have workedReport

  2. I’m immersed in a project that goes at this in a totally different way. Not trying for fluency in reading but rather shooting for understanding nuance and possibility in “translating”. A problematic word if there ever was one. Specifically ancient Chnese poetry.

    Fluency in both the translated and tranlatee languages would seem a prerequisite for such an effort, but smarter and way more qualified people than me seem to largely agree this is very much less the case in translating Chinese poetry.

    One of my past efforts is The Emptiness of Wang Wei. I distinguish what I do there from translating to transducing the poem. I’ve much more research working on this post, so it’s been slow going. While not directly relevant to your effort, it might be an interesting diversion from it.

    I’m now working on an (I hope) improved version and auto-commentary.Report

  3. The meaning of a word is its use in the language.Report

  4. Oscar Gordon says:

    I swear I could rewrite this exact essay and replace ‘Mandarin Characters’ with ‘Mathematics’ and it would still work.Report

  5. J_A says:

    A friend of mine’s girlfriend is an acclaimed Japanese writer and journalist, with several prizes under her kasa.

    We once discussed the mental images that were conveyed by writing. We sort of agreed that reading in English essentially created an aural sensation (you hear the words spoken in your mind), while reading kanji created a visual image (you see in your mind the thing described).

    I wonder if this is a conclusion that can be extrapolated.Report

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    Mind you, that mess of scribbles above is “simplified” Chinese, which has fewer strokes in each character and was designed to help spread literacy by making Chinese easier to decipher.

    Was it? I find traditional slightly easier to read; the greater complexity allows for more significant differences between characters. The main advantage of simplified, it seems to me, is that it’s easier to write.

    And, more cynically, that peasants who have only learned simplified Chinese will find it hard to read pre-revolutionary writings.Report

    • The *intention* of simplified characters was to increase literacy. People who know both seem to agree with you that it had the opposite effect.

      Brandon Berg: And, more cynically, that peasants who have only learned simplified Chinese will find it hard to read pre-revolutionary writings.

      I feel silly now for never having thought of that! It’s always been explained to me as a literacy thing and I guess I never questioned itReport

      • Vikram and J-A
        Thanks so much for the compliments.

        On the issue of simplifies characters, I’d like more info about the alleged negative effects. Before the literacy campaigns, illiteracy was estimated at 80-85%. Now literacy is at least that. Of course it could be in spite of the simplified characters, but I’m not getting why they would be a liability. After all, the illiterate would not have the frame of reference of the traditional characters to adapt from.

        Also Singapore, Malaysia and Japan simplified their characters post WWII and these efforts seem to be successful.

        If the Maoists wanted to make it difficult to read pre-rev writings, going to western script would have been way more successful. My guess is that this was a most a minor consideration.Report

        • J_A in reply to Atomic Geography says:

          This reminds me of the changes in Turkish language along the XX century, as loan words from Arab and Persian were dropped, and replaced, fir by words with obsolete Turkish roots, and, then, th3 latter dropped in favor of contemporary western loan words.

          The most famous case is the Seven Day Speech that Atatürk gave in 1927 (the Nutuk) in what was then still Ottoman Turkish, which sounded so alien to later listeners that it had to be “translated” three times into modern Turkish: first in 1963, again in 1986, and most recently in 1995. even the name Nutuk (The Speech) is now Söylev (again, The Speech)Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Atomic Geography says:

          To be clear, I’m saying that I find traditional characters slightly easier to distinguish because the higher stroke counts allow for more meaningful differences between similar characters. The difference is pretty minor, though, and my main point is that simplified characters do not seem to me to confer any real advantage when it comes to learning to read. I do suspect that they make learning to write a fair bit easier.

          Singapore and Malaysia use the same simplifications as China, right? Japan’s simplifications were less radical (hah!) and as I understand it were mostly just a formalization of colloquial simplifications that were already in use to increase handwriting speed.Report