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Language Thursdays: Parsing Chinese 1.0

Friday, May 7th, 2010

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I was flying back from Chongqing recently when I was reminded of the very frustrating problem of reading Chinese. There was a movie on the cabin TV and it had a particularity: it carried subtitles in Chinese and English in parallel, in two lines of comparable font at the bottom of the screen.

As I watched I kept forcing my eyes to stick to the Chinese subtitles in order to exercise my reading (the sound was off) but it was pointless. Every single time, before I had finished reading the Chinese I already knew the meaning of the line anyway. The words in English just seemed to transmit their meaning even if I was not looking at them.

Reading Chinese

We already spoke last year about the problem of Reading Chinese functionally. It is very important for advanced students of Chinese, because progress beyond a certain level depends largely on this ability. Many foreigners are able to read slowly and even do good translations of Chinese texts with the help of a cursor dictionary. But to read functionally, in my definition, is a completely different thing. It means to be able to read all sorts of general texts as quickly and reliably as an average native. Click to continue »

Language Thursdays: Shanghainese Writing

Friday, April 30th, 2010

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This week I have little time to do the Language post, partly because I have been busy writing a short story, partly because I have already discussed a good deal about language in other blogs. I take advantage of this to do the post with my final views on Shanghainese after the long discussion we had on the Wu blog.

The discussion started with an unrelated comment on a language learning site. But what really got me heated up is the painful realization that many Shanghainese speakers – or more precisely Wu speakers – not only don’t protect their beautiful language, but they are in fact actively destroying their rich cultural heritage out of pure ignorance.

If you have been reading me for a while, you probably know that I feel very strongly about languages, and particularly about disappearing ones. Perhaps part of the reason is that I come from a culture where we spend a significant amount of our resources to promote a minority language, so small and useless that it has about 1% of the speakers of Shanghainese. Stupid perhaps, but it is our language. Click to continue »

Languages Thursdays: Punctuation Hell

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

canadagoose_300_tcm9139738_thumb344Today I just wanted to comment on the mysterious world of Chinese punctuation. It is a fascinating field in these times when everyone accuses Chinese of discriminating against our foreign symbols. In fact, there is a kind of foreign symbols that are used in practically every sentence of modern Chinese: the points, the commas, and all the rest of punctuation signs.

As is natural in any language, when the Chinese decided to adopt these signs to clarify their script, they set their own rules for using them. There are many examples of punctuation marks that are apparently identical in Chinese and in Western languages but in fact have different meanings and uses. This is not the main point of the post, but I will stop slightly on one of the example that I think is fun.

The sighing mark

For some reason the (!) that is known in the West as exclamation mark got translated in to Chinese as 叹号, that is, the 叹 mark. This 叹 character is most commonly used today in expressions like 叹气, and its meaning is closer to sigh or acclaim than to exclaim. My theory is this is the reason behind that quirk of the Chinese netizens who write “!” marks on every second sentence. Click to continue »

Google Buzz blocked in China!

Friday, February 12th, 2010

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NOTE: For those readers who’ve been offline for the past 3 days, this is a post about Google Buzz, the new Google service that has invaded the World’s mailboxes this week.

But take it easy, hold on a sec, don’t rush to your GFW test tools, this has not happened yet. I just want to be the first to announce it and get all the credit, since I am 90% certain that Google Buzz will be blocked within a week. The remaining 10% I am hedging in case the GFW censors get too high on Baiju over the New Years and their reactions are a bit slower than expected.

Look, I hate playing blogger of doom, but this is just how China works today. I’ve heard a few opposed opinions from bloggers I respect, and I am ascribing that to wishful thinking. There is no way Google Buzz is going to continue open, here is why:

  • Gbuzz is attracting very fast a larger number of users than Twitter or Facebook in China, due to its use of Gmail, a relatively popular email service here.
  • The viral transmission potential of Google Buzz is extraordinary, and very appealing for the Chinese way of using the internet. In the first 24 hours of GBuzz in China the popular Chinese bloggers where getting far more comments than pioneers like Robert Scoble.
  • After their recent controversy with the Chinese authorities, Google put Gmail (and now GBuzz) on HTTPS, which means that the GFW cannot  see the content flowing inside China. They cannot block particular users or keywords, and neither can they force a self-censorship of Google as they did with the Google.cn, for reasons both technical and political for the Google company.

So what we have here is a means of massive viral communication, completely out of control and with a potential to piss off the Chinese authorities that may be second only to the Epoch Times.

A Real-time Simulation

For those who still don’t agree with me, I have used my old engineering supercomputer to do a real-time simulation of the upcoming events, starting from yesterday, when most Chinese Gmail users got access to GBuzz. The first 4 steps have already happened as of February 12:

Step1: GBuzz is rolled out in China and within hours the popular bloggers are getting streams of comments in the few hundreds. One of the first subjects of discussion is whether the Buzz will be blocked or not.

Step2: Some Chinese users start timidly testing the system with unmodified swearwords and taboos, such as Caonima and Malagebi. Euphoria: no comments are deleted or blocked!

Step3: - After 12h some Chinese users are already sending pictures of beautiful ladies with a peculiar tendency to wear less and less clothes even as the winter is hitting back hard on the mainland.

Step 4: Bloggers like Han Han or AiWeiwei discover GBuzz and start broadcasting there. Not only their posts, but worst still, the flow of comments is out of reach of the Chinese authorities. Comment threads are by now in the tens of thousands.

Step 5: The next big viral event hits the Chinese internet, and seeing that all comments get erased on the other blogs and microblogs, even more people starts flocking to GBuzz.

Step 6: By now most netizens have understood that GBuzz is their GFW free day out. Uncensored photos of Edison Chen or drunken party cadres recirculate widely, people even write appraisals of the performances. More than 50% of the words on GBuzz worldwide are in mandarin characters, and about 10% of them are some form of 妈/逼 word construction (mother /cunt).

Step 7: The early days of FOS were rather hectic, but the people finally realizes the advantages of communicating freely. The divide between the Chinese internet and the rest of the world is disappearing quickly, and Google Buzz has written a page in World history.

… in the meantime, somewhere in the middle kingdom…

the evil 5Mao teams of netizens sold to the the party have caught up with GBuzz and are calling their bosses in the propaganda department to wake up from their baijiu dreams and show up at the GFW headquarters with red tape and pruning shears…

Conclusion

OK, I think you get the gist by now. And the conclusion is this: there is no way GBuzz is going to remain open in China. The only question remaining to answer is what will happen to the rest of the Google services, in particular Gmail and Google.com (G.cn is already doomed in my books).

I see here 2 possibilities:

1- Google Buzz could technically be blocked without blocking GMail, in spite of their integration. The GFW could achieve this by using intelligent URL blocks on the #buzz string that appears on all the buzz URLs. Easier still, since they are in negotiation with Google, they could ask G to facilitate the blocking of GBuzz in exchange for GMail remaining open.

2- GBuzz might go down and take down with it all the Google services in China once and for all. Especially this can be true if the negotiations between Google and the Chinese government are not as smooth as I supposed lately. This has happened already in Iran, and I am certain most leaders in the CCP wouldn’t even  blink. Or does anyone think they care about the outside opinion on China’s freedom of speech?

So this is only a 2-way dilemma, I don’t see any other solution. The final outcome of the Google vs. China affair is coming very soon, precipitated by the unexpected birth of GBuzz. Neither Google nor the CCP can afford to wait much longer, as the pressure is mounting on both sides. The end is near, fasten your belts and turn on your VPNs.

And Happy New Year of the Tiger

And now I am going to close the computer, leave the office and take a flight to a certain tropical destination in South East Asia where I intend to spend my New Year’s Holidays. When I am back to Shanghai on the 22nd, Google Buzz will be over in China, and I will be just in time to pick up the pieces. I look forward to a whole new series of posts on the year of the Tiger.

Happy New Year to all, 恭喜发财!

Snail House: A Tale of Modern China

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

W020090318258260613327I have been away for a while because all my holiday time has been absorbed by two fascinating stories of Shanghai, one of them a TV serial, the other a novel.

The serial is WoJu, the Snail’s House, stupidly translated to English as Narrow Dwellingness, or whatever. It has been red hot in China since its first broadcast in November. Alice Liu of Danwei and the Youku buzz blog covered it recently.

As those blogs noted, this has been the most explosive success we remember in Chinese TV serials. In less than a month it sparked heated debate on the internet, attracted millions online and off, and with that came the hideous hand of the censors. One reason for its rapid success is the central theme about the problems to buy a house, which just hit the spot among the young Chinese audiences.

But Woju is much more than a tale of real estate and corruption. It is a gripping drama, with rich subplots evolving around a central love triangle, populated with very real characters. A sharp critique of the modern Chinese society, and by far the best product I have ever seen on the mainland TV. Originally it was a novel published  in 2007 by Liuliu, a Chinese writer that we should be watching more closely in the future.

Here are my impressions of the serial now that I have finished the first 15 chapters.  I will focus on the two main points of interest: the informative contents for anyone looking to understand China, and the quality of the product independently of other considerations. In the end are also some funny things I observed related to censorship and others.

Content

This serial is the paradise of the 中国通, the aspiring China experts.  Anyone trying to understand China should watch it. If the characters are not exactly real (no fiction can ever be) their worries, their problems and their motivations are a hi-fi amplified reflection of those moving the young citizens of China today. It is a concentrate of Chinese reality.

All the elements we have been speaking for the last years are there, not a single one is missing: guanxi building, cadres’ 二奶 (lovers), shanghai men bullied by their wifes, working parents who can’t see their babies, illegal high-interest loans, collusion between developers and local officials, the conflict between shanghaiers and outsiders, the overnight rich of Wenzhou, the ethics of the new China, the 拆迁 or "destroy and move", the "nail people" who resist, the shanzhai mobile phones… you name it.

And all is so precise that you can even see how much the characters are earning in their jobs, what interest the loan sharks ask, or how much it costs a party cadre to get his first little 二奶 (lover).

There are surely better books that depict the Chinese society in the past, but the subject is changing so fast they are all outdated. I do not think there is any other work of fiction today that reflects more precisely the Shanghai society circa 2010.

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"Hello, I’m Secretary Song of the Municipal Party Committee  (and I just shagged your girlfriend)"

If you are learning Chinese, the series is a double must for its great idiomatic mandarin. If you are not, then stand by for the DVDs with English subtitles, hoping the pirates get a human translator with his TOEFL levels this time. There is definitely a market for this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they come up with a movie next year, provided the government doesn’t stop it.

Quality

But more important than all the above is the quality of the product. It is good fiction and good entertainment.

The story is driven by an intense love triangle centered on the young Haizao, played by beautiful actress Li Nian. All the elements listed above, including the winners and the losers of the Real Estate craze, gravitate around this love/hate story that puts in contact two different worlds: the laobaixing and the cadres, the two classes of urban China.

But perhaps the best aspect of the serial, a breathe of fresh air on Chinese TV, is its absolute lack of moral lessons for the public. There are no heroes or villains here. The covetous developer, the unbearably vain wife, the fainthearted Shanghai husband, the enigmatic, outrageous Shanghai girl played by Li Nian. Every single one of them is just human, with weaknesses and ambitions like all of us. Every one of them can be up to the best and to the worst.

Even the corrupt official is all too human. A weak man in a midlife crisis with too much power in his hands and a system that doesn’t check his acts. Corruption, like love, happens as a natural course of events, the result of a sick society and not of an evil personal plan. And Jiangzhou, the Chinese Gotham that stands for Shanghai, is the mighty whirlwind of action where all the characters are hopelessly adrift.

Censorship

Not surprisingly, the serial has been censored by the government. However, it has been censored in ways that strike me as prudish, if not plainly idiotic.

Since I am in Europe now, I have been able to watch the serial on YouTube and compare with the censored one available on the Chinese site YouKu.  There was no censorship on the image above, where a Shanghai Party Official brazenly chats with the boyfriend of the girl he has just raped making free use of his political muscle.

Instead, the images below were censored:

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See the original scene, and below the censored version as shown in China.

This is the first proper sex scene of the serial. In the original version you see the moaning face of Haizao in one quarter of the screen, while the other images correspond to the respective wife and boyfriend, who are shown at home worrying for their loved ones, while they are being made cuckolds of Olympic category.

Is the moaning face of Haizao more obscene than the happy Mr. Song shown above? Draw your own consequences. Also interesting is to note that the producers have participated in the censoring process, and the hot scenes are not merely cut out, but edited and substituted by other originals, as in the larger image of the wife above.

Other Details and Questions

I will come back with more details when I am done with the serial, but for the moment I have 2 questions for the public, and especially for the many Chinese I know who have already watched the whole 35 chapters:

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1- Why does the serial show so prominently the "Coogle" shanzhaied phone of Haizao, is it just to make it more realistic or is it a revenge because Google refused to sponsor?

2- There is one part of the plot I just can’t understand: how can Haizao be a virgin when she first sleeps with Song, if she has been living with her boyfriend for years? Is this a gap in the plot or am I missing some serious (and worrying) element of the Chinese culture?

Chinese the most Difficult… (and 3)

Tuesday, 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.

Political considerations

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.

Chinese most Difficult Language in the World (2)

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Last Friday I wrote a very long post where I ended up including too many ideas. The main point got a bit obscured as a result, but it was simply this: that vocabulary plays an essential role in learning a language, and that because of this Chinese is not only extremely difficult at an advanced level, but also growing more difficult with time.

I don’t suppose this is groundbreaking research, but it is interesting because most people are not aware of it, and also for its implications in the limit betwen language and politics, two fields we like to cultivate in this blog. Here is the argument in full with conclusions, for examples and details see the previous post and its comments:

  • To learn a new language the main knowledge required is in three areas: grammar, phonetics and vocabulary. Grammar and phonetics differ essentially from vocabulary in that the first two are rules applicable to infinite cases, whereas the latter is raw data. We can call them the Code and the Data elements of the language. The Code elements are finite and not growing. The Data element is practically infinite and growing, to the point that it is not completely mastered even by native speakers.
  • When studying a language, the Code elements play an essential role in the basic and intermediate levels, but at advanced level the real obstacle for communication—and therefore for progress—is Data.  For example, in German advanced students may sometimes use the wrong declension, and in Spanish they may fail to differentiate “rr/r”sounds. These things tend to not hamper communication because human languages are highly redundant. I would never understand “pero” (but) when a speaker says “perro”(dog). Ultimately,  imperfections in the Code elements amount to the same as having an accent: most of the times they are only relevant as metadata.
  • But while Code above a certain level is highly redundant, Data remains essential at every level. Borrowing from this great article: The phrase “Jacuzzi is found effective in treating Phlebitis”is meaningless when either or both of the nouns are unknown. A single missing word can often obscure the meaning of a whole paragraph or article.
  • The number of words used passively in real life far exceeds the typical standard lists of language levels. This is because semi-specialized words—such as ionic, jacuzzi or matrix—are not included in vocabulary lists as they are considered too rare. Certainly each of these words is rarely used, but there are so many of them that as a whole they are actually very often used. This Data element is so large that it cannot be memorized in a classroom, and the only way to acquire it is through many years of immersion.
  • The reason why most language learners never realize this problem is because they are “cheating”. In most languages in the World, this high level vocabulary is practically identical and it doesn’t need to be learned. There is a certain limit level for each language above which most modern words are international and the Data is no more specific of the language .
  • This limit level of vocabulary convergence is different for every language, but it doesn’t so much depend on the language family or geographical origin, rather it depends on the size and the development of the community of speakers. That is the reason why even non indo-European languages like Basque are extremely easy above the intermediate level: the community is not big enough to support complex terms, and all higher Data is adopted from International words. Most people tend to misunderstand and attach too much importance to the concept of language families, and they come up with absurd lists like this one.
  • The internationalization of vocabulary is growing with the advances in telecoms and globalization, especially since English has become the only language of scientific research. There is little point in inventing new Swedish terms in science, for example, when all the scientific community are reading/writing their papers in English. Often, in spite of political efforts to promote a local vocabulary, the economics of language revert the higher Data back to Internationalese.
  • There is only one language in the World that for historical, political and demographic reasons has remained an exception to this trend: that language is Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese or others, the difference is irrelevant  here). It constitutes a parallel system of high level Data that has very few words in common with the rest of the Word. Japanese and Korean are partial exceptions in that they draw from both the Chinese and the International System, but modern words are increasingly International and these languages are converging with the rest.
  • In addition to this, Chinese has a ridiculously difficult writing system unique for its lack of a functional phonetic script. This compounds the vocabulary problem: not only there are more words to learn than in any other language, but each word  contains much more information as it needs to be associated with its corresponding characters.
  • Moreover, since there is no standardized way to transcribe foreign Proper Nouns, even names of places and persons tend to be “translated” into Chinese, sometimes completely departing the original phonetics and becoming Chinese Names in their own right. This adds to the already massive Data element in the Chinese language.

All this takes us to the conclusion: Chinese is the most difficult language to learn at a high level, regardless of the origin of the student.

This is particularly interesting because up to now the right answer to this question was only: “depends on your own mother tongue”.  With the possible  exception of Japanese/Korean students,  this post justifies that Chinese is actually the hardest for everyone else.  Inversely,  it is also very difficult for Chinese to learn other languages, although this is mitigated by the fact that other languages do have functional phonetic scripts.

Another interesting conclusion:  Chinese is not only difficult, it is actually growing in difficulty.

As the World grows more interconnected and technology occupies a more important part of our lives, new semi-specialized vocabulary takes an increasing part in everyday language. Expressions that refer to international concepts such as “spam”or “plasma TV” increasingly take the place of expressions referring to  local cultural heritage.  In this sense, we can say that all languages in the World are converging, while Chinese is an island diverging from all the rest.

Then there are the political conclusions that we can draw from this, but I am committed to writing shorter posts, so we will leave that for the next day. Comments and corrections are welcome to my arguments above.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language

Friday, November 20th, 2009

There comes a point in the life of every student of mandarin when he feels the call to write about the difficulty of the language. The time has finally come for me, and I will follow the path of the masters. In fact, I intend to go even further. I am set out to prove that Chinese is the most difficult language in the World.

I know I am treading on dangerous ground, and the sect of the Japanese learners is sure to fall on me with all the weight of their declensions. To make this a fair game, I will define first what I understand by difficulty: the time needed by one average person without previous contact with related languages, to attain a functional level, where functional is understood as being able to execute every normal activity in mandarin without significant disadvantage, such as: writing dissertations, hosting formal meetings, reading at a normal speed, chatting in a noisy a bar. I am taking my own level of French as standard measure of this level.

Of course, this standard and the whole notion of “significant disadvantage” are subjective and difficult to measure, but for the purpose of this post it should be enough. Note that the key factor here is utility: I am deliberately paying less attention to aspects such as accent as long as it doesn’t get in the way of normal communication. The reason is that I am considering the language as a communication tool rather than a mark of status, origin or other possible functions. In China, any possible use of imitating accent is lost to most foreigners because the facial features give them away immediately.

Apart form the accent, important fields like Classic Chinese are given very little weight in my definition of “functional”, for obvious reasons. It is true that by using this definition I am weakening my case for the Most Difficult Language, but we can afford that, because our most formidable weapons are still in reserve.

One more thing before I continue: this exercise has been tried many times already, like here, here and here. I am ignoring previous results because the criteria used in each of them—such as teacher’s perception or comparison of certain conventional parameters—do not have any use in real life. Each student is free to chose his own definition for difficulty and functional level, but it seems to me that the one in this post, summarized as “the level needed to use the language seamlessly in native contexts” is the one that most people would naturally accept.

My argument follows the process of studying Chinese through 3 stages: First I prove that Chinese is easy, then I prove that it is difficult. Finally, I will give the reason why Chinese is THE MOST DIFFICULT language in the World. If you are already familiar with the study of mandarin you might want to skip straight to the third chapter.

Chinese is Easy

The simplicity of Chinese grammar at a basic level and the easy pronunciation and memorization (without tones) of the first lists of words makes for a very mild learning curve at first. I’ve had many occasions to compare with students of Spanish in Spain, and almost always the students of Mandarin in China are faster to start using simple sentences. Apart from the language itself, I suspect that the curious and chatty nature of the Chinese is an important part of it.

If you have been in China long enough you have probably seen some of those miracle students that learnt Chinese in 1 year. I have met a few of them myself, and in some cases I was amazed by the results. These people are essentially natural communicators, they don’t need the tones or the characters because they use a very powerful tool in mandarin, which is context. Their intonation and body language channel tons of information, and so they are able to entertain a band of adult Chinese for hours on end, while you sit there bitterly wondering where to put the 了. That is a real story, by the way.

Of course, not everyone can be such a great communicator, but the point here is: for a certain kind of person and for a certain kind of objectives, Chinese can be in fact an easy language when learned in immersion. That is the kind of superficial level that is referred to when you hear someone say “he speaks 14 languages fluently”. It includes just the most basic characters, practically no grammar and long lists of everyday vocabulary memorized without tones. It is nowhere even near my definition of functional level, but it is useful and rewarding, and for most people it is all they need.

It is for this reason that to every foreigner coming to China, especially the curious and communicative ones, I strongly recommend studying Chinese conversation without characters. At this first level it makes economic sense for most of them to study seriously.

Given a prolonged exposure to mandarin speaking environment, a speaker can go a long way without characters. However, for serious students of mandarin, the non-character path is not sustainable. Among other reasons, because it will make it impossible to read and write, effectively leaving off limits large areas of knowledge.

Chinese is Difficult

The potential student should think very carefully before stepping into the next phase. Because it requires an investment in time that is out of proportion with the study of almost any other language, or even with such complex undertakings as, for example, obtaining a PHD. In the vast majority of cases it does not make economic sense, and it is simply not a rational choice. So if you decide to go there, just make sure you have irrational motivations.

The difficulties that appear in this phase, such as characters and tones, have already been described in the excellent articles mentioned above, so I will not go into details. I will just stress the factors of context and interdependence, which I feel are sometimes understated. The idea, summarized, goes like this: Those two diabolically difficult codes that are spoken and written Chinese are made even more difficult to learn because they tend to be not self-supporting in the mind of the student, but relying on each other, and then both of them rely a good deal on context.

This is the most absurd part of the system, because intuitively one would imagine that a (semi) ideographic script is independent from Speech. The truth is that not only they are not independent, but the whole system is so inefficient that Chinese themselves rely heavily on their Spoken language to interpret the characters. This explains, for example, why it is so easy to come up with characters that your average Chinese cannot read, or why they can read a newspaper knowing only 2000* characters but you cannot, as they successfully use their spoken language to remember/guess the missing characters.

In the other direction, the dependence on written material to learn to speak is common to any second language, as being able to read words in a phonetically significant way makes them much easier to remember.  In China, the existing material in proper pinyin (Latin letters with tonemarks) is practically zero, and the tendency of some letters and tones to vary among regions makes it almost impossible to learn them properly just from listening. To make matters worse, Chinese speakers themselves rely on the characters to solve ambiguities, as is often the case with names of people and places, or when they explain a new word: “My name is Jiang,” they say, “the beauty-woman Jiang” referring to the 2 parts of the character 姜. Ambiguities tend to happen a lot in contextual languages like mandarin, even more when a foreigner is involved.

This mutual influence between speech and writing has many other consequences unique to Chinese: for example, it is impossible to write down or even read foreign words without an advanced knowledge of characters, making it very difficult to understand familiar names both in writing and in conversation.

All  these factors (and many others I haven’t mentioned) provide an extremely difficult learning environment for a foreigner. This is the main reason why it is impossible to reach functional level without following a balanced approach on spoken and written language, plus immersion in Chinese culture. It explains why sinologists with a vast knowledge of characters never get to speak the language functionally, and neither do old China Hands living for decades in language immersion. They both stand on a wobbly platform with one leg shorter than the others.

In short, to study Chinese the effort is similar to learning 2 different languages that need to be pursued in parallel**.  And each of these two languages is a LOT more difficult than French (for an English speaker).

This however, has still failed to impress the students of Japanese, who are already grinding their katanas to come after my head. I will admit that, up to here, the Japanese language still has a good chance of beating Mandarin. Move on to the next section to see my checkmate.

Chinese is the Most Difficult Language in the World

Now is when we get to the third phase, that of students at a functional level, without any “significant disadvantage”compared with native speakers.  As far as I am concerned, this phase is just hypothetical: I have never seen a foreigner who got there. I am not saying this person does not exist, I just mean that after 3 years in China I haven’t met any, that is how rare it is.

In terms of the measure standard established, I could phrase it like this: I have still not met a single foreigner who is fluent in Chinese at a level to compete with my own level in French, which is my 4th language, learnt as an adult in 3 years spent in France. I have an accent and a few faux amis, but I can read and write as fast and complex as any of my French colleagues with similar backgrounds, and I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get something on TV. I challenge anyone to get me a non-native Chinese speaker that can speak or write like I do in French, or even at a comparable level. Excuse me if I sound cocky, I am just writing this because it is the basis of the argument that follows.

But let’s get to the real point of this post: Why is Chinese the most difficult Language in the World?

The main basis for this assertion has to do with vocabulary. I think that in most studies about learning Chinese, this factor has been greatly understated. It is in my opinion the single most important obstacle for a student to get to the functional level. Before I explain why, let me give some background:

In the origin there are deep cultural reasons, that come from the fact that China is seen by its speakers as a cradle of civilization. Actually, it can be accurately said that China is one of the cradles of civilization, and the only one that has kept a living language to this day. Linguists will say that the language has changed completely since the times of the Shang, but this is a purely technical objection. Culturally, it is STILL the same people and the same language, it is felt like this by the speakers, and this entails a series of attitudes that are unique to Chinese.

These “attitudes” include not recognizing Latin or Greek as cultural references, and by extension not accepting English or other foreign roots in the creation of new words. This is the heart of the matter. This makes things extremely difficult for foreigners studying mandarin, and also for Chinese studying foreign languages. And it has implications that go beyond the scope of language learning.

Regarding the practical consequences for the student of mandarin, consider this: the active vocabulary required to obtain a standard level of language—for example, the vocabulary required for highest level of HSK— typically contains no more than a few thousand words, which are more than enough for everyday general conversation. And yet, the HSK11 people that I have met were not even close to competing with my French.

The reason is that for people with a higher education, the passive vocabulary really needed to attain a functional level is much larger than the vocabulary required in any standard test of proficiency.  Think of vector, ion or metaphysical. None of these words enter the standards lists of vocabulary because in theory they are technical terms, and yet they appear in normal conversation and you are expected to recognize them even if you have no idea what an ion really is. You acquire these words through a lifetime of living inside a culture.

So what happened with my French? Obviously,  I just learned the few thousand words necessary to get along, and from then on it was extremely easy…  because the vast pockets of specialized  vocabulary were for the most part already known to me. And that is because, once you have learnt to decode phonetics and grammar, and above a certain level of vocabulary, all the languages in the World become almost the same—except for Chinese, that is.

And as a consequence of this Chinese differentiation, the only practical method for most people to achieve functional level is to spend a lifetime in immersion, in order to acquire the vocabulary in all those fields that are not studied in language school and can only be learned through experience. In summary, for a student to become functional it would take, following our three phases above:

  1. Exceptional communication abilities, talent and motivation.
  2. Years of full-time study to learn reading and writing.
  3. Even longer - min around 10 years? - in 100% immersion in China.

Essentially, we are speaking of a person who is dedicated to Chinese as a career, who has a talent for language and who lives in a total Chinese environment for many years. It is not impossible that this person exists, and we might even have someone in comments below who responds to this description. But the conjunction of those 3 conditions in one single person is extremely rare, and for the vast majority of students, functional level in Chinese will always be out of reach.

Excuse the long post, I wrote it out of frustration the other day when I got stuck in the middle of a sentence containing ionic treatment, partly because the word for ion, 离子 (li2zi3) like many other technical words, does not give you any clue when it is out of the context of physics. I would like to see what the Japanese (who are pretty good at saying “ion” phonetically) have to answer to this. Checkmate.

And Chinese has won the dubious honour of being the most difficult language in the World.

NOTES:

*There has been much discussion about this and the number is probably wrong. The point is that even when you get to know more characters than a native Chinese, he will still be able to read much better and faster than you. This is frustrating.

** I am using terms very loosely here, Written Chinese is not in itself a language but a representation of Chinese. It is not really studying 2 languages, but I find this comparison useful to give a feel of the raw amount of data that needs to be stored into your head.

PS. If  you are interested in this debate,  see the summarized and hopefully more clear post here.

Euro-Obama in China

Monday, November 16th, 2009

barack_obama_the_french_sun_king So Obama is in China, and even if he is not my president he is still my favourite president. Here is my first-hand analysis of the visit.

The most important news, surprisingly gone unnoticed by all observers, is that Obama wants to become Euro-bama in Chinese. That is how I read the new spelling of his name in characters, as proposed by the website of the white house :

欧巴马 (oubama) will replace 奥巴马, where 欧 is the Chinese character for Europe, making the name sound in Chinese like Euro-Bama.

Some might say that the new spelling is chosen for greater phonetic similarity, or because it is standard in Taiwan, but when have politicians listened to the linguists? There is a clear political motivation in the naming of Euro-Obama, and I see a bright future in the project.

I think I speak for a large number of Europeans when I say we are very happy to see this plan finally in execution. Mr. Obama, please sweep away all our bunch of incompetent presidents and prime ministers, and become King of the European Union. Then, perhaps, in the next meeting with China you can represent our united interests, instead of having each European tribe sending its little pathetic chief for the CCP to cleverly divide and manipulate a la Sun Tzu.

One of the things I like of being European is that you can be thoroughly unpatriotic against the UE, and nobody cares. Dear commentators of the Washington Post, please do not worry anymore. America is not in decline yet, and it will not be for a long time. Among other reasons because it is needed by European countries that are too incompetent to unite in international politics. And indeed, when the Chinese people see Obama, they see a leader of the West as much as they see a leader of America. Because seen from here, the concepts of West, Europe, America, or Euramerica (欧美)have never been all that distinct.

After this important geostrategic consideration, you can continue to read what else is to read about the visit. Essentially nothing, because no real news have emerged yet, and most journalists and bloggers alike do their best to fill in their columns with China generalities. Apart from the links above, interesting questions are:

  • Will Obama comment on the Human Rights Watch report about black jails and other human rights issues? Of course this will not happen, no more than Hu will elaborate on the new theories of the Liberation of Tibet. But it is interesting for the sake of debating.
  • Perhaps more likely is that he mentions the environment, as this blog suggests. I am pretty sure the two leaders will mention it, actually, a different thing is how much of a commitment will come from the meeting. From the voiceless rest of the World we will be watching to see if the 2 giants finally decide to make a move and quit sending their fumes to our back yard.
  • Finally, a lot of articles out there speak of Obama-mania and make a big deal of the Obamao icon, which has been circulating in China since before the election. My view is that young modern Chinese tend to like Obama, and he is marginally more popular than Bush was. But there is no such thing as the Obamania we saw in Europe, and most people here adopt a cold stance of “wait and see”. The minute 欧 mentions some delicate issue or  meets some old lama, it will take no more than a minute of well phrased CCTV news to wipe the Obamania into thin air.

So already, quit the Obamaos and give me some Eurobamas, we are growing tired of politics over at the other side of this continent.

A Visit to the River Town

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

This business trip in Sichuan is really full of surprises. Today we went to visit the Project, a giant industrial complex which will be, upon completion, the largest factory in the World to produce X. A typically Chinese megaproject on the bank of the Yangtze.

But the surprise came when we went to town for lunch, and I found out that the river that flowed into the Yangtze at that point was called the Wu. I hadn’t realized before, because the industrial park takes a different name, but sure enough, our client confirmed this point: we were in the riverside town of Fuling.

If you have read the classic China book “River Town”, you know why I was so thrilled. If you have not, then go and get it now. Since you are reading my blog, chances are you are one of those crazy Westerners that seek to understand the Chinese. This books explains them all for you, and in the process it gives you a rare glimpse into the life of inland China. It is fascinating, especially if you don’t live in the country already.

The Book

I am taking this chance to do a little review of River Town, so I can start to catch up with my old plans of running a book reviews section. Considering this book is relatively old and already well known, I will just stick to the main points and try to keep this post reasonable.

The story is very simple, it tells the experiences and feelings of the author during his 2 year stay as Peace Corps in Fuling, a third tier town on the Yangtze.  Nothing really happens, except that it is inland China in the 90s, and everything happens. The book is enjoyable from the beginning, almost every page right to the end.

Here are the key points as promised:

- Very enjoyable natural writing, with vivid descriptions of the places and the people. One of the best examples I know of literature meeting anthropology. Memorable is the description of the Fuling streets and their “stick-stick soldiers” in the initial chapters.

- The author is a fine observer, and he has the advantage of direct access to his students, who write down for him their opinions about a variety of subjects. One of the main highlights of the book is the contrast between the Fuling and the Western mentality, expressed on the background of the classics of English literature.

- For the sake of balance, some points I liked less: towards the end the  book looses some strength (not surprising, after the great first half). The scientific detachment of the author can become a bit exasperating, and sometimes it feels like the anthropologist has taken over the writer. The last dramatic scene with the mob doesn’t help to fix this, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was an unnecessary addition. But then, that is only my opinion, and I was never in Fuling in the 90s.

The River Town

From what I have seen today, the town of Fuling is doing pretty well, changing so fast that it is almost impossible to recognize it in the descriptions of the book. For one thing, it took us less than an hour to get there from the center of Chongqing, which qualifies it as a close suburb. This is in great contrast with the backwater river town of the 90s.

Now the Fulingers are going to have some World class production facilities, and a good part of the population will be working there, with thousands more coming from all over China. It feels strange to realize suddenly that I have become myself one of the characters (although a very secondary one) in the story of the transformation of Fuling.

There seems to be only one thing eternal in China, and that is the masses of the working people, the “laobaixing”. Sure enough, the stick-stick soldiers are still there and in good shape, running up and down the stairs with massive loads hanging from their bamboo poles. For them, nothing has changed.

IMG_2320-1

The Reading Method

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I know, I should be studying right now, and not writing posts. But I was just breathing slightly between two sessions of 模拟考试, and I reflected on the fascinating process of learning a new language, and on how, when you have been through it a few times, you end up developing your own secret methods to climb up the long steep ladder.

My approach to learning Chinese this year is based on the one I used with my previous languages: The reading method. It can only be used starting from intermediate level. In the case of mandarin, I would say this is not before 2 years of studying at a normal rate.

The method consists of acquiring first a minimum level of vocabulary to understand most simple texts, and from that point on dedicate your study time to the pleasant hobby of reading novels as captivating as possible. If you are a bookworm like me this works very well, because you end up putting in far more hours of study (reading) than you would if it were normal exercises. I know there are also many resources to read Chinese on the internet with cursor translator included, but computers tend to distract your attention very fast, whereas reading a good book gets your eyes glued to the characters for hours on end.

The result of this method is that you end up with a vast passive vocabulary and excellent character recognition abilities. Then it is up to you in your socializing time to go out and try to use these words in conversation, at the risk of locals saying you sound pompous. Sometimes you can even lift full phrases from a novel, and it is fun when you manage to use them in real life. For example, when I was reading Lu Xun’s “AhQ” I placed neatly my favourite line:

Little Yi:我讨厌我的老板,怎么办?

Uln: 你先估量对手,口讷的你便骂,力气小的你便打。

Little Yi:天哪!

Uln: 怎么啦?

Little Yi:你又在练习!

Uln: 我?没有啊。。。

Admittedly, my use of the method is a bit radical. But the social phase is an essential part of it, because once you have used a word a couple of times successfully, it quickly moves into your active vocabulary, and after that it rarely leaves you again. This is only practicable if you live in a Chinese environment, it never worked when I was back in Europe.

Reading speed

The key tipping point in the reading method is that moment when you realize that you can read a story fast enough to actually enjoy it. This is a function not only of your knowledge of characters/words, but also of the interest of the book and of your own personal nerdiness. When I read my first novel “Brothers” last year, I was so excited to taste the Chinese popular literary style that I gladly spent two months ploughing through the 700 pages of chengyu-ridden Yu Hua.

Since then, I have much increased my reading speed, to a point where I can sustainably read non-fiction without falling asleep. The preparation for the high-speed requirements of the HSK has helped me a lot for this, and I must say that, in spite of all my ranting in the previous post, it does make sense to force students a bit. Because the ability to read characters at normal native speeds is one of the most difficult to acquire, in my opinion.

Note that, when I say speed, I am not referring to the speed that comes from knowing all the words in the text. It is obvious that by using less the dictionary it is possible to read faster. My point is that, even for simple texts where all the words are familiar, I still read almost 3 times slower than a native Chinese, even after 1 year of reading books. This is an issue that has appeared only when studying Chinese, and not in any of my previous languages that used latin script, so I have strong reasons to think that it is tied to the use of characters.

I think it probably has to do with the way the brain processes the characters, and the way people schooled in Chinese from an early age have developed differently in this field. The post about reverse pinyin last week pointed me in this direction, and a few experiments I have done with my Chinese neighbours as well. I hope I have the time to write a bit more about this next week.

In the meantime, if there is a non-native advanced reader out there, I would like to hear your experience. Does it eventually get better, and do you manage to read at the same speed as the Chinese? Or do you have the same problem I note here? Let me know.

OK, off-line I go again. I already missed all Tuesday and Wednesday in an absurd meeting in Changsha so I need to catch up. I’ll be back after the HSK, if I haven’t showed up by Monday call the fire brigade.

Back to the HSK (2)

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

e59bbee78987_1 I am back to Shanghai with some interesting anecdotes and some mildly funny pictures of Japan. Unfortunately, I will not be able to post any of that,  because this week I am busy with work trips in China, and especially because this is the HSK week. It is just as well, I guess, after all this is not Japanyouren, and there are funnier travel bloggers out there if you are looking for a laugh.

Before I disappear for a week into my studying den, let me explain you again this business of the HSK. It is short for 汉语水平考试,or Chinese Level Exam, and it is the official standard to measure your level of mandarin, accepted by all universities in the mainland. It is also a very crazy exam, designed to squeeze out of the examinee’s brains as much linguistic information as possible in 3 hours, and then put it down in measurable statistical terms.

As it happens, the HSK is an exam that does not mainly measure your level of Chinese. It measures your determination, endurance and sangfroid, and your faith in a better life after the bell. The good side of it, apart from hardening your soul, is that it gives you a good taste of the ultracompetitive Chinese education system and their university entrance exam. It is even reminiscent of the 科举考试, the old imperial examination to select the bureaucracy, which famously caused some of the candidates to lose their wits and become heavenly kings. For a foreigner who is serious (deranged) enough to try to understand China, this experience is essential.

But back to the facts: This Saturday 17th is the HSK advanced, and I am going to fight for a level 9, out of 11 possible levels. I need to get this degree desperately, for the sole honourable objective of beating my own record. This is the Olympic spirit.

IMG_2248 My practice essays with thoughts on the Four Books

Here are some details of the exam: the reading section contains text with a total of over 4,000+ characters, the equivalent of some 10 pages in a standard format novel, and on that text you have to answer 15 questions (not choose a,b,c,d, but actually answer with a sentence). There is a total of… 15 minutes for this part. I tested with a native Chinese friend and that is the time she took just to read the text at normal speed.

The essay writing is another scary part, because you get so used to typing with the computer that when it comes to handwriting characters you don’t even know where to start. At least here you do get 30 minutes for an essay of 400-600 characters, so you actually have the time to read what you are writing, and to consider if you really want to express your own point of view in an exam which contains exercises like:

The concept of scientific development leads our people towards a more ——- society”  ( a-harmonious, b-harmonic, c-harmonium d-hormonal)

This example is not exactly literal, I am quoting from memory. The point is the HSK has a strong Beijing flavour, and some of the phrases are taken directly from CPC handbooks and the helmsmen’s theories. In a way, it feels like the Four Books of the imperial examinations all over again: the Thought of Mao Zedong, the Theory of the 3 Represents, the Concept of Scientific Development… As the old saying goes: All things they’ve changed, and nothing has changed.