A while back I wrote about how learning Chinese compares to learning Japanese, difficulty-wise. It’s generated a lot of interest, but one point which many readers may not have fully understood was why the Japanese “pronunciation difficulty” line rises towards the end. Refer to the graph here:
So… What makes it more difficult when you study long enough? This is what I originally wrote:
Japanese pronunciation is quite easy at first. Some people have problems with the “tsu” sound, or difficulty pronouncing vowels in succession, as in “mae.” Honestly, though, Japanese pronunciation poses little challenge to the English speaker. The absolute beginner can memorize a few sentences, try to use them 20 minutes later, and be understood. The real difficulty with Japanese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting pitch accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task (and I have not done it yet!).
Recently I discovered YouTuber Dogen. He’s got a bunch of really great videos on advanced Japanese pronunciation, and this once does a great job of summing up and illustrating the 4 main types of Japanese pitch accent:
I don’t know about you, but I never studied Japanese pitch accent in depth as a student. Not as a beginner, and not as an intermediate to advanced student. I remember I learned what it was, but it was never given a lot of emphasis. It really does seem to be something you typically tackle once you’ve confirmed that you’re a super serious learner, and “just making myself understood” isn’t enough anymore.
This contrasts with Chinese, where the 4 tones are thrown in your face from the beginning (there is no escape), followed closely by the tone change rules.
Interestingly, when Chinese learners in China study Japanese in school, they do learn pitch accent from the get-go, and the result is much more native-like pronunciation from a much earlier stage. I’ve witnessed this, and it’s impressive. Freeing up learners from the burden of kanji (Chinese characters in Japanese) means that time and effort can be placed elsewhere. (Similarly, Chinese learners tend to be a bit weak on the non-character syllabaries of Japanese: hiragana and katakana, over-relying on their character recognition advantage to get them through reading.)
Mastery of pinyin is important for every beginner learner of Mandarin Chinese. This much is widely agreed upon (although not always thoroughly executed). But what about adult native speakers of Chinese? Aside from using pinyin to type, or maybe occasionally to look up an obscure character which they can guess the reading for, there’s not much use for pinyin in their literate lives, right?
Well, you’re mostly right. Pinyin is mostly supplanted by characters among the literate Chinese population. But there is one small exception: TA.
These Shanghai Metro ads are entirely in Chinese except for the “TA.” This phenomenon is fairly common in advertising in China, although these are definitely the best examples I’ve seen because not only are they incredibly clear and highly visible, but they also actually include the meaning of the pinyin “TA” in characters underneath. In case you can’t see clearly, what it says under “TA” is:
（ 他 / 她 ）
So the point of using “TA” instead of characters is that it leaves the gender unassigned, so that the hypothetical person referred to in the ad can be male or female in the minds of the consumers. I’ve noticed that it is typically written in all caps, as well.
This is, in essence, doing what pinyin does best: providing the sound while leaving the meaning in question. This is something that Chinese characters are often not especially well-suited for, particularly in this case.
A recent topic of conversation among friends in Shanghai is the new app “Xue Xi Qiang Guo.” It’s a news hub for state-sponsored news and commentary, as well as a way to show devotion to the Chinese Communist Party by studying what’s in the app and proving mastery through quizzes. In this way you can get points which can earn you nominal rewards, and it also ties into China’s “social credit” system. (For more info on Xue Xi Qiang Guo, you can check out its official site as well as the Wikipedia’s article.)
What I want to talk about today is the name: 学习强国. If you plug that into Google Translate, Wenlin, or Pleco, you get a similar two-word breakdown: 学习 强国 (xuéxí qiángguó). You’ll note that English news coverage of the app (including Wikipedia) all write the name in pinyin as two words: “Xuexi Qiangguo.”
But this is Chinese, where clear word boundaries are not provided, and that is not the only breakdown. It’s not even the one that occurs first to most native speakers of Chinese.
1. Xuexi Qiangguo
OK, so 学习 is a given. it means “study,” and it’s certainly in keeping with the spirit of the app. No problem there. The word 强国, meaning “powerful country,” however, is not so common. The overall interpretation here seems to be “learn from the powerful country (China),” which seems plausible, but it’s just not what occurs to Chinese users first. So let’s drop the 强国 parsing (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm in English language coverage of the app) and see what else we can get.
2. Xuexi Qiang Guo
Classical Chinese was remarkably flexible, most words consisting of individual characters that can serve as various parts of speech in different contexts (noun, verb, and adjective fluidity being common). This trend carries over to modern times for certain words, and 强 is one of them. So while 强 used by itself is most often used to mean “strong” in modern Mandarin, in certain contexts, 强 can also mean “strength” or “strengthen.” So from there, we can get the two-word phrase 强 国 (qiáng guó), “strengthen the country.”
Since the word 学习 (meaning “study”) can also be a noun or a verb, you might translate the full app name literally as something like “Studying Strengthens the Country,” “Study Strengthens the Country,” or even “Study to Strengthen the Country.” This interpretation would likely be the official meaning of the name if you asked the CCP.
3. Xue Xi Qiang Guo
There’s one other unofficial, sly interpretation which goes unnoticed by few Chinese these days. The word 学习 can also be broken down into two separate words. Since the first character, 学, can mean “study” on its own, and the second character, 习, is also the surname of Xi Jinping (president of China), you can also interpret 学 习 as the phrase “xué Xí,” which means “study Xi” or “learn from Xi.” A quick look at the content of the app shows that this interpretation is, indeed, fully grounded in reality. In fact, some are calling the app the “Little Red Book” of the modern age.
In this parsing, the final meanining of 学 习 强 国 would be “Studying Xi Strengthens the Country.” Since cause-effect relationships are often implied in Mandarin, you could also make that a command: “Study Xi to Strengthen the Country.”
Pretty clever name. It is indeed an age of 学 习 (xué Xí). Now there’s an app for that: Xue Xi Qiang Guo.
Nov. 25, 2019 Update: Dr. Victor Mair shared with me his take on this app, which he wrote on Language Log way back in May of this year. I would have linked to it originally if I had been aware of it: The CCP’s Learning / Learning Xi (Thought) app
I’ve been going through some literature in the field of second language acquisition, and this includes Paul Nation’s 2001 work, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. In case you’re not familiar with him, Paul Nation is regarded as one of the world’s foremost academics in the field of vocabulary acquisition, and his books are well worth reading.
Anyway, I wanted to share what Paul Nation describes as “the four strands” of a “balanced language course.” It’s worth noting that this book was published in 2001, and Paul Nation is not introducing radical new ideas here; he’s simply gently reminding the learner about some facts that researchers in the field of second language acquisition have known for some time. And yet, what follows is probably not going to sound familiar to most of you that have ever studied a foreign language in school. It’s truly jarring just how strong the grip of traditional language teaching in our educational system still is.
The “Four Strands” given by Paul Nation in the introduction of his book are:
Comprehensible Meaning-Focused Input
Firstly there is learning from comprehensible meaning-focused input [see the input hypothesis]. This means that learners should have the opportunity to learn new language items through listening and reading activities where the main focus in on the information in what they are listening to or reading.
Language is all about conveying meaning! (This fact is surprisingly easy to forget.)
The second strand is one that has been subject to a lot of debate. This is language-focused learning, sometimes called form-focused instruction (Ellis, 1990). There is growing evidence (Long, 1988; Ellis 1990) that language learning benefits if there is an appropriate amount of usefully-focused deliberate teaching and learning of language items.
This type of learning is what we think of as the traditional “teacher teaching” approach. Obviously, there are also “good ways” and “bad ways” to go about the explicit instruction, but that’s another topic…
The third strand is meaning-focused output. Learners should have the chance to develop their knowledge of the language through speaking and writing activities where their main attention is focused on the information they are trying to convey.
Nation also makes the point that focusing on output can really bring focus and meaning to listening and reading activities, as an observant learner can “pick up” how certain information is expressed in the target language.
The fourth strand in a balanced course is fluency development. In activities which put this strand into action learners do not work with new language; instead, they become more fluent in using items they already know.
“Using items they already know!” I feel like this is blasphemy for some. And yet, yeah, you gotta practice using what you have merely studied. There is an implication here that should not go unnoticed: if you don’t ever focus on “fluency development,” then you don’tdevelop true fluency.
OK, this is the real kicker. If you’re a teacher, you may be thinking, “yeah, that all sounds fine.” But then how much time would you spend in your curriculum on each of the four strands? Nation mercifully gives us very clear numbers on the ideal distribution:
In a language course, the four strands should get roughly the same amount of time. This means that no more than 25% of the learning time in and out of class should be given to the direct study of language items; no less than 25% of the class time should be given to fluency development. If these strands are not equally represented, then the design of the course needs to be looked at again.
So, to be absolutely clear, this is what Paul Nation is advocating in his book:
…and this is a (somewhat optimistic) representation of what he knows to be the case in most language courses:
The status quo is not good. It doesn’t lead to true fluency.
The advice that I gave in that article still stands: that in a battle of wills where communication is not the goal of interaction, no one really wins. And if you’re interacting with Chinese people both to improve your Chinese and to have meaningful communication with other human beings, it’s best not to participate in these silly “power struggles.”
And yet I can clearly remember routinely participating in these meaningless battles of will, whether at a restaurant talking to the server, or in a store, or getting a haircut… And now I recognize that back in the beginning a big part of what drove the stubbornness to engage in the struggles was insecurity. As if by refusing to communicate with me in Chinese, the other person was insulting the Chinese level I had worked so hard to achieve. I imagine the other person may often have felt the same way. So then you’re left with two egos duking it out over language supremacy, but also not really even caring about the other person’s level.
So nowadays I’m a lot more laid back and compassionate about people insisting on using English with me. Not everything has to be about principles of efficiency or showing proper “respect.” I know, it sure took me long enough to recognize this (and it’s a bit embarrassing), but I think that at the root of it was simply a dearth of quality communication in Chinese. After starting my own company in 2010 and working with all Chinese staff all day every day in Chinese, I no longer felt a need to use Chinese in every other interaction, because I had my fill.
So, to those of you who, like me, like to ponder these sociolinguistic issues, I ask you: do you participate in language power struggles? Do they annoy you? Is your emotional reaction to them (or lack thereof) a factor of your own personality, or do you think it’s related to “having your fill” practicing Chinese? How big of a factor is linguistic insecurity?
P.S. I like the “Han Solo-Chewbacca communication” concept Jared brought up in the podcast!
I’ve been dealing a lot with clients’ Chinese character issues, and happened to stumble upon this Quora answer of Brendan O’Kane’s to a question about the origin of the character 奶:
Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue. One of the deepest-rooted and most pernicious of these false beliefs is the notion that characters have meaning. They don’t. The Chinese language [simplifying here; feel free to replace with “Chinese languages,” if you prefer] was spoken long before it was ever written, and has been spoken fluently throughout its history by far more people than have been able to write it fluently. The modern components of a character are not a reliable guide to either the meaning of the character or the early forms of a character, and the characters that make up a word are not necessarily a reliable guide to the meaning of the word. A lot of the stuff referred to as “etymology” in Chinese would more accurately be described as “stories about pictures” — cute, and occasionally helpful for memorization, and sometimes even sort of accurate, but mostly no more truthful than the old story about the English word “sincere” coming from Latin “sine cera,” “without wax,” or about “history” being “his story.”
Lots of interesting ideas here, and Brendan is spot on. And although “Chinese speakers believe a lot of things about their own writing system, many of them untrue,” that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn much of what Chinese speakers believe about their language (and writing system). In fact, you kind of have to. That’s culture. It’s like learning about all the ways that “America” is “the land of the free,” even if you don’t believe that the U.S. is that great bastion of liberty. What a people believes about its country is important.
Still, you don’t take everything at face value. Brendan’s point might be a “there is no spoon” moment for you, though, if you’re ready for it.
The key point here is that no bit of language, either spoken or written, has a meaning that people haven’t given it. (For more information on where meaning comes from, read up on semiotics and semantics.) Furthermore, spoken language is primary. Written language is a technology employed by a society. Sure, it’s a special technology with special properties and all kinds of cultural power, but it’s not the language itself, nor is it inherently meaningful in itself. Chinese characters do not hold any meaning that people do not give them.
If all this sounds obvious, that’s great, but if you pay attention, you may notice that Chinese characters do sometimes seem to take on mystical qualities in Chinese culture.
I’m not trying to get overly philosophical or quibble over irrelevant details. The question for me is: what does this mean for the learner of Chinese? Here are a few points:
You don’t have to know the full origins of every character you learn. Sure, they are sometimes helpful for memorization, and if that’s the case, great.
It’s worth noting how many non-language-oriented native speakers, fully fluent and literate, have no interest in character origins, and have forgotten most of what they once knew about that stuff. And yet they are still fully fluent and literate in Chinese.
Since character meanings are neither inherent nor absolute, it’s not bad to sometimes make up your own little stories to help you remember characters. The key is consistency (so as not to confuse yourself), not factual accuracy.
Still, because characters are such an important part of Chinese culture, it’s not a good idea to make up your own stories that run counter to the standard ones that virtually every Chinese person knows, like the meanings of the most basic pictographic (人, 日, 木, etc.) or the simple or compound ideographic (上, 明, 好, etc.) ones. For the more complicated ones that most native speakers couldn’t explain, your own story mnemonics are safe to use.
This is a complicated issue with tons of cultural baggage, I realize. I’m happy to discuss in the comments!
We often think of “linguistic diversity” referring to the existence of minority languages in an area. But it can also refer to the varying dialects of a region, which in China would include topolects, AKA 方言. When you throw various forms of language together in a single geographical area, they don’t stay distinct; they bleed into each other in interesting ways.
Here are a few anecdotes about that, and what we’re potentially losing when a large region’s language becomes one shade of plain vanilla.
Beijing to Hangzhou
I learned the basics of Mandarin in Hangzhou, where not so many people speak “standard Chinese.” I had to constantly check dictionaries to make sure I was learning the proper pronunciation of new words, because the pinyin sounds “ch/sh/zh” were always being pronounced as “c/s/z”, as southern Chinese tend to do. This was annoying it times, but it didn’t bother me too much, because it was simply the way things were.
Fast forward a few years. I witnessed students of Mandarin visiting Hangzhou from Beijing, absolutely livid because no one in Hangzhou spoke “proper Chinese,” and they couldn’t understand anything. They were used to extremely standard Mandarin, with a bit of Beijing dialect for flavor, but not this.
The whole thing was amusing to me, because not only could I easily understand what they could not, but when I visited Beijing, the locals were so easy to understand that it was surreal, as if every word that came out of every Beijinger’s mouth was a recording from a textbook dialog.
(Note: Americans, when visiting the UK for the first time, may have a similar experience to these students of Chinese in Beijing.)
Fading Tolerance for the Nonstandard
When we had our second baby, we hired a yuesao (post-natal caregiver, 月嫂). We call her Zhang Ayi. Zhang Ayi is great, but she’s from Jiangsu, and she has an accent that can be hard for me to understand.
At first I was thinking, “my Chinese must be worse than I thought,” because after all these years in China, a little accent shouldn’t throw me off too much. It made me feel better, then, to know that my wife (a Shanghai native) also has trouble understanding Zhang Ayi, and fairly often. Zhang Ayi manages to speak in a way that sounds standard, but you just can’t understand it. (As a non-native speaker, it really makes me doubt my listening comprehension!) It’s a different flavor of “nonstandard” than I’m used to, but it affects even a native speaker’s comprehension.
The interesting thing is that my wife’s parents (one from Shanghai, one from Hubei) have no trouble understanding anything Zhang Ayi says. Their generation grew up in a China with wildly heterogenous Mandarin spoken (remember Mao’s Mandarin?), and they just have a much, much higher tolerance for strong accents. This tolerance is fading fast in the younger generations.
It’s been widely reported that Shanghainese (上海话) is dying. A lot of Shanghainese parents are taking great pains to use Shanghainese with their children to make sure that this cultural heritage does not die out.
The problem is that a dialect/topolect is not merely a family issue; it’s a community issue. And what’s happening with these families is that their children do indeed comprehend Shanghainese, and can usually say a few words and phrases, but they essentially do not speak it. Only standard Chinese is allowed in schools, and that makes it “weird” for Shanghainese kids to talk to each other in anything other than standard Chinese. Shanghainese does not feel necessary or useful to the children.
What’s even worse, even if a Shanghainese parent goes the extra mile and insists that only Shanghainese is spoken in the home, raising her own child to be 100% fluent in Shanghainese, her child will likely be the member of a society where no one else of his generation actually speaks Shanghainese. And one fluent speaker can’t keep Shanghainese going.
A better title for this post would be “never trust a native speaker completely.” We all know instinctively that the mind of a native speaker is an essential resource for learning a language. Put enough of these native speakers together, and you can create the immersion experience which all learners crave in order to truly level up their fluency. But as for an isolated, individual native speaker… there are a few issues to keep in mind.
Below I’ve summed up the three big reasons why you can’t trust native speakers (completely), and then rounded it off with some advice:
Put simply, most native speakers don’t know their language inside and out. Sure, they can speak their native language, and maybe even write it well. But when you start asking them more “meta” questions, many native speakers will struggle to give a straightforward or meaningful answer.
The kinds of things native speakers often struggle with when queried on their native tongues:
– Why is this wrong?
– What is the difference between these two words?
– How do you express this obscure idiomatic phrase from my language in your native tongue?
A lot of times, the native speaker honestly wants to help, but they’re just not equipped to do so. Being masters at their own native tongue does not make them qualified to answer your metalinguistic questions. They may even refuse to answer your crazy learner questions (and in some cases, they may be well justified, since we learners tend to over-analyze at times).
So while it sounds strange to call a native speaker ignorant of his own language, when it comes to the “meta,” most native speakers are.
So to address the types of questions mentioned above:
– Native speakers don’t normally have to identify why something in their language is wrong. If something they say ever comes out wrong, they can fix it, based on their intuition. But they don’t ever have to say why they had to fix it. “It sounded weird” is the furthest they ever need to go down that line of thinking. (You don’t actually need to know why either, just as babies don’t need to know why. But sometimes you really want to know, and it can save time.)
– Native speakers know how to use similar words differently, but it’s not likely to be conscious. Or the differences they are conscious of (like “they’re, their, and there” in English) seem painfully obvious to even half-way diligent non-native speakers. (Having these types of questions answered well can often save you a lot of time spent on trial and error learning.)
– If the phrase from your language is obscure but this person has learned it, it’s possible that they learned it specifically because it was hard to translate. There’s a big chance they’ll fall back on a stock explanation for this that eclipses the myriad of untranslatable nuance. (This kind of question is typically not something you really need answered anyway, though.)
When it comes to the problem of ignorance, this is where language teachers have a huge leg up on the average joe. Especially experienced language teachers will have addressed the “why is this wrong” and “what’s the difference between these two words” many times, and will have gotten good at them. They might even be so good that they can give simple answers that enable you to grasp the essence and move on, instead of needlessly delving into endless minutiae.
OK, some some native speakers do have some meaningful metalinguistic insight into their own language. They might be language teachers, or translators, or just people that like to reflect on the peculiarities of their native tongue. These people are super helpful, and likely even enjoy answering your questions, so they’re great to have around.
The problem can occur when these people get a little cocky and start trying to make sweeping claims about their native tongue. They’re like the over-eager cop outside his jurisdiction. Allow me to illustrate with a little story from my own English-teaching past. (Oh yes… I was the cocky bastard in this story.)
Learning English from a cocky teacher
When I first started teaching Chinese English majors, I noticed they were really bad at informal spoken English. One particularly glaring example was that the only greetings that they could handle were “hello” and “how are you?” I quickly banned those two, forced them to start using “hi” and “hey,” and taught them these greetings:
– The “how greetings”: How’s it going? How are you doing?
– The “what greetings”: What’s up? What’s new? What’s going on?
When a few of my students wanted to say “how are you going?” I made quite clear that this was wrong (bad English), and they were not to say it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that Australians regularly say “how are you going?” To make matters worse, some of the students I taught were preparing to study abroad in Australia!
I meant well (and those students seriously needed to learn some new informal greetings), but I presumed to speak as the authority on the entire English language (at the ripe old age of 24, no less), as an American, without even having substantial contact with non-American English. And that was just overstepping my bounds. I was cocky.
It’s surprisingly easy to do this as a teacher, though, even if you’re pretty sure you’re not cocky at all. There will always be weird exceptions and unfamiliar dialects, as well as new expressions coming into vogue. Teachers do their best, I know, but it can be difficult to play the role of “language authority” without buying into the vastness of one’s own “enlightened native speaker” knowledge at least a little.
This is what I was alluding to at the end of the last section: it just isn’t possible to know everything about a language, even if you’re an educated native speaker. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences between similar words. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just the differences in dialects of your native tongue. You could spend a whole lifetime studying just what words are falling out of common usage (becoming outdated), and what new words and phrases the kids are using these days. But what you can’t do is all of those things, in one lifetime (and definitely not by the age of 24).
In Linguistics 101 in college I was intrigued by the the concept of the ideolect, the idea that no single person uses the entirety of a given language, and no person uses the language they do use in exactly the same way. The entirety of a language exists as the sum of all speakers’ ideolects. It is inherently distributed (across the minds of speakers), and can never be fully centralized (except maybe by SkyNet some day?). This pretty much blew my mind.
And so linguists and language teachers will make efforts to see beyond their own ideolects, and to see the fuller picture of the language they are trying to understand. But the human brain can only hold so much, and there’s only so much time. A language is a big thing.
So… what now?
I hope I’ve convinced you that native speakers are fallible, and they cannot help but be so, when it comes to perfectly representing The Ultimate Truth about their mother tongues. But each has the most insight of anyone into his own ideolect.
No, you can’t trust a native speaker. But you can trust native speakers, as a group.
If it’s an important or tricky question, always get a second opinion. Better yet, if you’re an advanced learner, present conflicting evidence collected from multiple native speakers to those native speakers. This can produce fascinating insight for learners, and often for the native speakers themselves.
Here’s one simple experiment for Chinese learners which can reveal the multiplicity of opinions native speakers can hold: ask help from Chinese native speakers in choosing a Chinese name. For best results, ask for suggestions from multiple native speakers as well, and add those to the list. Then ask lots of different Chinese people what they think of the different Chinese names. Here’s what typically happens:
1. Some names will sound bad to almost everyone
2. Some names will sound fine to almost everyone
3. A few names will produce wildly different reactions
When I went through this process myself, years ago, I expected to find the “perfect name” that everyone agreed was awesome and perfect for me. That didn’t happen. I still remember quite clearly the dissenting opinions on the name I eventually chose (which got mostly positive feedback):
1. It sounds like a peasant’s name
2. It sounds like a monkey’s name
(I chose it anyway, because enough people thought it was a decent name, and I liked it.)
Whether you’re a learner or a metalinguistic advisor on your own native tongue, though, my advice is the same: Stay humble. Stay curious. And talk to lots of native speakers.
The following is a guest post by “Prince Roy.” If you’ve been following the blogosphere for a long, long time, you might recognize the name and remember his China blog, which was hosted on the (now defunct) Sinosplice blogging network. He also wrote the guest article Integrated Chinese (Levels 1, 2): A View From the Trenches on Sinosplice as well. In this post he’s going to share his personal experiences learning Vietnamese in preparation for being stationed there by the U.S. State Department, after having already learned Mandarin Chinese years ago to an advanced level.
When John asked me to comment on my experiences learning Vietnamese and Chinese, I was happy to oblige, because it allows me to try and wrap my head around what I’ve been through since I began studying Vietnamese last September (8 ½ months ago now). In the interests of full disclosure, I studied Chinese for a total of five years, and have spoken it now almost 25 years.
I will cut to the chase: Vietnamese is enormously more difficult than Chinese. Hands down. It’s not even close. Some of you may recall a seminal essay by David Moser: “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I had the pleasure to meet David recently (his Chinese is superb, by the way), and here’s some unsolicited advice for David and anyone else who might agree with him: if you think Chinese is hard, steer far, far clear of Vietnamese. I studied both languages in a very intensive environment, but when I recall my (much greater) proficiency in Chinese after the equivalent period spent learning Vietnamese, I can only cringe in shame at my Viet inadequacy. True, this is just my own experience, but don’t take my word for it—every person I know who has studied both languages sings the same sad song—Chinese is far easier than Vietnamese in every way except, just maybe, reading. Why is this? Here are a few general thoughts:
This is the big one. It is hard to imagine two sound systems more diametrically opposed than English and Vietnamese. Every aspect of Vietnamese phonology is hard. Vietnamese has single, double and even triple vowels. Few of them are remotely similar to English, and just the slightest mispronunciation will result in an unintended vowel. This, compounded with the tones, can easily render one’s speech unintelligible or worse.
The pronunciation of a consonant can change depending on whether it occurs at the beginning or end of a word. There is a multitude of nasal and glottal sounds that don’t exist in English or Mandarin. In southern Vietnamese, the dialect I am learning, people often pronounce ‘v’ as ‘y’—to add to the confusion, ‘d’ and ‘gi’ are also pronounced as a ‘y’ sound’. The consonant pair that has given me the most difficulty is t/đ (different from the ‘d’ above). In normal speed speech, I cannot distinguish them; in the language lab only if I listen very closely. Here’s a real-life example of why this is so critical: a very common dish in Vietnam is phở bò tái—rare beef pho. But when I pronounce this in Vietnamese, my teachers say they hear ‘phở bò đái’, literally ‘cow piss pho’. Oops. Umm…waiter?
In short, I’ve found Chinese phonology presents much less difficulty than Vietnamese.
Like Chinese, Vietnamese is tonal, but the similarity ends there. The northern (Hanoi) dialect has 6 tones; the southern (Saigon) has 5. Thankfully, I’m learning the Saigon dialect, because that extra tone of the Hanoi dialect is a ‘creaky’ tone which has the effect to my ears like nails on chalkboard. I had hoped my experience with Chinese would prove beneficial—the tones in Mandarin always seemed somewhat intuitive to me, even from when I first began to study the language. Not to say I am completely error free, but tones were never problematic for me to the degree they often are for other students.
Having spoken Chinese for so many years, I plead guilty to tonal transfer, but in my own defense, tones in Vietnamese are more subtle, and for me, not nearly as intuitive. Two that give me a lot of trouble are the dấu huyền and dấu nặng tones (low-falling and low-dropping), particularly when occurring consecutively and spoken at conversational speed. Also, the dấu sắc (high-rising) tone is tough for me, because I tend to produce it like the second tone of Mandarin, which is wrong. However, tones are the least of my worries in Vietnamese; I think they will come more naturally after I arrive in Vietnam this August. And at least my teachers tell me I sound tonal when I speak, albeit with a somewhat pronounced Chinese accent.
Vietnamese, like Chinese and English, is an SVO language. But that is its only concession. Vietnamese grammar is the most difficult aspect of the language after pronunciation. Similar to Chinese, sentence particles are a very important grammatical component, but Vietnamese takes this to a stratospheric level of complexity. I also believe Chinese is more flexible than Vietnamese—in the former, once you learn a particular sentence pattern, you can pretty much plug anything into it, and while it might not be the way a native speaker would say it, they will often understand you. Not so in Vietnamese. Phrase memorization is more useful than patterns, because if you don’t say it exactly like a Vietnamese does, you will usually encounter a blank expression on the face of your listener.
Another characteristic of Vietnamese is it boasts an extraordinary number of synonyms. Chinese is rich in synonyms too, of course, but the difference is that in Chinese, you might commonly encounter two to three of them in typical popular usage. In Vietnamese, it seems people like to use all of them.
But all is not lost
Vietnamese is indeed a very rich, complex language—in fact my classmates and I have an inside joke: Tiếng Việt rất phong phú (Vietnamese is a very rich language) = Vietnamese is really, really hard. But there is an upside for those with a Chinese background when learning Vietnamese. Due to the roughly 1000-year period that Vietnam was a colony of China, Chinese had an enormous influence on the Vietnamese language. I can determine a Chinese cognate in up to 60% of the vocabulary I’ve learned to this point. Its close relationship with Chinese is both a blessing and a curse, however. A blessing, because I can often correctly guess the meaning of words when I encounter them in a text, and a curse because that close relationship makes it harder for me to take Vietnamese on its own terms—and this language, like its people, is fiercely proud and independent. I feel as though I am treading water in Vietnamese, and my facility in Chinese allows me to, just barely, keep my nostrils above the water. That’s why I’m in awe of those among my classmates who are making good progress in Vietnamese without the benefit of Chinese. It makes their achievement all the more amazing.
My daughter is almost 2 years old now, and as she talks more and more, not only is it a blast to see that this little crying pink thing has grown into a real human, but I’ve also got front row seats to the amazing phenomenon of first language acquisition. If you’ve never seen a kid acquire language from scratch, or have never seen it happen bilingually, there are bound to be a few surprises. It’s kind of messy, and sometimes it feels like a wonder that it even works.
The other night my daughter displayed what you might call “neat presentation” of linguistic mastery. She asked for some water by saying “please water.” I gave her some of mine, and I could tell by her expression that it was colder than she expected. “It’s cold, huh?” I asked her. She nodded her head, repeating, “cold.” “It’s cold water,” I said. She nodded, repeating, “cold water, cold water.” Then she looked at her mom, and exclaimed with joy, “冰水，冰水!” (cold water, cold water). Wow, she’s already becoming a little translation machine! It’s not usually quite so orderly as all that, though.
Then there’s the “little boy” and “little girl” case, which ties in nicely with the concept of linguistic relativity. I recently realized that my daughter didn’t know the words “boy” or “girl,” and didn’t know the Chinese for them either. This seemed a little strange to me, because I know that during the day her Chinese grandmother takes her outside a lot, and she plays with other kids. Shouldn’t she at least know the Chinese for 男孩 (boy) or 女孩 (girl) or 小孩 (child), if not the English?
Well, it turns out that no, she shouldn’t know those words, because she rarely hears them. What she was learning was actually a bit more complicated than all that. Every time she encountered another baby that was male and younger than her, she was instructed to call him 弟弟, the Chinese word that literally means “little brother.” For girls younger than her, it’s 妹妹 (“little sister”). For little boys older than her, it’s 哥哥 (“big brother”), and for little girls older than her, it’s 姐姐 (“big sister”). This is fairly typical for Chinese kids.
Photo by Feldore
Of course, she doesn’t know the word for “man” or “woman,” either. She calls all women 阿姨 (that is, any female that’s not obviously still a child, much to the dismay of the 20-year-old young ladies she encounters), which traditionally means “auntie,” and all adult males 叔叔.
She especially enjoys identifying every 阿姨 (“auntie”) she sees, whether it be a woman on the street, a female mannequin in a store, or even a drawing of a woman in an ad.
Meanwhile, I’m lamely trying to remind her that there are English words for all these people, starting with “boy” and “girl,” and maybe it’s my imagination, but could it be she’s having a hard time accepting the words I offer because they don’t match her existing mental map?
More exposure is all she needs, of course… I certainly won’t make it any more complicated than that; I’ll just keep throwing natural English at her (I don’t speak to her in Chinese). But it’s certainly fun to watch her deft little brain running through these semantic mazes. With continued exposure, she’ll make it through, no matter what Chinese (or English) throws at her.
JP recently finished studying Chinese at the Monterey Institute, and he said something that caught my attention:
> Ok, how’s my Chinese now? It’s better than when I started. I’ve certainly seen a lot of vocab and patterns. A few of them are in my daily speech now. I’m not terribly worried that I haven’t internalized more of those yet… it’s not my first rodeo. I know that some of that stuff will start coming out of my mouth in the months to come.
> I actually discovered this phenomenon when I got back from France in 1993. My French had improved tremendously from the immersion experience, and I had plenty of new frenchy habits. But I was a little disappointed that my French wasn’t even better. I would go to French class in Seattle and make a lot of the same mistakes I had made before. Oh well, I thought, I didn’t get fluent, but at least it was fun.
> Fast forward to a year later, and I was totally able to speak French. So apparently the growth came after I had returned, after the immersion experience was long over.
Of course there’s a big catch. You have to keep talking, keep practicing, keep trying to improve. That’s certainly no problem for JP, but some learners may think that all the magic happens in one special context at one special time, and once extracted from that special environment, all the learning stops. Not so!
The jury is still out an exactly how closely related first and second language acquisition are, but clearly the two are related. One of the things that gives me great pleasure is watching my (not-yet-two-year-old) daughter soak up new words, earnestly taking them all in, but refusing to repeat them. And then, days or weeks later, she’ll suddenly bust out with those words in the appropriate context, much to the amazement of her audience.
No, it’s not a deliberate show. Her brain needs time to properly “digest” what she’s ingested in order to put it to use.
For me personally, some of the most interesting phenomena relate to Chinese grammar. There are certain higher-level grammar patterns that you can learn, and know, and understand in context, but then just never use yourself in normal conversation. Why bother with something like 之所以……是因为 when you can just use the regular cause-effect pattern? Or why bother extracting the object and with a 把 sentence and moving it around when you can get by with a regular SOV sentence?
The answer, of course, is that all this stuff adds nuance. But you filter out nuance when you’re not ready for it. Then you marinate in nuance for a while before you’re ready to fully embrace it yourself. Then one day the nuance just pops out of you, expressing just what you meant, and you didn’t even know you had it in you.
To get to that point, you just have to keep accepting that input while continually giving yourself opportunities to communicate.
NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:
1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state
2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment
3. To be treated “like a local”
4. To communicate in secret
5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language
Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).
But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)
So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.
I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:
1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose
2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off
I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?
“No sugar” or “sugar-free” in Chinese is 无糖. The character 无, in its simplified form (not 無), is not particularly difficult to write. It’s barely more complex than “#.” The character for “sugar,” however, is a different story: 糖. Kind of complex.
So if you’re working in a coffee shop and have to quickly mark coffee cups with a label that means “no sugar,” what are you going to use? Are you going to bother to write 无糖 over and over? Here’s what an employee at Knight Coffee writes:
So “无t” instead of “无糖.” (You can often see similar things going on if you can get a peek at the way that restaurant servers write down food orders by hand.)
Modern Chinese people grow up being equally familiar with the Latin alphabet and Chinese characters. Writing by hand is becoming less and important, and writing characters is sometimes seen as a burden. Typing on a computer can make it easier to type out complex characters (because you’re not actually writing out all the strokes anymore), and yet young Chinese people on the internet are mixing the Latin alphabet into Chinese quite liberally.
It does make you wonder how quickly we’re going to start seeing fundamental changes to the way Chinese people write. All languages change over time, although the written language often resists change much longer. But there’s a new catalyst in the equation this time: the internet.
Sometimes Chinese seems to warp the fabric of space-time. It’s true; culture can warp our perception of reality with Sapir-Whorfian aplomb. I exaggerate, though; I’m talking about interpretations of the phrase “this week.”
At the crux of the matter is the fact that the Western American week starts on Sunday (星期天), whereas the Chinese week starts on Monday (星期一). Most of the time this causes no problems… Unless you’re trying to make plans for the next 7 days on a Sunday. This is such a simple matter; it shouldn’t be so confusing. But if you forget that this discrepancy exists, misunderstandings abound. It’s embarrassing, but I admit: even after all this time in China, if I’m careless in my thinking, I still make this mistake occasionally. (The key is that one doesn’t often make plans for the coming week on a Sunday.)
Here are some diagrams to make the issue clearer:
So, in the examples above, if I say “这个星期三” on a Sunday, thinking I’m referring to the coming Wednesday (May 9th), I’m actually referring to the past Wednesday (May 2nd).
OK, now here’s the annoying part (for us native speakers of American English): the Chinese way is more logical. Here’s how it works:
1. If you refer to any day of last week (even if it’s yesterday, technically), you use 上个.
2. If you refer to any day of this week (Monday through Sunday, even days already past), you use 这个. It just means, strictly, “of this week.” No ambiguity.
3. If you refer to any day of next week (even if it’s tomorrow, technically), you use 下个.
As long as you remember that the week starts on Monday and not Sunday, it’s all very consistent and logical. The reason this is confusing to non-native speakers like me is that the system that we use in American English is kind of a mess. I hear that many British speakers follow rules that are basically the same as the Chinese ones, but I know from experience that the system used in the USA is much more muddled (examples here, here, and here).
OK, it’s not actually that hard. I’m not trying to add a new item to “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard.” But it’s a pretty bewildering experience when it happens to you the first time. The joys of intercultural exchange!
Update: In the original post I said “Western” when I should have said “American.” Apologies for the inaccuracies. The point of the post still holds true (particularly for us Americans).
Do you remember “solving for x” in math class? When you first started algebra (or was it pre-algebra?), you had to learn a whole new set of methods which, when applied, could magically reveal the values of the unknown variables.
So when you saw this:
2x = 8
4x + y = 17
z(3x – 2y) = 30
…before long you could handily solve for x. And once you had x, you could solve for y. Then z was a piece of cake too.
The Algebra Connection
Chinese pronunciation is similar. We native speakers of English of English have to learn to produce some new sounds in order to become fluent speakers of Chinese. Although the pinyin “r” sound is formidable, what I’m talking about today are the sounds linguists call “alveolo-palatals“: the three Mandarin consonant sounds pinyin represents as “x,” “q,” and “j.”
So how are the sounds of Mandarin like algebra? Well, just as the in the above algebra example one would first solve for x, then solve for y, and finally solve for z, learning those “alveolo-palatals” involves a similar chain effect. Once you’ve solved for “x” (I’m talking the pinyin x here), “q” and “j” both become relatively simple. “X” is definitely the one you want to start with, though, for many reasons. X is the unknown. First solve for “x,” and “q” and “j” are within your grasp.
There are a number of reasons to start with “x.” First of all, it’s a prominent feature of the Chinese word almost everyone learns right after “nihao” (你好). Yes, the word is “xiexie” (谢谢), the Chinese word for “thank you.”
Second, the “x” consonant contains the basic feature you need to build on to learn “q” and then “j.” Just as solving for x in the algebra equations above allows you to solve for y with a simple operation, the same is true for pinyin “x” and then “q.” Allow me to explain.
The True Nature of X, Q, and J
If you’ve studied phonetics at all, you learn IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). The main idea behind IPA is that as nearly as possible, every unique sound is represented by a unique symbol. So one good way to know if a sound in a foreign language is really equivalent to a sound in English is to check their respective IPA notations.
In English, for example, the “sh” sound isn’t actually an “s” sound plus an “h” sound. We just write it as “sh.” In reality, it’s a sound different from all the other sounds in the English language. It gets its own IPA symbol: ʃ. Makes sense, right? Now, a lot of new learners to Chinese think that pinyin “x” is the same as English’s “sh.” If that were true, the IPA symbols for the two sounds would be the same. But they’re not.
IPA for x, q, j
If there is any doubt that the pinyin “x,” “q,” and “j” sounds are foreign for speakers of English, you can look up the IPA for the sounds of Mandarin Chinese. Don’t freak out, now. The alien symbols representing pinyin’s “x,” “j,” and “q,” are, respectively, ɕ, tɕʰ, and tɕ.
Now take a look at those three consonant sounds again: ɕ, tɕʰ, tɕ. The common element is ɕ. That’s the “x” sound. This sound does not exist in English; “x” is the unknown. But the addition of the other sounds, which are not foreign to English speakers, will result in the “q” and “j” sounds.
So, once again, master that “x” sound, and you can unlock the other two. It’s practically “buy one get two free,” but you definitely have to pay for the “x,” and you may need to struggle a bit. [More info on producing this sound here.]
It’s worth it, though. Before long you’ll leave “syeh-syeh” behind and utter “xièxie” perfectly. Just solve for “x” first.
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.
Sinosplice reader Matthew recently introduced me to Jukuu, a database of sample sentences. The Chinese name, 句酷, is a pun on the word 句库, meaning “sentence base,” in the naming tradition of nciku). There are some really interesting things going on on Jukuu. Here’s a screenshot from the results for a search for “get”:
I enjoyed some of those random sentences. Some things worth noting:
– The sample sentences in the screenshot above are all taken from About Face 3, a well-known book on goal-directed design, which has been published in multiple languages.
– Jukuu offers not only multiple translations (grouped by part of speech), but also the distribution of those various parts of speech in its database (that’s what the pie graph at the right represents).
– Jukuu also offers other word forms (词形) for “get” (in this case, “gets,” “getting,” “got,” “gotten,” and even “getable”).
– If you click on one of the translations in the top right, the resulting page shows you sentences with just that translation of “get” (for example, this one for 得到).
– You can get similar results without going the “exact translation route” by just searching for multiple words, in a mix of English and Chinese. (The sentences aren’t censored, either. Have fun with that!)
– If you go to the “get” results page, further down the right column, you also see links for “adjectives frequently preceding this word,” “verbs frequently preceding this word,” “prepositions frequently preceding this word,” and “nouns frequently following this word.”
This kind of thing is a linguist’s dream, and can only be accomplished by corpus analysis with part of speech tagging, which is a ton of work. It’s really cool to see a resource like this publicly available online.
Last night I met up with Randy Alexander of Sinoglot, Yuwen, and Echoes of Manchu for dinner and imported beers. We had a great chat, with topics ranging from English and Chinese linguistics, to sci-fi and (evil genius) Joel Martinsen, to the Sinoglot crew and how they tricked Randy into learning Manchu.
We started talking about some of our favorite linguistics articles, on Language Log or elsewhere, and I brought up the one about the half-life of irregular verbs in English. I wanted to send Randy a link, but I was dismayed to discover that the original article by Harvard University mathematician Erez Lieberman is now behind a pay wall. All you can find are articles linking to what was once a freely accessible article.
But I dug some more (we’re still quite a few years away from regularizing to “digged,” I’m guessing), and I eventually found what looks like a freely available copy of the original article, Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language, courtesy of our friends at NIH. Unfortunately, what’s still missing is the great chart the original paper included, which ordered irregular verbs by frequency and gave time estimates (in years) for the regularization of each. (There is an unordered list in text file format linked to in the article, though.)
What does this have to do with Chinese? I’d love to see similar studies for modern Mandarin. Sure, there are no conjugations for Chinese verbs, so it wouldn’t be about the regularization of irregular verbs. But it could be about variable pronunciations of certain words (like 角色, or 说服), or selection of characters (is it 做 or 作?). A good chunk of Chinese academia is still obsessed with standardization and what is “correct,” so you don’t see many objective studies, but that attitude won’t last forever. Chinese corpus linguistics is relatively young, but it’s making great strides, and I really look forward to seeing this kind of research in the future.
To follow up my recent massive post on Language Power Struggles, I’d like to highlight the responses of Dr. Orlando Kelm, a professor of linguistics, teacher of many years, and learner of multiple languages. Dr. Kelm’s experience is largely with Portuguese and Spanish, but he’s also studied Japanese and Chinese, among other languages.
Dr. Kelm’s three main points were:
1. Chinese perception of use of English: There is something interesting about Chinese adoption of Putonghua as a lingua franca, despite all of the regional dialects and local languages. As related to use of English, it’s almost as if people accept their local language for personal interactions and Putonghua for official interactions. From there it is a small leap to English for professional interactions. Recently when in Beijing I visited a multinational engineering company, German-owned even, but the official language at work was English. It was amazing to see rooms full of Chinese engineers, most who had never been out of China, all using English to talk to each other at work. It certainly strengthened my understanding of the way English was perceived as a professional tool, no different in some ways from switching among c++, php, html, or java.
2. Our skewed view: My guess is that the type of person who is interested in this blog represents a minority. No doubt, most of the world probably confronts mono-lingual English speakers who assume and demand English for all communication. Our frustration with people who want to speak English with us is most likely counterbalanced with a frustrated world that feels obligated to speak English, even when they feel inadequate in doing so.
3. John asked if my experience in Latin America (with Spanish and Portuguese) was similar to his in China with Chinese. The short answer is no, not really. Indeed I have run across people who insist on practicing English with me, and from a professional end English is everywhere, but the aggressive power struggle seems less in Latin America. My guess as to why… well, first I believe that Latin Americans think that English speakers who do not speak Spanish are just unmotivated or lazy, people who could learn it if they really wanted to. On the other hand, Chinese think of their language as “more difficult”. Deep down they must think that it’s easier for them to learn English than it is for ‘us’ to learn Chinese. Add that to the items mentioned by all of these blog comments, and we see that despite John’s cool proficiency charts, language proficiency is only part of choosing which language is used.
Really interesting answers. Thanks, Dr. Kelm! (For more of Dr. Kelm’s observations, please visit his blog.)
Thank you also to all the readers that pitched in and shared your own observations. You’re certainly correct in that there are way more factors at play than I brought up in the original post. It’s been enlightening bringing it all together from so many different perspectives.
The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.
First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.
American: [Hello, can I sit here?]
Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.
American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]
Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.
American: [Not at all!]
Chinese: How long have you been to China?
American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]
Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?
American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]
Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?
American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]
Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!
American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]
Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?
American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]
Chinese: I like talking English with you.
American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]
Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?
American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]
The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.