Chinese characters have three characteristics – the reading, the writing and the meaning. There is more information embedded within them than Roman characters – the letter a for example has no inherent meaning, and there are a whole host of ways of saying it! By contrast, Chinese characters often (but by no means always) only have the one pronunciation, and they also have a [generally] consistent meaning that contributes to compound words.
What does that mean for learners? 女 (leoi) means “female”, and 人 (jan) means “person”. If the two are put together we get 女人 (leoi jan), “woman”. 仔 (zai) means “child” in Cantonese; 女仔 (leoi zai) means “girl”. Knowing 皇 (wong), emperor, the meaning of 女皇 should be no surprise!
Okay, maybe that’s not really news to most people, but I was a little surprised when I first found out there are some exceptions. Example: 酒店 (zau dim) means hotel, but is strangely made up of the characters for “wine” and “shop”. It even has another misleading synonym, 飯店 (faan dim), which is literally “food shop” (if anyone knows the etymology of these words, I’d be really interested!)
Something I’ve found is that the meaning of Chinese characters generally makes learning new, composite words much easier. The most common 3,000 characters make up 99% of words; I’ve found that after the initial work done in learning new characters and their pronunciations, learning words made up of already-mastered characters is almost no work at all.
I think this is because once you have a flavour for the meaning of a character, composite words effectively have memory-aids built-in – as above, I remember hotel as “wine shop”; other examples include 冇嘈 (mou cou), “shut up” (literally “don’t-have noise”) and 面具 min geoi “mask” (remembered as “face tool”).
I’m always surprised when people say they want to learn to just speak Mandarin or Cantonese – although there is a barrier to learning them (perceived or otherwise), once you’ve got them under your belt, Chinese languages are really quite easy – much easier than if you didn’t know the meaning of each syllable. Also, contrary to common belief, the pronuciations aren’t random either – usually part of the character gives a clue as to how to say it.
P.S. If you’re finding the Romanization difficult to read, don’t worry too much! It’s a little… offbeat 😉