Read Chinese

What do you say or think when you see the digit “3”? In English, you say “three”, in Spanish, “tres”, in German “drei”, in Russian “tree” (transliterated), and so on. And yet in every language the concept or meaning is the same. This means you should be able to read Chinese without learning to speak Chinese, or even understanding the Chinese language itself. Here is why I think so:

Like the ten numeric digits, Chinese characters are ideograms, meaning that they represent ideas; they do not spell words. They are not letters, which represent the sounds of a language. Thus, when you look at the Chinese character for “dog”, you can say or think “dog” regardless of what the spoken Chinese word is for “dog”. That means that you can learn to read Chinese.

Of course, there are a few more issues to take into account, such as reading direction and word order. Chinese writing frequently combines two or more adjacent ideograms to make a word with a new meaning; these you would have to learn as well. For example, the combination of the ideograms for “dog” and “mouth” means “bark”.

So, technically you should be able to learn to read Chinese. The utility or futility of that effort might depend upon how many of the 50,000 ideograms you wish to learn!

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