Making Family Vocab Personal
Learning Chinese family relationship words is a huge headache. It’s way too complicated and tends to come far too early in a typical Chinese course. Really, who wants to memorize the word for “father’s older brother’s wife” before you can even handle a basic conversation?
The reason Chinese family relationship terms are so complicated is because they can take into account (1) relative age, (2) mother’s or father’s side, and (3) blood relative or relative by marriage. In English, on the other hand, if I say someone is my uncle, none of those factors are addressed. The man could be my mother’s or father’s brother, or maybe brother-in-law, and there’s nothing about relative ages at all.
So for these reasons, learning a bunch of different terms to make all these relationships 100% clear feels entirely unnecessary to a lot of students. To be honest, it is unnecessary for them. Unless lots of their conversations in Chinese are going to revolve around family members, it’s just not that important.
I realized this fairly early in my studies. I had learned the family terms well enough to know which were male and which were female, but I didn’t bother with all the other distinctions. And guess what? It didn’t really matter.
There are a few times when it does matter, though. One is when you marry into a Chinese family and you have to know who all these people are. But that’s when a major new factor emerges: you’re no longer memorizing vocabulary, you’re memorizing real people and their titles. It’s the difference between a human face and a bunch of lines and circles on a chart, and your memory appreciates it.
Similarly, when I returned to the States with my in-laws this summer, I knew I’d have to be introducing them to various people from my parents’ side of the family. Rather than digging out the old Chinese family relationships chart, I went through the relatives I knew would be there and gave them Chinese names. For example, my Uncle Marty is my mom’s younger brother, so he’s Marty 舅舅, and his wife is Kathy 舅妈. My Uncle Jim is my dad’s older brother, so he’s Jim 伯伯, and his wife is Dot 伯母. Learning the terms by assigning them to real people makes them easier to remember and ensures that they’re actually useful to you.
When you think about it, it’s how kids learn these words in the first place. In fact, they learn to associate the titles with real people long before they even understand the relationships the titles refer to. Later on, they learn the relationships, and then learn to relate the relationships to other people.
To take it even further, here’s an example of a real conversation I had with my wife recently:
> Me: So my mom’s little brother is my…
> Her: Jiujiu (舅舅).
> Me: Right, jiujiu. So I can call him Marty Jiujiu.
> Her: Right.
> Me: So then my dad’s older brother Jim is my…
> Her: Bobo (伯伯).
> Me: OK, Jim Bobo. And then my dad’s older sister?
> Her: Uhhh… I forgot. My dad doesn’t have an older sister.
This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this kind of “vocab lapse” with native speakers. With a whole generation of only children, more and more personal links are missing, and the nomenclature system just doesn’t carry the weight it once did. You can decry the decline of family values and Confucian ideals all you want, but for the average Chinese student it means this: you don’t have to worry too much about Chinese family relationship titles until it becomes personal. And that’s also when the titles become memory manageable.