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The joy and challenge of learning Chinese
2.3.2020 - Tom Horsten

I joined Horsten International in 2016, responsible for sourcing projects, business development, communication and marketing. Therefore, it seems quite logical and obvious that I started learning the Chinese language four years ago. Yet, it is not absolutely necessary to speak, read and write Chinese, as I barely use it in the day-to-day conversations with my Chinese colleagues and I never use it for business discussions.

Actually, I like very much to speak and learn different languages. Besides my mother tongue Dutch, I also speak English, French, German, Spanish and a little bit Chinese. Although the Chinese language is the most difficult language in the world to study, I found it a big challenge to know this language too. And I admit, it is not easy. But I must say that the Mandarin Chinese lessons on Saturday morning are always very instructive and relaxing. 

During class we read different texts, learn new words and practice grammar. It is already possible now to have short and simple conversations in Chinese about different topics with my fellow students. My friends say that I am a little crazy when I tell them about it, but I will persevere to improve step-by-step my Chinese language skills. You can imagine that my ability in language learning and my perseverance are key factors to succeed.

There are two main Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, and with more than 1,3 billion speakers, Mandarin is the most common language in the world. Two sets of characters are used for writing Chinese and they are known as simplified and traditional characters. These characters are usually very similar, only simplified characters are easier and faster to read and write. Simplified characters are the result of an effort by the Chinese government to improve literacy in China. Although Cantonese shares much vocabulary with Mandarin, the two varieties are mutually unintelligible, because of differences in pronunciation, grammar and lexicon.

Chinese language includes over 56.000 unique characters, but whereas a well-educated person is estimated to know about 7.000 of them, you only need to know 3.000 characters to read the newspaper. Important to know for those people who don’t know the language: unlike letters of the alphabet in English, Chinese characters generally don’t tell you how they should sound when spoken. For that reason and to solve this, there is the Romanized pronunciation system known as Pinyin. Aside from representing the way Mandarin is pronounced, Pinyin is also the main way of typing Chinese.

Because of different tones in pronouncing Chinese words and tones that are completely different from the sounds in many learners’ native languages, most people are afraid of learning the Chinese language. Chinese tones can be intimidating and confusing, even to the most motivated learner. So, if you want to speak and understand the Chinese language properly, learning Chinese tones is crucial to your success. 

Tones are an unavoidable part of the language and the most important reasons to learn those Chinese tones are: (1) pronouncing a word with a wrong tone can change the meaning of the word; (2) native speakers use tones, so it is important to know the tones to understand Chinese speaking people; (3) the tonal system makes the Chinese language difficult, but mastering it as a foreigner is a huge accomplishment in the eyes of the native Chinese people. Although perfecting the different tones will take some practice for sure, it doesn’t have to take too long if you are motivated to learn Chinese.

To conclude I refer to an interesting blog that has been published on our website in 2016: ‘do I need to know Chinese to be successful in China’. You can find this blog here.

Horsten International has many years of experience in doing business in China and is regularly helping European companies with translation. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need any help with translation and if you want to boost your China business.

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