Tuesday, November 07, 2006

One Year On (Part 2)

The second installment for the year's review will be on another subject which dominates my time here. That is language, both Chinese and English.

Chinese continues to be bewildering, frustrating and, at times, enjoyable with more and more flashes of recognition all the time. As of recently I'm having lessons with two other Westerners which is making the two hours a lot more enjoyable. Previously I had found that after a 10 hour day in the office, the prospect of two hours of Chinese lessons, mimicking tones and constructing sentences from words which are individually meaningless, was not something to be savored. However, with three of us, the pressure is off and I get more time to think about what I'm learning. Unfortunately I just don't have the time to practice in between the lessons in a structured manner, though I do talk to some of my friends in Chinese now (perhaps 10% of what I say is in Chinese when talking with some people). I estimate that I now recognise two hundred or so characters and 500 spoken words. This is not a great deal though it is at least some progress.

I now get together to practice on a Sunday afternoon in a cafe with my two classmates and this extra, relaxed sessions is very helpful. Having two other learners (both of whom are substantially better than I am) to drive me on is a real boon.

I should probably start to add the odd Chinese character here and there to the blog, as most expats seem to do when they're learning the language. It would probably be good practice for me, but as this blog is predominantly for friends and family, few of whom speak Chinese, I shall attempt to alienate as few as possible.

A short, technical aside. Up until now I've been learning the speaking and writing together, learning to write a character when I use it in a dialogue from my book. This approach has missed some basic structure on the written side, which I would advise everybody whose learning Chinese, to study first. On the writing side, before getting onto building your character database, I would really advise getting a book which goes through the hundred or so most common radicals.

The basics of the Chinese written system is an interesting topic even if you don't want to learn the language. Of the 50,000 or so Chinese characters, many of them developed from pictograms. Over the last couple of thousand years they've gone through major changes, generally ending up in a form which looks nothing like the original object. The last change was a move to a simplified written system, which did make the characters easier to write, though often removed any similarity the character still had to the original picture. Modern Chinese characters are often made of two parts. One is called the radical and gives some clue about the rough subject of the character, the other part is often phonetic, giving a clue about how to say the character. This means that even if you've never seen a character before, you can often have a rough idea of the meaning and a guess at how to say it. For example, the following character is the character mama meaning mother: 妈妈. Each ma, 妈, is made of two parts. The part on the left means woman and is found in many characters: 好, hao (a combination of mother and child), meaning good, for instance. The second part of the character in 妈 is the phonetic part, which means horse and is pronounced ma (though with a different tone from the word for mother). The phonetic part itself is found in many words: 吗,ma, indicating a question, for instance (again, a different tone from both mother and horse). Other examples of radicals indicate that a word is related to movement, speaking, hearing, strength, shellfish, people, water, fire, etc. etc. and learning these to start with should make your life a lot easier. This is all really basic stuff to most Chinese learners. What I'm saying here is either for those who are about to start learning Chinese or simply for those who are interested in knowing a little about the structure of the written system.

I've only just started to learn the radicals in a structured manner, rather than just learning them as I come to a word with one in. Having started now, I've almost doubled my comprehension of the characters I see around me in just a couple of weeks. I can't pronounce what I see as my knowledge of the phonetics is not great but understanding and spotting patterns is part of what I do for a living and so is the most natural way for me to learn this bizarre language.

Often when I talk with a Chinese person about learning the language they ask me what I am learning it for. This doesn't mean that they don't think I should be but, sensibly, that one should have a goal for such a task. If I want fluency then I'm clearly not going about it the right way and, without a doubt, my research would suffer if I did aim for that. It's sad to say but I can't see myself continuing to study Chinese in any great capacity when I leave the country. The likelihood of me ending up in a non-English speaking country next is pretty high and so another language will probably take over as top priority. It would be a real joy if my Chinese was good enough to have a conversation with a stranger about topics other than where I'm from, what I do, the price of oranges and the weather. I have a year to go and by the end I hope to reach this point, especially with the added impetus from my new classmates.

I can't pretend not to think that the character system is simply inefficient though I have learned to understand the power of a large degeneracy in character meaning. Though I haven't read any Chinese poetry I have now heard some (most Chinese students it seems put in a great deal of effort to learn the classic poems and everyone seems to have not only read the classic texts but enjoyed them and continues to return to them). I've got glimpses of the power of the language from this as a short line with perhaps four or five characters can express a vast wealth of feelings and imagery that English doesn't seem to be able to do so simply. A deep knowledge of the characters would clearly make Chinese poetry a fascinating area and it is with regret that life just doesn't seem free enough to take on that challenge right now.


I continue to teach English to a private student once a week and in addition to substantial payment, I get taken to restaurants which I would never be able to afford on the Chinese salary I earn. In fact this student is already pretty good though, as is often the case, confidence is the main area which is lacking. I hope that fluent conversation in a relaxed atmosphere will be enough to make a difference.

English corner continues and is an extremely enjoyable activity for two hours on a Monday evening. Last week we had a dozen students turn up and spent the session reading through, acting and analysing Ibsen's 'The Doll's house'. Though reading is still one of my passions and I enjoy writing short criticisms of the books I read out here, I haven't sat down and really analysed a play, or short story since I was about 14, and I remember it being a real bore then. However two hours talking through the final scene from Ibsen's play was an enlightening experience and every insightful comment provided by the student added another facet to the story. It was agreed at the end of the session that we should do something similar again which I very much look forward to. Up until now we've played a lot of word games in the class and that has proved an interesting exercise for me to see what aspects of language are easy and hard for people who've grown up learning a character system.

As I mentioned previously, one of the most enjoyable days was a short trip with the English Corner group to Tsinghua University where we sat by one of the beautiful lakes, eating a picnic and chatting.


One of the biggest problems with the language is still the fact that I don't get to follow very many seminars here in the department, so it is easy to get out of the flow of any research which isn't directly related to my work. I've given up sitting through lectures for the most part as I could spend my time far more constructively reading a book on the subject rather than struggling to pick out the odd word which may mean something to me. As the first Westerner in the department of course I can't expect them to change the way they do things just for me, so I must simply try and make up for the lack of direct input via other sources.

OK, enough, more tomorrow if I have time.

1 comment:

Vanessa said...

I find your blog very interesting. I’ve just started a blog about life in China and looking for other people with related topics. Hopefully may even make new friends. Anyways, a link would be appreciated. Gets lonely reading your own blog, haha…