Teaching Chinese is one of my favorite challenges. It falls right in line with taking the abstract and slowly shaping it into a concrete, user friendly tool, and in doing so opening up a new pathway in the mind for understanding and expression. One of my favorite examples of this is the almost countless number of homonyms in Chinese. Everyone in the west who decides to take Chinese on is accustomed to the alphabet - a series of symbols that by themselves mean nothing, but can gain meaning when joined with a bunch of letters and ordered in any number of ways. One sees an object and in a miraculously quick process it finds the components that define that object as fluffy, soft, cute, playful, innocent: it is a kitten.
Depart from this alphabetic world, away from this system of 26 letters, and you return to a blank slate where your method of understanding the world around you is capable of a fundamental shift. Chinese has no alphabet; instead a matrix of thousands of characters interact with one another in a way that is all together foreign to the western mind. Take for example the pinyin word "li". (The pronunciation of chinese characters is written using the alphabet in a system called Pinyin.) It doesn't take long before you realize that this word, without its symbol and without any context, is meaningless: There are over 40 characters in the Mandarin dialect pronounced "li." One means "inside"; one is a measurement of space; another means "power". Luckily people don't often communicate with single words. Instead almost everything comes with a context, and in Chinese words also come with a tone. Mandarin has four tones, and thus "li" can be pronounced four different ways. In this method we have 1 out of 10 potential meanings for one pronunciation of this word instead of 1 out of 40. A character's context is the second defining factor, and from the characters around it and the discussion taking place the meaning is inferred.