Personal Experience with the Other Particle “ma”
25 Jan 2012
I remember quite distinctly the way I learned the sentence-final particle 嘛. I had only been studying Chinese for a little over a year, and thus was quite familiar with the yes/no question particle 吗, but not this new 嘛, which seemed a bit more complex. I might have studied it before and just ignored it, but once I was on the streets of Hangzhou and hearing it all the time, I knew it was time to start figuring out what this 嘛 was all about.
So I broke out my trusty old Oxford dictionary (we still learned Chinese from actual books in those days), and looked up 嘛. Here’s what I found:
> 嘛: ma (助) 1 [used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious]: 这样做是不对～！ Of course it was acting improperly! 孩子总是孩子～！ Children are children! 2 [used within a sentence to mark a pause]: 你～，就不用亲自去了。 As for you, I don’t think you have to go in person.
I know some people hate learning from dictionaries, and grammatical concepts especially can be difficult to learn that way, but for me this explanation was a revelation: used at the end of a sentence to show what precedes it is obvious.
I think a lot of us have personal experiences in which we acquire a new word, and the memory of those specific vocabulary acquisition experiences stay with us long after we internalize the words themselves (one of my own personal examples is my attempt to buy a bug zapper light). This is quite natural, and it’s also one of my key misgivings about SRS. The way we naturally acquire language stays with us and reinforces the entire process, tightly binding words, meaning, and real-world experience. SRS (or simple word lists in general) can’t really offer this deep of a connection.
But back to my dictionary example… How is this any different from an SRS learning method, divorced from a real-world connection? Logically, I feel like looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t much different from being presented a word electronically. Sure, there’s the tactile interaction with the book, and the effort involved in getting out the book in the first place, and the act of physically flipping to the appropriate page, then locating the appropriate headword with my finger. How much “momentum” do these behaviors actually amount to, in a learning context?
Although I can’t think of many compelling instances besides my 嘛 example, I definitely feel that there are words which I learned (and not just “learned,” but developed a strong connection to) largely due to a dictionary. This leads me to two important questions:
– How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through a dictionary? What was it that made it so memorable?
– How many of you out there have clear memories of really learning a word or expression through SRS? What was it that made it so memorable?
For me, I think the dictionary’s explanation struck me so poignantly because I had actually already expended a significant amount of mental energy on the use of 嘛 but I had not yet been able to express the ideas concisely, and the 嘛 entry did just that, right when I needed it.
Please share some of your own personal learning experiences in the comments. I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.
Related Grammar Links: