I’ve spent a nice chunk of my career on Chinese grammar, whether it’s explaining grammar structures in ChinesePod podcasts, working on the Chinese Grammar Wiki, or helping individual AllSet Learning clients. And two things that have become clearer and clearer to me are:
1. There are certain things that all learners struggle with at different stages of acquisition of Mandarin Chinese (this is consistent with the SLA concept of “order of acquisition”)
2. Most learners have no idea what to expect when it comes to the grammatical challenges that they’ll be up against (which can often make learners feel stupid for “just not getting it” immediately, not realizing that they’re struggling with something that all learners of Chinese struggle with)
To make a comparison with Spanish, most learners know from the beginning that they’re going to have to learn a bunch of verb conjugations for different tenses, gradually increasing in complexity over time. And beyond that, the subjunctive awaits. [Cue scary Spanish music]
OK, but what about Chinese? Many learners start with the patently false notion that “Chinese doesn’t really have grammar” or that “Chinese grammar is basically the same as English.” So they’re in for a fun little surprise there. This misconception doesn’t stand up long.
But beyond that, what is a learner to expect? The good news is that although different from English grammar, Chinese grammar isn’t horribly difficult. There are a few difficult points that deserve special attention, though, and I’ve created a new page on Sinosplice to point them out: Chinese Grammar Hurdles. The page is a rather simple list, but each point links to pages on the Chinese Grammar Wiki which have in-depth explanation (or will soon).
A few additional notes for beginners:
* Chinese word order isn’t the same as English word order. Sure, you can think of examples in which the word order is exactly the same. “I love you” = 我爱你, etc. But don’t expect that to hold true quite so neatly as you start adding in times, places, adverbs, etc.
* Particles are something new. Some of them, like 吗 and 吧, aren’t too difficult to get the hang of. Others, like 了, will actually take a long time to get a handle on. But that’s OK… you learn the different uses of 了 over time, and eventually it starts to gel, even if the accumulated understanding is not easily verbalized.
* Measure words are also something new, but they don’t need much attention at first. This is because you can actually get by for quite a while using the general-purpose measure word 个. So if your Chinese teacher is totally drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started studying Chinese, something is wrong. Learn the mechanics with 个, but focus on language more central to basic communication before focusing on expanding your measure word vocabulary.
Good luck in your studies of Chinese grammar! Although some things feel weird and arbitrary (as with any foreign language), Chinese grammar also has a strong thread of logic running through it that you’ll start to appreciate the deeper you get. For many learners, it’s a source of great satisfaction. Hopefully knowing what to expect with Chinese grammar will help you stick with it for the long haul.
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.
> In hospital I ran into a few Cantonese speaking patients and visitors, who in some cases spoke no English. With the luxury of ample time, I was able to say things I don’t really know how to say, by finding inventive ways to use the few words I did remember. For example, instead of asking if she’d mind opening my water bottle top because my hands were too weak and the cap is tight etc etc, I simply asked “please, can you?” and held the bottle at the top. Worked like a charm. But I’d spent half an hour agonising over the words before accepting that a simpler method was not “cheating” but rather “communicating”.
> When learning a language I too often make it hard for myself by fixating on the words I don’t know rather than finding more uses for the words I do know. Lesson learned. I got my water, the “it’s a talking dog!” look, and a new friend.
> My general impression is that people would enjoy foreign languages more if they didn’t have the added pressure of feeling like they are supposed to be equivalent to native speakers. You will notice that our educational system promotes this viewpoint too. We generally teach foreign languages as if learners are somehow going to be total experts some day. (Why else would we spend weeks teaching third semester college students about all of the adjective clauses that trigger the subjunctive in Spanish?) My general impression, however, is that the majority of our learners do not need to speak like undercover spies. They would be just as happy having a great time talking about sushi with Japanese friends in Japanese.
I often wonder how good I want my Chinese to be. I have lots of room to expand my vocabulary and improve my ability to express myself, but there are two big questions: (1) do I really need to? and (2) do I really want to?
I’ve gotta say, an unrelenting drive for perfection isn’t exactly the most persuasive linguistic motivation, and the longer I live, the more practical I become. The truth is, I’m not a terribly talkative person, and I’m already pretty comfortable in Chinese. I don’t want to be a Chinese spy (ha!), and I really don’t want to memorize the damn chengyu dictionary. I’d rather get my Spanish and Japanese back to levels where I’m more comfortable and able to enjoy the experience of speaking.
– The more familiar I am with the people I am with, the funnier I am. Thus, in my nuclear family I am a comedic superstar, while at work or when meeting people for the first time, not so much. Other friends fall somewhere in the middle.
– I never got very fluent in Spanish (and I’m definitely not at my high point now), but I never felt it was very hard to make jokes in Spanish. In general, the humor translated well across the cultural gap.
– It was verrry difficult to be funny in Japanese. Granted, I only lived in Japan for a year, so I wasn’t super fluent, but I repeatedly made efforts to be funny in conversations with friends, and I crashed and burned a lot. My homestay brothers mocked my failed attempts rather mercilessly. (Their cries of “さぶっ！” still haunt me.)
– It was kind of hard to make jokes in Chinese, but I never felt as much pressure to be witty as I did in Japanese. Furthermore, failed humor tends to result in confusion or non-comprehension rather than mockery.
– Even when I make a bad joke in Chinese, rarely does anyone call me on it. The exception, of course, is my wife (one of the funniest people I know), who dutifully reminds me that in Chinese, I am not very funny.
Based on my experiences, it seems like familiarity raises the stakes in humor. When you tell a joke to someone you’re close to, you either score big, or you lose big. And losing big can mean violence (according to the study)?
But I’m guessing that’s pretty cultural. I’m not at all surprised that it’s hard to be funny in France. This is a great quote from the article:
> “I may have been Nancy funny, but I was not French-speaking-Nancy funny,” she said.
I’m curious if any readers have had “violent” reactions to bad jokes in Asia.
A recent post on LanguageHat called Bad Language got me thinking about the laowai (老外) issue again. Yes, it’s a rather tired (often overly emotional) discussion, but I think that LanguageHat’s very rational view on the topic offers a new perspective on the matter.
Basically, LanguageHat’s view is this:
1. When the privileged and powerful use originally neutral terms for groups of people “beneath them,” their contempt naturally creeps into the language they use.
2. Those groups targeted by the contempt-laden language object to it more and more over time, until politically correct alternatives come along.
3. The privileged and powerful are presented with the new language, and “PC language is a cheap substitute for actually treating people equally, so they usually go ahead and do it.”
Makes sense to me. But how does the laowai issue fit in?
Here are some key differences:
1. The laowai issue is cross-language, cross-cultural. We’re dealing with the way Chinese people talk about foreigners, in their own language. Just to make it absolutely clear, a similar thing would be Americans objecting to Mexicans calling Americans gringos when they speak Spanish. (I don’t believe the two examples are actually equivalent, though.)
2. When we look at which Chinese people use the word laowai, we’re definitely not dealing with the privileged and the powerful of Chinese society. Most often, it’s exactly the opposite. Some might claim that the educated of Chinese society don’t use the term laowai, but I maintain it’s the Chinese who have significant contact with (often hypersensitive) foreigners that avoid the term laowai. It’s pure pragmatics.
3. On average, foreigners get excellent treatment in China. It’s not uncommon for Chinese people who give extra favorable treatment to foreigners use the term, and it’s also used by the guys that yell “hello” and laugh at the “big-noses.” So the term is not a part of a larger picture of negative discrimination.
Again, this brings me back to my previous position: the term laowai in Chinese is not inherently derogatory, nor is it used in the familiar pattern of other offensive labels for groups of people outlined above.
I’m not looking to rehash the previous debates. If that is what interests you, please see this post.
A while back I wrote about studying Spanish again. Well, I have a little secret about that to reveal. My teacher is none other than the vivacious Liliana of SpanishPod, and she’s a lot of fun!
SpanishPod is Praxis Language’s new website for learning Spanish. A while back they had one called SpanishSense that I wasn’t really involved in. Long story short, that one was a “learning experience.” Now I’m involved, and I’m happy to say that this time we are getting it right. We owe it mostly to the amazing new hosts: J.P. and Liliana.
J.P. is an awesome linguist (aren’t they all?) from Seattle who has done his time in the trenches (teaching Spanish in high school). He’s a fun guy with great fresh ideas about learning, and he’s even kind enough to help me with my thesis.
This SpanishPod promo was unpaid (unfortunately), but I’m doing it this time because SpanishPod is really good. Maybe it will one day be as cool as ChinesePod, with ninjas and Godzilla and alien abductions and everything. Check it out.
The SpanishPod Team: JP, Liliana, Leo, and Adri (this is the coolest pose they could come up with)
This past week I started studying Spanish again after not studying or using it for over 7 years. I really didn’t know how I was going to do in my one-on-one lessons, considering my teacher would use only Spanish and I was expected to respond in Spanish. In my high school days I was reasonably fluent, but that was over 10 years ago.
It turns out that I did OK. I understood probably 95% of what my teacher said, and I managed to express myself. Sure, I blanked on words, I screwed up conjugations and prepositions, and had to pause for uncomfortably long periods of time while I reached back into the recesses of my mind and fished around for the Spanish I needed. But it really wasn’t so horrible, and it was good to be that struggling language student again.
I am sure that 7 years is enough time to completely forget a foreign language, but I think I know why I haven’t completely forgotten Spanish. The main reason is that I made a conscious resolution not to forget Spanish.
You see, when I graduated from high school and started at the University of Florida I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but I was tired of studying it, and I had never used it for real communication (i.e. in a Spanish-speaking environment). It was for that reason that I started studying Japanese and basically quit Spanish. I made a sort of decision about Spanish then: “I don’t need this anymore.”
Only two years later, after an amazing experience in Japan, I decided I did still want my Spanish, but was shocked at how much I had already lost. It was as if my brain had overwritten the old, unwanted Spanish with Japanese. I spent my third year of university reclaiming what I had lost, and a summer in Mexico to ground it in reality and bring it to life.
After that, I basically stopped using Spanish and shifted to Chinese, but I gave my brain a command: don’t lose this again. And I really haven’t, even if my Spanish is not even close to fluent anymore. But I’ll drag it all back to the front of my brain, chunk by chunk, and I’ll get there.
But a funny thing happened after my Spanish class on Thursday. I was on the subway and walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I could swear I was hearing Spanish all around me. Just random words, not coherent conversations. If I’d listen carefully and concentrate, I’d hear that the people around me were speaking Shanghainese. But it was as if my brain, trying hard to please me, was conjuring Spanish out of unintelligible (to me) Shanghainese noise. Rationally, I knew they weren’t speaking Spanish, but through my brain’s cognitive slight of hand, I just couldn’t stop hearing it. I couldn’t turn it off.
It’s something I’ve wanted to implement for a while, and the new China Blog List made it possible. Although its main function is still to list China blogs written in English, The China Blog List now features a separate listing of non-English (non-Chinese) blogs about China.
If you’re interested in blogs of only one language in the non-English list, you can easily bookmark that one language (and RSS feeds are on the way). So far, the languages covered are:
C H I N A B L Ä T T E R (German): the format looks like a German ESWN (except fancier, hehe), but I think it’s more like a German China Digital Times. (No serious China blog can compare with ESWN content-wise, right?) A lot of the links are for English articles.
Max (French): An entry on English Corner caught my eye. I was curious what a French speaker would think about this oft-reviled Chinese tradition. Translated by Babelfish:
One meets full with world, especially people culturés thus trés interesting.
Assailed by questions, people are intrigued by our presence… or you come, what you do make here, how you are called, is what it is beautiful Paris, you préferes Chinese girls or the European ones?… One do not know any more or to give head…
Good experiment, dice which I have a little time the week end I go back there to do to me a little pocket money…
Trés interesting indeed. I don’t read French, so I’m not sure if that was supposed to be dirty or what…
>La iniciativa se llama Adopt a Blog (adopte una bitácora) y persigue crear una ‘red de libre pensamiento’ que permita dar conocer las ideas, las opiniones y el pensamiento de los ciudadanos chinos ‘no alineados’.
Trackbacks show it has spread via at least three other Spanish language blogs (Noticias de Bitacoras.com, SimDalom :: WyP, Arkangel YABlog). It’s pretty exciting to see one’s idea spread and gather support on a global scale (I derive a special pleasure from seeing myself written about in foreign languages, and in this case I can actually read it), but the sad part is Adopt a Blog still isn’t going anywhere. I have not found the sponsor I was looking for.
Of course, Adopt a Blog is not the only hope for free blogging in China, by any means. Others are working hard on a variety of solutions. Adopt a Blog may never really go anywhere, and if that’s the case I’m happy just contributing my ideas, possibly influencing the development in a small way.
Whatever happens, though, I should say to the Spanish blogosphere: Gracias por su apoyo! Estoy contento que el proyecto tenga tanto apoyo en las bitácoras hispanohablantes y espero el día cuando información en China sea libre.
May 8 Update:Isaac Mao reports that Chinese bloggers’ situation is worsening. (Thanks to Gordon for pointing this out to me.)
And, for an alternative view (on why Adopt a Blog is a bad name), you can check out an e-mail I received. (more…)
I think we’ve all had incidents of misheard song lyrics. You think you hear one thing in the song, but the actual lyrics are very different. I’ve had a bit of that in China.
My first main incident with this phenomenon in China was with the song “Nanren Ku ba bu shi Zui“ * (“Man, go ahead and cry, it’s no crime”). In the song, Andy Lau repeats “ku ba” over and over in Chinese, which basically means “go ahead and cry.” The thing is, it sounds exactly like the way Cuba is pronounced in Spanish. Weird. I know I’m listening to Chinese, but every time it gets to that refrain, I hear Spanish. (Well, they are comrade nations, I suppose….)
The other incident is for another Chinese song by a male singer. I don’t know the singer or the song, and I don’t particularly like the song. I just know that I keep hearing him sing “Koopa Troopa.” Now, anyone who dutifully played Super Mario Brothers 1 on NES back in the day knows that Koopa Troopas are little turtles that oppose Mario and Luigi on their righteous quest to save the princess (if she’d only stay in one damn castle!). But those wily koopa are making a comeback in Chinese pop. (OK, does anyone know what Chinese song I’m talking about here?!)
* Warning: This Flash “video” is horribly cheesey. But hey, you can hear the song without downloading the MP3. Also, I apologize for my crappy translation of the song title, but, you know… it’s a dumb song anyway.