This week my wife and I have been planning a short family vacation to Japan. We’ll be hanging out in Fukuoka for a bit in August.
I majored in Japanese long ago, spoke pretty fluently, and was even reading Japanese literature. Now, after 18 years in China, my Japanese is rusty, but I do still speak it. Reading is much harder than it used to be, because all that Chinese in my brain wants to interpret the Japanese characters I see as Chinese. The more kana mixed in with the Japanese, the easier and more natural it is for me to read kanji as Japanese.
Anyway, what I’m finding much more difficult than reading Japanese is listening to it… in Chinese. The Chinese, of course, read Japanese kanji as if they were Chinese hanzi. In some cases, the Japanese words, pronounced as Chinese, become full-fledged loanwords in Chinese. No surprise, and no big deal. You get used to hearing Tokyo (東京) pronounced as “Dōngjīng,” and Kyoto (京都) as “Jīngdū,” etc.
But what you don’t get used to is hearing everything Japanese pronounced as Chinese. While we’re planning the trip, my wife is constantly dropping the Chinese names of all kinds of random Japanese places, and that’s something my poor brain can’t handle. On the one hand, they’re Japanese places, and I speak Japanese, so I want to know the Japanese names of the places we’re talking about. But on the other hand, my wife isn’t just going to learn Japanese for this trip, and she speaks to me mostly in Chinese, so of course she’s going to use the Chinese names. So my brain has to keep trying to jump through this series of hoops:
Chinese pronunciation → Chinese hanzi → Japanese kanji → Japanese name
(Sometimes I can get as far as step 2, but rarely can I get to step 4.)
Recently an AllSet Learning client came to me with an interesting problem: he was seeing strange, slightly “off” variations of characters in his ChinesePod lesson, “Adjusting the Temperature.” Once upon a time I studied Japanese, so I could recognize the characters he was seeing as Japanese variants:
What he saw:
What he expected to see:
[If you really care about the tiny discrepancy, you may need to click through and enlarge the screenshot to see the difference. I’m not going to focus on including text here, because that’s exactly the nature of the problem: the text is subject to change based on your system’s font availability.]
The really strange thing was that he was experiencing the exact same issue on both his 2010 MacBook and on his iPad 2. In troubleshooting this problem, I discovered that my client was running both an older version of iOS (4.x) as well as an older version of Mac OS (Leopard). I was experiencing neither on my 2008 MacBook (running Snow Leopard) or on my iPad 2 (iOS 5.x). But his system had all the required fonts, and switching browsers from Safari to others did nothing to solve the problem. So I concluded it was simply a system configuration problem.
Fixing the issue on the iPad
Here’s the fix. On the iPad, go into Settings > General > International (you might need to scroll down for that last one). You might see something like this:
Note that in the order pictured above, Japanese (日本語) is above simplified Chinese (简体中文) in the list. This is crucial! That means that if English fonts are not found for the characters on a given page, the system is going to match characters to Japanese fonts next.
So to fix this issue, Chinese should be above Japanese. The thing is, there’s no obvious way to change the order. The only way I found to do it is to switch the system language to Chinese, then switch back to English. [Warning: your entire iOS system interface will switch to Chinese when you do this; make sure you can read the Chinese, or you know where the menu position for this settings page is before you switch!]
Switching to Chinese makes the Chinese jump to the top of the list, then switching back to English makes English jump back above that, leaving Japanese below Chinese.
You should see something like this when you’re done:
Fixing the issue on Mac OS X
The exact some issue applies to Mac OS X system preferences. Go to: System Preferences… > Language & Text > Language.
This time, though, there’s an easier way to rearrange the order. Simply click and drag:
Notice the little message on the right about when the changes will take effect.
Does this really matter?
In the grand scheme of things, not really. It’s actually good to have some tolerance for font variations. But the detail-oriented may find this particular issue quite maddening. It’s good to have a simple way to fix it.
So why didn’t I have the issue, and he did? Well, I had at some point tried switching the system language to Chinese, on both my MacBook and on my iPad, but I later switched them back to English. So without even trying to, I had taught my system to prefer Chinese over Japanese. The problem appears when English is the only language ever used, and the system doesn’t know what to give preference to. In my client’s case, you would think that adding a Chinese input method might clue in the system, but apparently Apple isn’t quite that on the ball yet.
I’ve been asked a number of times: if Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language, what happens when you sing in Mandarin? Well, the answer is the melody takes over and the tones are ignored. Pretty simple.
However, it may not quite end there. I recently discovered a paper called “Tone and Melody in Cantonese” which asserts that Cantonese tones are set to music in a somewhat different way:
> For Chinese, modern songs in Mandarin and Cantonese exhibit very different behaviour with respect to the extent to which the melodies affect the lexical tones. In modern Mandarin songs, the melodies dominate, so that the original tones on the lyrics seem to be completely ignored. In Cantonese songs, however, the melodies typically take the lexical tones into consideration and attempt to preserve their pitch contours and relative pitch heights.
Here’s a graphical representation of Cantonese tones, with and without music:
And here’s an example of Mandarin:
I can’t say I’m fully convinced by the pitch contour graphic that the Cantonese songs “take the lexical tones into consideration,” but it’s an interesting argument. This would suggest that studying songs would be more beneficial to acquisition of tones for the student of Cantonese than for the student of Mandarin.
If you’re interested in this kind of thing, Professor Marjorie K. M. Chan has lots of articles available on her website’s Publications page.
Check out this crazy rubik’s cube, refitted with Chinese characters, print-block style:
The only thing is, if you actually use ink with this thing to print characters, and then you twist it around, you’re going to end up with ink all over your hands all the time. Minor design issue, though. Cool concept!
Legendary animator Chuck Jones is said to have offered budding young artists this piece of advice, in one form or another:
We all have at least 10,000 bad drawings inside of us. The sooner we get them out and onto paper, the sooner we’ll get to the good ones buried deep within.
Chuck apparently didn’t make up this quote; although the exact number varies, the advice is frequently heard in interviews with any Chouinard or CalArts graduate. This little gem has been going around for a while.
I like this idea. It’s not that you’re lacking a skill, it’s that you just need to purge all those crappy drawings inside. It’s a whole lot easier to just get rid of junk than to build something entirely new from scratch, isn’t it? You can almost imagine a “crappy drawing” count somewhere going down over time, as those amateur doodles run out and a real artist bursts forth.
This is an idea that learners of Chinese could use. It’s not that you need to “learn tones,” it’s that you have 10,000 bad tones inside you that need to get out before you can hope to be fluent. It’s a veritable exorcism of that “crazy-tones laowai accent.”
And until you expel those bad tones, they torture you a bit. It’s not enough to lock yourself up in a room and recite your textbook. Oh no, you have to get out there and talk to real people and screw up, and get those blank stares and giggles. And that does burn a little.
Until you get all those bad tones out, you’re in a sort of tone purgatory. In case you’re not familiar, purgatory is a state in which in imperfect soul is cleansed before it can continue on to heaven. Over the ages, it has frequently been depicted as purifying flames.
Every bad tone is an accent impurity, but all you can do is exorcise them slowly, one by one, by practicing your Chinese. Getting tones wrong is frustrating, and can feel like torture at times, but heaven awaits… (Heaven is, by the way, “talking to Chinese people.” Hmmm, slight exaggeration?)
So you may be in tone purgatory, but so what? You can conduct the accent exorcism on your own. You know what to expect. All you have to do is get out there and start talking.
I can’t agree with anyone who says that learning Chinese isn’t hard, because it’s got to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, it’s been extremely rewarding, but I personally found it quite hard. Hopefully you’re not someone who chooses to learn a language based solely on how difficult it is perceived to be. But as someone who has chosen to learn a language for the wrong reasons before, and who also once shied away from Chinese, daunted by those terrifying tones, I can tell you that it is definitely difficult enough to scare off the casual dabbler. But what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese?
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. When I say “difficult,” what do I mean? Here’s a definition from the Oxford Dictionary of English:
needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand
So when we talk about difficult, we shouldn’t confuse this with time-consuming. John Biesnecker recently wrote a great post explaining why the time-consuming nature of studying Chinese does not make it difficult, followed by extensive, patient clarifications in the comments.
…learning Chinese is a long, drawn out series of really easy things — learn a character, learn a word, listen to a song, talk to someone, watch a movie, write an email, 等等. Not a single one of them is hard. Not one.
While I agree with most of John’s premise, I can’t agree that nothing about learning Chinese is hard. I found learning Chinese very difficult in the beginning. Although difficulty is subjective, I think there’s an important part of the equation missing here. First, two examples from my own life.
Putting in Time vs. Acquiring a Skill
When I was in high school I played a video game called Final Fantasy II. It was an RPG for the Super NES which can be beaten with the characters in your party at around level 40. Nerdy kid that I was, I loved that game so much that I continued playing it long after I had beaten it, until all my characters were up to level 99. You might call that feat silly or sad, but it was essentially a very long (but somehow enjoyable??) slog to reach increasingly higher level-up points. It was a ridiculous time investment. But one thing it certainly wasn’t is difficult.
Another example from my awkward teen years. My cousin Kevin introduced me to juggling. He insisted that anyone could learn it in one day, if they just stuck to it. After trying a few times, this seemed hard to believe. Juggling just three balls for even 10 tosses was deceptively difficult. But for some reason I dug in and kept at it. After 30 minutes I could do those 10 tosses. After an hour, I was starting to look like I could juggle three balls.
Does it seem wrong to say learning to juggle is difficult? It honestly takes less than an hour if the learner keeps at it. I’ve tried to teach quite a few people to juggle, and the conversation usually goes like this:
Learner: Wow, you can juggle?
Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.
Learner: Really? Let me try.
[I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]
Learner: This is harder than it looks!
Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.
[5 minutes pass.]
Learner: This is too hard! See ya.
So why is juggling hard, even though 30 minutes is enough to get the basics down? It’s because it requires the mastery of a new skill, which, our brain reasons, “shouldn’t be too hard.” The logic of the task is quite simple. Throw ball. Catch ball. Repeat. The brain grasps the concept immediately. But the hands do not comply. The skill is too foreign.
In essence, it’s “hard” because it’s frustrating. Actual performance does not live up to one’s reasonable expectations for one’s performance, and this is a blow to one’s ego. It’s emotional, not rational. What’s worse, if this simple task cannot be accomplished as easily as estimated, how can you be sure you’re ever going to get the hang of it?
This is the crux of the difficulty of learning juggling, Chinese, and many other worthwhile skills: the sheer frustration of the endeavor, and the ever-present fear that one is attempting the impossible. It takes a lot of effort to acquire an entirely new skill. Many people simply get discouraged and quit. “It’s too hard.”
The Hard Part
When I say that learning Chinese is hard, I don’t mean everything about it is difficult. For me, the hard part about learning Chinese, without a doubt, has been mastering the tones. The worst part was arriving in China after a year and a half of formal Mandarin study to make the horrifying discovery that no one in China understood my Chinese. I’m not one to give up easily, however, and I eventually made it. In my experience, tones are the single most frustrating thing about learning Mandarin Chinese.
Why? Well, to begin with you can’t even distinguish the tones. It seems impossible. Then, once you start to be able to distinguish them, you can’t reproduce them on your own. It seems impossible. Then, once you can produce individual tones in isolation on your own, it all falls apart when you try to string tones together. It seems impossible. Then, once you can start to string tones together with some semblance of accuracy, adding in sentence intonation screws everything up. It seems impossible.
See a pattern? Mastering tones is a long, frustrating process. I think there comes a point in almost every learner’s experience (me included!) where they say something like this:
What’s wrong with these people? I said everything perfectly. I know all my tones were right. But they always act like they can’t understand me!
This is pure frustration. It happens to every learner.
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Sometimes acquiring Mandarin’s tones seems perilously close to this definition!
The Good News
The good news is that although Chinese has a steep learning curve, the worst part, by far, is right at the beginning. You have no choice but to tackle the tones right off the bat, and they’re just hard. But once you get a handle on them, the worst is behind you. (This is, however, where John Biesnecker’s “time-consuming does not mean difficult” argument kicks in, and you still have a long road ahead with the characters and vocabulary acquisition.)
Because the hardest part is right at the beginning, I think advanced learners can sometimes forget how difficult and frustrating it was. But it’s a key issue I face on an almost daily basis in my work at AllSet Learning. For beginners, the learning curve can be a bit brutal.
You’re not afraid of a challenge, are you?
Mastering tones may be difficult, and memorizing all those characters may be time-consuming, but learning Chinese is definitely worth it. Difficulty is a subjective thing, so there may be those with an uncanny knack for acquiring tones (or perhaps indefatigable, saintly patience) who honestly don’t find it difficult (or frustrating). I’m willing to bet that some learners simply have a penchant for blocking out distant painful memories, and there may even be a few out there with devious plans to trick you into falling in love with Chinese. It is, after all, one of the world’s most fascinating languages.
There have been a number of excellent articles already written on this topic. I’ve linked to some of them below. Please note that David Moser’s article is tongue-in-cheek. Brendan’s conclusion is spot on, and I think Ben Ross’s views are also very close to my own.
I was recently introduced to the awesome Google Suggest Venn Diagram Generator by Micah. Some interesting suggested searches by Google were crossed with a Venn diagram by some creative soul, and then the process was automated on the web by request. The result is a unique way to visualize and compare the data indexed by Google.
Here’s an example of what the diagram generator produces:
So we can see from this graph that according to Google, lots of people are asking (or telling) why both people and girls are mean, why girls and Americans are dumb, and why people, girls, and Americans are all stupid.
I decided to try some queries of my own. I chose the terms “Chinese,” “Japanese,” and “English” as my recurring comparisons, and then added a little color to the results. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
how does _____ …
Yikes, “how does Chinese water torture work“? Gotta love the intellectual curiosity. I like the “how does English sound to foreigners” question though.
learn _____ …
Apparently there’s a whole lot of learning going on in the DC area. It’s no surprise that people want to learn online for free, but it’s interesting that Chinese is the only language of the three that people expect to learn in 5 minutes. (Tip: it might take slightly longer than that.)
_____ grammar …
Ah, good old 的. (I’m kind of surprised it trumped 了, though.)
In my work at AllSet Learning I’ve had a number of clients trying to get from an elementary to an intermediate speaking level, and at the same time finally deciding to tackle the Chinese characters they’ve been avoiding for so long. My advice is usually some variation of, “if you’re serious about wanting to learn Chinese, you need to bite the bullet and start learning characters.” (Most learners already know this, but somehow they need it told to them unequivocally.)
Fortunately for my clients, they all live in Shanghai, so they’re always surrounded by Chinese characters. If you’ve long been intimidated by Chinese characters, it’s surprisingly easy to block them all out and not really even see them in your daily life. Once the journey to learn Chinese characters has begun in earnest, however, it’s time to take the blinders off. And simply by paying attention to the characters around you, you start to notice a lot.
Sure, especially in the beginning, you don’t recognize most characters you see. But the more you look, the more you recognize. One of my clients told me excitedly,
> I learned the character 女 a long time ago so I could find the women’s room, but I never learned the character for “man.” Then, the other day, I saw the character 男 on a door, and I actually was able to read the character I had just learned. It suddenly had meaning!
One small step on the road to learning characters, but a giant leap in terms of achievement. That first “reading moment” really is a significant milestone in the long road ahead. No, characters themselves aren’t “magical,” but there is definitely a bit of a “character high” in those early days of discovery.
Anyway, eager to support learners of Chinese characters, I’ve been on the lookout lately for super easy signs. Two especially stood out:
小大人 (“Little Adults”)
Do the characters around you help you in your studies? I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Chinese living abroad so frequently forget how to write (relatively common) characters is that they no longer have those constant passive reminders built into their environments. In my own studies here in China, I’ve learned characters from my surroundings many, many times. The characters around you may not be often mentioned as key to the immersion experience, but they sure do help.
Every year around Christmastime, my “Christmas Songs in Chinese” blog post from 2006 gets a lot of action. I’ve been seeing a lot of requests there for lyrics, and I tried to help out with that, but I found the Chinese versions of these Christmas songs’ lyrics surprisingly difficult to track down. If anyone can offer links to those lyrics, it would be appreciated by many.
Anyway, you may enjoy these Sinosplice Christmas music posts from the archive:
> You’re afraid, aren’t you, Mandarin? You’re starting to feel it; the cold sweat trickling down your back. You heard I kicked English’s ass already at 12, and you witnessed first hand what I did to French. French is my b*tch now. And I’m coming for you, Mandarin.
> I know you fancy yourself the biggest, meanest language in town. I know you beat the snot out of most anyone who comes to take you on. Hell, you even gave me a sound asswhooping once that caused me to give you space for quite some time. But I’m not like the others. I’m not giving up, and with every day I grow stronger. You ain’t never met anyone like me, Mandarin. And you’re starting to realize it.
I loved this post, and not just because of the “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be difficult” attitude. Simon does a good job of reminding us that learning a language is not just a weekend’s endeavor, and to keep up the fight, you have to play the mental game. You have to psych yourself up. Talking a little trash does some good.
It also reminds me that I’ve got to keep working hard too if I want to someday be able to deliver the kind of merciless asswhooping that Simon describes.