De-coding Mandarin Chinese

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Most of us are used to an “encoding” approach to foreign languages, meaning something like this:

“I” in Chinese is “我”
“look at” is “看”
“it” is “它”
So if you want to say “I am looking at it” in Chinese, then you say “我看它.”

We hope that if we learn to encode like this for long enough then we’ll eventually be able to navigate the world in that foreign language.

By contrast, a “de-coding” approach means starting with something from the world and trying to make sense of it.

Let’s take the periodic table of elements as an example.  For the majority of us, this is horribly complex and opaque in our own language so we’d never normally dream of looking at it in a foreign language.  That sounds to us like an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective.

If you look closely at the table – even at the very beginning of your learning journey in Mandarin Chinese – you will start to identify patterns in the Chinese characters for the elements.

Before long, you’ll notice that all these characters highlighted in yellow have this symbol on the left hand side. All these characters highlighted in grey have this symbol on the left hand side. All these characters highlighted in green have this symbol in common. And that just leaves two more, which are highlighted here in blue. So in Chinese, the whole periodic table of 118 elements seems to be split into just 4 groups.

If you then look at one element from each group, you’ll be able to guess why.

Only 2 of the elements that make up everything in the world around us are liquid at room temperature and 11 or 12 are gasses.  The rest are solid as a rock, and the majority of those are metals. Instead of us teaching you the 4 symbols for metal, stone, gas and liquid, through this de-coding approach you have been able to discover them for yourself.

If you want to take it a step further, you may notice that there are two apparent exceptions. The symbols for metal and liquid are actually squashed up versions of the characters for “gold” and “water.”  This allows you to put another symbol into the other half of the character to indicate which specific element you mean.

For example, platinum is represented by the character for metal combined with the character for white – because it is a white metal. Similarly, chlorine is represented in Chinese by the character for gas combined with the character for green – because it is a green gas. The element Boron is called “Péng” in Mandarin Chinese.  Because this sounds like the word “friend,” the character for Boron combines the symbol for stone with that for friend. Similarly, Mercury is called “Gǒng” in Mandarin Chinese.  Because this sounds like the word “work,” the character for Mercury combines the symbol for liquid with that for work.

Through this de-coding approach, you have not just learned something fundamental about the Chinese language; you have gained an insight into the world around you that you may have missed in years of chemistry at school!

Did you know that Mandarin Chinese is the native language of more people than English and Spanish combined? Click here to read more.