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(These are taken from the HyperChina User Manual, where you can find more questions that trouble every student of Chinese. If you have any questions related to learning Chinese, please email them to us, and we'll answer them as much as we can. Representative questions will also be posted here.)
Q: Are the "tones" really that important? Can I just concentrate on speaking now and worry about getting my tones right later?
A: Yes, the tones are extremely important. No, you won't be able to correct your tones after the initial period of your learning. It is crucial that you get the four tones straightened out during the first week or two of your study. If you still have problems distinguishing, for instance, the "second tone" from the "third tone," do not go on. Work on it until you can really tell the difference between the four tones and pronounce them clearly.
Keep in mind that a tone is an integral part of any sound in Chinese. Just as the words "car" and "scar" are unrelated in English, the Chinese syllable "ma" read in the first tone (mother) and "ma" read in the second tone (hemp) have nothing to do with each other.
Some students claim that they are "tone deaf" (unable to distinguish between different pitches) and therefore give up on the tones altogether. Common sense tells us that, since not a single Chinese has difficulty with the tones and there are certainly many tone deaf persons in China, it is really a question of how you learn it rather than can you learn it.
Q: The Pinyin romanization system is giving me a hard time because it doesn't really match the sounds I hear. Do I have to learn it?
A: Frankly, learning Chinese using Pinyin as the only guide is a sure way to mess up your pronunciation, and to be stuck with that horrible 'foreign accent' for the rest of your life. However, in HyperChina the actual sounds and the Chinese characters are always there; that's why we can safely include Pinyin as a learning aid. Besides, Pinyin is useful for many things: further studies in Chinese language and culture, using alphabetically-arranged dictionaries, preparing for the SAT II, doing Chinese word processing (Pinyin is the easiest input method in Apple's Chinese Language Kit), and so on.
The best pronunciation aid is the "Bo po mo fo" phonetic system (it is sort of like the Japanese katakana) because roman letters are not used. It is still being used now in Taiwan for the Chinese themselves and foreign students studying there. From our experience, students who learn by ear and those who use the "Bo po mo fo" system always speak most accurately.
Our advice: Learn Pinyin (after you've learned the real sounds), but don't be dependent on it. The most important thing is to use your ears.
Q: Do I really have to learn the characters? How can I memorize hundreds of those "pictogram drawings?" Can I learn the characters later?
A: Unlike learning a phonetic language (like Spanish or French), when you study Chinese without learning the writing system (characters), you are illiterate- you cannot even read maps, shop signs, street signs, restaurant menus, or train schedules in China. Besides, the Chinese writing system is one of the most unique, beautiful, and ancient writing systems in the world. The characters are the key to the wealth of Chinese culture. You will be missing a great deal if you give up the characters.
On the other hand, since you are not taking a classroom course, you can always learn to read and write later, and at your own pace. One major problem with teaching characters in traditional classroom courses is that students always have great difficulty connecting the characters they learn (usually at home) with the sounds they have learned (in class). With HyperChina, the visual and the aural aspects are always integrated, so you can learn much more efficiently.