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domingo, 13 de febrero de 2011

Why is learning Chinese so damn hard? A practical, cultural and linguistic approach

Most times I tell someone that I study Chinese he or she goes: "Wow, that must hard!". Indeed it is, but, why?  Is it really more difficult than Spanish or, even, German? Does it apply only to writing, due to all its complicated symbols, or is it speaking also hard to master? Isn't there a linguistic universal that says that there is by definition no language harder to master than others? If you want to know the solution to all these questions, keep reading.

Yes, Chinese is really hard to master, both in speaking and in writing (especially this one). And I would go as far as saying that writing Chinese is also difficult for Chinese people themselves. If you don't believe me, try looking for some diffucult to write Chinese characters and ask a Chinese friend to write them. More often than not he or she won't be able to handwrite some of them. Young Chinese are too used to typing in the computer or cell phones, and so they often forget how to handwrite many characters.

But let's focus on non-native speakers. The first thing that will strike them is tones. Chinese is a tonal language, and that means that two words that are apparently pronounced in the same way can mean two different things, because their intonations is different. The traditional example used to illustrate this is the word "ma", which has four different meanings depending on its intonation: interrogation mark (neutral tone), mother (first tone), leprosy (second tone), horse (third tone) and to insult (fourth tone).

This should not be entirely new for us though, since European languages also have tones. However, tones in European languages do not serve to differentiate meaning between different words, but to convey more subtle things, such as the speaker's state of mind. So, we would have different tones for the interrogative pronoun what depending on what the speaker wants to convey. It could be neutral, like when some friend casually calls for our attention (-Hey Julian) and we answer: -Sorry, what?
But compare this example, where the tone would be neutral, with the tone we would use when someone tells us something that greatly surprises as: -Hey, you know that Michael Jackson just died last night? -Whaaaat? The way we pronounce what here is radically different from the one in the first example. That is, we use different intonations. So there you go, if you can tell the difference right away in the above example you might be good at Chinese tones!

Actually, it's not that easy. Once we have mastered tones individually, we realize how difficult it is to pronounce them correctly when they are inserted in a real conversation, where we usually forget which tones is each word. But its difficulty goes even farther. The five tones I have described change when they are inside sentences. So even if you remember them perfectly one by one, that won't often be enough in a real conversation. For example, the third tone is not third tone anymore when followed by a second tone. In this case both would be pronounced as second tones. And when two third tones are together the first thrid tone changes into a much shorter third tone that could be argued to be a totally different tone (and we'd have six in total).

But don't give up yet, since even if don't pronounce the tones correctly, context will most times help the listener understand you. Most times...

If you think oral Chinese is difficult wait until you know about its writing. Unlike all European languages (that I know) which have alphabet (finite number of letters, usually some tens, used to form infinite number of words where, usually, each one of the former correspond to a certain phoneme or way to pronounce it), Chinese is written by means of characters. Each character is a word that means something on itself, although it can also be used together with other characters to form different words. There are thousands of Chinese characters, and you need to memorize a couple of thousand to be able to start reading something serious. That means hours and hours sitting at the table writing the different parts of the character (stroke) until you have memorized it. And then you need to learn how to pronounce it, since you will often find that a character gives you very little clue about its pronunciation. Let's give an example to see the difference with English, by looking at the word bank, 银行 (yínháng) . Even if you don't know the word bank in English, you can still read it if you see it written somewhere. And then once you are at home watching TV you might hear it again in the news, so you will remember about it, look it up in the dictionary and then it'll hopefully stick to your brain. But with the word 银行 you won't know how to read it in the first place if you haven't studied it before. Chances are that you know any of its characters, but even this is tricky, since the second one, 行, is often pronounced "xíng", whereas in this case is pronounced "háng". So you might very well know how to say the word bank in Chinese, but then you will see it written and have no idea what it means. That actually happens to some of my friends who have been working in China for a long time. They have high proficiency in oral Chinese, but then they will see daily used words in its written form and won't know how to read them.

And finally we find one last problem with Chinese characters. There are two different writing systems, the simplified one (used in mainland China) and the traditional one (used in Hong Kong and Taiwan). They way to write characters in these two systems varies more or less depending on the word, and native Chinese speakers usually have no problem recognizing either one of them. But things are different for a foreign student, just like me. I have been learning Chinese for many years, the last two in China completely devoted to the study of the language. And yet sometimes I buy a Chinese movie only to find that it contains traditional characters that I can't understand (maybe it is a Taiwanese or Hong Kong movie or maybe it is a Chinese movie forbidden in China that was imported outside from Taiwan or Hong Kong). In times like these I wonder why on earth I decided to start learning Chinese.

So, there are no good news?

There are! Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, with no less than more than a billion speakers in China and 20 million in Taiwan. But its influence can also be seen outside its frontiers. More than half of the 5 million inhabitants of Singapore speak Chinese. The influence of Chinese is huge all around Asia. I could confirm this in my recent trips to Thailand and Japan, where I had the most meaningful encounters with Chinese speaking people, either natives of Chinese origin, exchange students or Chinese immigrants. Its influence can easily be seen in most countries of Europe or America as well. All this makes Chinese an incredibly useful language to learn, so maybe the pains of learning it are worth it after all.

Chinese is also a language with thousands of years of history which had an outstanding influence in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. That means that if we want to learn any of those languages it'll be easier if you already know Chinese. For example, more than fifty percent of Korean words are of Chinese origin, and so their pronounciation is similar. Japanese has three different alphabets, one of them, the kanji, is almost 100 percent made of Chinese characters. That means that, if you know Chinese before learning Japanese, we will have very little problems at studying one of the most difficult aspects of Japanese!

The process of learning Chinese can be as hard as rewarding. Chinese characters, with more or less modifications, have been the instrument of communication for Chinese people for more than three thousand years. That also has positive and negative aspects for Chinese students. This old language has embedded elements of Chinese culture that are thousands of years old. Some idioms and the meaning of some characters might seem strange to us, since its meaning refers to the way things were done a long time ago. That might be one of the reasons why Chinese have been able to preserve its customs throughout the centuries: thanks to the language its users has access to the Chinese culture from its origins. However, it is also a reason why the language is so hard to learn. Some characters and idioms make no sense nowadays, but people use them anyways. Dead metaphors are part of this process: expressions whose use is understood nowadays although the original meaning has been lost. All languages have dead metaphors, but you can imagine how many metaphors have "died" in a language as old as Chinese.

A key to solve some of these problems is learning Ancient Chinese, which not only would help you have a deeper understanding of modern Chinese, but which would also allow you to read Ancient texts in its original language. Besides, Classic Chinese was the instrument of formal communication for Korea, Japan and Vietnam during different periods until the 20th century. So in case a time machine would be invented, you could travel hundred of centuries in the past and still be able to communicate with people from these countries. Imagine how cool it would be to have a conversation (written) with Confucius or The Art of War writer Sun Tzu in their own language!

Chinese is a terribly hard language to learn and especially to master, but it is also a very rewarding one. And by the way, I still haven't answered the question from the introduction about that linguistic universal that says that all languages have the same degree of difficulty. Well, after many years studying Chinese, let me assure you that the know-it-all linguist who said that probably knew no Chinese at all!

miércoles, 2 de febrero de 2011

Literary review: Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

In this entry I will analyse some relevant aspects of the novel that explain why I didn't like it. Along the way I will be also commenting on other novels written by Murakami.

I feel sorry that this entry is going to be about Norweigan Wood. For two reasons. The first one is that this is the only novel by Murakami I really disliked, since I thought the other two (The Wind up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore) were pretty decent, and even Sputnik Sweetheart was at least ok. And the second reason is that I feel sorry that the first long entry of my blog will be dealing with such a bad book.

So, why I dislike this book so much? I think it's mainly about its characters. They are all plain individuals that always behave based on a fixed set of rules, so you always know what to expect. Take the protagonist Toru Watanabe, for instance. Always keeping his cool in all situations, always knowing so much about everything, making everything he does wonderfully, but never showing off, not even a tiny bit. Not a very believable character to me, I'd say. And remember what Aristotle said about literature: it's better to talk about credible situations that would never occurr (eg: someone being able to fly, like Superman) rather than talking about situations that are bound to happen but which are not credible. 

The second reason is that the characters are very similar to those of other Murakami's books I've read, and that makes the book so much more predictable (Note: after writing this I realized this book was actually written before the other two, so it should be the others I should be complaining about, :) Actually, there are scenes that seem to be the product of a copy-paste made by the author in order to save some time. For example, when Hatsuni, Watanabe's girlfriend, awakes in the middle of the night and, sleepwalking, appears in front of his boyfriend and start taking her clothes off. That scene is almost identical to the one in Kafka on the Shore. And by the way, why Murakami's obsession with girls getting naked while sleepwalking? I could venture an hypothesis and say that it might have to do with the fact that Murakami is criticizing about Japanese girls being represeed, not being able to freely express what they think and give free way to their passions. However, female characters in Murakami's novels are by no means (sexually) represessed (I wish I could live inside any of Murakami's novels!).

And continuing on this topic, let's talk about sex in Murakami's novel and the fact that the novel is so not credible. If any of you have ever read a couple of novels by this author you will know that his characters find it ridiculously easy to bump into one-time sexual encounters. And this is not different in Norweigan Wood. During the day, during the night, with old women, with young students, heterosexual or homosexual, sex is everywhere in Murakami's novels. And that would be no big deal, but it is the more incredible taking into consideration that the protagonist who experiences it never seem to be looking for it, they barely try, but somehow they end up having sex in every chapter. It makes you think that Japan is the most open minded country when it comes to sexuality. Which I think it's not, but which is also why I think Murakami uses it so much, as a way to critizice this part of Japanese society. But no matter what Murakami means with it, I, as a reader, find it really boring. It's like watching any of Steven Seagals movies, in which he ends up beating up all the bad guys without even getting scratched.

Actually, one of Murakami's main concerns seem to be be to criticize the unability of Japanese to openly express their feelings, and that goes beyend sex. That deficiency affects people permanently, and lead them to a life of alienation that prevents them from ever reaching happiness. An example of this is found in Reiko Ishida, in my opinion the most unbearable characters of Norweigan Wood but a perfect example to describe Murakami's motifs. Reiko has stayed at an asylum for many years due to a mental illness difficult to diagnose. At a crucial point in her career as a piano player, she suddenly started losing all her abilities. Not many reasons are given for this, but it can be easily inferred that it is basically due to her parents obsession for her to succeed. Murakami seems to be telling us that this girl was never asked, nor did she dare expressing her own opinion, whether or not she wanted to devote all her life to the study of music, instead of leading a not so successful but much happier life as an ordinary teenager. Thus, once she loses her ability to play she realizes that she has nothing left, since all her time had always being devoted to music.

So far so good. Yet in order to develop this character, we encounter a sexual scene quite difficult to approach. In the life of this character, Reiko, and after she was sort of healed from the loss of ability to play the piano and the psychological crisis that followed this, she marries and starts giving piano lessons to a 14 year old girl. Somehow and although Reiko tries to refue, they end up having sex, which according to Reiko is the greatest sexual experience she ever had, to the point where she says that few hours after that she has sex with her husband and that was the time it felt best with him, just because she was still excited by the encounter with the 14 years old kid. I have to admit that that the description of that lesbian sexual act increased my body temperature in a few degrees, but I still can't see it in the context of the book. We are never told that Reiko felt attracted towards women, and the fact that a 14 year old girl wants so bad to have sex and is so skillful at it with her just married piano teacher is quite strange to say the least. It just seems to me like a way that Murakami uses in order to attract horny male readers and so sell more books.

In summary: a character, Watanabe, always so well read and cultured, never getting drunk no matter how much alcohol he drinks, and always honest (he literally says once "I have never lied to anyone"), the plainness of the characters, some of them almost identical to other characters in Murakami's novels and finally the overall impossible to believe atmosphere make Norweigan Wood one of the worst books I've ever read.