Saturday, February 6, 2016

It's All Chinese to Me

 Something I hear from a lot of people when I say that I’m studying Chinese is “Chinese and English are the two hardest languages in the world.”  I’ve actually heard this ever since I was a kid.  Even my grandma says "it's all Chinese to me" if she doesn't understand something.

            I don’t really agree with the “Chinese is hard” perception, for a few reasons.  First, there’s no such thing as an objectively difficult language.  Whether I find a language hard or not depends entirely where I’m coming from as a speaker.  If I’m a native speaker of English, it will be easier to learn Spanish than, say, Russian.  If I’m a native speaker of Czech, it will be easier to learn Russian than Spanish.

            Second, Standard Chinese is actually a fairly straightforward language grammatically—in many ways easier than English.  It is a classic example of what’s called an “Isolating Language”.  This means that it doesn’t have nonsense like a case system (English heàhim) or verb conjugation (I live, she lives).  This saves the beginner student a lot of headaches.  Take the following sentence for example:

Ta1 ai4 ta1 fu4mu3
“He loves his parents”

Ta1 fu4mu3 ai4 ta1
“His parents love him”

See how ta1 “he” doesn’t change for subject, object, or possessive forms.  It’s all the same, while in English we have the cumbersomeness of “he, him, his”.  Another level of cumbersomeness that English has is gendered pronouns.  Ta1 could be a boy or girl—the only reason we know ta1 is “he” is because of the way it’s written.  So, to review: this one word ta1 in Chinese is five words in English: he/him/his/she/her.

See also ai4 “love”.  Regardless of who’s doing the loving, the verb doesn’t change.  In English, on the other hand, we have “He loves, they love”, and in Latin, the famous “amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant”.
Even 父母 fu4mu3 “parents” is easier to remember than English, since the word literally translates as “Dadmom”—as if your parents were some sort of two-headed beast.
“But wait, bro!” you say. “What about the tones?”
Chinese is probably the most well-known example of a tonal language.  That means that if I say “xie4”(falling tone--"xie!") it means “to thank”, but if I say “xie2” (rising tone--"xie?") it means “shoe”.  It sounds hard, and it is.  I’ll be the first to admit I have a hard time with the tones.  But at the same time, Standard Chinese is pretty tame as far as tonal languages go.  Take for example Kam, which has (arguably) fifteen tones.  Moreover, the tones that do exist in Standard Chinese are free of things like glottalization, creaky/breathy voice, and whistling, all of which exist in the tonal systems of other languages.

So, is all this to say that Chinese is super easy and you can pick it up in a weekend?  No.  I’ve been taking lessons for six months (while living there) and I’m still only a beginner.  But, if you’ve ever thought about learning Chinese, do it!  It’s a fun language, and not as hard as you might expect.

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