“Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23:23). On a day that might have been used otherwise, this verse made me think that it might be more wise to take some time and study. I needed to bring together the things I was learning about spoken and written Mandarin.
Up to that point I had been able to listen to spoken Chinese, read and memorize Scripture in Chinese and simply take notice of the Chinese characters I saw by the roadside. However at the same time I was realizing more and more how valuable it would be simply to understand the Chinese radicals: 207 “characters within a character” that can portray its meaning or phonetic pronunciation. They often double as complete words themselves and so account for about 20% of the first 100 most common words, 10% of the first 1000, and 4% of the first 3000. I had spent what time I could getting familiar with the list in the dictionary and making a chart that could include all of them on a two-page spread. Along with each one that doubled as its own word, I put some of their simplest English equivalents, their abbreviated forms and their frequency number. Writing it in my own format was enjoyable and a giant step in comprehension: it helped me begin to think in Chinese.
Then came yesterday. In one afternoon I almost completely remade my radical chart. This time I excluded radicals that don’t occur as words (65 of the 207) as well as a few that are less frequently used, included all the radicals that do occur as words and then went on to include a comparison of the now-standard-in-China Simplified Characters. Most importantly, I wrote down for the first time the phonetic pronunciation for each one. Rather than seeing strange characters, they’ve come alive with meaning. I can almost see them the way I see my students at school: This one has a particular face and his name is _____. Seeing them, or beginning to see them, that way was rewarding. I definitely don’t know Chinese yet but at least it’s not a foreign language any more!
“My son, eat thou honey, because it is good; and the honeycomb, which is sweet to thy taste: So shall the knowledge of wisdom be unto thy soul: when thou hast found it, then there shall be a reward, and thy expectation shall not be cut off” (Proverbs 24:13, 14).