More On Learning Chinese

So today I finished my intensive Chinese class, which I celebrated by drinking lots of 啤酒 (and silently toasting the heroic oppositionistas struggling against UK bourgeois state tyranny). Here is my third set of observations.

1. Most other languages now look really easy, especially Spanish which I’ve long planned to learn but never really found myself sufficiently motivated to do so. The time it takes to memorize one Hanzi is probably sufficient to memorize 5-10 Spanish words.

2. Speaking of Hanzi, this test estimates that I know about 700-800 of them. This puts me about half-way to becoming a barely literate Chinese peasant. Or, in foreign language acquisition terms, either a high Low Intermediate or a very low High Intermediate.

3. There’s an extremely useful I found called Remembering the Hanzi. As I already figured out for myself, the most effective way to do so is to memorize stories specific to Hanzi (the more graphic, funny and/or obscene the better). This book provides stories and templates for stories for the 1500 most frequent Hanzi. Now that formal classes have ended I’ll probably be systematically working through it.

4. THAT SAID, its not as bad as that. As I’ve taken care to emphasize throughout there are many mitigating factors to Chinese that make it far easier than what it’s sometimes held out to be. For instance… On the one hand, remembering Hanzi is hard, and the fact that 99%+ of the words have no connection to the Indo-European makes vocab difficult for European language speakers. BUT! As words are based on syllables, often just one, two, or at at most three of them (anything above three is very rare) means there are far less components to memorize for each word; furthermore, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, every syllable stands for an idea that very often connects deeply with the meaning of the word it is used to create. So, for example, an office is 办公室 – the first character means to handle or manage; the second means public; and the third means institution. All very logical.

Place names and people names are all different, by virtue of the fact that exact or near-exact transliteration from Western languages into Chinese is impossible by dint of the latter’s limited set of syllable sounds. This is very frustrating, because to truly master Chinese, one has to also master the Chinese perceptions of all other world cultures. To take an example, if we want to talk about Vladimir Putin, we can be fairly sure that his name will be more or less the same across all European languages, with some minor variations like “Wladimir” (De.) or “Poutine” (Fr.). Not so in Chinese, where his name would be pronounced Fúlājīmǐ’ěr Pǔjīng. If you don’t know that and just say his Russian name, I would imagine most Chinese wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

PS. My own Chinese name is 林安德 / Lín’āndé.

PSS. Speaking of Putin, my congratulations on his recent discovery of Atlantis off Russia’s Black Sea coast. He is truly a god among men.

5. About half the Hanzi are the same in both Traditional and Simplified script, plus in many cases the changes are pretty minor. However, they are more complex, and small changes may confuse more than they help, so learning both sets is – I would estimate – perhaps 50% more work. Reading older texts and getting a deeper appreciation for the language required some knowledge of Traditional, so I’ll be doing that.

One silver lining to the cloud is that Traditional Hanzi are the same as Japanese kanji. This massively simplified the process of learning Japanese to someone who knows Chinese. Perhaps I’ll diversify into Japanese once I move from Low Intermediate to Advanced in Chinese. No, Scowspi, not because my Sino-Triumphalism is waning. ;)

6. A linguistic gem from the third best site on the Internet (exile.ru is first, this one is second), Cracked: Chinese Words Don’t Sound Cool in English.

Unfortunately, while Japanese names look pretty cool written in English (Akira, Kamiko, Yakuza, Chicken Katsu Bento), Chinese names sound pretty lame (Yun-Fat, Chee Hwa, Haier, Egg Foo Young). My own Chinese name is Porchin, which using the modern pinyin system, still comes out to an unglamorous Buoqing. You want to name yourself “great king”? Have fun being “da wang.” Sometimes immigrants get lucky when their last names transliterate into something cool, like, “Fang,” but more often than not, they will end up like our family friends, the Poons.

The pinyin system really doesn’t help the coolness factor by introducing all those Q’s and X’s. (Pro tip: They’re pretty much just “ch” and “sh” respectively.) Instead of sounding exotic and mysterious, I sound like a really desperate Scrabble cheater.

But another reason to study Japanese! ;) Will no doubt provide a wealth of good names for the fantasy series I will write in my glorious literary future.

7. Speculations on lingua franca. Many people believe that English will remain the world’s lingua franca long past the time the US cedes economic primacy to China (of course, many people deny even that will happen… but by this point such thinking can only be described as delusional). I was long in agreement with this, on the basis that:

  1. Chinese is really hard.
  2. Authoritarianism doesn’t go well with soft power.
  3. Inertia: it will take ages to change. See Latin in post-medieval Europe, or the lingering influence of French.
  4. The Anglo-Saxon cultural bloc, by which I mean the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and a few minor others has a population of 450mn; a population that per capita will remain richer than China’s for the foreseeable future.

I still think these are valid factors, but several qualifiers need to be mentioned. First, the hardness element is overrated. Hanzi are hard. Writing in pinyin (with the option of automatic Hanzi conversion); reading pinyin, or even Hanzi (with the help of instant translation software on cell phones); and speaking, are quantitatively no more difficult to master than fairly simple European languages. In fact, typical “Business Chinese” courses focus only on the speaking and pinyin parts, foregoing the Hanzi element entirely. I think that at least in this sphere Chinese has a chance of becoming a global (and not only a regional) lingua franca by the 2040’s or so.

Comments

  1. @anatoly:
    Congratulations on completing your Chinese course!
    On Putin: I do think it is pretty cool that he discovered Atlantis, but I don’t think you’re supposed to just grab the amphorae with your hands and rip them out of the mud. Aren’t archeologists supposed take a lot of photos first, to document the site and what is in each layer?

  2. Good post. Re: English hegemony: I think it is here to stay for the foreseeable future even if China were to have a larger economy than the United States. There’s something of a snowball effect where, for example, in Asia English is simply the default international language (I think of ASEAN or Japanese websites) even when no component nation speaks English.

    Beyond that, the demographic-economic-political “base” of English remains massive, even if the US declines relatively you will still have Europe (English to undoubtedly remain the lingua franca), most of Africa (notably Nigeria and India) and all of South Asia (including emerging India). This “base” will collectively be markedly greater than China. Of course one can’t exclude the collapse of the North American and Indian Republics, in which case all bets are off…

    • In East Asia the national languages with the exception of North Korean are all partly written in Hanzi so reading Chinese isn’t hard and many words are of Chinese origin.
      In South East Asia the economy is owned by local Chinese and the languages contain many Chinese loanwords. I think only a fool would believe that those countries would communicate with each other in English in 50 years. And in the EU English is not the most spoken language (it is number 3) or the biggest economic area (also third). Its only advantage is closeness the the US but if that relation goes bad than it would loose much of its influence.

  3. Interesting post. I’m also at 800 Hanzi characters, and averaging about 2.5 new characters per day — a rate I’ve been able to sustain for 60 days now, so I hope I can sustain it indefinitely. What really helps is to learn a phrase or short sentence that uses a newly learned character.

    I only get to study 1 hour per day (2 hours on a good day), which means it will be years until I’m fluent, but I can wait.

    Instead of Remembering the Hanzi, I’m using a similar approach by Matthews: http://www.amazon.com/Tuttle-Learning-Chinese-Characters-Vol/dp/080483816X
    Some people that have reviewed both seem to think that Matthews approach is slightly better than Heisig’s.

    I have 800 characters in my Anki spaced repetition software deck, in case anyone is interested. The stories from Matthews’ book are also in the deck. You can find the software here: http://ankisrs.net/. Contact me to get the deck. Due to copyright restrictions, I can only give you the deck if you can offer evidence that you own the book.

  4. I haven’t been studying Chinese recently, but Anki is helping me remember all the characters and words which I learned in the past. It prevents one from slipping back even when one isn’t studying anything new. It’s not for everyone though. The average person would probably find flipping through a large number of Anki cards every day very boring. I don’t.

    I have about 6,200 Chinese cards in my deck. About 4,100 of them are traditional characters, most of which I got from Rick Harbaugh’s book of character etymologies. I HAVE paid for the book, by the way. About 240 cards are the simplified characters whose connections with their traditional counterparts I would have never guessed on my own. There are more such unguessable simplifications than that of course – 240 is simply the number that I’ve identified so far. The rest (roughly 1850 cards) are multi-character words whose meaning I would have never guessed from simply looking at their components. I think I’ve seen Harbaugh’s book as a publicly-available Anki deck, though I entered them into mine one by one a few years ago.

    I love Anki, by the way. Compared to most addictions out there, this one is pretty harmless. I’ve got lots of words from European languages in there, lots of terms of all sorts that at one time or another I thought it would be cool to know. I’m nearing the 15,000 card mark overall.

    I haven’t studied spoken Chinese at all yet. Maybe some day. Some time ago I found the Chinese translation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice online. For a while I would try to read a paragraph in Chinese, type up what I thought it meant in English, then compare that to the original. I got through a few dozen pages like that. I’d say that I got the meaning of about half the sentences right. It always took a long time to figure anything out correctly though. I’d go through a paragraph again and again and again, think through different possibilities. It’s like figuring out a riddle almost every time. One can recognize every character in a sentence, and still be utterly clueless about its overall meaning. I don’t know how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours of this I’d have to do in order to increase my reading speed to, let’s say, 20% of the average person’s reading speed in his native language. But it can be fun in a nerdy way, and I may well go back to that at some point in the future.

    • 6,200 Hanzi is an amazing accomplishment, Glossy. The standard for literacy is 2,000 characters for urban Chinese. Your number is approaching “intelligentsia” levels!

      If you take a few months of classes (mostly for the grammar) and find someone to practice speaking with, you’ll be fluent in no time as you’ve already done all the hard work.

      I’ve been thinking about doing something similar, reading a Chinese translation of the Wheel of Time fantasy series in my case which I also found on the Internet (thank God they don’t care about copyrights LOL!). But I think at least at my current stage doing this would be a highly inefficient form of learning.

      • @AK: Instead of sci-fi, maybe you should emulate @glossy and do a literary classic as an exercise. Maybe Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”? Actually, the idea of “crazy-wife-living-in-attic” is such a universal concept, maybe there is a separate Chinese character just for that one phrase!

      • Well, it’s only about 4,100 characters. Plus about 1,850 of the kind of multi-character words whose meanings aren’t guessable from the characters in them. Plus some unguessable simplifications.

        • I’m impressed that you have a grasp of 4,100 characters without being able to speak the language. You must have much more of a photographic memory than I do. When I started to study Chinese I was going to learn the 800 most commonly used characters before I began to learn to speak (I wanted to be able to write anything I could speak). However, I hit a wall at about 300 characters — it seemed I was forgetting characters as fast as I was learning new ones. Then I learned about Anki, and the need to incorporate new characters into simple sentences that I can say to myself in real life (when not studying). That blew me past my limited memorization abilities and I’m now at 800 characters memorized and I’m learning 2 to 3 new characters a day with ease (and forgetting only 6-7% of ones I’ve already learned, and I’m able to quickly re-learn them). I am totally addicted to Anki — it’s way more fun than video games for me.

    • @glossy: You should be commended for your studiousness! Re. Jane Austen’s novel in Chinese, just out of curiosity, how is Mr. Darcy’s name written in Chinese characters? Also, the main concepts of “Pride” and “Prejudice”, I imagine they translate directly to Chinese words, since they are such universal concepts?

      • Darcy is 達西 (da-xi, with the x pronounced as sh). The first character means “reach, attain”, the second one means “west”.

        Pride and Prejudice is 傲慢與偏見. Really, really literally I’m reading that as “arrogant slow and slanted view”, with the amusing little detail that the character for “slow” is composed of two elements that mean “stretch” and “heart”. Whenever I see that character, I’m picturing the hours passing by so slowly that an observer’s figurative heart (his spirit or soul or whatever) appears to him to be distorted, stretched. And the character for “slanted, tilted” is composed of two elements that mean “tablet” and “man”. So of course when I see it I always picture a man who’s as thin as a thin wooden tablet, leaning against a wall. I should say that 傲慢 means “arrogant” as a compound. 慢 only means “slow” when it’s by itself. But figuring out if a character is stand-alone or a part of a compound word is sometimes difficult, since there are no spaces between words.

        • It just occurred to me that “arrogant slow and slanted view” underestimates how different Chinese is from inflectional languages. “Arrogance slow and slant see” is a little closer to what a foreign learner first sees. Then he starts thinking “oh, but isn’t 傲慢 a compound? Then there’s no “slow” here, it’s just “arrogance”. And “slant see”, could that be meant figuratively, as in a distorted view, a distorted, biased opinion?

          The one-sentence executive summary on the Chinese writing system is “It’s just as complicated as it looks”.

          • Wow, thanks, @glossy, this is fascinating. Hopefully the Chinese readers “get” the fact that Mr. Darcy is the person with the “slow arrogance” and that Elizabeth Bennet is the one who has the “slanted view”.

  5. I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    As a native English speaker, my vote is for Esperanto :)

    Your readers may be interested in seeing http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    • @brian. I agree! I was wondering when someone would bring up Esperanto. I don’t know more than a couple of words in Esperanto, but I promise to sit down and learn it if everybody else in the world does. Then we can all speak to each other in Esperanto. It is the only fair and practical solution to the “Babel” problem. My understanding is that Esperanto was specifically designed to be simple (as simple to learn as a pidgin while being an actual fully-functional language), logical, and, most importantly, have a PHONEMIC ALPHABET that can be learned in under an hour, even for people whose native language is not written in Latin letters!

      • Thanks for your kind reply :)

        BTW China Television now also broadcasts in Esperanto see here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87YdQb7_OYk

        Hope the link works !

        • @brian: Yes, the link works, thank you for that! Is interesting to hear people actually speaking Esperanto fluently. To my ear it sounds a lot like Spanish, and I even recognized several words, based on knowing a little Spanish. Some people may consider it unfair to create a universal language based on an Indo-European, specifically Latin, model, but, hey, you have to start with what you know. Also, the creators of Esperanto were motivated not by linguistic imperialism, but by a desire to benefit the human race. Hence, they took the time to make up a lingua that could be a second language for everyone in the world. Besides, people (even adults) are capable of learning a foreign language with a completely different structure, especially if the grammar is completely regular, as is the case in Esperanto. No unpleasant phonological surprises, like you have to learn to pronounce three clicks and five tones while rolling your tongue against your glottis; and no unpleasant morphological surprises like some weird suffix that is only used when speaking about one’s mother-in-law’s purported actions in the distant past…

  6. I love anything related to language learning, so I really enjoyed reading this post. I didn’t realize you took a Chinese class. Either you must not have said, or I missed that somehow. :)

    I can definitely relate to the first point you made. Back before I started Russian, I used to think French was hard and I even agonized over Spanish sometimes. Now I think that all Romance languages are quite easy.

    @Glossy: I definitely agree with you about Anki. I use it for my various languages and it’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m bored, I’ll download decks for random languages I’ve been meaning to learn and start going through them. Yep, I’m such a language geek…

  7. @Gloosy Yes,“傲慢” means “arrogance” as a compound.I don’t understand why use “慢”(“slow”)here,either. I check it here http://baike.baidu.com/view/398158.htm,it says, “慢” here is not what we often see as “slow”,it’s a word from Buddhism( probably a transcription when Buddhism was spread to China),which means “haughty”. In modern Chinese,a word is usually in two-character form.( a 成语 usually has four characters,’cause a 成语 is usually a phrase or even a short sentence.),the two characters often share the same or similar meaning (in order to make it more flowing in speech and more emphatic in meaning.) In many circumtances,maybe you don’t know one character of the two,but don’t worry ,you will mostly understand it immediately according to the one you know.In classic Chinese (which has been the official written language in China for thounds of years before it was replaced by modern Chinese [it’s an oral-oriented language before] in the new cultural movement in the 1919.),most words are just one-character,it’s very very concise,if a 100-page novel written in classic Chinese is translated into English,1000 pages or even more will be taken to load.Claasic Chinese is very difficult but also very flexible, if you can master it well (nobody can master it 100%),then you have nearly mastered the spirit of the Chinese language,and modern Chinese (actually any language on earth) will become so pale in front of you .

    • Bob Violence says:

      The 慢 in 傲慢 should really be 嫚. In older texts 慢 had the secondary meaning “to slight, to be insolent,” a result of semantic drift from the original meaning “slow” (“slow” -> “indulgent” -> “to slight, to be insolent”); one can find numerous examples of this in the Classic of Rites, along with the Buddhist texts cited in the Baike article. The word eventually split into the two characters 慢 (“slow”) and 嫚 (“to slight, to be insolent”), but the 慢 in 傲慢 didn’t change accordingly and thus reflects an otherwise obsolete meaning of the character. If you pretend the 慢 in 傲慢 is actually 嫚, then it suddenly makes perfect sense (“proud” + “insolent” = “arrogant”).

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    Internet Search: China was the “Sick Man of Asia” with a “Century of Humiliation/shame…

    NO civilized nation uses such old, ancient, archais sytem of writing..

    ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ..

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    All you need is basic ABC/123/1010101010

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