“Mandarin is not really that hard of a language. Speaking Chinese is actually quite easy when you know pinyin. It’s only the Chinese characters that are really difficult!”
Does this sound familiar? And in fact, many Mandarin schools and courses in China do focus solely on pinyin. They hope that their students immediately start talking to strangers on the street and order food in Chinese restaurants in correct Mandarin Chinese.
Well, if you have ever tried to order food at a restaurant in China, you have probably encountered something like this:
And yes, without pictures, all you can do is guess or point at the food of your neighbours.
But more importantly, learning Mandarin beyond anything but the very basics of “Hello”, “How are you?” will require you to have at least some knowledge about Chinese characters. Why, you ask? Because:
1. Otherwise you won’t be able to sing Chinese KTV
It’s true, without knowing how to read Chinese characters, you will only be able to perform at KTV if you know the lyrics by heart. And if you have already learned a bit about Chinese culture, you know what an important part KTV plays in social life. Still, is that a reason to burden yourself with Chinese characters? No. But it does illustrate a point:
Just like the menu at the Chinese restaurant, written language is a huge part of Mandarin Chinese and it will help you integrate much faster in everyday life and Chinese customs. Especially when you are living in a Chinese community, knowing some basics in reading Chinese characters will get you constantly exposed to the language. Basically, you are just soaking in more Mandarin while wandering around. And when it comes to learning a new language, more input means faster improvement. If you objection is that learning Chinese characters is hard, continue reading here, where we offer you the complete guide to learning characters.
2. You are able to actively expand your Chinese vocabulary
Without knowing Chinese characters, it’s next to impossible to actively gain new vocabulary on your own. The process of acquiring vocabulary requires you to memorize a new expression and the corresponding meaning. While reading, you will encounter a new word, you will look it up in a dictionary and you can make a flashcard to revise it later. If you focus on characters, even looking at Chinese ads on websites or billboards can help you to improve your vocabulary constantly.
Without knowing Chinese characters however, your options are very limited. In fact, the only way for you to learn new words is by having somebody explaining to you both the Chinese word and its translation.
3. Pinyin becomes actively confusing as you progress
Worse however, using only pinyin will get seriously confusing after you’ve left the beginner’s phase in Mandarin Chinese: In Mandarin, there are only around 420 different pinyin syllables, compared to thousands of characters. That means that a lot of Chinese words and Chinese characters share the same pinyin. Take for example the words 致癌 (zhì’ái) and 治癌 (zhì’ái), both with exactly the same pronunciation. One (the first) means to "cause cancer" while the other one means to "treat cancer". Without seeing the word in writing, the only way would be to guess the meaning according to context.
Ignoring pinyin, the problem gets even worse. For example the word 大便 (dàbiàn) means to take a sh*t while the word 答辩 (dábiàn) means to defend your (master’s) thesis. Using pinyin, one of my friends texted :"Next month, I have to take a sh*t!" Learning Chinese characters is probably the only effective way to save yourself those embarrassing moments.
4. Chinese characters help you understand the structure of Mandarin Chinese
Because of the building-block structure of Chinese characters, they sometimes serve as a useful bridge to remember pronunciation and meaning: The character 洋 (yáng) for example means “ocean”. The left part of the character 氵is the water radical and indicates the meaning of the character. The right part of the character 羊 (yáng, meaning sheep) on the other hand is an indicator for the pronunciation. If I understand this structure, memorizing the Chinese character 洋 might be easier than to remember that “yáng” means “ocean” (remember, it can also mean sheep)!
5. Chinese characters are fun
Finally, and maybe most importantly, learning Chinese characters is extremely fun. They are beautiful and artistic and in itself contain much of Chinese culture and Chinese history. Experiencing how these incomprehensible blobs of strokes turn into something meaningful must be one of the most enlightening experiences in the world, much like learning how to read back in first grade. Missing out on this chance is definitely turning your back on one of the most enjoyable events while learning Chinese.