Chinese Characters, meet Hillary Clinton

Help! My mind is stuck on Chinese characters.

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Waiting to visit Tiananmen Square on May Day. What were we thinking?

Not those kinds of characters.  This kind:

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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.

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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.

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Hong Kong skyline, hotel room reflection

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)

Jump in! Correct my misinformation and share your experiences with travel and learning other languages.

5 comments

  • For improving my language fluency, I do have a need to know what the word looks like visually. So reading Chinese is just as difficult as it is for me, as it is for you. Adult learners for learning Chinese are undertaking a commendable task/objective.

    Whatever little Chinese I have left, it just pops out of my mouth and it’s very basic stuff. Whenever I visit my parents, I stumble over some of basic words.

    I only speak it with close family and parents’ friends because it’s so horrible. But still, am grateful I do know something.

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    • That’s as daunting as anything — someone with native speakers in the family (perhaps a native speaker yourself?) struggling to communicate. I envy you a little. Visiting China made me realize I was carrying around a load of prejudices that warped how I thought about the country. China is doing just what America is doing: facing a world of change and challenge, and trying various approaches with varying amounts of success. I want to know more.

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  • Julia – You must have had a marvelous trip. I don’t envy you the task of attempting to learn the Chinese language. The numbers of Chinese learning American is staggering. Sounds a bit like we might need to offer Chinese in our schools a bit more. Each time I was moved into a foreign country for assignment I attempted to pick up as much of the language as possible, but always found it one of the tougher task. Foreign language doesn’t come natural to me. Now that I’m retired, I give it more effort if we know we’re traveling abroad, but still get a bit sloppy at times. Are we going to see more pictures?

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    • I probably won’t try to learn Chinese. I might work on Spanish though. That is at least imaginable. What languages have you worked on? What a wonderful life, to have seen so much of the work in so intimate a way.

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