“I’d like some dumplings, please.”
“Why, are you tired?”
“What? No, I’m hungry. I just want to buy some dumplings.”
“But I sell dumplings, why would I want to buy some?”
“Arghhhh! Forget it, just give me some noodles”
Learning Chinese is difficult enough without having to do so on an empty stomach.
Confused? Me too. A tonal language, in Chinese you can say the opposite of what you intend, simply by stressing a word improperly. Or in some cases because nobody can understand your accent. In the conversation above, our anonymous foreigner (ahem) fell victim to the fact that the words buy and sell sound nearly identical, as do the words for dumpling and sleep.
But wait, it gets worse.
The system of reading and writing is completely alien to, and infinitely more complex than the Latin alphabet. To read a basic newspaper article, one must be able to read at least 1,000 unique characters. To be fluent, 3,500 or more
In a phonetic language like Spanish or English, if I see a word in a menu or on a sign, I can usually speak it. If I can say a word, I can usually spell it. By contrast, being able to “read” a word in Chinese in no way means that you can “spell” it.
This aspect of the language makes learning Chinese feel like learning 3 different languages simultaneously. Speaking and listening, reading, and writing are all unique skills, and each requires a dedicated focus
This complexity and foreignness definitely impact the pace of learning. After 5 months of intensive classes, 3 hours of class plus a few hours of homework each day, I am able to speak a very impressive Tarzan Chinese. Me Tarzan, you Jane.
During that time, I’ve developed an appreciation for the language. The structure and grammar are really quite elegant. There is only one way to express the idea “to be.” There is no verb conjugation, no past/present/future tense, and no possibility of confusing their, there, or they’re. For anybody that has been the victim of learning a Latin derivative as a second language, these are all enormous blessings
And unlike English, which is the ugly mess left over after absorbing and colliding with hundreds of other languages, Chinese has been relatively stable for thousands of years.
Some words even sound like they were the first to pass human lips. What noise might you make if you were starving and trying to convey the depth of your hunger? That’s pretty much what the Chinese word for “hungry” sounds like (click the audio button on the lower right side of Google Translate to listen)
Much of the written language is strikingly similar to characters created at the dawn of civilization, at least on this side of the Cultural Revolution. Some words look much like a simple drawing of the idea or object they represent. Sun (日) and moon (月) are two basic examples.
Those same characters also represent a day (日) and a month (月), beautifully simplistic and yet so obviously connected to the physical world
More complex characters convey so much more than the English equivalent. One great example is for the word “listen”. In Traditional Characters, listen looks like this 聽
It is composed of several parts, including 耳 (ear), 目 (eye), and 心 (heart.) Together, “to listen” can be translated as “I give you my ears, my eyes, and my heart.” It is hard to find a better definition than that
The characters also convey deep cultural information
In the English world, we often use the word “I”, and the way we use it shows the importance of individuality in our culture. By contrast, an old Japanese teacher told me directly referring to yourself was best avoided for the harmony and unity of the group
In the Chinese world, this is the character for I: 我. It derives from two roots, 手 (hand) and 戈 (a sword.) You can almost picture a man standing with sword in hand, saying “Look at me!”, which might create some harmony and unity challenges
Another interesting word is 錢 (money), a combination of 金 (gold) and 2 x 戈 (a sword.) Take two swords and conquer, taking all the gold you find, and you will have money! That is some deep Art of War wisdom!
In the spoken word, tonality isn’t as difficult as it first sounds. English uses tonality as well, which is why we know when somebody is asking a question or if they are being sarcastic… same words, different tonality. And unless you often confuse the singing of Barry White and Mariah Carey, it is something that is learned with just a little practice
Chinese is definitely a challenge. But also a lot of fun.
Each day I notice improvement, although I’ve still a long way to go. In the mean time, I’ll avoid getting any tattoos