[citation needed]

By coincidence, one of the books I'm currently reading, China: its History and Culture, had a section on the origins of the Chinese language that I thought would compliment the perspective I offered as a student in the previous post. Here are the relevant pages, from left to right:

China: its History and Culture  Fourth Edition    W. Scott Morton  Charlton M. Lewis        China: its History and Culture  Fourth Edition    W. Scott Morton  Charlton M. Lewis       China: its History and Culture  Fourth Edition    W. Scott Morton  Charlton M. Lewis       China: its History and Culture  Fourth Edition    W. Scott Morton  Charlton M. Lewis

"When in China, do as the Chinese do."

If I'm to live in China and teach English, it seems only fair to try learning Chinese as well. At the very least, it will let me empathize better with my students... being able to purchase food and amenities is always helpful, too. A good metric is "time-to-menu" - when you are capable of recognizing what most food items are on a restaurant menu and ordering them aloud from your server - which I hope to achieve before arriving in China. As far as character recognition goes, I think I have an edge from studying Japanese, but speaking seems an order of magnitude more difficult.

I began studying Chinese only this week, and I can see why people are fearful of the endeavor. First, let me inform you that I don't feel particularly skilled at acquiring languages, but - in spite of being American - have been exposed to a decent variety from my time in Los Angeles and also from having worked with an international crowd. I'm still envious of Europeans for their close proximity to such a variety of language and culture, and one day I'll get my chance at living there as well. I'm not sure they would have too much of an advantage at picking up Chinese, however.
Integrated Chinese (Simplified) 2nd Edition - Level 1, Part 1
The book I'm using, Integrated Chinese, is pictured at right. It seems to be in favor with many university-level introductory courses, so it's not only reassuring, but relatively easy to find online. If you are interested in studying the textbook as well (or are just an exceptionally thirsty reader), you can do so by clicking the thumbnail, saving the large image, and opening it with an archival program like WinZip. The accompanying audio CDs are far too large to stash in an image, but they can be found here: https://www.ats.amherst.edu/media/asian/ic_2nded/L1P1/pages/level1part1.html.

I will be summarizing the Introduction, which details the Chinese speaking system.
I've never studied linguistics (though I'd like to!), so forgive any over-simplifications or outright innacuracies.

Words in Chinese are built from syllables. These syllables are made by combining initials and finals - atomic sounds. So, the initial "h" and final "ong" combine to form the syllable "hong," and the initial "m" and final "u" combine to form "mu." Pretty simple, right? Initials and finals are mixed-and-matched to create all of the syllables in the language. The clever reader might have already considered combining "h" and "u" to make "hu," which is great! However, combining "m" and "ong" is not, because that syllable unfortunately does not exist. Damn. Now the inevitable irregularity of language rears its ugly head: some combinations are legal and others aren't.

Ok, so what is legal? See here: http://www.learnhanzi.com/pronunciation/pinyinchart.htm. Damn!

While the chart may be intimidating to stare at, I'm going to be optimistic about the pinyin (representing spoken syllables with the Latin alphabet). The syllables are at least at a fundamentally low level in the language (as opposed to something more "high-level" like the irregular verb conjugation in French), so by using them over and over again to build words, they should operate subconsciously in no time. I'm so happy that there is an accompanying audio CD to assist me in mimicing the pronunciations, because the book's descriptions are essentially Greek to me (the non-linguist):

"zh is an unaspirated voiceless blade-palatal affricate. To produce it, first turn
up the tip of the tongue against the hard palate, then loosen it and let the
air squeeze out the channel thus made. It is unaspirated and the vocal cords
do not vibrate. Note that zh is similar to English j but unvoiced and with the
tip of the tongue raised against the back of the gum ridge or front part of the
hard palate."


Having reassured myself, one other thing to report is the concept of tones. Four-hundred or so syllables not being enough, the Chinese can also vocalize each with one of four specific tones (five, if you include the "neutral tone"). A quick parallel to English would be the rising intonation one makes when asking a question. From the book: "Tones are very important in Chinese. The same syllable with different tones can have different meanings. For instance, mā 媽 is mother, má 麻 is hemp, mǎ 馬 is horse, mà 罵 is to scold, and ma 嗎 is an interrogative particle." (An audiovisual example of this on Wikipedia.) The isolated examples I've dealt with so far are easy to follow and reproduce, but I imagine that interpreting full sentences packed with them is an entirely different beast.

At first glance, Chinese does live up to its image as difficult, but it's certainly not impossible. Japanese, with its smaller (although more consistent) set of syllables, seems likely to have more spoken ambiguity. If you look at the most frequently used words in any language, you're likely to have a healthy supply of heteronyms, homonyms, homographs, etc. - all things that look or sound alike but have different meanings, all things that trip up students. My naive assumption is that if you're using a larger set of syllables to create words and associate with written characters, there may be a higher mental cost up-front, but it results in less confusion later.

The written characters ("hanzi" in Chinese, "kanji" in Japanese) are already an example of this idea. Literacy in China and Japan means being able to read and write thousands of individual characters. In contrast, English is limited to the 26 characters of the Latin alphabet to create words representing all of the objects and concepts in our world. How many words can you make with one or two characters in English? You could write them all out in less than a minute. Now, how many in Chinese or Japanese? You'd have much of the dictionary accounted for. One would then expect written English words to be composed of many more characters, but if the median English word length is 5 (as it appears from cursory Internet searching... still skeptical, though), then we must be sacrificing clarity for brevity (I'll have to get back on this once I've found better info). Off the top of your head, can you explain to someone why "bass" is pronounced in two different ways - one as an instrument and the other as a fish? What the hell is a home "base," then? Is a "bow" something that you do out of respect, tie your hair with, or fire an arrow from? It appears that instead of dealing with a high cost of extra syllables and characters up front, English instead assumes the reader/listener will use context clues to correctly interpret the message. I look forward to many enlightening discussions with teary-eyed students about topics such as these.

In the meantime, I'll forge ahead - one spoken syllable, one written character at a time...

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