Mandarin for Beginners


Forget everything you thought you knew about alphabets, syntax, or grammar in general.

Then proceed to turn your brain upside down in a desperate attempt to make sense of what remains. Try pressing F5 to refresh if 中文 fails to load properly.

If the two Chinese characters written above mean nothing to you, you’re not alone. I’m not too far ahead of you, in fact. I’d say that about 70% of the characters I see written on signs, billboards, packaging, etc. seem to be a mere confluence of lines abiding by aesthetics rather than substance.

But that’s exactly what I’m glad I’m wrong about.

Wired in our human genetic makeup is an especial proclivity for sophisticated linguistic structure: tools for effective and nuanced communication to help our species thrive in any environment. Meaning is inherent in all real human language no matter how much like gibberish it may seem.

Parts of the brain — particularly in the left hemisphere — are optimized for language. In essence, it is our language organ. This magnificent thing is what creates the complicated and insistent mental task of linguistic communication. This is a task most adults struggle with profoundly when trying to learn a new language, but children pick up quite easily.

This begs the question as to why humans lose this amazing ability to learn an extremely vast array of words and grammar rules. The answer may lie in the amount of energy expended to develop language — past a certain point, learning an entire new language for the sake of communication with others becomes evolutionarily unnecessary. Indeed, once we have learned enough to survive in our home community, it becomes more work than worth to maintain new language development to such an extent as in childhood.

But all this is conjecture. (Although it should be noted that it’s conjecture that’s being thought about thoroughly by some extremely intelligent people).

However, using this lens as an explanation for how incredibly difficult it is to learn a new language also helps us put things in perspective. Language is ultimately a genetic tool for survival, and an extremely complex one at that. The language of Mandarin is just one take on how human communication developed amongst a group of people in proximity to each other.

To use existing linguistic paradigms to make sense out of other languages can oftentimes be facile.

Chinese characters have meaning in a way that’s hard for an English-speaker like me to understand, but they undoubtedly have meaning. Maybe I touch on it a bit when I recognize the radicals for shui3//水 (water), si1//丝 (silk), and shou3//手 (hand) in other, more complex characters. Maybe we all experience the sheer diversity of human linguistic capability when we search for the perfect word in the sentence we’re trying to create.

Of course, none of this really makes learning Mandarin any easier, but at least there’s countless years of anthropological and genetic history behind it all. Simply engaging in that is awesome enough.

Author: Erik Fruth

Erik lived in Shanghai while studying Mandarin and teaching English. He moved home to continue writing and working and then relocated to Berlin to daydream about last summer.