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And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

These past weeks have been tough.

Over the summer I did very little – I led a very sedentary lifestyle. Over the summer I would sleep in for hours and not even care. I would cook food slowly, taking long breaks throughout. Time had no value because time had no limit. If I spent too long at my computer and because of it didn’t go to the store, it was no problem – there was plenty of time left.

Now time is a precious commodity. Studying Chinese has taken most of my free time and turned it into study time. It’s been difficult finding time to update this thing.

Chinese is the undisputed king of difficult languages.  Let’s break it down and see why:

Pronunciation: Tricky but manageable. What’s difficult is making the delivery sound natural and not ridiculous. Chinese is a tonal language, meaning the words change based on the tone at which they are spoken. There are four tones, and each is represented by a line above the vowel which represents how the tone of your voice should be. So if you want to introduce your mom you would say 这是我的吗,zhè shì wǒ mā, this is my mom . But watch out, because if instead of mā you say mǎ, you just said ‘this is my horse’ – that’s embarrassing. What gets hard is when you know it’s mā, but you want to say it without it sounding like ‘this!-IS-myyyyy-MOM?’.

Grammar: Honestly the basic grammar is very easy. No masculine/feminine, no verb conjugation, no plural – pretty basic. But check it out – you know how in English we don’t use tones per se, but a lot is conveyed by putting emphasis on certain words (this IS my mom, this is MY mom, THIS is my mom?!), well you can’t do that in Chinese without messing up the tones. So that means the structure of your sentence will change wildly depending on what is being emphasized. ‘where is the restaurant we ate at last night?’ can become ‘last night we ate’s the restaurant where?’, or ‘the restaurant we last night ate’s where?’  or a few others depending on which part of the sentence is the most important. Try thinking that over when you’re trying to talk to a taxi driver who’s holding up an entire lane of traffic to pick you up.

Writing: Yeah – the issues raised above are nothing compared to this. Above you saw the writing with the little squiggles above the vowels, that’s pinyin. That’s the alphabet you have to learn just so you can start learning characters. I always looked at Chinese characters with such intrigue, wondering what their secrets were. Well here it is: rote memorization. It’s like learning a new alphabet every day. Of course some people will say, ‘Sounds like SOMEONE’s never heard of radicals’ – as if they were panacea. Radicals help only slightly. Radicals are the most basic parts of characters, and are also characters themselves. So one radical is 人, which means man, and when it appears in a character it looks like this 你, the little slanted T on the left. So like forest is 林, with 木 meaning wood (Get it? It looks like a tree!).  But it doesn’t always work that easily. Let’s say you see this word 飞机, here are some hints – the first character means fly, and the second radical in the second character means several. So you got ‘flying severaltrees’. What the hell is that? ‘severaltrees’ can’t mean forest ’cause you already know the character for that. Hmmm. Here’s the last clue: 木 and 几 together mean ‘machine’. Flying machine, pretty obvious: it’s an airplane. But it isn’t always that easy. Let’s say you know the characters for this word: 电脑. ‘Electricbrain’, but what does it mean if they’re together? Are there robots in China? Some of you might’ve gotten it, it means ‘computer’. Here’s another one: 红绿灯, ‘redroadlight’. It’s pretty straightforward, right? Easy – ‘traffic light’. Last one, this one’s tricky, but I think it’s more indicative of how these actually are: 东西, ‘Eastwest’ . Hmmm, ‘eastwest’ maybe it means longitude? Nope, it means ‘things’, or ‘stuff’. Did I say that was tricky? I meant impossible. But let’s say you happen to just know, because you memorized it. You know the word! Now say it to someone……..that’s the next problem. The pronunciation of 东西 is Dōngxi. You must also memorize that. Ultimately, the ‘tools’ used to help learn Chinese do little to hide that fact that the most important thing is your ability to memorize symbols that have very little to do with what they actually mean and then associate a sound with them. Chinese is tough.

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