Speaking Mandarin or Written Mandarin?
While Chinese characters are an important part of Chinese culture and language, many people who study Mandarin are only interested to be able to speak Mandarin and not to read or write it. The question many ask themselves then is if they should invest the considerable time and effort necessary to learn Chinese characters or fully focus on what they want to learn, spoken Mandarin only.
The answer is complex. Learning characters takes up valuable study time and this means there is less time and effort left to learn sentences, grammar and other skills that are immediately useful for spoken Chinese. Further, when a student first starts to learn Mandarin, whether he knows Chinese characters or not has very little influence on how quickly his spoken Mandarin improves.
For a beginner, the important tasks to start communicating in Mandarin are to get the tones under control, learn vocabulary, practice sentences etc. and Chinese characters are not an essential part of this process. Leaving the cultural aspects of being able to read a language aside, a beginner can usually progress quicker with their spoken Mandarin when focusing all energy on oral Chinese and not studying Chinese characters.
When will I encounter problems?
However, the problems start later, usually once a student reached intermediate level. In addition to the obvious cultural and logistic problems of learning a language to fluency that you cannot write your own name in, there are only an approximate 400 possible syllables/words in Mandarin. Multiplied by four tones, this leads to a maximum of about 1600 possible words. Linguists estimate that only 1200 of those are used, many very rarely. That means a maximum number of ways of saying something in Mandarin – assuming one has perfect tones – of 1200, for most practical purposes a lot less. This is not a lot.
Many popular syllables like “shi” have dozens of characters for each one of it’s four possible tonal pronunciations, all of them with completely different meaning. As a result, once a student wants to form and understand more complex sentences, Mandarin risks to become meaningless unless he knows the characters of the words he wants to say. Without Chinese characters a learner would have to remember and mentally organize more than a hundred distinct different meanings of a syllable like “shi” which in my experience is not really possible.
The result is that learners who do not know Chinese characters tend to progress well up to about intermediate level, however then progress stops or becomes very slow. To make the next step to fluency it is then necessary to go back and learn characters again from the beginning. While this is of course possible, it takes much longer to learn them later than if the learner had studied them from the start while learning spoken Chinese – never mind the frustration of having to start from square one in a language that one has already spent a significant amount of time studying.
What is your end goal?
Therefore, if a student has no interest in reading and writing Chinese, I would recommend to consider what his final aim is. If it is to pick up some survival Mandarin to travel around China and there is no plan to ever learn Mandarin up to fluency, it is possible to leave Chinese characters away. Instead you can focus on sentence patterns and pronunciation only and leave characters away, which can speed up the process as more time is available for studying oral Chinese. If, however, a student plans to learn Mandarin up to fluency at any future point in time, Chinese characters are not really a choice, but a necessity.
Also it is much faster to learn characters together with oral Mandarin from the beginning than to start learning them once a learner finds himself stuck when pinyin simply cannot grasp the depth of the Chinese language anymore.
About the author
Not much of a language talent himself, Andreas Laimboeck started learning Mandarin in 2002 and thinks of himself of not having done it the most efficient way a lot of the time.
Today director of LTL Mandarin School, he is in charge of study plans and supporting students through their Mandarin learning process and bases his advice mainly on his own and his students Mandarin learning experiences. Rather than take years to get fluent in Chinese, the aim of LTL is to speed up the language learning process, allowing students to learn from his mistakes when learning Chinese.
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