Help! My mind is stuck on Chinese characters.
Not those kinds of characters. This kind:
Visiting China without understanding Chinese is like walking around with a box on your head. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVED our visit there, and am wowed by the country, the small bit we saw of it, but know I missed a lot of what was going on.
Naturally, this inspired a naive and optimistic impulse to study the language. How long, my husband asked, would it take us to learn Mandarin? Kind of a non-starter for someone like me who has trouble setting up an iphone, but let’s just say, what would it take?
Consider: Chinese characters can be written from left to right, right to left, up to down, or down to up. There are about 13,000 characters, each an individual word. Dozens of languages in China use the same characters for the same words, and pronounce them differently. Compare the English alphabet, which breaks words down into letters and syllables to sound out and decode. We can tease out approximately how to say a word in another language by sounding out the letters, but unless it is similar to an English word, we can’t understand what it means.
The opposite is true in China. The characters — the words — are shared across dozens of dialects, but pronounced differently in each. So, while people in Shanghai and Changsha can’t understand each other in conversation, they can (if literate) read each other’s writings.
In the 1600’s the Jesuits brought the concept of spelling to China, and over the generations scholars used it develop and refine Pinyin, a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet. To a Chinese person it is weird to be asked something like ‘can you spell Julia for me?’ because traditionally, Chinese don’t think phonetically. Pinyin, however, makes it possible to create Chinese versions of English names. Here’s Hillary Clinton:
xī lā lǐ kè lín dùn
希 拉 里 克 林 顿
According to Google Translate, these characters mean “hope pull in” “gram forest Dayton,” but because they sound sort of like how we pronounce ‘Hillary Clinton’, that combination of letters is now defined as her name. (Intriguing translation though.)
The more I looked into Chinese, the more complex it revealed itself to be. The tenses work differently, and memorizing radicals (lines added to characters to enhance meaning — there are 1,000 of them) is a project in and of itself; there is the trick of training one’s ears and tongue to hear and repeat tones; and the decision about which Chinese language to study (the national language is Mandarin, but there are millions of Wu, Yue, Min, Xiang, Hakka and Gan speakers). Suffice it to say, I don’t think Chinese language studies are in my future.
It’s tempting to move beyond the question of studying the language to ponder how knowing English vs. Chinese might create differences in how we think, but that opens another minefield — debates and reams of conflicting information about whether English is more left-brained than Chinese, or whether Chinese is more whole-brained than English, or about how language shapes/limits/warps/improves thinking. I’ll leave that to the linguists and neuroscientists.
Make no mistake though, while English speakers like me throw up our hands at learning Chinese, the Chinese are busy learning English. Everywhere you go, billboards advertise English lessons, and there are a reported 300 million English language students in China. Granted, the hurdles for Chinese learning English are as high as they are for us, and many Chinese will never be fluent, but at least they are trying. Only about 70,000 American students are studying Chinese. At this rate, the English-speaking Chinese could hypothetically outnumber Americans speaking English.
How strange. How wonderful.
朱莉娅 (Julia, aka cinnabar li ya)
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