Learning Chinese

I’ve been studying Chinese formally since 2008 and quite enjoy it. Nonetheless it is also rather difficult.This year, I have had the pleasure of studying at the Yale-China Chinese Language Center at the University of Hong Kong.

Contrary to what most people seem to think, I find Cantonese to be easier than Mandarin. I attribute this to the fact that I’ve been practicing Chinese martial arts since 1997 and my teachers have been Cantonese speakers, as have many of my classmates. I guess I’m just more familiar with it.

Also contrary to what people seem to think, the number of tones (Chinese words are a combination of sound and tone) is about the same between Cantonese and Mandarin. Modern Cantonese uses 6 basic tones, though both more lively or more formal Cantonese might use from 7 to 9 tones. Modern Standard Chinese or Putonghua (often called Mandarin in English) uses 4 basic tones, a neutral tone for final particles, and a “half-third” tone for certain situations, also giving a total of 6.

Something that I find quite incredible about Chinese is that the writing system is more or less standard, while at the same time there is so much variation between dialects. This might be similar to the situation in medieval Europe where people spoke their local language but read and wrote in in Latin.

Learning to read and write Chinese takes a lot of time because they don’t use a phonetic alphabet. In order to peruse a decent newspaper, one might need to memorize upwards of several thousand characters.

As Ronin E-Ville, I take full advantage of the power available in a modern, software-based, electronic music production studio. I’m just starting to do the same with Chinese and the sort of tools available are really quite amazing. Initially, I was just using my Mac for Chinese character input typing and going to online resources like the Yellow Bridge dictionary. Then I got onto CantoFish, which is a browser plugin for Firefox that lets me roll over characters and immediately get both Cantonese pronunciation and meaning.

On my iPhone, I now have eStroke, which is a Chinese-English/English-Chinese dictionary with some nifty extra features. First of all, it takes advantage of the iPhone’s built-in touch pad character drawing input. It also has both Mandarin and Cantonese Romanization and it allows me to make my own flashcards for self-testing.  It even has character writing practice tests, so I can study on the go.

I also purchased a version of Pleco that has Optical Character Recognition. It uses video to recognize characters and spits out both the definition and Mandarin Romanization, all in real time. With a still image, it can convert printed text to data and copy/paste it to another program.  Unfortunately, it works best with black text on white paper in a regular font, and not so well with handwriting.

Using my iPhone to help me learn Chinese and navigate my way around Hong Kong is pretty awesome. Sometimes, I even feel like I’m in one of the Matrix movies…

Here is a typical Chinese New Year greeting, in celebration of the recent arrival of the Year of the Dragon. The translation is a well-wishing for good fortune and health:


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