Ever since my trip to China some years ago I have been keen on learning Mandarin. I would like to go there again one day, and I think it would be nice to be able to read the menu in a restaurant or conduct a basic conversation in their language. Besides, it’s always interesting to pick up a new language.
My primary aim is to speak Mandarin Chinese. Over the years, I have tried many free online courses. A day into it and I get intimidated by the complexity of Chinese tones; I keep admiring the calligraphic beauty of the characters and drift from one letter to another to observe how a subtle stroke makes a big difference to its meaning. And then I give up.
There’s not much difference in the experience that many of these websites offer. The most thorough and organized course structure that I have come across is the one designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, as part of its OpenCourseWare program (you can download the complete text and audio of Learning Chinese: A Foundation Course in Mandarin). Though meant for college students, even someone with a casual interest in the language can pick up a lot of interesting stuff. It is structured in a simple and logical manner: It starts with the history of the country, goes on to the origins of Chinese speech and script, how to read and pronounce, and discusses the nuances of tones and strokes.
Chinese characters are logograms; they can represent a single word, or a combination of words. They are unlike the languages that are written alphabetically. A simpler method to remember these complex characters would be to use the mnemonic technique—view a character as a graphic representation of a real object.
Mnemonics are devices that assist memory. Children in school are taught to memorize the names of planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto) with the help of a mnemonic. You associate the initial letter of each planet with a familiar word or object: “My Very Eager Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.”
A grand master of Memory (someone who can memorize the order of 10 decks of cards in an hour) and a neuroscientist from Princeton have joined hands and created a website called Memrise where they use mnemonics to enable you to learn Chinese and some other languages.
To understand how they do this, please remember that unlike the English alphabet, Chinese characters represent a combination of words. Now take a look at the illustration for beef noodles. The first character is the symbol for a cow, the second for beef and the third for noodles. Fair enough, but how do you remember these characters?
Memrise (www.memrise.com) says it “uses ‘mems’ to help you form vivid, sensory memories.” It defines a “mem” as “anything that helps you learn a new connection between a word and its meaning”. It associates the slanted stroke in the first character in the illustration with the horn of a cow, the second character with two cuts of a T-bone steak, and the third with chopsticks and noodles. Together, they mean beef noodles. Add the character for fire (second illustration), and you get beef fried noodles. The website has audio to help you pronounce the word.
It may sound a bit far-fetched and complicated but once you get down to doing the exercises on the website, it’s quite simple, and it works. Now suppose you have another visual interpretation for a character—you think the symbol for meat looks more like chunks of meat hanging on a hook. So you share your “mem” on the website. The more associations people make, the easier it gets to memorize a character.
There are levels of courses you can sign in for (free). I have done noodles; I am now on to my next level: some fried rice please.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.