Jie-jie is working on her letters at home and her characters at school. Yesterday while we were waiting for our meal in the restaurant I walked her through the spelling of her last name. When we got to the letter K she found that she had forgotten how to write it. I showed her and she responded, “That’s not K, that’s 大 [da declining tone – which means big].” I said, “Good eye, kid. It does kind of look like 大, but in English it is a K.”
I did not Chinese language prep before I arrived in Guangzhou. Once my tutoring began, I knew I needed a quick and dirty start to the language so I opted to focus on speaking and skipped memorizing characters. Now I find that I have reached a point at which, if I want to continue to progress in my language acquisition, I need to start studying characters.
Each character has a meaning and represents a syllable of spoken language. Most of the words I know are 1 – 4 characters (syllables) long. I can recognize a few dozen characters just as a result of being in China. While Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, they do share the same characters so you can read across languages.
Anyway, the reason that characters become so important at the point I’m at is that there are many more characters than syllables so the same syllable can have several different meanings that you will understand if you are looking at the character. If you are speaking, I get the sense that you piece it all together by using context, the other syllables and grammatical cues such as measure words, tense modifiers, word order, etc. All the same, the ability to distinguish between 下 (xia – a fairly ubiquitous preposition meaning under, next, downwards) and 夏 (xia – meaning summer) would be helpful.