Obligatory Thoughts on Learning the Chinese Language

Nobody ever said that learning Chinese was easy. Or if they did, they probably said it in Chinese — in which case I would have a lot of trouble understanding them.

I have spent every day over the last two months immersed in learning Chinese, and now I can effectively order food as long as there are pictures and the waiters speak English. I can also ask where the nearest bathroom is, but usually it’s probably better if I don’t because I’m not sure I want to go in there.

For all of its difficulties, though, learning Chinese has been a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The Chinese language is linguistically fascinating, full of fascinating quirks and logical connections. There are, of course, parts of the language that make no sense; I have been advised by my language teachers multiple times not to argue with the Chinese language because I will invariably lose. (This appears to be a sound line of reasoning, but further research is needed.) Every time you are lost in a sea of strange-looking symbols, heretofore unheard of sounds, and vehement body gestures in your general direction, each element of the language finds a way to piece itself back together.


Chinese is made up of many individual characters, which themselves are made up of strokes in a particular order. These strokes can be grouped into subparts called radicals, which are combined together to form characters (which are then combined together to form words). If I knew anything about science, I would suggest that Chinese characters are similar to molecules made up of different atoms; molecules then combine together to form everything else. Unfortunately, however, I don’t know anything about science, so I have no idea whether this is a good analogy.

Some characters look like what they represent. The character for cry, 哭, looks like someone crying. These characters are less interesting, so, that’s enough about them.

Other characters are made up of pictophonetic combinations, in which one component of the character represents the meaning and the other represents the sound. These are said to represent about 80% of Chinese characters, but since it is really hard to have accurate data about China these days you never really know. The character for mom, 妈, pronounced “ma” is a combination of the radical for woman (nv3) 女 on the left and the radical with the sound (ma) 马 on the right. Ma itself has five meanings with different tones and different characters:

ma1 = 妈 = mom
ma3 = 马 = horse
ma3 (again) = 码 = number or measure word for certain weights
ma4 = 骂 = to scold
ma5 = 吗 = question particle

All of these words use the sound “ma” represented by the horse-y looking part of the character, but they all take on different meanings based on the other part of the character. 吗, which is used as a question word when asking a question, includes the character for mouth (since questions usually involve speaking unless you’ve only been in China a few days and determined to figure out why this item is 20 RMB cheaper than this other one, to use a very broad example not at all derived from reality). 骂 is the combination of “ma” plus noise, and means to scold. It seems logical to infer that 码, which is used to indicate numbers or weights, uses the stone as its meaning radical because stones were used to count and weigh in previous eras of China.

Most importantly, the different combinations of sounds and meanings together result in the sentence “Māmā mà mǎ māmā ma?” (妈妈骂马妈妈吗) being a grammatically correct, albeit strange, sentence. (Mom yelled at the horse’s mom, right?) If there is only one thing you take away from this post, let it be this.

Not all characters work this well, but many can be better understood by starting to piece together the individual pictures into not only characters but concepts that have both sound and meaning. In other words, the characters themselves are small puzzles to be solved — they are not just to be memorized, but actually understood.

Or, as one of my textbooks explains in true Chinese fashion, “As your learning moves on, we are sure you will find Chinese characters an art of great charm.


Chinese words are usually formed from the combination of individual characters, and the place where the language is at its most interesting is when characters are combined into compound words. The most basic word in Chinese that even my father can wildly mispronounce is “ni hao,” which means hello, and is made up of the characters “ni” (which means you) and “hao” (which means good). You+good = the basic greeting. The enormous number of Chinese characters (a lot) could lead to infinite combinations — but to make the language work, many of the words themselves have a direct and unique logic to them.

Opposites Attract

One of the most interesting features about trying to better understand China is that the country is often described as a big paradox: for everything that is true, the opposite is also just as true. X is true, and the opposite of X is also true. China is incredibly rich, but it’s also incredibly poor. Things in China move absurdly quickly, but they also move absurdly slowly. China feels more strongly than anywhere else I’ve been about its connection to thousands of years of human history, but also is more willing than anywhere else to throw history out the window and embrace something completely new.

The connection of opposites in China is reflected in the language. A number of words are simply made up of the combination of two opposing words, and they together mean something in the middle. To ask “how much,” you use “duoshao” 多少 , which is made of the component words duo (many) and shao (few). Many+few = how much. Or take kaiguan (开关), the word for lightswitch — it is made up of kai (on) and guan (off). On + Off = Switch. These words are, in a way, all-encompassing — they embody all aspects of the function they communicate.

Turn Your Partner Round and Round

Chinese is also full of flipped words, in which the same characters arranged in reverse order form complementary concepts. In English, this occurs sometimes (with some changes) — when you get up in the morning, you use a toothbrush to brush your teeth. In Chinese, there is no fluff — you simply use a 牙刷 to 刷牙. The characters are exactly the same, just in reverse order.

But unlike in English, flipped words are not reserved for oral hygiene. A full lunch box is 盒饭, while an empty lunch box is 饭盒. That delicious honey (fengmi, 蜂蜜)is made by bees (mifeng, 蜜蜂). This also requires you to properly memorize the order, as you will get laughed at if you tell someone to put a big scoop of mifeng in your tea. You will get laughed at anyways, of course — China finds foreigners speaking Chinese so comical that there is even a comedy game show on television that tests foreigners’ ability to speak and write Chinese in front of a panel of Chinese language professors and experts.


The introduction of modern technology is a useful example of Chinese compound words at their most logical. Technology allows for previous actions to be done with electricity; rather than create new words, Chinese often adds the word for electricity (dian 电) to each particular function or characteristic of the new technology to create the new term. (Some of these items also have more formal terms, but these are the commonly used colloquial names). The word for computer is 电脑, or dian nao; dian = electric and nao = brain, so computer is “electric brain.” Television is 电视, or electric seeing. Movie is 电影, the combination of electric plus image. Phone is 电话 or electric talking. Cell phones, of course, also perform electric talking, but they cannot also be called that. Instead, they are called 手机, or hand machine.

And then there are tones. God help us all.