Sunday, April 08, 2007

Learning Chinese Doesn't Make You Crazy

As time goes on, I feel that learning Chinese really isn't as difficult as people make it out to be. In the beginning things like pronunciation, tones, characters, and measure words are all big problems, but at the intermediate level I think it's probably a lot more difficult for a Chinese person learning English. Remembering two or three thousand individual characters to read a newspaper (and I'm definitely not there yet) may sound like an impossible task, but there's a logic to it all I think is really interesting. For example, a student recently sent me a text message in Chinese, and there was a character I didn't know, which looked like this: 疯. That might look complex, but when broken down is actually pretty simple and easy to remember. The outer part of the character is a shape that represents sickness and is seen in characters like 病 (sick), 瘦 (thin), and 疼 (ache). The inner part is the character 风, pronounced as "feng," which means "wind." When I looked it up it turned out to mean "insane," and is pronounced "feng," exactly the same sound and tone as in "wind." So, part of the character suggests the meaning (having to do with "sickness") and part of it suggests the pronunciation. Instantly remembered, whereas a Chinese student learning the English word "insane" needs to remember what probably seems like an arbitrary sound to them. Incidentally, now I know how to say "lunatic" (疯子) and "mad cow disease" in Chinese (疯牛病).

Full words are usually made up of two characters, and already knowing the meaning of two characters can make them extremely easy to remember. A student of English must memorize "confident" arbitrarily and know how it's different from "confidence" and "confidently," but in Chinese they all translate as one word, 信心 xìnxīn, to "believe" in your "heart." "Be careful" is 小心 ("small heart"), "everybody" is 大家 ("big family"), "archeology" is 考古 ("examine" and "ancient"), "computer" is 电脑 ("electric brain") and "safety" is 安全 ("peace" and "entire" or "all"). Names of machines and fields of study are generally very logical and simple in Chinese, such as "refrigerator" (冰箱, "ice box") or "physics" (物理学, literally "things-logic-study"). Verbs never conjugate in Chinese ("is," "was," "were," "are," and "am" are all the same word), nouns have no plural form, and I don't know the statistics but I'm sure Chinese uses a much smaller vocabulary than English. Also, Chinese grammar is far and away simpler than English grammar.

The sentence the student sent to me was roughly "Dong Yang [my Chinese name, 冬阳], I'm having a hard time, I don't know what to do about the TEM4 exam, I don't think I can do it, I'll soon go insane." The Chinese education system is very exam-intensive, and stress-inducing. My students are so worried about this upcoming national exam that when I asked them to make statements using "I hope..." back in December several classes said "I hope I pass the TEM4!" Learning English can be quite a burden for them, and I hope we as foreign teachers and representatives of the English-speaking world can provide some small amount of motivation and encouragement for them.


lily said...

my name is lily``
welcome to my blog
thank you`````!

Marie said...

Interesting! know what foreigners think about Chinese.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not Chinese but I've had to study Chinese, well not exactly itself rather than its characters only, as it once used to be first language and still take important part of my mother tongue here. Sadly, learning Chinses did make me crazy enough at that time. :)

Anonymous said...

It was interesting.

Dan said...

Many foreigners do have quite a difficult time of it, though others make progress at an amazing speed. After the initial hurdles it gets much easier in my opinion.

Matthew said...

Thanks, you taught me a few more words here.
Lately I've been doing the 3 hrs of Chinesepod in the morning to improve my skills. My friend bought a book that I should find about Chinese radicals--it sounds like it makes more sense than my old way of simply memorizing characters.
Maybe I'll enroll at the university next year to improve.

Dan said...

Intensive Spoken Chinese (口语速成), The Most Common Chinese Radicals (常用汉字部首), Rapid Literacy in Chinese (集中识字), by Zhang Pengpeng (张朋朋) - this is the 3-book series I started with, which is pretty good, and one of them is a good book on radicals that would be useful even if you don't need the other two (they are sold separately). It definitely helps to learn radicals and the parts of characters when trying to memorize them.