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Issue: 896 Date: 10/25/2007

Trying to Learn Chinese
Kathleen H. Keeler

Caption might be "See [黃山] on the bus?"
        I'm sure it's my mother's fault. Her parents came to the United States as refugees from the Bolshevik Revolution and my grandmother had a thick accent all her life. I'm sure Mom gave me some secret message never to go anywhere without speaking the language, although I can recall no conversation on the subject. Thus, in 1969 I searched the University of Michigan's library for the one book on Finnish, to prepare for a brief visit to a friend in Helsinki. In the mid 70's I tried to learn Spanish, from self-study books, an early computer-based course, and Berlitz, just to do tropical plant research in Costa Rica. I never got beyond the basics, but I learned common words and an appreciation of the differences between languages.

        With that history, it was not surprising that, facing a tour of southern China in 2007, I studied Chinese. I was intimidated by the idea of being somewhere I could neither ask the simplest question nor read the street signs. The fact that other people, my husband Karl included, got around fine with only English did not affect it: I had to learn the language. So I dragged my husband through Berlitz's Mandarin Chinese course. Mandarin, (putonghua), is the official language of the People's Republic of China. After the two week Berlitz course I could phrase simple sentences and answer other ones, although my vocabulary was limited and both my understanding of spoken Chinese and pronunciation were full of errors.

        After the class, before the trip, we practiced Chinese with various books and CDs. The Chinese taught in these courses was either verbal or written in Pinyin. Pinyin is a synthetic language, created in the 1950's that writes Chinese using Roman letters. The pronunciation does not match English exactly, so we had to learn that, but that is normal in learning European languages. When we left for the tour, I could compose sentences about most things I might need, using the Pinyin dictionary.

        Learning Mandarin is facilitated by its easy grammar. There are no plural endings: 1(ren) (person), 16 (ren). Similarly the verbs don't change: (pao) is run whether it's you or me or thirty of them, today, tomorrow or yesterday. In addition, the verbs combine in ways comfortable an English speaker: I want, (wo xiang), I want to drink coffee (wo xiang he kafei), I do not want to drink coffee, (wo bu xiang he kafei).

        And yet, my husband and I struggled during the lessons. I think it was the lack of cognates. English is a fusion of a Germanic and a Romance language, forged after the Norman conquest in 1066. When learning most European languages, there are similar words: I and ich, hand and Hand from the Germanic (here, German), flower and fleur, table and table in the Romance (French in this case). But the Chinese words were all new: "wo, shou, hua, and zhuozi" for I, hand, flower and table, respectively.

        In addition, many Americans know commonly used foreign words: for example, from Spanish, taco, friole, guacamole. Comparable Chinese terms, such as in restaurants, were often Cantonese, or Anglicized (fried rice). When I looked up rice, an obvious word, there was no familiar restaurant word but rather different words for boiled rice, soft rice, the rice plant, etc.

        I realized I did know some Mandarin when a book pointed out that Sichuan Province is named for the (si) (four) (chuan) (rivers) there. When pelled Sichuan, it does provide two Chinese words that I had learned before studying Chinese. That sent me looking at other place names. Beijing means "north capital", Nanjing "south capital". I won't use "capital" very often, but (bei) and (nan) are very handy for a traveler. I looked for other words in place names, but the spellings not all in Pinyin and the possible meanings numerous, so that I added only Huang He, Yellow River and (Huang Shan), Yellow Mountain.

        I slogged on, practicing new words until I learned them, always looking for patterns to help with the task. I already knew I liked Chinese for its logic. (Dian) means electric, so telephone is (dianhua) (electric speak), movies are (dianying) (electric picture), and computer (diannno) (electric brain). Similarly, (ri) is one of the words for sun, and (ben) means "origin" or "foundation", so (Riben), Japan, is where the sun comes from, which, from a Chinese standpoint, is a geographic observation. The patterns are also revealing of the culture: (hua), picture or painting, is related to (hua), flower, and the history of Chinese painting and gardens reinforces this.

        I practiced simple sentences, listened to tapes and learned words from the Chinese-English Pinyin dictionary. I thought I was well-launched in learning Chinese.

        China itself was a revelation.Arriving in China I immediately saw: Chinese isn't written in Roman letters, it's written in 5,000 year old characters! Despite all my study, I was illiterate.

        Discovering that knowing Pinyin doesn't begin to let me read Chinese was a set-back. But as the tour got started in Shanghai, I began to see the characters as puzzles. Puzzles are fun! Travel made for a wonderful series of lessons.

        上海 was the city where we started. Shanghai. Early in the Berlitz course I had figured out that the character, if provided, could help me in reading Pinyin. I had trouble hearing the difference between shang (shang,) up) and xia ("sh'-a," down) but 上 (shang) vs 下 (xia) was clear. Since I recognized 上 in 上海 Shanghai, I looked for (hai) in the dictionary…

        This is not as simple as it may sound. I nicknamed Mandarin "the language of puns". Many words have the same sound. Even a condensed dictionary reveals numerous homonyms. For example, yuan is the currency, but also garden, circle or circular, employee, wall, a beauty, to aid or help, origin root or source, ape and several other things. The language of puns, intentional or not. My favorite personal discovery was that fish, fishing and stupid are all yu. To say "He's fishing" is identical to saying "he's stupid." (Ta yu).There are so many homonyms that even words that share the same character produce the kind of double readings that amuse English speakers in newspaper headlines: "Two Fired at Plant" could be two lost their jobs or two shot at a bush. As far as I can tell, Chinese does this all the time.

        Thus, looking up the hai of Shanghai gave many options. Knowing the character in this case narrowed the choices. 海 (hai) means sea, and nothing else, in my little Pinyin dictionary. Shanghai is then "above sea". Having picked out these two characters, I had a reading exercise, looking for上海 in hotels, on factories and road signs.

        Our next stop was (Huang Shan), Yellow Mountain. The signs said 黃山, and in and so I added the useful character黃 (huang), yellow.

        Encouraged, I looked for familiar words. Big, "da", is easy recognize, but I rarely saw it, or other characters I knew, on signs. I knew the written numbers, especially 1, 2, 3 (一, 二, 三) but, more slowly, 四 五 六 七 八 九. Chinese months ("yue" 月) and days ("tian" 天) are numbered, so, given a few moments, I could work out 二月 February, and 五天 Friday. Too often all I could pick out of an historical marker was the occasional number.

        Pragmatic, I decided if I couldn't find words I knew, I would learn new ones. In Shanghai, the signs frequently said the same thing in Chinese characters and English. So I learned 勿 (wu) "do not" and 請 (qing )please". Thus I can say that the bilingual "do not" signs in Shanghai and Yellow Mountain were more polite in Chinese, because "please" was usually there but was missing from the English.

        Recognizing characters required practice. Quite different characters are separated by a single stroke. is (da), big but add a line 天 and it is (tian), day, heaven, sky. Furthermore, I had to notice meaningful differences. 六 liu, six, looks like da but is written with different strokes and so is a totally different. Focusing on words I "needed" did not simplify the problem. Many of important words have many strokes so are easily confused with something else. 我 (wo) is I and 謝謝(xie xie) thank you. There are many characters more complex than these, but the everyday characters are certainly not all simple ones.

        After most of a week in China, I had words I could say but could not read and words I could read but couldn't say. I knew that (hui) means gray and (mao) cat but not the characters. Conversely, I worked out that 厂 meant factory or manufacturing plant and 年 meant year, but not how to say them. Actually 年 is particularly embarrassing: I did know (nian) meant year, I just didn't know 年 was (nian). It was exciting when the written and spoken and Pinyin came together.

        The characters were of course the big difference from the languages I had studied before. There, if I could read it, I could say it, at least badly, and if I could say it, I could approximate the spelling. Not so in Chinese.

        My attempt to learn characters had a surprising, artistic, benefit. I started to appreciate the respect the Chinese pay to calligraphy. Clear calligraphy is vitally important. In English, if I write a letter bodly, I could have intended only one of a limited number of alternatives (26 letters, 10 numerals, a few symbols). Chinese has 47,000-56,000 characters of which easily 5,000 are in daily use . If the character is not written precisely, it is much harder reading Chinese to guess the word. You have only to try a few characters, even with a pen not a brush, to see the skill involved in writing clearly. For example, (xi) 凞 bright, splendid; 嘻giggle, laugh.Tours are brief: I was home before I had learned many words. Tours are also insulated: I used my spoken (putonghua) mainly for purchases, and those taught me my pronunciation is poor. And yet, the whole experience was lit by linguistic insights and the pleasures of discovery. I put the dictionary on the shelf when I unpacked, but I am looking forward to future Chinese journeys. As in many things, Mom would be surprised where my version of her attitudes has led.

the do not sign is in the center of the "donotsign" picture. What I wanted to say with it is both [請勿] are here, so the Chinese says "please do not" Silk factory sign in Suzhou on the right side, da (big) is visible on the building. See [], da, big on the building!
tourist picture of Yellow Mountain Very early morning, West Lake, Hangzhou
West Lake Moon Gate is from a garden along West Lake in Hangzhou on Li River is Li River near Guilin, with tour boat
modern Guilin in contrast to the rural appearance on the river

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