Chinese the most Difficult… (and 3)Written by Julen Madariaga on November 24th, 2009
In the first two posts of this series, we saw that Chinese is the last language in the World to maintain a complete set of independent vocabulary roots and a non-phonetic script to represent them, what we might call a separate Word System. For this reason I argued that Chinese may be the most difficult language to obtain full fluency, regardless of the linguistic background of the student.
But there are more interesting implications than the mere difficulty of the language, in particular cultural and political ones. Because the refusal to use loans and phonetic script is the result of conscious decisions. There is nothing in the language itself that forbids import of foreign words or use of an alphabet, indeed, there are already some exceptions of direct loans in current use that are written in latin letters, such as DVD or KTV.
Chinese has a parallel Word System diverging from the rest of the World, and the government has an active role in the maintenance of this system. However, this policy is not unilaterally imposed from above. It is certainly encouraged by the education system, but Chinese speakers seem to follow it naturally and often prefer Chinese roots even when not supervised. This is in contrast with the situation in many countries where the system tries to protect local terms, only to find that people still prefer “email” to “courier electronique”.
Anyone living in China long enough realizes how aware Chinese are of their long history and their status as a different civilization. This discourse is irritating for Westerners, because it reminds too much of ultra-nationalistic creeds back home. But it has one essential difference with those creeds: in the case of China, it is true. As we said before, China is justified to see itself as a cradle of civilization, and it is the only such culture that has survived practically independent from World mainstream till modern times. This cultural awareness is the main reason for the preservation of the language as we know it, surviving different regimes and even periods of chaos.
When we study Chinese we are not merely learning another language, we are learning the words of a parallel World, the last independent system of vocabulary and writing that humanity still has. It is the most similar experience available on Earth to learning the language of another planet. If Chinese is really so hard to learn, this should provide enough motivation for anyone to try it.
Mandarin is not in itself a very difficult language, what makes it hard is its complex Word System, which is for the most part not essential (that is, the language could still exist with loans and an alphabet). This System makes it hard for foreigners and Chinese to communicate, and it is a serious obstacle in the education of the Chinese. In the last century, development has been the main priority of China in order to recover her past glory, and inefficient relics have been torn down without blinking, just like the Walls of Beijing. Chinese words and characters are the last of those obstructive monuments to remain, and by far the oldest of all. It is a miracle that they have survived till today.
The invention of convenient methods to input characters on a keyboard has made the future of the characters seem more secure, but their permanence is by no means ensured. Many famous linguists have argued for the use of pinyin as main written language and elimination of the characters from daily life, not least of them Lu Xun, or the late John de Francis. Much as I admire these men and their work, I am completely opposed to their position as a matter of principles. I don’t suppose anyone will believe me in this age of economists, even less in the China of the new philosophies, but I have this to say: Efficiency is not a supreme value. In fact, it is not even a value in itself, but just a means. And a sad means it would be to recover the greatness of China, if there were nothing left to recover.
I think it is clear to most Chinese today that their Word System is too precious to abandon it for the sake of efficiency. However, some reasonable concessions can be made which might ensure the very survival of the System in the long term. In particular, the acceptance of foreign loans for new technical words might facilitate the access of Chinese to foreign research and the incorporation of foreign talents when the real Chinese brain-drain starts in earnest. The complete acceptance of latin script to represent phonetically foreign Proper Nouns (which is already used informally) would also be a step towards efficiency without sacrificing the heart of the system, and would be of great help for all the Chinese trying to learn English.
Apart from the practical issues considered, no less important is the mentality underlying the Chinese Word System. The growing common vocabulary in all the languages in the World represents the recognition by most cultures that there is a large part of common human culture, and that, since this part is only going to become larger with the progress of technology, the sensible solution is to adopt a common language to communicate it. By deciding to stay apart from this system, the linguistic choice of China represents a stance opposed to the rest of the World, and in a certain way it perpetuates the traditional isolation of the Middle Kingdom even in the age of Global interconnection. The insularity of the Chinese internet community and the misunderstandings between cultures that have arisen from it are, to some extent, a consequence of this choice.
The part played by the language in China’s relations with the World is probably not of the first importance. But even today this part is not negligible, and with the advances in communications, nobody knows how vital it will become in the future. Ultimately, it is only up to the Chinese to decide what language they want for themselves. We can only wait and see, and hope that they find a way to stay connected with us, while preserving their unique heritage of Words.