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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.

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.

First Impressions of Japan

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

First impressions are usually mistaken, but they are also interesting because the eye is alert to any novelty, and the culture clash is rich with ideas. Warning: this post contains sweeping generalizations. Take it for what it is, and if you are serious about understanding Japan you might want to look somewhere else.

I came to Japan quite randomly, I wanted to spend the holidays in a quiet and relaxing place,  and in the week of the Chinese National Day, Japan seemed the only place near enough with the right conditions. I am preparing for the high level HSK later this month, and the plan was to take a few hours a day to practise my characters.

I chose the South of Japan on purpose, with the vague idea that they would probably be a bit more relaxed than in the North, and therefore more suited to my Southern European nature. I soon found out my assumption was wrong.  For one reason, there seems to be no such a thing as “South Japan”. Although this place is clearly in the South, they call it West Japan.  And the character of the people here is diametrically opposed to any notion of latin indulgence I might have harboured.

The cultural shock came right from the first contact. It was the passport controller at the airport of Fukuoka. I had been given the immigration card in the airplane and, like usual, I had quickly filled my “address on destination” box with a lazy “Hotel Nagasaki”. I couldn’t remember the real name of the hotel, and anyway these things are never checked in any reasonable country. In Japan they are.  And that is how I met my second Japanese.

“What did you write in this box?,” said the inspector when I was led to his office, pointing at the place in my card.

“Hotel Nagasaki?” I said.

“There is no hotel by this name”.

“No, no, I didn’t mean it literally,” I explained, “It is short for ‘a hotel in Nagasaki’.”

“Reservation receipt please?”

“Er.. it is in my mailbox, I haven’t printed it out.”

And they took me to a series of offices until they found a place where I could connect to the internet and produce my hostel reservation from hostelworld.  This took about an hour, enough to convince them that I was a dangerous outlier, so the inspector led me to the searching department.

My third Japanese was an older man who did the most meticulous search I have seen in my life, even feeling with his bare fingers all along the sole of my well seasoned travel socks. He searched into every possible hiding place in my bags and my body, except for that precise one that you were just imagining.

All the while, the three of them -my first three Japanese -  treated me with scrupulous respect, constantly smiling, and polite to the point of scary.

One of the things that was shocking in my first dealings in the shops is the “hi!” sound that they emit all the time, to say hello or to hand you something. It comes constantly and accurately, timed like a semiquaver, dressing any human exchange with a singular martial tone.  But the most awe inspiring feature is their absolute, compulsive, anal obsession with cleanliness. This country must be the cleanest place I have seen in the World by a large margin.

I came to this conclusion during lunch in one Western cafe in Nagasaki, were I witnessed some peculiar behaviour. It was raining outside, and every time a new client finished paying his order, the cashier walked around the bar with a clean tissue and bent down to wipe the drops of water left by the client’s shoes. A completely unreasonable action, even for safety purposes, because the other side of the cafe next to the entrance door was permanently wet and left unwiped.

The only explanation, I figured after a while, was that the entrance area was out of the field of vision of the cashier, hidden by the tables. It wasn’t a safety procedure, it was just that she just could not bear the sight of some drops of water on the spotless floor in front of the bar, even if it was almost pure H2O from the immaculate street outside.

I am impressed by this aspect of the Japanese culture, and I wonder how  the thousands of Japanese living in Shanghai cope with the hygiene situation there. I guess this explains why, being by far the largest foreign community in Shanghai, we see so little of them. They must all stick to their Gubei compounds and restaurants and avoid leaving the area unless it is strictly necessary.

The service in the restaurants here is excellent, and the food is prepared with so much care that you actually feel sorry to eat it. The Japanese like things well done, and they manage because, like most Chinese, they are very hard workers. But there is an essential difference in the motivations: Chinese exert themselves for a dream, to buy a car or a better house, or just to avoid being left behind by their fast ecoomy. Japanese already have all those things. Like Westerners, they have little left to dream that can be bought with money.  So it seems that they  work for the sake of work well done, out of a strong sense of duty and perfection.

When I came to Japan, I was prepared to find meticulous people who revere order. I thought it would be somehow similar to Germany, and although that kind of country is not exactly my idea of fun, it definitely fitted the bill for my week of retirement and study. But Japan is not even comparable to Germany. As far as I have seen it goes further in the field of obsession, to an extreme that for a newcomer -a Southern European one, at any rate- feels like borderline pathologic.

I don’t want to judge the character of the different peoples.  Each culture has its own ways, and all is well as long as we get along. I just wonder if the little world of efficiency and perfection that the Japanese have built around them is not but an exhausting illusion, and if, somewhere in the middle of all their productive activity, they find the time to think of what is important and just enjoy. The people I am meeting here-starting from the fourth one- are positive and friendly, and I have no reason to suspect they are not contented.

I have just been speaking with a PhD in electro microscopy who is in Nagasaki for a World congress in the field. He tells me that more than half of the participants are German and Japanese, because these two countries rule in electro microscopy applications. Somehow I am not surprised.

“It is a good thing we have Japanese and Germans,” I told him, “Otherwise we would be in trouble to wipe the dust between the atoms”

Of Language and Culture

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

It is common knowledge that studying a foreign language involves studying a culture. Consciously or not, that is the main reason why people enjoy it. If it weren’t for its cultural content, a language would be little more than an empty set of code-words and rules designed with an exasperatingly faulty logic. And learning languages would be just like memorizing the phone directory, useful knowledge in some situations, sure, but hardly worth years of study.

But languages are vehicles of culture, and that is why we find them fascinating. When you study a language, and especially when you study it in its natural habitat - in a country where it is the mother tongue - you are continuously absorbing the elements of that country’s culture. At the surface level, these learnings are obvious, like when your local barber tells you the story of the Old Fool and the Mountain. But there are deeper levels where the language in itself, through its structure and its semantic relations, carries a cultural load that may go unnoticed by all but the most careful students.

During my practice for the HSK exam these last months, I went through thousands of new words and hundreds of chengyus (the ubiquitous 4-character constructions/idioms that Chinese use almost like words). And when I was fed up of memorizing I would let my mind drift for a while, musing over the learnt vocabulary, and sometimes I ended up finding unexpected meanings.

Here and (perhaps) in future posts I will copy some of the notes I did while studying. Some are just funny misunderstandings, some come loaded with philosophical connotations, and some are surely just the result of my own imagination. Warning: I will indulge in some vast generalizations and home-made anthropology, please bear with me and add your righteous insults in the comments section. Here’s the first three expressions, all baidu linked for examples:

下不了台 - Xia bu liao tai

This is an expression in Chinese that literally means:   Cannot get off the stage. It is used when somebody is embarrassing you in public, particularly when somebody says things that make everyone focus their attention on you. Then he is scolding you, or praising you, or otherwise treating you  ”xia bu liao tai”.

It struck me as very Chinese in the way it is used as a negative expression, similar to the English to embarrass. But in English the negative expression is  more often the opposite, to be “upstaged”  (ie. sent to the back of the stage). Which comes to illustrate this difference between Western and Chinese individuals, the former generally enjoying some degree of public attention while the latter prefer to pass unnoticed and blend in the crowd.

英伦三岛 - YingLun San Dao

This is one of the most perplexing expressions I have come across in Chinese. It literally means “The three islands of England”, using a phonetical approximation of England (“Yinlun”)  that strikes me as pedantic, as it is not the usual name Yingguo 英国.

But the pedantic speaker (or the “Autentic Engrish Vila” advert) is, I am afraid, making a fool of himself. I might be missing something, but last time I checked England was not an island, nor were there three islands in the British Isles, however you look at it. The garbled definition on Baidupedia doesn’t help much either.

This seems to be an old expression, so my guess is someone in the times of the Qing decided thatEngland was a Kingdom of 3 islands. And no amount of  insistence nor letters from ambassador Macartney would change the minds of the mandarins.  So I believe this expression shows another particular trait of Chinese culture, and particularly of Chinese politics.   It can be summarized in the phrase  ”This is what the party says, and we don’t care what reality thinks”. A nice little example with pigeons can be found here.

北京,背景 and the tones of English

This one is a problem of pronunciation. I have observed that everytime I hear the word bèijǐng (背景), meaning “background”,  I automatically think of  běijīng (北京), meaning “Beijing”.  And even though I am perfectly aware of the tones employed by the speaker  (the 4th tone in bei is usually very obvious),  I still can’t help myself from thinking of the city of Beijing, and often pushing the misunderstanding to absurd extremes.

After many times of unconsciously making this mistake, I came to the consclusion that I was influenced by the English pronunciation: Usually when we say Beijing in English we tend to pronounce it in a way that sounds almost like a 4th tone/3rd tone,  that is “Bèijǐng”.  So inevitably my brain is hard-wired to associate this sound with the capital of China, and I am lost in conversation everytime it comes up.

And one question in case somebody knows: what tones do we normally use when speaking in a non-tonal language like English? My guess is that most of the times, in neutral, non interrogative sentences, we use a combination of the 4th and the light tone for the stressed and non-stressed syllables respectively.

And more to come

I still have lots of notes in my studybooks so if I get some good feedback I will roll them out little by little. Let me know what is your interpretation of the above.

The University of Love

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

HuaShiDa

This is the imposing main entrance of my favourite university campus in Shanghai: HuaShiDa.  I like this entrance because it is very green and very complete, and it has everything from a roundabout sign to a saluting giant Mao, to a construction crane in the background. But what I like most is the inscription:

SEEK TRUTH, FOSTER ORIGINALITY, LIVE UP TO THE NAME OF TEACHER Click to continue »

Something about Uln

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

Let’s admit it, the intro section of this blog gives little information about me, other than the proven fact that I am not called Lilly. And I know from what I have read on other blogs that some people attach great importance to a name and a face, and that in their eyes a blogger signing ULN must be little more than an electronic scoundrel.

I can understand these feelings. Nothing would make me prouder than to stick my picture and my name at the top of each page, because I am not ashamed of what I write and I am ready to stand for each of my statements. Nor is mine a full anonymity, as I know and I am known (with my real name) by many people in the China blogging community.

So why continue hiding behind a pseudonym? Simple:  I like writing about subjects that have the potential to excite large numbers of people. Today I represent a company in China, and this company is not mine to decide its political stance.  There is a real risk of clients associating my blog with my company if my name gets spread all over the Chinosphere - it has happened to other bloggers before-  and due to the kind of clients I deal with, I cannot allow this to happen.

So if you don’t mind, and until the next horde of fenqing decide to flesh-seach and chop up Uln, I will keep my semi-anonymity. But since we are speaking of “credentials”, I want to unveil the following points about me, just to make sure that nobody takes me for what I am not:

  • I am an engineer, but I have a Master in Business and a Semi-Master in International Relations (Didn’t get the degree because I got a job and never found the time to finish the thesis, but I will be back).
  • I like reading a lot, books. Sometimes even uni course books, like my famous brick: Samuelson’s economics. Because of my focus-challenged nature I have always learnt more from my own readings than from what I heard in a classroom, even when I had remarkably good teachers.
  • I have been in China for 2-3 years, including Beijing in 2002 and now  Shanghai. I haven’t stopped for a day speaking about politics with all the Chinese I’ve meet. That probably explains my poor results with the “delicate” sex. On the other hand, it has taught me to be diplomatic.
  • My experience and “achievements” include weird and unconnected points such as: winning a national poetry contest in France, writing and performing songs with guitar and harp, spending 1+ year living and coordinating a project in 5 different provinces of North Korea, and others even more irrelevant.
  • And finally, the most exciting: my Chinese qualifications. My level is already enough to read books in Chinese, the last book I read was XiongDi by Yu Hua, and I absolutely recommend it. I am aiming at HSK 7,  signed up for  the next test session in April and then I will publish the results on this blog.

Voila,  I don’t think any of the points above provides a serious basis to support my comments on Chinese politics and economy, so I am safe from self-satisfaction. My posts will all need to stand on their own, and when they don’t please point it out. Same when I “invent” words and phrases that don’t exist in English.

And I will leave this info hidden behind the fold of a single post instead of updating my profile info. Because I only feel like telling these things to those readers that had the patience to come all this way.

The Goose, the Goose, the Goose!

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Finally Friday. It’s been an exhausting week and I feel like I need a little break. Sometimes I wonder why I ever took up Crisis Watch as a hobby. Other China blogs watch cool things like Scandal, or even Shoes. But Crises are an awful thing to watch, believe me. You watch it for a few hours and numbers swim before you eyes like a Gaggle of Geese.

Fortunately, we still have the Learn Chinese post of the week to do. So here we go. Today’s tip is sponsored by Chinese uber-teacher Fu Ting.

It is called: The Goose, the Goose, the Goose!

Anyone brought up in China will be familiar with this little poem, but surprisingly few foreigners know about it. It has a very interesting story that you can read in detail here. The poet Luo Binwang wrote it about 1400 years ago, when he was only 7 years old. It goes like this:

Now, the essential thing to remember is the Rising Tone of the Goose: 鹅. You have to pronounce it stretching your neck and pulling your head back, just like a Gandle would do if he caught you messing with his Goslings.

It is very important to master the gaggling technique before we can proceed. Practice in front of the mirror or go to the Bird and Flower Market in Shanghai and find a professional Goose to coach you. Beware: a slight mispronounciation of the Rising Tone can have you saying extreme things such as: Hungry (饿), or Disgusting (恶), or just plain Crocodile (鳄).

OK, now we are ready, here are the INSTRUCTIONS. The Goose Trick can be used for the following purposes:

1- If you want to see how your Chinese friends looked at age 7.

Have them recite the Goose. This is a poem that many generations of Chinese children have learnt by heart, memorized in that childish singing way. You will be surprised with the results. I got some spectacular performance from the old flower lady down the road, she got carried away. Didn’t work so well with the bicycle repair man.

2- If you want to sound cocky and in control of the situation.

For example, when you are stuck in the Shanghai Taxi Comic Dialogue:

- Dai wo qu YuYuanLu!
- WuYuanlu?
- YuYuanLu!
- YueYangLu?
- YuyuanLu!!!
- Huh Huh huh ??
- 鹅, 鹅, 鹅!! -> Qu xiang xiang tian ge…etc.

3- When you are in the wild and you encounter an aggressive Goose, the kind that would snap at your picnic sandwich before you have the time to open your electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus.

Final tips: In case your mandarin mental age is under 7, you probably can’t figure out the quackings of a 7 year old poet. Here you have some rather creative tranlations from Baidu. I especially like the last one, by a blogger called wangwuming. It comes with rhyme and all:

Quack Quack, merrily sings the goose,
Raising its head a tune from its mouth pours.
Bule water moors the white feathers,
Its red palms ply the waves as oars.

So that’s all for today. Have a nice weekend and happy gagglings!

傅婷

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

Are you serious about improving your 汉语? Are you ready to receive the teachings of the Master with an open mind? And are you not scared of tempting your fate in the HSK challenge 2009?

If you think you are worthy of the School of Language, write your contact details in the form below. When the time is right, the Master will find you.

And remember always, Little Grasshopper, the Words that She taught:
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一日为师  终身为父

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Highly Stressful Kaoshi (HSK)

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

I have decided I can’t really run a serious China blog without the corresponding “learn Chinese” section.

So here you go. This first post is about the HSK (汉语水平考试), which is giving me a lot of trouble these days. HSK is the official test for Chinese language organized by the Beijing Language University. Also known as the Chinese TOEFL, or the Chinese Proficiency language. It is a nightmare.

The second and last HSK examination of 2008 will be held on the 22nd November, which is this Sunday. And I have completed my registration and I am joining this time, and I am wondering how I ended up here. One day I told my teacher that I needed some challenge, and before I knew what was happening, it was all set up for me.

Yes, I have always been a bit of a masochist when it comes to languages, but HSK is beyond my wildest expectations. It hurts. It is the most stressful language exam I have ever done. You get less than 3 hours to read and answer more characters than any normal person would read in a week.

The listening part has to be my favourite. They play a CD with a guy babbling in Beijinghua, and immediately afterwards a lady comes up asking a tricky question about what he just said, and in the meantime you are supposed to choose an answer from four different options that have nothing to do with the subject in hand. You are still there wondering if you got the right CD track when there comes the man again with his next old chat. No repeats! you jot down your answer and move on to the next.

Among the hordes of professional Japanese and Korean examinees that will show up at Shifan University this Sunday,  I will probably be the only one there just for the sport of it. That must be the Olympic spirit I acquired earlier this year in Beijing.

GOALS: I am aiming at a 6th Level, which according to the official HSK should be enough to enter a non-language academic program in a Chinese university. According to me, the levels of HSK correspond quite closely to the age of a native speaker, so if I succeed in my goal I will be like a 6 year old toddler. Great! Then I will be able to update the age info on my profile.

That is probably what they meant when they said that China would make me grow.

UPDATE: I am still 5 y.o. I touched the 6 with my fingertips, but was short of 2 points in the grammar section (surprisingly the beijing gangsta-rap listening went fine, I think I got so obsessed with the listening that I overdone it and disregarded grammar). SHIT, I am going in again in April. If there’s anyone out there in Shanghai with similar level who wants to join me in the effort, please write me a note.