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 ( 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.

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