Tag Archives: speaking

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!


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