Eight Scary Things You Might Not Know About Studying Chinese

jaychou

This is Jay Chou. He sings and plays piano and cello for me while I study.

I really should be studying for the grammar exam and the oral presentation I need to perform in finely articulated Chinese tomorrow. I have, I will. But first, some completely unproductive catharsis. I give you eight scary things you might not know about studying Chinese:

  • Reading fancy Chinese characters – that’s the easy part. It’s a task of rote memorization which, while grueling, isn’t actually complicated and can be achieved to perfection. Who gets full marks on vocabulary tests? In my class, we all do.
  • The hardest part of learning Chinese is understanding ANYTHING people are saying out loud. Even if we had ears perfectly tuned to “tones” — the prescribed accents Chinese speakers use, changing the pitches of their voices while pronouncing vowels — Chinese might still seem like a handful of short words that all sound pretty much the same. The language has an abundance of homophones. English has them too – words like meet, meat, and mete—but Chinese has many, many more. It’s a language with a “limited sound palette” which is a pretty way of saying that without a sound understanding of context, it’s impossible to tell one word from another without being able to see their written characters (though some of the characters look the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings because even the easiest things are not easy here).
  • It takes twice as many hours of instruction in Chinese than it does in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE offered at my large, world-class university to be considered an “intermediate” level student. And judging from myself, by “intermediate” level they must mean someone who still bursts into tears when being spoken to at normal conversational speed.
  • There is no “It” as we Anglophones know it in Chinese. Yup, unless we’re talking about a pronoun for animals or other specific objects under certain circumstances only, there is no “It.” We can’t say “It’s raining” in Chinese. We can’t say “It seems like you’re frustrated.” Speaking Chinese is like a Monty Python skit that way. You know Monty Python, the quintessential ENGLISH sketch comedy troupe, who imagined nothing could be more linguistically nonsensical than speaking without ever saying “It.” Haha, welcome to China, ignorant old Pythons.
  • The absence of “It” is just the beginning. Chinese also has no plurals as we know them, no capitalization, no verb declension. In all the materials I’ve ever seen meant to encourage students to choose Chinese, “simple grammar” is touted as a benefit. It’s faulty reasoning. English grammar isn’t simple. We don’t like simple grammar. We don’t trust it. We can’t handle it. We overthink it, tacking on superfluous prepositions and pronouns, getting hung up on details Chinese doesn’t care about while ignoring things it cares deeply about. For instance, if we’re using Chinese to describe someone in the middle of doing a task that can’t last for very long, we use different grammar than if we’re talking about someone in the middle of a task that can last a long time. Simple, right? Maybe, but the Anglos are all back at the beginning arguing about what the concept of “can’t last for very long” might actually mean. And the Chinese grammar that stands somewhere near the place of our dear English past tense – well, it seems scattered and piecemeal to us, chaotic, and as one professor famously says, just plain “evil.” So I don’t want to hear ONE MORE WORD about how Chinese grammar is simple.
  • Studying Chinese brings a sense of contempt for the idea of studying other, less punishing languages. I admit it was not one of my finest hours when I scoffed at a bilingual friend, telling him that, especially here in Canada, “Reading French is like
    mynah

    Mynah birds, alien experts in mimicking human speech

    grocery shopping. Reading Chinese is a super power.” Nice one, Jenny. Still, the idea that a foreign language could be spoken with some recognition just by sounding it out in letters we’ve known since we were babies, the idea that two languages might share cognates or at least words with the same roots that can be decoded if one is clever and knowledgeable of one’s mother tongue – all that comes completely apart for English speakers studying Chinese. We approach it like we’re mynah birds.

  • It takes a whole community to learn Chinese. It’s not a task for Google Image searching tattoo enthusiasts or loners in dark basements watching Kung Fu movies with the subtitles turned off. Learning Chinese demands a mortification of the ego in every way. Lay down that pride. We sound like toddlers but we speak out loud in a crowded room anyway. We cry for help, rely on everyone, all our linguistic brothers and sisters at arms. Sure, all language classes include group work and partnerships. But in my many years of school, I’ve never seen anything like the camaraderie of a Chinese class.
  • Chinese students – especially people from my Western and girlie demographic – need to be prepared to explain themselves. After all this ranting and venting we need to have answers for obvious questions about why we’re studying this language when there are more attainable languages much closer to home. What’s our problem? What happened to us? 怎么了?My reasons for choosing Chinese are complicated and idealistic. I still believe in them. But lately, I’ve taken to replying with, “What? Why’d I pick Chinese? Uh, who knows? It seems like a long time ago now…”

Anyways, sorry about the shouting. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day. Listen to some Jay Chou music. As for me, as one of my fellow English-people says, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”

 

One thought on “Eight Scary Things You Might Not Know About Studying Chinese

  1. Ok this was fantastic Jennifer. I read once that the reason people give up when learning a second language is because you cannot recognize improvement. There is no way to “track your progress”. But if you keep at it one day you realize you are understanding and speaking. Is this true? Our son learned Tagalog but it was a year of “I’m struggling with the language” and then next letter, a week later, “I’m finally fluently speaking the language!”

    It is a dream of mine to learn another language. It seems it would open up a whole new world of understanding. But the hours of dedication you describe are discouraging.

    I have to know. Why Chinese???

    I think this subject deserves another post. I’ll be watching!

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