Thursday, December 23, 2010

Banging My Head Against the Great Wall of Chinese

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I am learning Chinese.  I've been studying how to speak Mandarin Chinese for about two and a half years, and for the past year I've also been learning to read and write Chinese characters. 

More than a year of studying a foreign language sounds like a fair amount, doesn't it?  I should be able to go to China and talk to people, shouldn't I?  But I think most Chinese learners would tell you that you can't go to China and function with your Chinese language skills until you've been at it for three years or more.  My current Chinese language skills are probably equivalent to a second-grader.  I can only talk about concrete things, nothing abstract.  I don't know the words for thousands of objects.  I know how to write the characters for even fewer words, and reading something like a restaurant menu is well beyond my current capability. 

Another writer has written a much longer and more thorough description of how hard it is to learn Chinese.  If you're interested in the perspective of someone who's been studying the language much longer than I have, try this:  Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

But here's my perspective as someone who's only been struggling with it for a short time.  Yes, Chinese is hard.  Its' writing system, grammar, syntax and pronunciation are all very different from English or other Indo-European languages.  Let's start with the basics. Chinese is a tonal language.  What does that mean?  It means that the tone with which you pronounce the words is important to their meaning.  For whatever reason, Chinese developed far fewer phonemes - the sound units that make up the core of the language - than languages like English. 

To make up for this limited selection of phonemes, the Chinese added tonality to their languages as part of the sound/meaning combination.  In English, tone usually is used for emphasis and emotional content.  Saying "What?" with a tone of surprise and alarm is different than saying it with a tone of indifference, or one of impatience, but regardless of tone the word is still an interrogative with the same essential meaning.  But in Chinese if you say the phoneme "shi" with the fourth tone, sharp and descending, it might be the shi that represents all the tenses of "to be".  If you say it with the second  tone, a rising tone that sounds a bit like a question in English, it could be the sound of the number 10.  But there are a lot of "shi" phonemes in Chinese, and many of them use one of those tones.  You can really only know which meaning is being used by the context - or by seeing it in writing, because they'll look completely different.

I don't find the tones as challenging as some of my fellow students.  I don't know why it comes easier to me, but that doesn't really mean it's easy.  Especially when listening to native speakers speaking Mandarin Chinese, it's a real challenge to figure out which word they're saying.  To make it even harder, Chinese uses sounds we don't have in English.  There's a sound very similar to the German ö (which is easy for me, since I took German for several years in high school).  There's also a HSH sound, a sound sort of like J but not as sharp and made with the molars held a little farther apart, and a sound sort of like "woo" that follows a consonant ( i.e. "lwoo", "ywoo").  It's hard for an English speaker to wrap her tongue around some of those sounds.

Then there's the way all this is represented in a form an English reader can understand.  The method of transcribing Chinese language into the English alphabet is called pinyin romanization.  There have been numerous different methods of pinyin developed.  The current one is known commonly as Hanyu pinyin.  Hanyu is pinyin for "language of the Han people", the Han being the dominant ethnic group in China.  Hanyu pinyin uses English alphabet to represent those odd sounds I described above, so to learn to read it you first have to throw out a lot of what you know about how English letters are pronounced.  The HSH sound is represented as X in pinyin, so you have to remember that when you see an X in a pinyin word, it doesn't sound like KS or Z as it does in English.   An A in pinyin never sounds like the A in bake.  It always sounds like the A in all.  An E never sounds like the E in end; it sounds more like the U in under.  Don't ask me why it isn't just represented by U.  C doesn't sound like K or S, it sounds like TS.  There was a previous version of pinyin, Wade-Giles Pinyin, that actually used TS to represent that sound, but for some reason that pinyin method has fallen out of favor. So Chinese language learners now must struggle to put aside everything they've learned about pronouncing the alphabet in English when they start to use that alphabet to learn Chinese.

Now that I've dealt with some of the difficulties of speaking Chinese, let's go on to reading and writing it.  When you know the English alphabet and general rules of pronunciation, you can figure out how to say a word you've never seen before.  But Chinese characters generally don't have anything to do with pronunciation.  They're all about meaning.  My Chinese teacher would probably disagree somewhat with that statement, but I think it's largely true.  Sometimes the strokes in the character do represent something about the pronunciation, but not always.  How does a student of Chinese learn that 就 and 九 are both pronounced jiu (jyoe)?  You just have to memorize them.  And then you have to memorize that the first one is pronounced with the fourth tone, and the second one is third tone.

Writing is a challenge, too.  As you can see from the above example, some of the characters have a lot of marks.  就 doesn't really have that many.  Chinese characters can have anywhere from one stroke to more than 20.  You have to write them in the correct sequence, too.  Teachers can tell if you've done the wrong stroke order.  When you learn to write the English alphabet, you're taught to write the letters in a certain way, but most kids almost immediately start developing their own method of writing the letters.  After first grade, teachers usually won't penalize students for not using the original method, as long as they can figure out which letter the student was attempting.  But when you're learning to write Chinese characters, teachers will usually insist that you do it in the correct stroke order.  That's not to say that the Chinese don't have an equivalent to our cursive handwriting.  They do.  People learn how to take all those marks and write them in a faster method, without having to pick up the pen after each stroke.  It's nearly impossible to read it, in my experience.  It's like reading a doctor's infamously bad handwriting.  When my teacher makes corrections to my homework, it takes me a lot of effort to figure out what she's telling me.  I can really only read Chinese that is done in the equivalent of block printing.  

Chinese characters are made up of combinations of  things called radicals, which are sort of the building blocks.  I don't know the radicals very well, because the first teacher who taught me to read and write Chinese didn't go over the radicals.  Unfortunately, you need to know radicals to use a Chinese-English dictionary effectively.  You also need to know stroke number and type.  It took me a long time to figure that out.  Before I learned a little about these things, looking anything up in the dictionary was torturous.  Just as an example of the importance of radicals, look at these two characters:  快 and 块.  They're both pronounced kuai (kweye), with the fourth tone.  The first one means quick or fast.  The second one is commonly used as an indicator of monetary denominations, similar to the use of "dollar" in English.  If you write the wrong left-hand radical, it means something completely different.  

Then there's context.  Lots of Chinese words are contextual.  It's a much more contextual language than English.  The character/phoneme 就 is a good example.  It means a lot of different things, depending on context.  In some contexts it means "then", but it can also mean "immediately", "just", "only", "as early as", "to approach" or "move towards" something, "to accomplish", or "concerning", along with a whole list of other potential meanings.  It's a multi-purpose word.   As you can probably see, that means it's a challenge to read Chinese and get the meaning, since you have to puzzle out which usage is being employed in the context of the statement.  It took me over a year to read a book that had only eight chapters and was written at about a third-grade vocabulary level.

Just to make all this more fun, the Chinese have two different writing methods.  In Taiwan and Hong Kong, they write using traditional characters, which are the way the characters originally developed historically.  Traditional characters have more strokes as a rule.  But about 60 years ago the People's Republic of China (that's the mainland Communist country, for those who are geographically challenged) started using something called "simplified" characters.  Some of them are simpler; they reduced the number of strokes necessary to write the characters.  But the decision-making process about when to remove strokes seems to have been rather arbitrary, at least from my perspective.  The word canting, which means restaurant or cafeteria, is written like this 餐厅 in both traditional and simplified characters.  The first character has about 16 strokes.  So why didn't they reduce the strokes in that one?  Beats me. And once you start learning to read Chinese, you realize that you're probably going to have to learn both types of characters, because you can't limit yourself to reading printed materials from only one country.  Chinese teachers say you can learn to recognize the traditional character for something you already know in simplified, but I can't.  

So why, you may ask, do I want to learn this language, when it's so difficult and isn't going to progress my career or improve my life in a measurable way?  Because I like it.  It speaks to me.  It is hard, it is frustrating, but it's also immensely satisfying.  I may be 70 years old before I can read Journey to the West in the original language, but that gives me something to look forward to.  I hope I can continue learning Chinese for the rest of my life.  And maybe I'll be good enough at it eventually to make a career of it.  I'd love to be able to make a career of translating Chinese literature into English.  We're missing out on a lot of good reading.

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