Some Un-Informed Impressions of Chinese Language

My thoughts on Chinese.

It’s a crazy-hard language to learn to read. You can’t just look at a word and sound it out and use your knowledge of the spoken language to figure it out. You have to memorize it. You can’t encounter a word you’ve never learned before and use logic to figure it out. Learning English is basically also learning how it’s written, too. I mean, there are lots of irregularities, but chances are if you’ve never seen a word spelled, but you know the word already, you will recognize it when you see it written.

Also, the tones feel impossible for a person who doesn’t learn them as a child. I can only hear them if a person speaks slowly and carefully. Actually, the people who teach them to me best are children. I suppose because they are still in the language-learning process, and are in school, where they are learning these things, and so are much more in tune with the language (and so of course are much more likely to laugh at me and point out my mistakes). Adults speak so naturally and out of habit that if you ask them what tone a word is, often they have to stop and think about it, and they sometimes get it wrong. Even two native speakers talking to each other can experience a lot of confusion if there’s no context to figure out what the other person is trying to say, and they often resort to tracing the character on their hand to clarify (I don’t know why they are surprised by my blank look when they try this tactic with me). I have a good friend who is just about fluent in Chinese after studying for many, many years, and being married to a Chinese man, and when I asked her if the building by her house was a school, and she looked out and asked her husband in Chinese if it was a primary school, and he said, “No, it’s not snowing.”

Really, I am truly in awe that Chinese people can speak Chinese. I mean, I know it makes sense. You speak whatever language you grow up speaking, but it’s so hard! And I’m even more amazed that they can read it. I think that objectively, if you took most people in the world whose first language was neither English nor Chinese, and had them choose one to learn, they’d choose English. So whatever you may think about China’s economic prowess, you probably don’t have to worry about Chinese becoming the language of trade. (It also takes a really long time to type! You type out the pinyin and then have to choose the appropriate character out of a long list.)

Chinese is really interesting though, and grammatically and conceptually is really simple, at least as far as my exposure goes. They have no tenses to indicate time, no singular or plural (except a “men” you can tag on the end of something to indicate plural occasionally), no “he” or “she” except in writing (so it’s a really hard thing for Chinese speakers of English, and you can never be sure if they really mean a male or female, because they use “he” and “she” interchangeably), and not a lot of auxiliary words. If I want to say that I’m going Beijing tomorrow, I say, “I tomorrow go Beijing.” Also, you don’t reorder a sentence to ask a question, you just make a statement and add “ma” on the end of it (hard to get used to). The other way to ask a question is “verb, not verb?” Like “Ni you mei you?” (Do you have it or not have it?)

Counting is also pretty simple. They have the words for 1-10, 100, 1000 and 10,000 (this has been harder for me to calculate in my head, like, how to tell them that Brian takes home 14,000 kuai a month – yi wan si – one 10,0000 plus 4,000). But other than saying “liang” instead of “er” when you’re quantifying something (like “two cherries” instead of 1, 2, 3), and yao when you’re giving a phone number or address instead of yi for one, the number words don’t change, you just say them in the order that they come. (As opposed to English, where we have twelve and twenty-fifth and third and second and thirty, and all that.) So to say 33 I say “three ten three” – “san shi san.” 128 would be “yi bai er shi ba” – one hundred two-ten (twenty) eight. The months and days don’t have special names, just month one, month two, etc. and weekday 1, weekday 2…

Finally, a lot of their words, especially for modern things, are built from smaller, simpler words. Like, computer is “electric mind,” television is “electric look at [thing],” phone is “electric speech.” A mermaid is a “beautiful person fish,” an airplane is a “flying machine,” entrance and exit are “enter opening” and “out opening.” Probably the most useful words I’ve learned are “xia” and “shang,” or “under/down” and “on/up.” You can “xia/shang che”, get off or on a car or bus, “xia/shang lou,” go down or up stairs, the cat is “zai zhuozi shang/xia,” on or under the table, “xia/shang yi ci,” last/next time, “xia/shang yi ge yue,” last or next month.  And who needs a special word for a baby animal? Small pig, small rabbit, small chicken, they all work. Oh, and I like this a lot. Most Chinese that we’ve encountered call all rodents “laoshu” which means mouse or rat, but the technical names for squirrel, hamster, guinea pig, weasel, chinchilla, chipmunk and gerbil are, respectively, loose mouse, granary mouse, pig mouse, yellow mouse wolf, chestnut mouse, flower chestnut mouse and long claws sand mouse. Most people didn’t even seem to know a word for a hamster or a guinea pig when we asked, other than laoshu. It’s interesting how specificity in some things like people’s names (they use respectful titles like big sister, little sister, grandmother, aunt, etc.) and animal species, isn’t so important, but when it comes to family relations, there’s a unique word for every person in the extended family, even age specific. To just brush the surface, your maternal grandmother and grandfather are “lao lao” and “lao ye”, while your paternal grandmother and grandfather are “nai nai” and “ye ye.” Big brother and big sister are “ge ge” and “jie jie,” but if I had, say, two big sisters, they’d be “jie jie” and “er jie” (2nd big sister), and little brother and little sister are “di di” and “mei mei.” Cousins are the same words based on their relationship to you, only with one of the syllables with “biao” first, so “biao jie,” “biao ge,” “biao mei,” “biao di.” I won’t even go into uncle and aunt and in-laws. And mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter. Obviously family relationships are of utmost importance in Chinese culture. Kind of like how the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow, or something.

Well, I’m sure all this has bored you, but congratulations if you made it this far! I’ll close with this great tongue twister my friend Zhao loves to say. And also, here’s the most famous tongue twister in Chinese, apparently it’s like this sentence in English (had no idea!).

« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.


(paste this into Google Translate and have it read it to you. It’s crazy!)











« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter


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