World / Reporter's Journal

Learning Chinese the old fashioned way, with Internet help

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-01-28 06:17

For many Westerners, pinyin appears as yet another barrier to learning Chinese.

The system of putting Mandarin's 407 sounds (each with four different tones) into Western letters, developed in the 1950s, was not intended to make the language more accessible to Westerners. It was designed for Chinese people, to make their own language more accessible to them.

So it really is yet another barrier, but one that Yangyang Cheng, founder and CEO of YoYo Chinese, an online interactive website offering coaching on Chinese, thinks is easy to overcome – and key to learning the language.

Learning Chinese the old fashioned way, with Internet help

Cheng said that while many of the letter combinations in pinyin are counterintuitive to Westerners – xi being pronounced "she", for instance – about half are not and are already known.

Cheng thinks that Chinese has a bad reputation as the hardest language in the world to learn, and she argues that it is not, that Chinese should be fun to learn. She even chose the name "Yoyo Chinese" for her company to convey a sense of lightheartedness (and because the initials are the same as her name, she said).

Her course is "totally based on pragmatism", she said, and focuses solely on learning spoken Chinese. The spoken and written language should be totally separate, she believes. Get the spoken down first, then learn about the characters.

Lesson One of her program begins with the Three Reasons Chinese is Easy to Learn, and why Mandarin is "a conquerable language" for Westerners:

First, Chinese grammar is simple and straightforward. The word order is the same as it is in English. Translate English sentences word by word to Chinese and you get the proper sentences. With longer sentences there are only a few rules to remember about where to put time and location "and you're all set".

The second thing that makes Chinese easy is that it does not conjugate verbs based on subject or tense. So, for instance, the form of the verb "to be" in I am, you were, she was, we are is always the same (shi) and unlike Spanish, French or German, there are no genders to worry about.

The third reason why Yangyang believes Chinese is easy to learn is because "the more you learn the easier it gets". Huh?

"Chinese words are very transparent and logical," Cheng explained. "The way a Chinese word is formed tells lots about its meaning."

For example, the word for "movie", dianying, literally means "electronic shadow", because the old black-and-white silent films appeared to be shadows cast upon a screen. Telephone is dianhua, or electronic voice, and computer is diannao, electronic brain. It's the building block approach to forming words, she said.

The website has a blog manned by five writers who have extensive experience in China. It offers insights into the language such as what is the most common filler word – the equivalent of "uh" or "um" in English – used in Chinese, the most common being ran hou, jiushi and, one heard around the newsroom of China Daily USA continually, niege.

The blog also has pointers on contemporary Chinese customs, such as the Dos and Don'ts of gift giving. Do feel free to leave price tags on gifts or receipts in bags if it is an expensive gift, and keep track of the value of any gift you receive so you can repay that person in kind down the road. And hold the gift in both hands, when giving or receiving. And don't worry about including a card.

The blog even has a recipe for egg-drop soup.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the website is the video-based pinyin interactive chart, which is available free of charge and, according to Cheng, has become popular with language instructors all over.

"It's out there for everybody to use," she said, adding that traffic to the site has been tripling annually since she founded the company in 2012.

The chart cross-references 27 vowels with 21 consonants and offers an audio of the proper pronunciation. It also offers free coaching videos like the seven pitfalls of pinyin to avoid and "Tips and Tricks on How to Pronounce zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi."

Yoyo Chinese employees have been fanning out across China interviewing regular people on the street, asking them the same set of questions and posting them to the site so that students can hear what the language sounds like in everyday use.

"It's the best way for students to listen without having to go abroad," Cheng said.

And learning the sound of the language, to her, is where it all starts. The character component of her course is in the works.

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