My in-country language-learning history before moving to China included studying German in college and dabbling in Spanish on various trips to Central America. What I didn’t notice until coming to China was how much I absorbed from my surroundings while I was in Central America or Germany. In the Dominican Republic, for example, an English speaker can read the Spanish word for supermarket in a familiar script displayed above an actual supermarket. If you don’t already know the word, you’ve just had your first exposure. If you’ve learned it before, it’s just been reinforced.
Upon my arrival in China, I realized what I was up against without an alphabet to help my learning process. Beautiful, ephemeral characters floated around me, hinting at a world of meaning. I felt more like a visitor in an art museum than a person buying food or walking down the street. I imagined meanings for the hooks and slashes; I fancied faces and animals peering back at me on signs above noodle shops.
I studied Mandarin for a few months before we flew here, using Rosetta Stone TOTALe in the pinyin mode. Pinyin is a Latin-alphabet representation of spoken Mandarin. It’s mainly used by learners and for typing Mandarin. While studying back home, I was daunted by the tones and wanted to work on my pronunciation and speaking skills as much as possible. Pinyin is really great for that. Now, I’ve realized that there’s a lot you miss out on if you learn Mandarin without learning characters. It’s a very connected language—one word might be used in a variety of contexts, but you’d never know this unless you knew the meaning of its characters. Characters unlock all sorts of information about the language. So now I’m using Rosetta Stone in the character mode. It’s harder at first because you can’t read as much of what you’re learning, but the payoff is huge when you notice connections between the characters and the sounds.
I’ve learned close to 500 characters. I’ve succumbed to frustration and lamented the lack of an alphabet. And I’m still daunted by the task ahead of me: I’ll need to know about 3,000 characters to read a newspaper. However, the first time I read a full sign in China, I understood things differently. An alphabet is so utilitarian; it conveys meaning without being particularly attached to it. Chinese characters are full of the meaning they bear. The characters for colors, for example, are made up of smaller characters like bamboo, silk, wood, or grass. When I read a character, the pronunciation of it often comes to me after the realization of the meaning. It’s a beautiful thing, and that’s what I keep telling myself when I can’t read most of what I see around me.