Chinese at the end of two months

You haven’t seen many postings by me recently, because I’ve left the blogging to Marcia since we came to Kunming. We’ve both been very busy with our Chinese language studies, and I really wanted to focus on that while I was here. But now as our time has drawn to a close, I thought I would share some personal thoughts about our intensive language program, as Marcia did earlier.

Marcia and I have both been amazed at how far we have gotten in just two months, maybe equivalent to two years of college language courses. We can both carry on simple conversations with our very patient teachers, and we can get through some aspects of basic daily life. I got a haircut and seem to have communicated well enough to avoid major mishaps. I was able to buy an antibiotic by name in a pharmacy.

Knowing a little Japanese has been useful on balance and not particularly confusing, although I still occasionally say “ni” instead of “er” for “two”. That one is particularly difficult since Japanese uses the same character for its phonetic sound, so reading it that way is almost instinctive.

Chinese is SO much easier than Japanese. The grammar is simple and quite similar to English. There are none of the levels of formality and politeness that make Japanese challenging even for native speakers. Although tones and unfamiliar consonants make pronunciation a little difficult, we both felt we got over those hurdles after a couple of weeks.

And the characters make sense. I never tried to learn kanji while studying Japanese, although I did get to the point where I could recognize a few hundred common characters. Japanese kanji are difficult because they are an imperfect mapping of a foreign writing system onto a very different language. Writing Japanese with Chinese characters is no more natural than it would be to write English that way. Until you know how they are combined into full words, you never know how to pronounce each character. So although there are only 2,000 characters in general use, you almost need to memorize the dictionary to know how to read them.

In Chinese, with only a few exceptions, each character represents one and only one syllable’s sound, and often that sound is represented within the character. Once you learn a character, you know how it and related characters are read no matter where they show up in each word. So although Chinese actually uses more characters than Japanese, they are a very natural match to the language and therefore much easier to learn. I have now studied over 1,000 characters and every day it actually becomes easier to learn new ones. Although I’m slow and still have a long way to go, I can now read paragraphs in the textbook and a surprisingly large number of street signs. I hope that I can eventually take this knowledge back to Japanese and learn to read that language too.

As Marcia noted earlier, I took a much more formal approach, for better or worse. I believe in learning a language on its own terms, even if that presents seemingly great challenges. I have worked through a textbook focused on vocabulary and characters, since I think this will ultimately allow me to read and progress faster at more advanced levels. It’s not ideal, since I don’t get as much practice in conversation as Marcia.

Challenges are great. Part of me thought we were crazy trying to learn one of the world’s most difficult languages at our age. And yes, it is harder for us to memorize vocabulary than when we were children. And I get very frustrated with all the words I’m forgetting – unless I practice constantly, vocabulary seems to disappear as fast as I learn it. But by being really focused and persistent, I have been able to do something I’ve always wanted to do, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

Technology actually helps. Chinese dictionaries have historically been difficult, because they must be organized either by complex writing rules or by transliterated roman characters, neither of which is obvious to non-native speakers. I’ve bought a superb (though expensive) iPhone app called Pleco, which is the world’s most amazing electronic dictionary. It contains several dictionaries with more than 200,000 words, and it uses hyperlinking to easily navigate from meaning to pronunciation to characters to component radicals to related words. Its character recognition is incredible, finding over 95% of the characters I draw even with my lousy handwriting. So I finally have a tool that is as easy as an English dictionary where I can draw an unfamiliar word and see its meaning, history and associations.

I keep all the words I learn in a giant spreadsheet with columns for the Chinese characters, their transliterated pronunciations, and their English meaning. For a while I also tried to capture the equivalent Japanese word to review what I learned last year and to see how closely the writing systems map, but as the volume increased I couldn’t keep that up. But in any case, I now have a tool that I can search and filter as necessary to learn and review new words. It’s much better than flash cards.

When learning a language, one gains an appreciation for the phenomenal complexity of human experience and our minds that have to make sense of it. Although I might know 2,000 words and be able to remember half of them on a good day, I’d need three or four times that to read a newspaper or conduct daily life. Add another factor of two to be truly literate. We could actually approach that with several years of dedicated effort, but it would be very difficult. Children, after all, spend eight years in school to get to that point.

So what can we do with this? So far, not much other than giving instructions to taxi drivers and barbers. We content ourselves with the knowledge that we can travel to remote regions without being completely defenseless. We may come back to Kunming for some more lessons in the fall, and if we eventually come live in China, we can continue learning.

Yesterday we left for Nepal, where we will go on another long trek. As before, internet access will be rare, so there may be long periods of silence from about May 2 to May 29. After that, we plan to move to the Indian Himalaya for more trekking, returning to North America on July 12 for six weeks. In the fall, we will go to what some Chinese call “wugesitan” (the five “stans” in Central Asia). Stay tuned for more adventures.

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