Learning Chinese – A Hobby?

20 May

Imagine that you have a bag with every single Chinese word printed on poker chips. The bag would need to be large as it would hold over fifty-thousand of them. It would also need to be sturdy, as it would weigh more than half a ton. This makes learning Chinese a pretty gruesome undertaking, right?

First of all there is obviously no need to learn most of them. Today at least twenty percent are only used if you study ancient literature. In fact, to enter university, you only need to know about six percent of this bag. If you would become a professor, you would leave with ten-thousand, at the most, of which the majority would be terminology.

Given that the majority of the words are not really that interesting, how does one learn Chinese in the most efficient way possible?

Imagine a very large round table. The entire content of the bag is promptly emptied onto the table. The flood of chips are intimidating but we start organizing, creating structure and order to it.

We place the most commonly used word in the very center of the table – lets go with “Hello”. We then start the place the second most commonly used words; perhaps – thank you, good bye, my, name, is, etc. We continue to do this until every word that you would use in daily communication is laid out on the table. It is obvious that to speak Chinese in any useful way, you will need to learn these characters, every single one of them. The good news is that these only represent about one percent of the total pile.

Most students are able to learn and retain between ten and twenty characters if they study for three hours a day. For the average student it would only take ten weeks to be able to handle everyday conversations. They would be able to count to infinity, describe what they see, be polite, ask for directions, order in restaurants – in short be able to live in China without uttering a single word in English.

But not much more than that.

Now the rest of that bag – 99% of it, is less useful, but any serious student desiring to learn Chinese would need to go through some of it. So we continue.

We start to organise more words on that table, now the criterion that we are going for is to get every word that a student would want to use in the average month, that is not terminology or jargon, onto the surface. We start at the circumference of the basic circle. This next circle will become much larger; six times larger, in fact. At the same rate as before, only ten words a day, this would take about 1 year and 3 months.

The next circle is much much larger. It would take 10 years to complete that one.

However, to most people, that circle is not relevant in its entirety. For basic economics, for example, the range of word that would classify as jargon or terminology is about 500 to 1000 words. Unless you are going to work with Economics you will never, ever, encounter them. However, if you are, they are crucial. The same applies to all other hobbies and professional ambitions. So, add another, say 2000, for good measure to represent hobbies and professional jargon. In summa; 5000 words, or 10% of that bag and you will have access to every word that you use in daily conversation, also every word you will need to know to not have to use a dictionary more than a few times a month, and all the words you need in professional life and in your spare time. No one would say that you can now not speak Chinese.

In 2 years and 1 month you have learned to speak Chinese at a level where you can live and work like a native. You have done this without it interfering with your life, professional or social calendar, as you have only spent 2-3 hours per weekday.

Therefore I put it to you: learning Chinese is less a unfathomable undertaking than it is a serious, and extremely beneficial, hobby.
Rui Ming works for a Chinese Language School that is a great option for those that want to Learn Chinese.


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