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One day I’ll wake up and….

I sometimes have the feeling that one morning I’ll just wake up and be able to speak and understand Chinese fluently.

This is, of course absurd.  Chinese, like any language, requires an immense amount of rote study and memorization.  In a lot of ways, Chinese is worse than most languages. The list of characters, although limited, must just be memorized. There are some clues to their meaning sometimes, but in the end, there’s no way around the heaps of memorization.

Why, you might ask, do I have this feeling? That someday I’ll just be able to speak it – or at least understand it?  This is what I mean.

There are roughly 12,000 syllables in the English language (this is by no means a scientific answer, but just my quick online research). Some are less frequently used, but for the most part English has a fairly varied phonetic structure, and leaves room for a number of ways to arrange letters to form a sound. Most letters can form both the beginning and ends of syllables (pal as well as lap are legitimate syllables), most consonants are allowed to be grouped together (squawk), and both vowels and consonants are legitimate beginners and enders of syllables.

Chinese, however, is much more strict. Only certain letters are allowed to be at the beginning of syllables and only certain ones at the end (usually a vowel, n or ng). The number of syllables that exist in chinese therefore shrinks down to around 400. 400 syllables – for an entire language!

But here’s the rub. Chinese is what we call a tonal language. Which means, if you say “Shi” with a vocal inflection upward, downward, flat, or down-then-up you can be communicating to your unsuspecting Chinese friend one of some 82 different meanings. 82! There are four different tonal marks for any syllable, and often (even usually) the same syllable with the same tonal mark can mean a few different things depending on context.

I dare you to check this out. Go to this website , and type in, say ‘shi’, and see what meanings you get out. Some two-thirds of the way down the list in the ‘falling tone’ mark you’ll see “is, are, am, yes, to be” – which is the most common meaning, along with, the number 10,  and “o’clock”.  You will notice though, that although the syllable you hear may be the same, there are again a multitude of different characters than can convey this sound when read.  It’s no easy feat.

Also, you can look at this site, which is an amateur, but fairly reasonable attempt to list out all the possible Chinese syllables. They can fit on your screen in one browser page!

What I’m getting at is this: for the untrained ear, (one that isn’t good at hearing the tones in the language – and let me tell you — It’s a trick!) when you listen to Chinese – you don’t hear too many sounds.  Along with this, I don’t usually get the impression that verbal creativity holds very much import.

In English the variety of the language lends to creative ways to say essentially the same thing, and thus makes it a very resourceful and imaginative tongue.  Chinese on the other hand, elevates the power of simplicity – the elegance of directness.  There simply isn’t such an overwhelming vocabulary in Chinese, and it seems ‘high-use’ words fill most of conversation.

So, if I just keep listening, (and golly I do a lot of listening!) one day I should be able to wake up and … you know… pretty much understand it!  Here’s to hoping!

Ha.

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Why I struggle to write chinese (reason #14)

My handwriting can be described as ‘school boy’ at best. Not in any way what I would think of as feminine. The grace and elegance I once tried to cultivate in other areas of my life have somehow eluded me when it comes to my pen.

This is of course nothing unique to me, when you consider it in light of my generation of techies. Where once school marms spent hours on the proper instruction of penmanship, I remember being set behind computer programs like “Mavis Beacon.” I scrambled to punch in numbers for an imaginary conveyor belt of food item prices, and fumble for the correct keys while trying to out-type an imaginary opponent in a virtual race-car that ran on words per minute instead of gasoline.

Needless to say, learning to type took over the time that would have been spent in the practice of attractive penmanship.  It’s more than that though. My typing speed outstripped my handwriting in those early years before adolescence, and now I find it ever so tedious to use a pen and paper – which means I avoid all practice. When it comes to writing out thoughts and stories – a pen is out of the question. Thinking is  easier when not hindered by the medium being used to record it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to discipline myself to spend more time studying Chinese.  With the study of Chinese comes of course the study of the characters. Oh China, how you do torture me!  When I was studying French at least I could spell out the word, even if I hadn’t a clue what it meant. If I wanted to do more than just pronounce it I could easily look up anything in a dictionary. Chinese, on the other hand, seems very much a binary kind of language. You either know it or you don’t. And if you don’t, well, ya ain’t gonna fool no one.

You really do start from the bottom with Chinese. Although learning to read has always been difficult this is an entirely different planet. You either know it or you don’t. No sounding it out like a pussy. To it’s credit, once you’ve learned the first 500 basic symbols, there aren’t going to be too many more unknown words to you. Unlike in English, you’re much less likely to stumble across random words like sesquipedalian and poppysmic. Linguistic creativity is an art the Chinese language doesn’t look highly upon.

“You think Chinese is hard!!” my mandarin teacher told us once in class.

“You make English sooooo dIIficult!! Why so complicated!? Chandelier, giraffe?! All these extra words. In Chinese, we don’t have chANdelEAr. We use ‘fancy lamp’. And Giraffe!! What is girAAffe? We just have ‘long-necked deer’. So simple! You only need to learn first set of characters, and you know all language”.

It’s true. I never once sat in Chinese and thought ‘Dang. I wish they’d make it simple like English.’ It is all rather straightforward. That is, if you’ve got the rote memorization thing down.  That is a skill I, as a physicist, eschewed in my undergraduate career. Unfortunately. It’s also a skill that is no longer cultivated in American schools, and as a result…  I have a lot of practice to do.

So if you’ll excuse me…  I need to go memorize a list of characters.

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