China Musings #9: Learning Chinese


Learning Chinese is by far the hardest thing I have ever done. There is no alternative to rote learning – spending hours and hours writing the same character over and over again. For an English speaker learning French, there are prompts. “Police” becomes ‘police,’ and ‘garden’ becomes ‘jardin.’ But a foreigner has no such guide into Chinese. Police is ‘jingcha’ and garden becomes ‘huayuan.’ And for every word, you have to learn various components: character, tone, sound and grammar (or lack thereof).

CHARACTERS – Chinese characters are core to the language and provide a rich link with the past. The characters represent complete ideas rather than just sounds, like letters. Pronunciation of Chinese words might change over the centuries, but the written character remains unchanged. The character for ‘fragrant’ may be pronounced ‘xiang,’ ‘heung,’ or ‘hong,’ but the character always means ‘fragrant.’ Characters keep history alive as they remain recognizable across thousands of years.

TONES – The pitch of each word affects its meaning. ‘Mai’ for instance, with a falling tone, means ‘to sell.’ But ‘mai’ with first a low falling and then a rising tone means precisely the opposite, ‘to buy.’ Even Chinese people find it confusing. At the Shanghai Stock Exchange brokers use slang to make sure to not mix up buy and sell words. There are four tones in Mandarin (and nine in Cantonese), so imagine how much difficulty this adds.

SOUND – Many words sound exactly the same or confusingly similar. Often Chinese people have to go to great lengths to define a character taken out of context. For example, it would be perfectly normal for someone to introduce himself with “Hello, I am Li – that’s the ‘li’ with the sign for tree on top and a seed underneath” or “Hi, I am Mrs. Wang – that’s the ‘wang’ used in ‘boundless oceans’ not the one that means ‘king.’”

GRAMMAR – The link in China between daily language and the past is strengthened further by a lack of tenses. “Mao Zedong is a good leader” and “Mao Zedong was a good leader” are not distinguished. Things that in our language are extinct, remain alive in Chinese. Imagine the confusion when you want to order boiled water (past tense; to make sure it’s clean), but then get boiling water (because it’s hard to express the past tense). Without the separation in language or thought between what ‘was’ and what ‘is,’ China’s past seems to merge into its present.

Chinese language is extremely sophisticated, representative of its rich history and profoundly tied to Chinese identity. Being part of that exclusive five-thousand-year-old club gives the Chinese a sense of separateness and self-esteem. It can occasionally develop into a sense of superiority, but no more than anywhere else. The language provides a permanent rigid connection to a past, while the society is changing and adapting at a pace never seen before.

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