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CHINESE BLOCKBUSTER was developed in the 1950s by the Chinese government. Pinyin is now used everywhere in the world as the romanization standard for Chinese sounds. It is very important for a learner to be familiar with it 4 . In a nutshell, each Chinese character is pronounced using one syllable, which consists of an optional initial phoneme that has one or two consonants, followed by a final phoneme which may contain one or two vowels, with the possible addition of a ‘n’ or ‘ng’ at the end. Therefore, a Chinese pronunciation written in pinyin looks like this: ai (no initial, final ‘ai’), ma (initial ‘m,’ final ‘a’), yin (initial ‘y,’ final ‘in’), quan (initial ‘q,’ final ‘uan’), huang (initial ‘h,’ final ‘uang’), zhang (initial ‘zh,’ final ‘ang’), etc. In addition to learning the sound of a character, you also need to learn its tone. Mandarin uses four tones to differentiate characters having the same pinyin spelling, the tone being the pitch of the voice a speaker uses when articulating the character. The tone is very important because it determines the meaning of the character and it allows your ears to distinguish amongst other characters that have the same pronunciation. If you ignore it, you may create funny or embarrassing situations when you try to speak Chinese. In pinyin, the tone is indicated by an accent over one of the vowels in the syllable. The four tones are: First tone: A high-level pitch with the volume held constant. Example: mā. Second tone: The pitch rises sharply from the middle register, increasing in volume. Example: má. Third tone: The pitch falls then rises. It starts low and falls lower before rising again. In practice, it sounds more like a low register pitch. Example: mǎ. Fourth tone: Falling pitch. It starts high and drops sharply. Example: mà. There is also a neutral tone, much shorter and subtler than the other four. A neutral tone sounds like a toned down fourth tone. Some characters are pronounced in the neutral tone when they become part of certain words. There is also a small number of characters that are always pronounced in the neutral tone. In pinyin, it is written with no accent: ma 5 . 4 Pinyin is useful for learning how to pronounce the characters, but not sufficient to understand the meaning of the text if you rely solely on it. The reason is that many Chinese characters are pronounced the same. The only way to understand what the text you are reading is about is to see the character itself. There is no way around it. This is the basis and arguably the hardest part when learning Chinese: to be able to recognize and pronounce the characters you see. 5 I encourage you to browse the Web and look for ‘pinyin charts.’ A few websites allow the reader to hear the proper pinyin pronunciation by clicking on each one. It will be very helpful for you to hear what these syllables sound like. 4 四

A NEW APPROACH TO YOUR RESCUE A NEW APPROACH TO YOUR RESCUE A Chinese learner needs to remember not only the structure of a character along with its definitions, but also the various other pronunciations and tones it may have, along with their connected meanings. No wonder many people think it is impossible to learn Mandarin and they quit before even trying. But take heart; learning Chinese is not as difficult as it may seem. First, Chinese grammar is relatively simple compared to other languages. There are no tense modifications, no case inflections, no gender affixes, no plurals. Most of these grammatical elements are managed by way of sentence structure and the use of particles. Secondly, most Chinese characters are composed of building blocks or components 6 that form part of a character and which are seen repeated in other characters. This way, the number of symbols to learn is drastically reduced. In other words, Chinese characters are not arbitrary symbols; they are composed of familiar building blocks, and there is an underlying logical structure guiding their construction. It is as if you had a box of Lego blocks containing yellow, blue, green and red bricks with a limited number of shapes, allowing you to create an almost unlimited number of structures with them. Finally, the approach used in this book is to offer a complete method based on building blocks, sound words and mnemonics that will leave no stones unturned. Each character (both its traditional and simplified versions) is associated with its own story, like the one illustrated at the top of this chapter, allowing you to remember all aspects of the said character in one fell swoop. This innovative approach will help you overcome the challenges of learning the Chinese language and make you achieve the ‘impossible.’ BUILDING BLOCKS Chinese characters are composed of building blocks. While a few characters represent actual pictures ( 日 for sun, 月 for moon, 山 for mountain, 木 for tree) and symbols ( 一 for one, 二 for two, 三 for three), the great majority of Chinese characters are what we call sound-meaning compounds. They usually consist of a component taken from a list of 214 elements called radicals 7 , that gives a hint to the meaning of the character, combined to another part that gives a hint to its pronunciation. Most of the time, these two parts are also characters themselves. 6 Both terms, ‘building blocks’ and ‘components’, are used interchangeably in this book. 7 Radicals, or more precisely Kangxi radicals, are used by most Chinese dictionaries to organize their content, a bit like the 26 letters of the alphabet are used to order words in a Western dictionary. 五 5

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