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Chinese regarded as a multi-layered web

Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

In my studies of the Chinese language, I’ve come across something which is at first not obvious, but in reality constitutes a huge difference between Chinese and any other language I know. If you haven’t studied the language yourself, Chinese writing and pronunciation are two separate, albeit related, things. In other words, you can’t look at a character you’ve never seen and know how to pronounce it. This leads many to the conclusion that it’s possible, as a foreigner, to learn to only speak Chinese and ignore the daunting task of learning to read or write characters. I think this impossible, or in the very least stupid and/or inefficient. In this article, I’ll write about this, in my experience, unique feature of Chinese and why it’s necessary to learn how to write if one hopes to attain any kind of advanced level.

Picture a web

In order to explain what I’m talking about here, I’m going to use the analogy of a web in many layers, superimposed on one another. So far, I’m only certain about two layers, but it might be the case that there is a third one, but more about that later. The topmost level represents spoken Chinese and the next level down represents written Chinese. In most languages, this distinction is irrelevant, or at least not very important; learning to speak Swedish is very much the same thing as learning to write, the only difference being that you have to learn a ton of arbitrary spelling rules. In Chinese the levels appear separate, but I’m going to argue that it’s a misconception that they are entirely isolated and that speaking can be learnt on its own.

So, why use the structure of a web here? Language learning, like any learning, can be said to be made out of associations of ideas and concepts in the brain. These nodes are linked together, and learning then consists of enlarging and reinforcing the connections between the various points. There are two ways of doing this: First, a connection can be stronger (this is mainly achieved by reviewing and rote learning); and, second, more than one route between any two given points in the network can be constructed (this is learning be associating things to what you already know and studying the same thing from many angles rather than repeating the same process). If you are interested in learning more about this way of learning, I suggest you check out what Scott H. Young has written about holistic learning on his website (it’s basically the same thing).

Chinese 101

Before I can start talking about Chinese regarded as a multi-layered web, I need to explain one more thing about Chinese to those of you who don’t know the language. Chinese has extremely few phonemes, around four hundred unique sounds, excluding tones, and about three times as many including tones. There are numerous words which sound very similar or indeed identical. In order to make communication possible, modern Chinese seldom uses a single character to represent a concept, but rather combines to, greatly increasing the number of available words. Many characters share the same pronunciation, so hearing a single sound is almost never enough to carry meaning (for example, my dictionary lists almost one hundred characters all pronounced “shi”).

The first layers – spoken and written Chinese

Knowing all this, we can now look at the top level of spoken Chinese, or the first layer of the web. As a foreigner, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the similarities of words or characters that in reality means completely different things. Even with knowledge about the way a word is written, it’s hard to distinguish words from each other. My theory here is that the learning web for Chinese takes a lot more time to develop than for other languages I’ve learnt, simply because it’s so easy to confuse similar nodes (words) in the network. Using only spoken Chinese, the links between words seem arbitrary and obscure; more about that soon. i think the web is hard to develop because it’s not obvious what to connect with what, there is (seemingly) no logic behind the sounds.

To see the connections and the logic in Chinese, we need to dive down deeper, to the second layer of the web: written Chinese. Here, we find that many words that doesn’t seem to be related are in fact just that, and often in a very logical way. I will try to illustrate this from three different angles to make it understandable even if you’ve never studied Chinese.

Three examples

First, if a student approach Chinese like a Western language, let’s say French, it’s easy to learn vocabulary as translations from one’s own language: “Shikong” becomes “time and space”, “Kongjian” becomes “space” and “Shijian” becomes “time”. If these are studied as chunks, it will be hard to grasp the bigger picture. Looking at the characters for these words (時空, 空間 and 空間 respectively), we can see that 時 means “time”, 空 means “space or empty”, and 間 means “space” or “between”. Knowing the parts of the words make the words easier to remember.

Second, some characters might have different meanings if they are pronounced differently, let’s take 教 as an example. Read with a high, steady tone, it’s the verb “to teach”, but read in a short, falling tone, it is used in nouns, but still means something related to teaching. For śomeone who only can speak, these words, they will appear to be different words altogether. They aren’t. Learning how to read, one would only have to know this rule and then all words that include this character would be logical and easy to remember instead of separate cases. It’s the same root, but it’s not obvious from the pronunciation alone.

As the third and last example, I’ll say something about listening. Nowadays, I can sometimes guess the meaning of a two-syllable word I’ve never ever heard before. If I know the context and the pronunciation from what the other person says, which greatly narrows down the possible number of characters that can be involved. If I’m able to guess the characters, I might also be able to guess the meaning of the word and thus understand what’s being said. Without thorough knowledge of written Chinese, this would be very hard, if not impossible. it doesn’t happen very often now, but the frequency is increasing rapidly.

Efficiency and long-term perspective

Sadly, learning to read won’t save time in the beginning, but after a while, you will see that the characters appear all the time, and it will then be very easy to expand vocabulary, connecting new words to your growing, bilayered web. Simply speaking, words that seem to be completely different on the surface might actually be very close together in written form. Learning this written form will make it easier to reinforce your web, to connect the nodes using many different routes.

Another way of looking at it is using English as an example. If you want to expand your English vocabulary, a good way is to learn what different roots, suffixes and prefixes mean. For instance, if you know that “post” means “after”, “pre” means “before” and you know what “industrial” means, it’s very easy to guess what “post-industrial” or “pre-industrial” mean, even if you’ve never seen the words before. If you don’t know what the prefixes mean, you’re completely in the dark. It goes without saying that words like this appear in English frequently. Chinese is like this, all the time, for almost every part of every word! There are words for which the explanations are lost in time or sometimes they simply don’t make sense (at least not to me), but combinations of characters into words often follow a pattern that can be understood. Provided you understand what the parts mean separately, that is.

So, what would you rather do, learn thousands of thousands of various combinations and not really understand how they fit together at deeper level, or learn all the parts and thus create a densely interconnected web? I think learning to read is essential to learning advanced Chinese. It’s probably possible to reach intermediate levels only looking at the spoken language, but I’m sure it will be problematic as the total number of words increases. The reason I can distinguish between so many words in Chinese is because I know what characters they are made out of and thus can remember the difference, which otherwise would be arbitrary or non-existent.

This being said, there are of course lots of people who are native speakers without being able to write it, but if you consider that most people take quite a long time to learn a language that way, I don’t consider this very efficient and not an option for most foreigners. In addition, I would hazard a guess that native speakers who can’t write seldom have a very good grasp of the language, definitely not enough to teach it properly. I’m not saying this is cause and effect, but I do think that the two are related.

A possible third layer – classical Chinese

In the introduction, I mentioned the possible existence of a third level, even deeper than written Chinese, and I’ll discuss it briefly now. This level would represent classical Chinese, i.e. the old form of written Chinese that was used up until roughly one hundred years ago as the standard of writing, but is very different from modern, spoken Chinese, sometimes with different grammar and different meanings of characters (a native speaker of Chinese who can read well cannot simply pick up a text in classical Chinese and understand it; our teachers repeatedly say that it’s almost like a foreign language for them). I’m not sure how closely interrelated this third web is to the second one, but I’m starting to think that in order to learn to write and read well, it might be very helpful to at least study some classical Chinese, because I have already found that formal or literary Chinese borrows lots of grammar patterns and more advanced words from classic Chinese. I’ll probably return to this subject later when I’m more familiar with it myself.

So, what to do then? Focus on the top two layers simultaneously, of course. If you really don’t like spending time learning to write, do at least learn to read. It won’t pay off very quickly, but it will definitely do so in the long run (and if you’re aiming to learn Chinese properly, along time is what you need to spend). I have changed opinion over the years about how important writing is compared to reading, but that ought to be the topic of a separate article.


By way of rounding off this article, I think that ignoring reading and writing is a very tempting option, but I also think it’s dangerous and might hamper development, especially after the beginner stage. Learning all those characters is a daunting task, I know, but it will make both speaking and listening a lot easier. I’ve only now started to appreciate the benefits of a multi-layered, integrated web, but I’m sure that I still have many more benefits to discover down the road, because even though lots of reviewing is good, many links will always beat a few.

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