kake: The word "菜單" (Chinese for "menu") in various shades of purple. (菜單)
[personal profile] kake
(hàn zì — Chinese characters)

The basic unit of written Chinese is the character. Chinese characters are logograms; in other words, each character represents a specific concept (or set of concepts), rather than a specific sound (or set of sounds).

The advantage of this form of writing system is that the same characters can be used in different languages — for example, Mandarin and Cantonese both use 肉 to mean "meat"; however, in Mandarin it's pronounced roughly as "row" (as in rowing a boat) whereas in Cantonese it's pronounced roughly as "yuk".

This does raise the question of which of the Chinese languages is best to choose for a person learning to read Chinese menus! I've decided to learn the Mandarin pronunciations; this is partly because I live with [personal profile] doop, who already speaks some Mandarin, and partly because it doesn't actually matter all that much for my goal — if I end up in a restaurant where none of the staff can understand my Mandarin, I can always order by pointing at stuff on the menu. I did, however, want to learn a pronunciation, since it helps me make the characters stick in my brain when I can read them aloud as I'm learning them, and I may as well learn some real pronunciations as opposed to some made-up ones that only I understand.

Mandarin, like other Chinese languages, is a tonal language; this means that the meaning of what you say is affected by the pitch of your voice as well as the consonants and vowels you pronounce. This is a feature not present in any language I've ever previously learned, so it's something I'm paying special attention to.

Mandarin Chinese can be written not only with Chinese characters, but also in the Latin alphabet with the addition of accents to indicate the tones. The most common latinisation is called pinyin. Pinyin is kind of the opposite of characters, in that while characters carry information on meaning but not on pronunciation, pinyin is completely phonetic — if you know the pinyin for something, you know precisely how to pronounce it. However, you can't get the meaning from the pinyin; for example, 炸 and 榨 are both "zhà" in pinyin, but the former means "deep-fried" while the latter means "juiced" or "pressed".

I'll discuss pronunciation further as I go along in my Wednesday posts, but here are some YouTube video links for the interested:

Another decision I needed to make was whether to learn traditional or simplified characters. Wikipedia has an overview of character simplification, but in essence, simplified characters are quicker to write — for example, the traditional character for wheat noodles is 麵, while the simplified one is 面. In the end, it turned out that I would have to learn both — a quick survey of London menus revealed that some use traditional characters, others use simplified characters, and one or two use a mixture! However, it's generally considered easier for someone who can read traditional characters to learn the simplified forms than vice versa, so I decided to learn the traditional forms first.

I've covered quite a lot of ground in this post, but this is pretty much all the background knowledge you really need to get started. I'll look at the different aspects in greater detail in future posts. As always, I appreciate questions and corrections in comments.

If you have any questions or corrections, please leave a comment and let me know (or email me at kake@earth.li). See here for what these posts are all about.


Date: 2010-04-25 11:17 pm (UTC)
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
From: [personal profile] marahmarie
How do I get Firefox to display the Chinese character sets? I'm seeing those funny strange-symbol boxes that Firefox displays in lieu of characters.

Re: Whoops...

Date: 2010-04-25 11:29 pm (UTC)
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
From: [personal profile] marahmarie
Ah, I was going to say, I just installed all the Chinese character sets in Firefox but I should have realized it was a Windows font problem, not just a Firefox-lacking-character-sets thing. Yes, I will probably have to go download the Chinese character sets from Microsoft now. Wish I had thought of this earlier. :)

(edit) Ah, so that's what the characters look like in Firefox. Awesome!
Edited (got'm installed now ) Date: 2010-04-25 11:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Whoops...

Date: 2010-04-25 11:47 pm (UTC)
marahmarie: my initials (MM) (Default)
From: [personal profile] marahmarie
Got it sorted - see above-edited thrice comment. Thanks. I'm looking forward now to learning at least a smidgen of Chinese.
Edited Date: 2010-04-25 11:47 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-04-26 09:51 am (UTC)
nanila: me (me: ooh!)
From: [personal profile] nanila
Fascinating. I volunteer at Imperial for a programme that matches native & non-native English speakers for informal conversation sessions on a weekly basis. Partners are switched every 5 weeks. I'd say about 75% of the students I meet are Chinese. They all tell me that English is terribly difficult, to which my response is that I couldn't conduct a conversation in Chinese with them to save my life, while they have the skills to think and write in English at quite a sophisticated level!

Date: 2010-04-26 02:34 pm (UTC)
nanila: me (me: ooh!)
From: [personal profile] nanila
There are a lot of Chinese students who come to Imperial for a year during their undergraduate work or to do a masters degree. A smaller number are PhD students, but they tell me it's quite difficult for them to get funding to do doctorates here.

Date: 2010-05-17 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] julietteculver
If you do decide to have lessons, and don't mind forking out for it, my experience with the one-week intensive course run by SOAS was very good.

Date: 2010-05-17 09:15 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] julietteculver
The OU does a beginners Chinese course too by the way, though don't know anything about it.

Date: 2010-04-26 08:22 pm (UTC)
bob: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bob

Date: 2010-04-26 08:27 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I _think_ most Chinese communities in the UK speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin.


Date: 2010-04-26 09:14 pm (UTC)
pulchritude: (2)
From: [personal profile] pulchritude
I live in Leeds, and I've had numerous immigrants attempt to speak to me in Cantonese, to which I can just blink, since my native topolect is part of the Xiang family and my native language is Mandarin (sadly)...

So I think there is some merit in this statement.

Also, just wanted to say that all of the varieties of Chinese are tonal! :) I'm sure you know that, but the way you wrote it in this entry made it seem like (imo) that only Mandarin is a tonal language! :)

Date: 2010-04-27 10:22 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shuripentu.livejournal.com
I've heard roughly equal amounts of Cantonese and Mandarin in London. (In Toronto it's almost exclusively Cantonese.)

I reckon the main benefit of learning Mandarin rather than any other dialect is that you don't have to learn 2 different sets of vocabulary, since spoken Mandarin is actually vaguely similar to written Chinese. :P

(P.S. It's more like "yuk", and I can't think of a rhyme in English... maybe "ugh" with a really clipped u?)


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