Chinese from Another Perspective

When someone learns a foreign language they are learning it from the perspective of their native language.  Let’s take the example of Mandarin Chinese. If I want to learn Mandarin, I will do one of a few things. I will seek out a class near where I live, buy a book from a local bookstore or an internet carrier, or perhaps make use of the daunting diversity of free online language learning opportunities, ranging from blogs to Livemocha. All of these resources (supposedly) suit me best, because they are designed for English speakers to begin tackling Mandarin.

When I have free time and don’t feel like venturing into the city, I usually pass my time looking through these online resources and finding new venues to learn languages. One day, I was doing my best to find something suitable for Mandarin. I wanted something that would explain to me, in a little more depth, the basics of Mandarin. When I say basics, I don’t mean “hello” and “goodbye”. I wanted an explanation of sentence structure, the relationship between verbs and nouns, how grammar is employed, etc. A long story short, I failed. I found endless amounts of nǐhǎo‘s and wǒ jiào‘s but nothing of more substance. I decided to change my tactic.

Instead of typing in “learning Chinese”, I typed in “중국어 배우기” and “중국어 강좌”. The Korean language search for Chinese language learning materials opened my access, literally, to an entirely new niche online. I had found a whole new market that thrived on an entirely different set of expectations for the didactic materials and learners.

As an English speaker, the assumption made by the “teacher” (or what have you) is that you know absolutely nothing. Therefore, the “basics of Chinese” are excessively infantile. Korean speakers, however, share a large percentage of their vocabulary with Chinese (just as Western European languages do with Latin). Koreans also have usually studied some Chinese characters in their schooling. This background means that the Chinese “teacher” can explain the basics of Chinese at a more complex level. Some of the explanations, also, have to be different given the grammatical differences between Korean and Chinese.

Long story short, I found this awesome video called 기초 중국어 (basic Chinese) on myong7351’s YouTube channel. In the video, he describes the way that the Chinese view individual characters – phonemes – and how they proceed to construct words and grammar from these basic concepts. He uses some characters as an example and separates them into “definition” and “connotation” (한국어로 의미와 뜻으로 설명합니다). He indicates that while an individual character may have multiple connotations, it only has one definition. Trying to learn the multiple connotations of each character is, in a sense, equivalent to multiplying the number of characters that one has to learn. Where as, if one just learns the definition,  one can intuit most of the connotations one will encounter.

This, among many other explanations of aspects of Mandarin Chinese, was exactly what I wanted to find. I encourage anyone who knows enough of a 2nd language to use it to navigate their 3rd. It is exciting and you might just learn something you wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Dreaming in Chinese” by Deborah Fallows

I was at a New Year’s Eve shindig and got into a good conversation with this girl who’s moving to China to work on an English teaching venture. We talked about her former experiences in China, her passion for the Chinese language, and how a foreign language can open a door to another realm of thought and social constructs. At that point, she recommended that I read Dreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows (bio and blog). A few days later I stopped by a book store and picked up a copy.

Dreaming in Chinese is not a novel. Its chapters are not linked together by plot or character development or something of that sort. Rather, the book is a series of linguistic  and cultural experiences organized into chapters by their topic or some overarching theme (sort of like vignettes).

Having a Ph.D. in linguistics, the author has a lot of fun musing about Chinese culture and language. She clearly has lots of enthusiasm for the language learning process and this struck a cord with my own interests. In terms of writing style, it is very pleasant and leisurely so you don’t have to worry about struggling with technical linguistic terms like “paradigmatic lexical relation” or “metonymy”.

While the cultural concepts that are encountered may not serve to enlighten those of you who are advanced sinophiles or have had long exposure to the Middle Kingdom, the book is entertaining and will help those who are unfamiliar with China to become more knowledgeable. It is a good book for someone who is just becoming interested in China and a must read for those who are about to get on the plane Beijing or Shanghai and aren’t exactly sure about where they’re headed.