Having fun with Chinese colloquialisms from 奋斗

Posted in Linguistics at 10:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s been almost a week and I’m now 8 episodes into 《奋斗》. It still continues to be an invaluable learning experience, and I probably haven’t really felt myself pushed like this since my first 6 months of Chinese study. One of the benefits has been a whole new slew of fun new colloquialisms I have been picking up on, and wanted to take a minute to share.

动手动脚 literally means “move hands and move feet.” But more precisely it’s what we’d probably call in English “hooking up,” sexual relations in the Clintonian sense, if you will. 动手动脚 doesn’t necessarily imply having sexual intercourse, but it does tend to mean more than just kissing.

胡说八道 is an idiom which is sometimes shortened to just 胡说. It means “nonsense” or “bullshit.” For example, if somebody tells you that Hu Jintao is doing an autograph signing at Starbucks, you can reply 胡说八道.

物质主义 means “materialism,” and oh I wish I knew this word when I was still living in China. In the show, the concept is introduced by the main character’s father who has spent the last 22 years in the US. He asks his son 你知不知道物质主义 是什么 ? (Do you know what “materialism” is?) to which his son replies that he does not. Therefore, I’m not sure how commonly used this term is in China, although it sure is applicable.

One of the more interesting characters thus far is the mother of 杨晓芸, one of the main characters.  In the words 杨晓芸, her mother is 小市民 or “small town folk.” This issue arises several times and embarrasses 杨晓芸, including an instance during her wedding when she asks the MC not to announce her mother by name because it sounds 太土了,* “too dorky.”

杨晓芸, 何翠凤
Conflict is already starting to brew between 杨晓芸 and her 小市民 mom.

One of the small town mother’s side jobs is that she works as an agent selling and renting apartments. For this, she is called a 房虫, literally “house worm.” The small town stereotype is evoked when at one point she rents an apartment to her daughter’s friend for 500 RMB over the actual asking price. I’m thinking this small town folk/Beijinger dichotomy is going to get juicier and juicer as the plot progresses.

And finally, what TV drama would be complete without a 三角恋 or “love triangle?” 《 奋斗》 is no exception, with multiple 三角恋 ‘s already at the forefront.

Can’t wait for more. And I must admit, I am honestly interested in how this plot further develops.

*This is probably my all-time favorite Chinese adjective. It’s difficult to translate directly into English, but implies that the object is out of touch with what is cool and hip.



On the benefits of learning Chinese from television shows (Part 1)

Posted in Linguistics, Pop Culture at 1:52 am by Benjamin Ross

In the last few posts, I’ve been focusing on several of my own personal beliefs and opinions in regards to Chinese learning. By now most of you are probably quite familiar with my various stances on the topic. A few weeks ago I suggested 10 ways to study Chinese which are more useful than going to class. Of the 10, 9 were based primarily on personal experience. However, one of the methods, ironically the one which I believe provides the best path to advanced language mastery, I admittedly haven’t given much effort toward over the years. And this method would be…the power watching Chinese of television and movies.

So after all the discourse on Chinese learning, I decided to give Chinese television another shot. The most formidable hurdle with Chinese television…I’m not really sure how to put it nicely is…well, a severe lack in quality programming. While Chinese students lap up shows American shows to the point where I am no longer surprised when Chinese acquaintances ask me “Your last name is Ross, like Ross Geller?” or “If you date a Chinese girl, would you like her to be like Carrie or Miranda?” there has yet to be a Chinese show which has so captivated foreign audiences.

struggle 奋斗

This has been my obstacle as well, and I owe a big “thank you” to Peter Jeziorek for suggesting I watch 奋斗 (Struggle). 奋斗 originally aired in 2007 and is one of the first shows to focus on the 八零后 generation, those born between 1980 and 1989, the first generation to grow up entirely during the years following the Reform and Opening Up. The main characters of the show are a group of friends who have recently graduated from college, and are dealing with the typical struggles which face young adults in China such as finding a job, love and marriage, and the looming burden of caring for one’s parents.

奋斗 is not the greatest show I have ever watched. The acting is fair. The story grows excessively corny at points. And the plotlines are predictable. But the characters are well-developed and it tackles enough realistic issues of Chinese society to make it both interesting and educational. So far, I’ve completed five episodes, and I am shooting to watch all 32, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a much needed Chinese workout. Secondly, from a pedagogical perspective, I am curious what specific effects watching Chinese television will have on my language skills. If all goes well, expect more blogging as I get deeper into the project. But first I wanted to provide a few random observations and thoughts I’ve had up to this point.


1) I call it “power watching,” because you don’t just sit back, relax, and watch a show all the way through. The method I have been employing entails watching each episode three times, pausing throughout to look up unfamiliar words, and replaying words and phrases which need to be added to my repertoire. I am quite convinced that had I been watching each episode only once, and without pausing and rewinding, the linguistic benefit would have been minimal.

2) For any method of language study to be efficient, it needs to be done every day. Therefore I have been spending 1-2 hrs per day, every day, in front of the screen, “studying.”

3) Often, I find instances where I am familiar with a phrase, but realize my inflection has been totally off, or a word for which I have been pronouncing the tone incorrectly. In these cases, I rewind several times and repeat the entire phrase out loud. This has served to both call attention to, and rectify, several long-ingrained mistakes and malapropisms.

4) Television shows have two major pedagogical advantages over movies. Firstly, watching, digesting, re-watching, and comprehending a thirty or forty minute shows is much more manageable (and practical) than doing so with a movie which could last two hours. Secondly, there is a certain sense of linguistic continuity that goes along with following the same characters episode to episode, which would not apply to movies, where each new film contains entirely new characters and concepts.

5) Certain aspects of the Chinese language cannot be taught or explained in words. They have to be felt. The example which comes to mind constantly as I watch 奋斗 is particles. There are no set rules for when you say 啊,嘛,呗,呀 or the multitude of other particle words which have no explicit meaning in Chinese. And for most of us laowai, we cope with this dilemma the easy way: we omit them. Although I still have a long way to go, I am starting to feel where and when I should throw a 呀 or a 哇 at into a sentence. It adds an entire new dimension to the tone of speech, and I’m going to pay special attention to this as I continue through 奋斗.

6) I suspect that the cultural benefits of watching a show based in modern times starring people roughly my age (I still have 2 more weeks of my 20s) are going to be significant. As a foreigner in China, you always affect a situation in a different way than you would had you been Chinese, especially those situations which involve yourself directly. Watching Chinese people interact with one another (albeit fictional Chinese people) has already provided me with cultural insight that probably would have been of considerable value in say…dealing with ex-girlfriends or professional endeavors.


Between work and Chinese friends, the days in Chicago when I use Chinese generally outnumber those where I do not, so I’m already having ample opportunity to test out what I have learned. Roughly a week into this project, I’ve noticed expressions from 奋斗 have begun creeping into my idiolect (along with an 儿化音 taboot). But more importantly, I’m noticing subtle influence on my patterns of speech, specifically in regards to accent and delivery. It’s as if the voices of the characters are trapped inside my head and are providing an active template for my syntax and pronunciation.

Although it’s still early in the game, I would already say that hour for hour, watching 奋斗 has been the most efficient Chinese studying I’ve done in years. It wouldn’t have done much good at the early stages of my language study, but at this point I feel like it is going to be the absolute best way to continue to improve. If all goes as planned, I should be able to finish the show by the end of the year, and will hopefully have more observations in the weeks to come.



Ok, So you learned Chinese…Now where’s that dream job???

Posted in Linguistics, Society at 12:21 am by Benjamin Ross

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from an American friend of mine who had recently moved from China back to the US. My friend had spent three years in the Middle Kingdom, taught English, studied Chinese, and even worked a “real” job in Shanghai for half a year, and had now been back in United States for three months. His Chinese was solid, as it should be for anybody who spends three years in China, and good enough to be used on an occupational level. In his e-mail, he explained the frustration he was experiencing trying to secure a job in the United States which could build on his experience in China.

“I thought learning Chinese would be a hot commodity when I got back, and didn’t expect it would be this tough to find a job,” he expressed.

His sentiments are not out of the ordinary. In fact, the post-China unemployment funk is practically unavoidable for former expats upon their re-entry to the Western World, even in times when the economy is healthy. Part of the funk is due to the natural difficulties in transitioning back to American life. However, these frustrations are often aggrandized by high expectations, which are predicated on a fallacy that seems to follow any Westerner who has spent significant time living in China. It usually goes something like this and comes from the likes of parents, grandparents, teachers, generally anybody who is in a natural position to give you advice:

“Oh, you’re learning Chinese? China is the world’s next super-power, you know. You’ll be in high demand when you get back home.”

(Notice how people who make these comments never seem to be in the position to make use of your services. Yet they are confident others will be lining up to do exactly that.)

Chinese people provide similar, unsolicited life coaching. The line I hear most is:

你会英文也会中文。你应该做生意 。 “You speak English and Chinese. You should start a business.”

(As if that’s all it takes.)

The funny thing is that most of the people dispensing this kind of advice have never actually been in the situation which would require testing it out in the first place. They’ve never been an expat in China. And they’ve never looked for a “China job” in the US. However, they have heard all about it in the news, and they all seemingly buy into the axiom that: China is the next world superpower, and therefore there is no better way to cash in than to study Chinese.

The simple fact is however, mastery of Chinese, no matter how good you are, is NOT a golden ticket to employment in the United States.* That is, of course, unless your career goals are purely linguistic in nature (i.e. Chinese teacher, interpreter, or translator). More often than not, expats who learn Chinese and return home, find their way back into the same career (or school) path they had before they ever left for China in the first place.

Big money, international trades, product sourcing…these dreams are all in the trajectory of the scores of Tom Joads who show up annually in the Middle Kingdom. Everybody comes to China with a plan to strike it rich. Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse. While China certainly is the current land of opportunity, capitalizing on this fact is not simply a matter of learning the language.

Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million** people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish. What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study. From international traders to insurance salesmen to delivery boys at the local chop suey joint, most of the “China jobs” in the US are filled by Chinese Americans.

On the other side of the ocean, English proficiency in the Middle Kingdom is spreading like SARS in a Chinese train station during Spring Festival. Every year Chinese universities are churning out millions (literally) of graduating English majors, a large percentage of whom don’t find jobs with their bilingualness either. Those that do, tend to start out in the 1000 RMB per month range, about 170 USD. In short, there is no bottleneck in communication between China and the United States. And in a capitalist world governed by the laws of supply and demand, there is little justification for hiring an American and paying him an American wage solely because he can speak Chinese.

That being said, it certainly is possible to create a career out of your China experience, but here are some points you should consider.

-A decent “China job” is best attained by using Chinese to augment a pre-existing skill set. While the language alone won’t procure much in the way of employment, Chinese should give a competitive advantage to individuals who already have existing qualifications such as an engineering degree, a background in biochemistry, or experience in the financial sector.

-There are a substantial amount of career-oriented positions available which will make use of your Chinese skills. The thing is, most of them are in China, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. If your goal is to base your career on Chinese, you should be comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be spending the majority of your time in China.

-In order to secure a job using your Chinese, you’re going to have to be pretty good. Basic conversational skills and “knowing the culture” aren’t going to get you squat. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but you should be able to sit in on a business meeting, soak up the details, and contribute to the conversation without falling too far behind. We’re talking a pretty advanced proficiency level here. Being literate helps too.

-But most importantly, finding a good China job relies much more on your actual skill set than your language skills per se. This is where people tend to kid themselves and hide behind their HSK scores. If you’re a poor communicator, disorganized, or can’t create an Excel spreadsheet, these traits are going to hurt your chances at employment much more than your inability to properly pronounce the third tone. Regard the bulk of your China job search as you would any other job search which wouldn’t pertain to your China experience. Your Chinese language chops are the gravy.

Now all of this is not to say that learning Chinese is a waste of time. Learning a foreign language, especially one spoken by 20% of the world’s population is, provides access to a wealth of knowledge and experiences unattainable to monolinguals. The ability to speak Chinese will allow opportunities for personal and intellectual growth to which it would be impossible to attach any price tag. But in terms of paying dividends measured in annual salary, the rewards of learning Chinese will likely never exceed the time and effort put into it. If you do decide devote the time and energy to study Chinese, do so out of a desire to further your own personal curiosities and intellectual development, not under the pretense that it will directly boost your career. For that, you’d be better off getting an MBA.

*I am assuming the same would apply to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Western Europe, but since I’ve never lived in any of those countries, I’m going to limit my direct discussion to the US.

**I’m willing to grant a significant number of that 2.5 million speak a dialect other than Mandarin (Unfortunately the census lumps all Chinese dialects together). However, current trends in immigration indicate that a) Chinese immigration to the US continues to increase and b) the vast majority of recent immigrants are proficient Mandarin speakers.



Tone in, Tone on, Drop out: 10 Ways to Study Chinese which are More Useful than Going to Class

Posted in Linguistics at 12:08 am by Benjamin Ross

So you read my last post and now you’re motivated. You’ve been intimidated a long time, but now that you understand Chinese is only difficult in the beginning, you’re ready to make the jump and begin your studies. What’s next? Maybe you should……take a class……right? Wrong!

I’ve often observed that when eager students are choosing to embark on the study of a foreign language, the natural inclination is to take a class. Learn the language in the classroom, then possibly go abroad (or start a new career) to put it to work. So the logic goes. What is ironic is that in my experience of both teaching and studying foreign languages in both the US and in China, never once have I met an individual who had a firm command of a foreign language and could attribute their skills in large part to classes. Not one! This is not to say that classes are completely worthless, but rather that they are, in a word, inefficient.

There are certain types of learning which are ideal for a classroom setting. Learning a language is not one of them. Mastering a language requires intensive practice as well as fine tuned adjustments, which need to be catered to the individual based on their own individual strengths and weaknesses. An environment with a single teacher and a classroom full of students is simply not conducive to this kind of activity since the teacher’s attention is spread out evenly among the mass. While the classroom setting can be helpful in some particular aspects (i.e. reading , explaining grammatical constructs) it has been my experience that a less formal (and more personal) approach to language learning is both more efficient and enjoyable than hours spent in the classroom. As a former teacher of many ESL classes, I have noticed a distinct pattern with students who have achieved superior English levels. The majority of their learning has occurred outside of the classroom. Those who confine their learning to the classroom (regardless of how hard they study) tend to teeter on mediocrity. Chinese is no different.

In the following post, I am offering ten ways to study Chinese which I believe are all more efficient uses of your time and efforts than formal classes. Next to each method, in parentheses, is a rough level estimate at which the method should start to become useful. These methods never expire so to speak, so an item marked “beginner” would still be useful to an advanced student, but not vice versa. None of these suggestions are not golden tickets in and of themselves, and any prudent study plan will consist of a combination of methods, tailored by an individual to his own style. Try them out, see what works, devise your own plan, and please feel free to add any suggestions in the comment section below.

Before we begin, you’ll notice that the majority of the points appear to be contingent on you actually living in China. This is about 85% true, and somewhat intentional. An absolutely necessary prerequisite to learning any foreign language is an appropriate language environment. The easy way to accomplish this is to move to a country where your language is spoken. I recognize that not everybody who wants to learn Chinese can move to China on a whim. Living outside of China does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to immerse yourself in a Chinese environment. It just means you might have to force it a little bit more, mainly by making Chinese friends and using the Internet. But that’s fodder for a whole different post. So without further adieu, here we go.: 10 ways to study Chinese which which more useful than going to class.

1. Find a Formal Language Partner (beginner)

Before we get any further, I want to make absolutely clear that my statements above apply to classes, as in a learning environment with a single teacher and multiple students. They do NOT apply to individual lessons and tutoring which can be of enormous benefit. For a prime example, consider the process of mastering Chinese pronunciation, which I maintain is both the most difficult and most vital aspect of beginning Chinese instruction. Mastery of Chinese pronunciation, especially tones, cannot be done alone. You can’t learn it from a book and you can’t learn it by mimicking audio recordings. Although I’ve never tried it myself, I’m willing to bet you can’t learn it from Rosetta Stone or any other kooky miracle software either. Why not? Because unless you were exposed to tonal languages before puberty, your brain is not hard wired to create nor decipher the four tones used in spoken Mandarin. What you need is a personal trainer, a native Chinese speaker to model, listen, and criticize for you the tones, vowels, and consonant sounds necessarily for your Chinese to be intelligible. Naturally, this process is virtually impossible in any classroom setting with more than two or three students. And it is accomplished most efficiently in a one-on-one setting. I could go on for pages on this first point, but let me just leave it at this. One-on-one classes language classes are infinitely more useful hour for hour than any class with multiple students. It’s simply a matter of resource distribution.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. One-on-one tutoring is expensive. You can’t afford it. Chinese may be a valuable skill but it’s not worth taking out a second mortgage to pay for daily tutoring sessions…Hogwash!

By virtue of reading this post, you are in possession of one of the world’s most sought after commodities. You are a speaker of English, the most in-demand language in the world. Throughout the planet there is a vastly disproportionate number of people who want to learn YOUR language. And in no place is this more true than the Middle Kingdom, where millions of students would pay large sums of money, just to have the chance to practice their English, with YOU. Do you see where I’m going with this? As a native speaker of English, there is no reason you should ever have to sit in a Chinese classroom with next to other students. Here’s what you do. Find a Chinese friend with decent English skills, a knack for explaining concepts, and most importantly, somebody who you are comfortable hanging out with in a typical social setting. Pick a location and set up a regular meeting time where you do English for part of the time, then Chinese for the rest. You could do grammar lessons, tone drills, or even free form conversation. The key is to construct your own study plan. Cooperate with your partner to identify your strengths and weaknesses and focus your lessons accordingly. Have one productive language exchange already set up? Organize another one, and another one. This is linguistic symbiosis, a phrase which you will hear a lot about as you read on. Rather than pay money to sit in a class with an unbalanced teacher/student ratio, barter your own language skills to get a better deal. And make sure to be choosy of whom you work with. There are more than enough Chinese speakers to pair up with. The ability to properly teach a language is not bestowed on everybody. Interestingly, I’ve found that often “ESL teachers” (both Chinese and English) are no better or worse than at this than a random person chosen through social regular social networking. So quit those classes and start making friends.

2. Talk to Everybody (beginner)

If you live in China, this one is easy. If you live outside of China, not so much, but still possible. By in large, Chinese people, especially the middle aged and elderly, have an acute curiosity towards foreigners. As the majority of the population still lives with little or no contact with those of us who are not Chinese, there is a natural interest in foreigners, especially those willing to communicate in the Chinese language. Whether with your neighbor, your trash collector, or the girl massaging your feet, never, ever, waste the opportunity to open up small conversation. Chances are the other party would gladly take the opportunity to chat and have a few questions answered by a foreigner willing to converse in their native language. And you, as a student of Chinese, should be gladly willing to engage in some free language practice. More linguistic symbiosis.

When I was starting out with Chinese, I always viewed my oral Chinese skills is in terms of small, otherwise meaningless conversations which gradually build upon one another. My goal was to have at least ten per day, most lasting two or three minutes. The content of these conversations would be highly predictable, making it easy for me to learn through repetition while gradually adding to my lexical arsenal.

So here’s what you do. Start with the basics. People will want to know where you’re from, what you do in China, and how much your monthly salary is. (Yes, no joke. It’s a common inquiry upon first meeting. Either get comfortable telling people how much you make, or learn a polite way to skirt the question.) Learn how to recognize and answer these questions, and from there, begin building an arsenal of your own. The convenient byproduct of answering personal questions from Chinese strangers is that generally speaking, it gives you carte blanche to make similar queries of them. Think of a trite conversation at a wedding with somebody with whom you don’t really want to be actively conversing. Ask how many people are in their family, where they grew up, what their opinion is on the current weather conditions, anything to continue the small talk. Repeat and reload. Repeat and reload. The whole country is your classroom.

3. Take notes (beginner)

From spring 2004 until summer of 2005, I did not go anywhere without a notebook in my pocket. If you are truly studying a language, you are never on break. It is imperative that you use every opportunity to learn new words, phrases, and grammatical constructions. Furthermore, it is important to focus on those words which most frequently arise in your regular daily routine. So if you’re a photographer by trade, you should be learning the words for “megapixel” and “optical zoom.” If you are a lion tamer, words such as “cage” and “roar” would probably be more useful.

To build a vocabulary built around your own life, you must always have on your person either a pocket sized notebook or a stack of flash cards. Use the notebook or the cards to record new words and phrases, as well as to record those words and phrases you would like to learn. Take your notebook or your flashcards everywhere you go without exception. If you take the flashcard route, splice standard sized cards into threes. Otherwise they won’t fit comfortably in your pocket. As the day progresses, you should be constantly recording those new words and expressions which pertain to your daily routine. You can use this method to build your vocabulary with non-specialized by commonly used words and constructions as well. Ideally, a Chinese acquaintance in your immediate vicinity can answer some of your questions real time. For me (like many foreigners living in China), I went through this stage as an English teacher, so there was always someone on hand to answer my questions. If you aren’t surrounded by folks who can answer your questions, make sure there is someone at the end of the day to whom you can ask the questions from your notebook. Offer to answer their English questions in return. It’s symbiotic. Shoot for between 5 and 8 new Chinese terms or constructions per day. Don’t overload yourself. You should be using all your down time (time spent waiting in line, at the bus stop, even in the bathroom), reviewing your new terms and constructions. All it takes is short study breaks of two or three minutes, but happening intermittently throughout the day. The key is repetition, repetition, repetition.

4. Get drunk (intermediate)

Just because you never get a break from studying does not mean that you don’t get to have any fun. In fact having fun is one of the most useful ways to put all the new phrases in your notebook to practice. One of the best ways to do this is to party with Chinese friends who don’t speak English. Excessive alcohol consumption is detrimental to studies, relationships, and most other personal responsibilities. However it will do wonders to your linguistic prowess, as long as you harness it properly.

Language students often find that the effects of alcohol can alleviate some of the nerves which preclude the use of a foreign language. As a teacher, I’ve even noticed among those students who are not particularly nervous, alcohol tends to stimulate the flow of their language skills. So much to the point where students in a state of partial or complete inebriation often speak with more fluidity than they do when sober. However, the key to effectively using alcohol to improve your Chinese is in the careful selection of whom you party with. It has been my experience that when Westerners and Chinese drink together, conversation gravitates towards English nine times out of ten. As a sagacious student of Chinese, you must do everything in your power to insure you will be the only English speaker in your group, and try to avoid Chinese friends who either already speak English or have a desire to learn it. (This also has the added plus of knowing your Chinese friends like you for your personality, and not for your potential as a portable English corner). Alcohol has the uncanny ability aggregate previously acquired morsels of language and consolidate them into flowing thoughts . But you’ll never take advantage of this if your evenings out at the bars are spent with other English speakers.

5. Learn how to sing (intermediate)

If you are in China and don’t live in a plastic bubble (or one of those corporate foreigner compounds), you are probably asked to “sing a song” on a fairly regular basis. Whether in the karaoke room or the classroom, the Chinese possess a particular liking (for better or worse) to egging on their friends to sing in public. Chances are, if you were socialized in the West and have no vocal training, you are easily embarrassed in this situation, and kindly decline such offers.

Learning how to sing, or more accurately making an attempt at learning how to sing, will not only ease potentially awkward social situations, it will also provide you with a valuable learning tool. Think back to when you were in middle school. Did you ever have to memorize some speech or political document for social studies class? In the United States it’s common practice for middle school students to memorize the Preamble of the Constitution. I had to do this when I was in eighth grade in the early 1990s. Now, almost 20 years later, all I can remember is the first three words. However, I can still recite on demand all three verses of Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby.” I also remember the words to “Bust a Move,” “The Humpty Dance,” and most of “We Didn’t Start the Fire .“ Why? Because the human brain has a knack for memorizing and retaining words which have rhythm or music to go along with them, and learning songs is an excellent way to build your vocabulary and syntax skills. I couldn’t tell you the cognitive science behind this so just try it out and see for yourself. Pick out a song you like from the radio, and ask a Chinese friend to help you download the lyrics, and transcribe them to pinyin if necessary. Then look up all of the unfamiliar words (Don’t let your friend do this for you. Looking words up is part of the learning process.) and type them into the margins. Print out your document, crank up the volume, and rock out. Trust me, you’re going to feel like a dork at first, but the anxiety subsides with time and practice. Plus next time you’re taken to the karaoke bar, you won’t be the wet blanket when it’s your time to sing. This also increase your chances at succeeding at item 4, getting drunk with your Chinese friends .

6. Pay attention to your surroundings (beginner)

Ever see those old Hong Kong movie where every street is depicted as a barrage of winding signs and flashing lights? Well, that’s basically what any street in China looks like—complete and total visual sensory overload. With its obnoxious symphony of signage and posters, there are few physical locations in China which are not potential workouts for your character recognition skills. Consider all the time you spend riding in cabs or buses and staring out the window, or standing line in the grocery store or at the DVD shop. You should be reading signs—all the time. Look for the characters and words you already know. Pay attention to unfamiliar ones which you see repeatedly, and ask a bystander their pronunciations and meanings. Write them down in your notebook. You do have a notebook in your pocket, don’t you? I’ve found most Chinese are more than willing to help with a casual question from a foreigner taking a stab at learning their language. Pay special attention to signage near your residence and place of work. These are the signs you will be reading every day, which means once you learn them, you will be repeatedly reading them over and over. Repetation leads to internalization. Wax on. Wax off.

7. Eat at Chinese Restaurants (beginner)

Some of you have probably seen my other site How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com. In addition to what I think is a very useful tool for foreigners wanting to order their own food in China, HTOCFDC is also the culmination of what I have found to be one of the most effective (and delicious) ways to study the Chinese language.

Most foreigners living in China eat the majority of their meals, except maybe breakfast, in restaurants. Ordering food in most restaurants usually necessitates the use of a menu. Think of each meal as an opportunity to learn one character. If you aren’t sure where to start, look down the menu and spot a character which seems to appear regularly on multiple items. Consider it your “character of the meal.” For me, my first “character of the meal” was 面 which means “noodles,” and appears probably more than any other character on a Chinese menu. Ask a friend (if you are truly a student of Chinese you should be eating most of your meals with Chinese acquaintances) to tell you the meaning and the pronunciation of the character. Write it in your notebook. The next time you eat in a restaurant, look for your character again on the menu. Think of it as the “Where’s Waldo?” of Chinese study. Once you locate the characters you know, learn another one, and another, one at every meal. In a matter of months, you should recognize a hefty percentage of the items on any Chinese menu. Use this as a building block for your reading skills, and you’ll start to notice your menu characters in places other than restaurants as well.

8. Chat online (intermediate)

Once you achieve an intermediate Chinese level, the Internet will rapidly emerge as a bottomless pit of linguistic calisthenics. Between voice chatting, blogs, and social networking, there truly is an unlimited access to a Chinese language environment so long as you know where to look. However, of the cornucopia of online Chinese language learning tools (which I should probably cover in a future post), none is more effective than online chatting.

To begin, I recommend signing up for a QQ account. (For more on QQ, read this post I wrote last year). QQ is a haphazardly designed, bug ridden, advertisement infested, thoroughly annoying, piece of software engineering garbage. It’s also your portal to hundreds of millions (literally) of native Chinese speakers more than willing to whittle away hours at the netbar conversing with complete strangers. While Skype and MSN also offer significant user bases, the advantage of QQ is the relative dearth of non-Chinese users. Put a sentence such as 我是一个会中文的老外 (I am a foreigner who can speak Chinese) in your profile, and you are bound to attract a steady flow of curious chat partners. You want to improve your Chinese chops. They want to chat with a foreigner—more symbiosis. QQ will allow you to both chat through typed characters as well as hook up your headset speak the old fashioned way. Use it to improve your typing speed, learn new vocabulary (I always have Kingsoft Powerword open when I’m QQing), or just to make new Chinese friends. For me, I credit my reading ability in no small part to hours spent on QQ discussing mundane subjects with complete strangers. And in addition to strangers, QQ is the perfect tool to keep in contact with those casual Chinese acquaintances whom you might sit next to on a train or share a room with in a hostel. You know, people you wouldn’t mind being in touch with, but don’t want to have calling you on the phone three times a week. So when they ask for your cell phone number, just give them your QQ instead. Everybody in China between the ages of 15 and 30, and I mean EVERYBODY has an account.

Furthermore, if you can speak, read, and write Chinese but can’t type it on a keyboard, then your language skills have already been marginalized by the technology. It is absolutely imperative that you learn to type. Unless you travel to China at 88 mph in a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, if you can’t type Chinese, you might as well be illiterate.

9. Text Message in Chinese (intermediate)

Whether I’m in traveling in China or at home in the US, I send at least twenty text messages every day. That means potentially at least 20 times per day I could be communicating my thoughts in Chinese, (assuming who I am texting can read Chinese as well). And since texting is generally used for relaying simplistic messages and ideas, it’s perfect for those who are in the early stages of their Chinese character learning process. Using pinyin, Chinese is actually faster to type on a keypad than English, and you will be amazed at how your speed improves once you make the switch to Chinese texting. Any cell phone bought in China should be able to text in both English and Chinese. If you bought your phone outside of China, take it in to an electronics mall and have them doctor it to include Chinese input. You can also find shops to do this in most places outside of China with significant Chinese populations. In Chicago there are at least three cell phone stores in Chinatown who will provide the service for around 20 dollars. Use Chinese texting to make your weekend plans, send greetings for birthdays or Spring Festival, or as a coy way to flirt with the opposite sex. I even use it with other foreigners occasionally because it’s faster than texting English.

10. Power Watch Television and Movies (advanced)

During my days of English teaching, at least once every semester I would encounter a student who possessed language abilities far beyond any of his classmates or peers, especially in terms of a native-sounding accent, inflection, and colloquialisms. As a teacher, I would always make it a point to sit down privately with these students and inquire as to their methods of learning foreign language, and there was a clear pattern which emerged: Compulsive consumption of American television and movies.

While it may not be of much help in the beginning (unless you are of pre-pubescent age), I am convinced that there is no more effective tool for native mastery of a language than endlessly watching foreign language films and serial television shows. The kicker though, is that those students who truly benefit from watching foreign films and shows, are those who have an authentic interest which stretches beyond any linguistic pursuits. They don’t watch because they want to improve their English. They watch because they enjoy the content. A supreme command of the English language just happens to be a convenient byproduct.

Therein lies an inherent roadblock to using film and TV to bolster your Chinese abilities. One reason Chinese students tend to get sucked into American movies and television is that the overall quality of programming is….well, incomparable. Due to several factors including the more mature state of the film industry and the lack of competition on the TV airways, much of what’s watched in China consists of cheesy kung fu flicks, singing competitions, and craptaculars.  The single greatest obstacle to students of Chinese, and one that I struggle with myself, is finding materials which are interesting enough to develop a legitimate interest which is not prefabricated on a desire to learn Chinese. There are a few recommendations I can give to start you out though. For film, check out anything done by Zhang Yimou. His films stand up to Western standards of quality, and often cover historical events and issues of interest to those desiring an understanding of the Middle Kingdom. As for television shows, look for a 1990’s series called 北京人在纽约 (Beijingers in New York). It’s the story of a Chinese couple who move to the United States, and experience the peaks and valleys of life in a foreign land. While not the greatest show ever produced, it’s certainly watchable. Watch each film/show multiple times and try to pick up more of the dialogue with each run through. It takes a big time commitment, but consistent exposure to Chinese TV and movies over an extended period of time will do wonders to your language prowess.

Notice I mentioned television shows and movies, and not newscasts. The reason being that most regular people do not talk like newscasters. While watching news may be of benefit to those extremely advanced students aiming to improve their listening, your time will be far more efficiently spent viewing content of a more quotidian nature.

So there’s my list of 10. While slightly exhaustive, it is by no means comprehensive. If you’ve read through the entire post, you’ve probably noticed a distinct pattern with all of my suggestions. Each one represents a method of incorporating Chinese learning into your daily routine of activities. This is because learning a language is a lifestyle, not a hobby. Instead of enrolling in classes and studying for exams, use the suggestions above to integrate Chinese study into your individual life patterns. Ditch the lavish classroom with its troops of students all vying for the instruction of a single teacher, and instead focus on your expanding rolodex of language partners. You’ll find that your productivity will increase dramatically, plus you’ll be having fun while you learn. I often hear folks complain about how much “work” it is to learn Chinese. And yes, in the beginning, you do need to put long hours into drilling your tones and basic grammar patterns. But more often than not, linguistic mediocrity comes as a result of too much studying and not enough real world application. There is no better teacher than the environment and situations you choose to put yourself into. So stop meandering away hours in the classroom and start learning Chinese the right way, by living.



Journey Across the Great Hump of China: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World’s Most Difficult Language

Posted in Linguistics at 12:13 am by Benjamin Ross

For those of you who have never met me in person, nor seen my personal pictures on this blog or on Facebook, I am six feet half an inch tall, have a brown complexion, and often sport a full beard or goatee. In China, people tell me I look like I’m from Pakistan or Turkey. My Indian friends tell me I could blend in with a crowd in Delhi. When I dine in Mexican restaurants on Chicago’s West side, the servers open conversation in Spanish, listen to one painful of sentence of Spanish out of my mouth, and then revert to English with the denigrating tone reserved for Americanized Mexicans who never properly learned their native tongue. Although ethnically speaking I am an Ashkenazik Jew, by all outward appearances I am rather…well…racially ambiguous. Yet rarely if ever does anyone guess that I am Chinese. Thus, whenever the undulating phonemes and tones of Mandarin emerge from my mouth, it elicits a reaction, from Chinese and non-Chinese alike. The comments usually go something like this:

“Wow, you learned Chinese! That is sooooo hard to do! You must be really smart!”

“Chinese is the most difficult language in the world, much more difficult than English.”

“You learned Chinese in only three and a half years? Such a short time!”

I categorically disagree with all three of these statements. Determining the actual difficulty of a language is not an exact science, and to a significant degree a language’s “difficulty” is relative to the native language of the learner. Thus, just as it would be easier for a Frenchman to learn Spanish (a fellow Romance tongue) than it would be to learn Tibetan (a Sino-Tibetan language), it would presumably be easier for a native Mandarin (also from the Sino-Tibetan family) speaker to learn Tibetan than it would be Spanish.

With that caveat in mind, my purpose in this piece is not to argue that Chinese is easier than or even equal in difficulty to English or any other language, nor that it necessarily requires less of a time commitment. Rather, the first part of this piece is going to examine what exactly is difficult about learning Chinese, and then the second part will reveal several aspects of the language which are easier, more simplistic, and far less time consuming than they would be studying English, or Spanish or French, two of the most commonly studied foreign languages by English speakers. Finally, in the third section I provide my explanation for the persistence of the myth that Chinese is exceedingly more difficult to learn than English.

Part 1: The Hard Part

“Mā má m? mà.”

In any halfway decent Chinese instructional program, this will be the very first lesson (the symbols above the letters represent the four tones of spoken Mandarin).

“Mā má m? mà.”

On the first day of study, all four invariably sound exactly the same. However, according to the instructor, ma can mean either mother, sesame, horse, or scold, depending upon the tonality with which it is pronounced.

“This is ridiculous.” “How can that be?” “I can’t even tell the difference between the first two.”

These are the typical reactions after day one of Chinese study. And despite the acrimony from his students, any instructor worth his salt will not let them proceed to the next lesson until mā má m? mà is absolutely mastered. Chances are, even with astute practice, two weeks later they all still sound basically the same, especially when not isolated in a practice exercise.

Yes, learning Chinese tones is difficult, or mind I say, excruciatingly difficult. By my count there are exactly two major areas of Chinese which are significantly more difficult than English, and pronunciation (especially tones) is number one. Not only is mastering the four tones of spoken Mandarin strenuous, but it is absolutely imperative in order for a student’s Chinese to have any chance at being comprehensible to a native speaker. Speak English with poor pronunciation, and we can generally figure out what is being said. Speak Chinese with bad tones, and you might as well be speaking Tagalog. Yup, Chinese pronunciation is extremely difficult, and I haven’t even begun to speak of the various consonant and vowel sounds which are foreign to native English speakers, but we don’t need to get into that. Let’s just accept that learning Chinese pronunciation is arduous, much more so than the pronunciation of English or a Romance tongue. Seeing as Chinese with inaccurate tones is about as comprehensible as English without consonants, any additional study without complete mastery of pronunciation is of little benefit whatsoever. And to make matters even worse, pronunciation accosts eager learners on the very first day. Bear this in mind as you read Part 3.

The second area in which I would argue Chinese is more difficult than English is in the written language, the most frequent source of consternation for Chinese language learners. However unlike pronunciation, which requires a great deal of oral contortionism and fine tuned listening skills, Chinese characters are more time consuming than they are difficult per se, and thus I list them as a distant number two in the totem of Chinese difficulty.

English has 26 letters. Chinese has anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 different characters depending upon whom you ask, however the majority of them are archaic and would only be recognized by scholars of ancient Chinese. For more practical numbers, it is commonly believed that a college educated Chinese can recognize roughly five to six thousand characters and that general literacy can be achieved with two or three thousand. Now before I go any further, I will concede that achieving literacy in Chinese requires a greater time commitment than becoming literate in English or a Romance language. Historically, this was a major impetus for the movement from traditional to simplified characters, as well as several unsuccessful attempts to replace Chinese characters with Latin letters. However, comparing English (or French or Spanish) to Chinese in terms of 2,000 characters vs. 26 letters disregards several inherent efficiencies of the Chinese language which serve to accelerate the learning curve, as will be examined in the following section.

Part 2: The Easy Part

From a purely quantitative standpoint, 3,000 characters may sound like a lot, and it is if you’re planning to master Chinese over the course of a single semester or a three month backpacking trip. But if you’re like most people, your path towards mastering Chinese will require somewhere in the neighborhood of two solid years of studying. At this rate, mastering 3,000 characters amounts to learning 5 characters a day, every day, for roughly a year and a half; hardly an excruciating task, so long as a consistent study plan is maintained.

But learning Chinese characters isn’t always as easy as it sounds, even if you are only learning 5 a day. As in tone learning, the first few character lessons for any student of Chinese can be agonizing. For me personally, I’d liken my first 300 or so characters to memorizing arbitrary strokes of chicken scratch. Sure, 口looks like a mouth, and 山 appears vaguely to resemble a mountain, but ideograms as blatantly obvious as these are few and far between, and rarely as common as characters such as 我 (I) or 是 (“to be”) which bear little overt resemblance to the concepts they represent.

Thus, Chinese character learning must begin by rote. Each character is meticulously copied into a notebook, over and over ad nauseum. In the early stages, characters are often learned one day, then forgotten the next, as the practice hours mount with little to show for their efforts. Much like learning the tones, the early stages of Chinese character learning are marred with feelings of frustration and stagnation.

However, at around the 300-500 character mark, a point of epiphany occurs and all of the chicken scratch and rote memorization begins to coalesce into an increasingly logical order. To give an example, let’s look at a character, 证, which I encountered last week while I was interpreting at an arbitration hearing. 证 means prove or demonstrate and is used in the Chinese words for testimony and deposition. 证 is composed of two parts: 讠and 正. The former means speech or words while the latter denotes the concept of straight or upright. This hints to me that 证 will likely have a meaning similar to straight words. Furthermore, the pronunciation of 正 is identical to that of 证. Thus, even had I never before seen the character 证, I would probably have a pretty solid idea of both what it means and how to pronounce it.

Before anybody gets the wrong idea, most characters do not work out as seamlessly as证. Also, the hints are rarely dead giveaways. However, the system of Chinese characters is littered with clues of meaning and pronunciation, which expedite the learning curve once a student has a grasp of the system.

Skeptics are going to read the above argument and bring forth an objection which will transition right into my next point: English vocabulary, just like Chinese characters, is also constructed of logical bits and pieces, these being root words.

English as we use it today, consists of primarily old Germanic words for much of its every days speech mixed with bits and pieces of Latin and Greek (just to name a few) which compose much of its higher and more sophisticated vocabulary. Chinese on the other hand, constructs the majority of its vocabulary out fragments of Chinese, combined together in different permutations. Simply put, Chinese is bound by a self-contained system of logic, Whereas in English, centuries of wars and invasions have rendered the language into linguistic miscegeny of highest order. Interpreting in a medical setting, I encounter examples of this on a daily basis. Let’s consider the word for a common ailment which occurs when the lungs become inflamed with congestion. In Chinese, this ailment is called 肺炎, or taken character by character, lung inflammation. In English, this condition is known as pneumonia, a combination of letters and syllables of Greek origin, which hold little in common with the conventions of modern English. In English we have hepatitis. In Chinese, we get liver inflammation. In English when we eat the meat of a pig it’s called pork. In Chinese, it’s pig meat. And in English when you have a problem with your toilet, you find a plumber. In Chinese you call the water pipe worker.

In effect, when one studies English, they are actually studying the vocabulary of several languages. On the contrary, once one has gained a working knowledge of Chinese, vocabulary building occurs by repeatedly using the same set of linguistic constructs, only parsing them together in different combinations.

Another result of this is that Chinese has a far less extensive vocabulary than English. To illustrate this point, consider the following conversation I had over QQ with my Chinese friend “Jeremy,” a college educated insurance salesman in Fuzhou, regarding my recent GRE studying.

Jeremy: How’s your studying going?

Ben: Good, just a lot of work. I’ve been spending a lot of time on vocabulary words.

Jeremy: Vocabulary? What do you mean?…Chinese Vocabulary?

Ben: No, English vocabulary.

Jeremy: Why are you studying English vocabulary? You’re American.

This conversation might sound ridiculous when taken out of context. Among English speakers, it is virtually impossible to reach a saturation point where one can read widely and still fail to encounter new vocabulary words. But the vocabulary of the Chinese language on the other hand, is far more constrained. Constrained to the point that other than specialized nouns and jargon, an educated Chinese will rarely if ever encounter new vocabulary words. With this understanding, it makes sense why Jeremy was surprised that as a native English-speaking, college educated American, I was still expanding my vocabulary.

Chinese vocabulary building is highly intuitive, and once students achieve basic grasp of the language, vocabulary expansion occurs at a rapid pace. Because of the systematic nature of the language, Chinese characters, which at first present a major stumbling block for students, in the long run actually serve to accelerate the learning curve. Furthermore, due to the smaller girth of its vocabulary, students of Chinese simply do not need to devote as much time and effort on vocabulary building as students of European languages such as English and French which are littered with synonymous terms of varying geographic origin.

The intuitiveness of Chinese character and vocabulary building is further complimented by another linguistic shortcut, and this would be grammar. Chinese grammar is simple, extremely simple, mainly because there isn’t much of it. Consider the following.

-Chinese nouns, verbs, and adjectives contain no masculine and feminine differentiation.

-Singular and plural are the same in China, and there are no stem changes or varying endings based on number. In English we have “two deer, three wolves, four mice, and five dogs” In Chinese, we have “two deer, three wolf, four mouse, and five dog.”

-There is no differentiation between subject and object pronouns (i.e. I/me, he/him, who/whom) in Chinese.

-There is no “agreement” between different words subject and object in Chinese, nor between nouns and their adjectives.

-But by far and away, the greatest shortcut with learning Chinese is that Chinese verbs do not conjugate. English has 12 distinct tenses. Spanish has 14. Chinese has just one. Instead of conjugating verbs, tense in Chinese is implied through the addition of an adverbial phrase or an additional verb or particle.

Furthermore, students of Chinese are often pleasantly surprised that due to its simplistic nature, Chinese grammatical irregularities, especially as they pertain to verbs, are few and far between. Consider the English verb to be, which is expressed as either is, am, are, was, were, been, or being, depending on the subject and tense. In Spanish, to be can be expressed as estar, estoy, estás, está , estamos, estáis, están, ser, soy, eres, es, somoms, sois, or son, and this is assuming we are confining our speech only to the present tense. In Chinese, we accomplish this idea of to be with a single, mono-syllabic character 是 (shì). Thus, the significant demands of time and effort presented by pronunciation and character acquisition, can be to a significant degree, offset by a simplified and highly intuitive system of grammar.

Part 3: Debunking the Myth

In the sections above, I have outlined the two “hard parts” of the Chinese language, pronunciation and the early stages of character study. I have also explained several characteristics of the Chinese language which render it more efficient and intuitive than English. It is my contention that even if these simplifying properties of the language do not completely cancel out the pain and suffering of pronunciation and characters, they do make Chinese language acquisition considerably easier than often perceived by outsiders. It is my contention that Chinese may inherently be more slightly difficult to learn than English, Spanish, or French. However it is by no means an insurmountable challenge nor is it “the hardest language in the world,” as people often speculate.

This brings us back to my original question of why common perception is that learning Chinese is excruciatingly difficult. If you’ll recall my discussion of Chinese pronunciation and Chinese characters, a commonality between these two facets of Chinese language acquisition is that the bulk of their difficulty arises at the beginning of the language learning process. As stated above, I firmly believe that the most difficult aspect of Chinese is the pronunciation. And as Chinese rookies quickly discover, without an absolute mastery of Chinese pronunciation (especially tones), spoken Chinese can be virtually incomprehensible to native speakers. Because of this, the mastery of Chinese pronunciation must occur at the very beginning of Chinese study, not gradually acquired over the course of time. Students who attempt the latter approach usually end up frustrated at their inability to communicate, give up before pronunciation is mastered, and thus continue to perpetuate the myth that Chinese is simply too difficult.

Likewise, character learning, which unlike pronunciation continues throughout the duration of the language acquisition process, is by far and away more difficult at the beginning than it is when a student has several hundred characters under their belt. When we figure that Chinese grammar and vocabulary building is pretty straightforward throughout, we are left with a model where the most arduous period of Chinese learning is at the very beginning. Once pronunciation is mastered and becomes a non-factor, the threshold of 300-500 characters is reached, and command of grammar and basic sentence patterns is internalized (by far the easiest of the three), the learning curve begins to accelerate at a rapid pace. For convenience sake, I refer to this point as the “Great Hump of China.” This runs counter to the study of most other foreign languages, and furthermore counter to the majority of life’s protracted undertakings at large. As humans, we tend to assume (and rightly so in most cases) that whether we are learning gymnastics, studying physics, or even battling computerized boxers in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, the undertakings of life begin easy and simplistic, and gradually increase in difficulty as we progress. Most students who prematurely quit their Chinese studies (and the attrition rate is high) tend to do so because of Chinese’s immediate difficulty from the onset. Using the logic that has guided them through life thus far, they deduce “if it’s this hard already, it’s only going to get harder down the line.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The initial stages of Chinese learning are extremely difficult, but once the Great Hump is crossed, the language rapidly becomes easier and easier.

The existence of the Great Hump I will also maintain, accounts for the false perceptions that mastering Chinese requires many years of studying (it shouldn’t take more than 2 or 3) and that my own ability to learn it living in China for only 3.5 years is in a word, miraculous (It isn’t.  It’s typical).   Students who are attempting to learn Chinese over the course of a protracted period in an immersed environment (i.e. in China) tend to quickly deviate into one of two camps: those who learn the language and those who don’t. The first group consists of those individuals who take their language studies seriously, follow a prudent study plan, and most importantly have the patience to deal with the excruciating first months. This group tends to obtain a firm grasp of the language in the span of about two years. The typical pattern begins with roughly three months of frustration, focusing heavily on pronunciation, in which little tangible improvement to communication capacity is achieved. Somewhere between the six month and one year mark, the great hump is crossed. And then for the remaining time, improvement accelerates at an exponential rate, as the student has already covered the most difficult aspects of the language.

The other group are those who remain perpetually behind the hump, and continue to exist in a constant state of novice and frustration which can last indefinitely. The most common reason for this is a failure to master pronunciation, which as mentioned before, renders any further studying for all intents and purposes, useless. Thus, students in the second group can often “study” for several years while plateauing at a level which members of the first group eclipsed in a matter of months. Put succinctly, students of Chinese either “get it” in about 2-3 years, or they never get it at all regardless of the duration of their studies. Like the early quitters, those who continue their studies but never cross the Great Hump go on to perpetuate the myth of the supreme difficulty of the Chinese language and the divine intellect of those who learn it in only a few years.

Chinese is not the most difficult language in the world. Nor is it significantly more difficult than English, Spanish, or French. And learning Chinese is not a perilous undertaking which requires years of intense study and superior mental abilities. It is a skill which can be acquired in a period of under three years, by any individual of average intelligence, provided they have access to a sufficient learning environment, the necessary amount of patience, and most importantly, are cognizant of the fact that the most critical and difficult period of their studies will be the very beginning. Was learning Chinese time consuming? Yes, it took me about two years of living in China during which I was studying and practicing every day. Was it difficult? Yes, but only in the beginning. After I passed the Great Hump, it was far easier than the French I labored over for five years in college and high school. And finally does my mastery of Chinese, as a six foot white guy with not a single drop of Chinese blood, put me on some intellectual plane above and beyond normal human intellectual capacity? Absolutely not. I still rank it up there with my second round TKO of Mike Tyson on Nintendo.



Chinese Writing: Is it really worth all the hassle to learn?

Posted in Linguistics, Society at 4:03 am by Benjamin Ross

Earlier this month I spent two weeks in an interpreter training seminar for a new agency I am now working for.  As part of the seminar, each participant was required to complete a ten-page glossary of medical terminology in their respective language.  Adrenal glands, anthrax, congestive heart failure…the list went on.  To complete the course, all of the medical terminology from the glossary had to be looked up (if not already known) and written next to its corresponding English definition.

For most of the participants at the seminar, completing the glossary was an insurmountable chore.  For me however, it was a welcome opportunity to write Chinese characters, a skill I had devoted hundreds of hours toward acquiring.  Item by item, I worked my way through the glossary, and after three evenings during which I spent over an hour on the project, I finally came to the end.  When I was done, I couldn’t remember the last time I had written so many Chinese characters in such a short period of time.

Even in the US, I use my Chinese every day.  I work as an interpreter, I have Chinese friends in Chicago, I read Chinese websites, I hang out in Chinatown, I’m a compulsive QQ addict, I call my old barbershop buddies in Fuzhou late at night when I can’t sleep.  Rarely does a day pass where not a single sentence of Chinese passes through my consciousness.  But how often do I actually write Chinese?  Well, the answer is a resounding “hardly ever.”  The ten-page glossary was by leaps and bounds the most Chinese characters I had ever written at one time outside of my own Chinese studies.  This got me pondering.  How practical is it to learn how to write Chinese?

Chinese writing is arguably the most time consuming aspect of studying the Chinese language.  Look inside any coffee house in Wudaokou (Beijing’s main foreign student district) and you will see tables of foreign students, meticulously laboring away at Chinese characters, stroke by stroke, character by character, line by line, the process repeated ad nauseam over the course of several years.  This, of course, is the only way to become proficient at writing Chinese.  But what is the payoff?  How much will a student of Chinese use their writing once they have finally mastered it?  For a little insight, let’s take a look at my own personal Chinese character study path.

Before I stepped foot in the Middle Kingdom, I had never written a single Chinese character.  In high school and college I had made the (rather unwise) decision of studying French, and therefore came to China with a blank slate.  I was living in Fuqing, a small town in which there were no other foreigners, and thus no Chinese study programs nor classes.  I didn’t learn to write Chinese for academic purposes, nor out of necessity.  Rather, I learned it out of boredom.

As it would prove to be, boredom can be an priceless asset for someone attempting to become proficient at Chinese writing.  As an English teacher in Fuqing, I was pulling a ten-hour work week, and doing so in a city with no bars, no beaches, no museums, and no live music,  Other than karaoke centers and brothels, nothing was open past 11 pm.  I had gobs of free time, was grossly over-paid, and had little to occupy my endless hours of freedom.

During my first month in Fuqing, a Chinese colleague had given me a handwriting textbook written for Chinese kindergartners, and a grid-lined notepad, specifically designed for writing characters.  At the time, I was diligent in my Chinese studies, but had decided to focus my studying around pinyin (Chinese Romanization) rather than learning to write the characters.  I had been on a six-month contract, and figured it wasn’t worth taking a stab at Chinese writing with such a short time frame.

For several months, the textbook and notepad collected dust, along with the veritable museum of gifts which had been bestowed upon me from colleagues and students during those first few months.  That was until one week, when a typhoon had kept me trapped inside my dorm room for two days straight.  In a fit of boredom, I looked over to my bookshelf, grabbed the textbook and notepad, and meticulously began copying the cryptic symbols onto the paper.

The following week, a Chinese friend instructed me on the proper way to write characters (stroke order is vital for any beginner), and before long I was on my way to becoming a functioning member of literate Chinese society.  I would learn five or six characters per day, focusing on words which were already in my spoken vocabulary, and using every block of free time I had to copy them onto the notepad.  After nearly six months, my writing had progressed to the point where I could write just about anything I could speak.  From that point on, whenever I would learn new vocabulary, I would always learn how to write the characters, instead of just learning the pinyin.  After two and a half years of active self-study, I reached the point where I could consider myself literate.  Rather that merely copying characters on my notepad, I was now keeping a daily journal of my activities in Chinese, and relying on this as my primary method of improving my writing.

Around the same time, several of my students had finally succeeded in dragging me into the world of QQ, the dominant IM chat client in the Middle Kingdom.  Although I could already read and write Chinese, QQ provided the additional hurdle of having to type Chinese on a keyboard.  Over the course of several months, Using the MS-Pinyin IME, I was able to transfer my skills with a pen into skills on a keyboard.  The more I was sucked into QQ, the more my Chinese typing improved, eventually to the point where it was infinitely faster, and more accurate than my handwriting.  Around this time I was also introduced to Chinese text messaging.  Talk time in the Middle Kingdom is considerably more expensive than sending texts, and my Chinese friends were getting tired of having to call me every time we needed to communicate.  Like it or not, I was, in effect, forced to learn to type and text Chinese out of necessity, whereas I had learned to write purely out of interest and curiosity.

Now let’s fast forward to my three month trip back to the Middle Kingdom this past summer.  The research project I worked on was conducted entirely with Chinese locals, and with a few minor exceptions, all work-related engagements were conducted without the use of English.  Most of the traveling I did was done alone, and with the exception of a trip down South to visit friends, was done in complete Chinese immersion as well.  As for my social life, it would be nearly impossible for an American in Beijing to live completely separate from other English speakers.  However I would still estimate that at least half of my social encounters were conducted in Chinese.

All in all, I spent 3 months in China, during which easily 2/3 of my communication was conducted solely in Chinese.  In all of those encounters including professional, personal, and travel-related, how often did I write Chinese characters?…maybe 6 or 7.  At an absolute most, 8.  Of those, at least half occurred while repeatedly writing my address on forms during my fiasco with the bank.  How is it that I could spend so much time in the Middle Kingdom without hardly ever using my written Chinese?  Well, for every single character I hand wrote, I easily typed or texted several hundred, if not a thousand.  Between scheduling meetings via e-mail, conducting research interviews on QQ, planning weekends over text messages, and making new friends on Xiaonei.com, my fingertips, and not my right hand, were spewing out several hundred Chinese characters per day.

Learning a language is an investment in the future.  Few people would struggle several years learning a foreign language without the belief that they would be using it for years to come.  Thus, when studying a foreign language, one must decide which aspects of the language will be the most valuable in the future. Handwriting is an art will be around for many generations to come, but its practicality is rapidly waning.  Just as brush calligraphy has remained a popular cultural relic of China’s past, I do not foresee handwriting’s complete disappearance any time in the near future.  I do, however, see its usage to continue to be rapidly replaced by electronic media, and eventually, like brush calligraphy, being relegated solely to the realm of artistic expression.

For me, as a Chinese learner in the 21st Century, the ability to type and text Chinese has proven invaluable on both a personal and professional level.  These skills have made my existing ability to communicate in Chinese infinitely more valuable.  All the while, my ability to write continues to deteriorate due to lack of practical usage.  It leaves me with the question:  Were all of those hours spent laboring over Chinese characters in my notebook really worth it?  In terms of personal satisfaction, then the answer is definitely yes.  Writing Chinese is a hobby which has given me countless hours of contentment and a greater appreciation of the Chinese language.  Additionally, learning how to write Chinese has also helped my reading proficiency, and I’m left to question whether or not one can effectively learn to read while bypassing the writing process.  But in terms of learning to write purely for the sake of being able to write, the time commitment has yet to pay off.



Putonghua up North, Putonghua down South

Posted in Linguistics, Travel Log (Asia) at 9:05 am by Benjamin Ross

Before I ever started learning a word of Putonghua (Mandarin), a friend of mine who had been a college Chinese major gave me this advice: Learn from a Northerner, not a Southerner. The reason being that because most Southerners grow up speaking dialects, and then learning Mandarin with the influence of the local tongue. Thus, their Putonghua is less “standard” from those from the North who grow up speaking a variant of Putonghua as their native language. The prevailing generalization, which most Chinese would attest to as well, is that people in the North speak clear, standard Putonghua. Those in the South do not.

rural Chinese children
My posse of rural Hebei kids, posing with their new “maiguo pengyou.”

This certainly held true in Fujian. In Fuzhou, most of the population still speaks the Fuzhou dialect, which is completely incomprehensible to anyone who grew up more than roughly two hours away from Fuzhou. However, I would estimate that 99% of the Fuzhou population under the age of 65 also speaks Mandarin with native fluency. However, they do so with complete disregard for several of Putonghua’s consonant sounds, namely sh, zh, ch, r, f, and h. Therefore, when a Fuzhou local speaks Mandarin, it is 100% comprehensible to a Chinese from another region, or a laowai studying Chinese for that matter…Albeit, it does sound a little funny.

Since Putonghua is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the commonly accepted theory is that, the closer to Beijing one grows up, the more standard their Mandarin will be. However, my recent trip through rural Hebei has me thinking this theory may not be so cut and dry.

On my trip back from the Yu Village to Shijiazhuang, I had two hours to kill in a small village called Jin Nan, where the local train to Shijiazhuang passes through once a day. I decided to meander through the tiny village which was more of a stop-off point for dump trucks carrying coal than a town in and of itself. I imagine Jin Nan is not the type of place where 6-foot white guys with Swiss Army backpacks are an every day occurrence, and I was instantly accosted by two eleven-year-old elementary school students.

“Where are you from?” they inquired curiously.

“The United States,” I replied.

“American…he’s American, they giggled.”

Only, rather than mei3 guo2 ren2, their word for ‘American’ sounded more like mai2 guo2 ren2. Both the tone and the vowel sound of the word 美 had been switched. Had I not known the context, I probably would have had no idea what they were saying. The kids continued following me, yelling for their friends along the way, until I had a posse of around 7 or 8 eleven-year-olds following me around yelling out “mai2 guo2 ren2” for all to hear.

I decided to take the opportunity to ask them some questions about their school studies and life in the small village. However, from the minute they began answering my questions I realized that while they could understand everything I said, I was barely catching 50% of what was coming from their mouths.

This was interesting because not only because we were less than 150 miles from Beijing, but also because generally speaking, children’s Putonghua is by far and away the easiest to understand as a Chinese second-language learner. There are two reasons for this. The first is obvious. Children use simpler vocabularies than adults. The second reason, however, is that in China, the younger one is, the more likely they are to speak more standard Putonghua. This has to do with both the government’s emphasis on Putonghua in schools since the early 1950’s, and probably to an even greater extent, the mass exposure to Putonghua TV and movies in the past few decades. This was honestly the first time (since I got comfortable with Chinese) I have ever had difficulty communicating with small children on account of their accents…and it was happening just outside of Beijing!

Why then, would it be so difficult for me to understand the Putonghua of children from Hebei, just outside of Beijing, when I could understand the Putonghua of rural Fujian children without such problem?

The answer lies in the degree of diversion between Putonghua and the “dialects.” Because the dialects in Fujian* are completely unintelligible to outsiders, Fujian people have to consciously switch back and forth between their “dialect” and Putonghua. In the North, the dialects, while quite different from standard Putonghua, are still understandable to Chinese outsiders. I would imagine a native Chinese speaker could have understood about 95% of what those Hebei kids were saying. For comparison sake, it would be like someone from Chicago speaking English with a Jamaican with a thick accent. Though it might require some careful listening, the Chicagoan would probably understand most of what the Jamaican was saying. Yet a Chinese who was studying English as a second language, it would not be so easy.

Because of this, northerners in rural areas can often get away with speaking their dialect rather than standard Putonghua. Thus, communicating in Putonghua in a northern province such as Hebei, can actually be more difficult than using Putonghua in a remote southern location, like Fuzhou.

This idea however, only applies to rural areas. In major urban centers, Putonghua tends to prevail over local dialects. In Northern cities where the local dialects are closer to the Beijing tongue, this translates into standard Mandarin. In the South, which is linguistically distant from Beijing, this translates into Putonghua with a southern accent.

*For the record, I consider the native tongues of Fujian to be separate languages from Mandarin, not dialects.



你会讲国语吗?…How to Say “Chinese” in Chinese

Posted in Linguistics at 11:29 am by Benjamin Ross

Anytime one moves to a new location where the same language is spoken as in their previous location, a certain degree of modification to their lexicon occurs. Living in Chicago, and doing my best to keep up my Chinese, I have also noticed several inadvertent shifts in my own vocabulary as well.

One such example is the word for the Chinese language itself. Actually, there are several words in Chinese for “Chinese.” The most common is probably 汉语 (han4 yu3) which literally means “language of the Han people.” 汉语 is typically used to describe the language as it comes from a mouth. This, in contrast to 中文(zhong1 wen2), which means “Chinese words” and usually refers to the written language, such as when speaking of a “Chinese book” or “Chinese song.” There is no set rule on the different situations to use 汉语 and 中文 and thus a certain degree of overlap in the use of these terms exists.

In addition to 语 and 文 the character 话 is often placed after the name of a group of people to construct an informal name for their language or dialect, creating the term 中国话 (zhong1 guo2 hua4). This term is not common, but used on occasion to differentiate the speech of one group of people from another’s. So while the technical name for Polish, for example, is 波兰语 (bo1 lan2 yu3) it would not be uncommon for Chinese to refer to it as 波兰话 (bo1 lan2 hua4) in the context of comparing it to say, the speech of Germans. To refer to American English, in contrast to British English the term 美国话 (mei3 guo2 hua4) is used as well. Furthermore in China, 话is used to differentiate the various dialects of Chinese. So for example, the Fuzhou dialect is called 福州话 (fu2 zhou1 hua4). The name of the dialect of virtually any location in China can be constructed simply by adding a 话 to the end of it.*

Yet another term 普通话 ( pu2 tong1 hua4) or “common language” is used to differentiate China’s official language, what we call “Mandarin” in the West, from the many local dialects. Especially in areas such as Fujian, where dialects are still commonly spoken, it is not uncommon to hear to locals use this term, as it is necessary to differentiate the Chinese they speak in their hometowns with the lingua franca used across the country.

One more term exists, and this is one which I have only heard used by Tibetans. 汉话 (han4 hua4), literally means “the words of the Han people,” and is a rarely used by Han Chinese, but is probably the most commonly used term by Tibetan Mandarin speakers.

With the multitude of terms used in Chicago, it will probably come as little surprise that here in Chicago, there is a totally different dominant term for the Chinese language. Literally meaning “language of the country,” 国语 (guo2 yu3) is the most prominent word used for “Mandarin” in Taiwan and Hong Kong…and in Chicago as well. To me, this term has always had political undertones, as to somehow indicate, “that is what THEY speak in THEIR country”…as opposed to 中文, the combined language of the Chinese people, thus including Taiwan and Hong Kong. (I could be totally off base on this assertion, so it would be nice to get the input of some Chinese readers). Interestingly enough, in Chicago I have noticed that even mainlanders tend to use the word 国语 when referring to “Mandarin.” I would imagine that this usage is not connected with politics per se, but rather an adaptation to the collective Chicago Chinese dialect, as laid down by the first wave of immigrants, most of whom were from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Regardless of any connotations, I have also found my own Chinese idiolect has been subconsciously shifting to say 国语 as opposed to 汉语 or 中文. This would have sounded quite strange if I was still in Fuzhou, especially coming from a 6 foot white guy. But in 芝加哥中国话 (Chicago Chinese), 国语 is the name of the game.

*There are several names of dialects which are not constructed this way. For example Cantonese is often called 粤语 (yue2 yu3) or 白话 (bai2 hua4). However terms such as 广东话 (guang3 dong1 hua4) and 广州话 (guang3 zhou1 hua4) would be acceptable as well.



China by Acronyms

Posted in Linguistics at 3:16 pm by Benjamin Ross

You would never guess that a country with an ideographic language system would have so many acronymous terms and organizations…but here you go. Additions welcome.

CCTV With world class programming from that Larry King-wannabee asshole on “Dialogue” to the 7 o’clock news, coming to you live simultaneously from 26 different stations, China Central Television is certain not to disappoint.

NBA Is it any wonder that the first words in English for Chinese boys these days are “I love this game?”

KTV the Chinese term for “karaoke,” the national pastime of Asia

QQ The ubiquitous instant messaging software which everybody…I mean EVERYBODY in China under the age of 30 has. It’s also the name of China’s best selling domestic car, which is something like a cross between a Geo Metro and a Big Wheel.

AA This is the Chinese term for “splitting the bill” or “going Dutch,” and I don’t mean Chinglish. This term is used by Chinese people when speaking Chinese. How it made its way into the Chinese vernacular is beyond me.

XP “ekk uhh suh pee” the operating system which powers 90% of China’s personal computers, available at your local market for 5 kuai.

DIY (Do it yourself) refers to buying the individual parts for a computer and putting them together yourself, rather than buying the whole computer together. It also usually comes with a complimentary copy of ekk uhh suh pee.

CS That ubiquitous computer game that takes up 90% of the bandwidth of Chinese Internet bars. You can be quite certain that at any given moment the number of people playing CS in China is greater than the population of most European states.

ICBC The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. They must have more branches than the entire Redwood Forrest. You literally can’t walk 5 minutes in any Chinese city without finding one, if not four.

CCP Need we elaborate?

WC I had honestly never heard this term before I came to China, but supposedly it was what they called the crapper in the 1800’s, and apparently still do call it today in France.

KFC The standard bearer by which all “hamburger” restaurants are judged in China. (Other local permutations include DFC, BEC, HDC, and MDC)

VCD The “wee see dee” was the preferred medium for videos in China before the emergence of DVD technology. It revolutionarily combined the convenience of a CD and the picture quality of a conventional webcam.

PICC The China Property and Casualty Company is on a quest to make sure no Chinese skyline is without one of its hideously monotonous signs. After 3 years of being bombarded with their advertisements, I still have no idea what they do.

TMD is short for 他妈的, and literally means “his mother.”  It is probably the closest approximation in the Chinese language to the word “fuck.” My own personal favorite syntax is to use it as an adverb: “真TMD (adjective).”  For example: 这个网站真TMD酷 (This website is really fucking cool!).



Meet the Uncles

Posted in Culture Clash, Linguistics at 8:15 pm by Benjamin Ross

For the past month, my Chinese girlfriend’s father has been in town visiting from Italy, where he now lives. This was my first time meeting either of her parents, and I was a little nervous at first. One of the most difficult aspects for me was addressing him. Although I have been living in China for 3 years, and speak Mandarin with a decent degree of fluency, I still find it awkward referring to my Chinese friends’ parents as 叔叔 (shu1 shu1) and 阿姨 (a1 yi2), which the dictionary defines as “uncle” and “aunt.” In the past, I had skirted around the issue through use of pronouns. However, before the visit, my girlfriend informed me that I needed to add a 叔叔 before the (ni3) when addressing her father. For example. 叔叔,你要不要喝水.(Uncle, would you like to drink some water?). Leaving off the “uncle” would come off as disrespectful.

I believe part of the problem lies in the way these terms are translated. While the Chinese term for a paternal uncle is 叔叔and a paternal aunt is 阿姨, it is misleading to translate 叔叔 as “uncle” and 阿姨 as “aunt,” and leave it at that. A more accurate definition for these terms would be “respected person of the older generation.”

In the West, we are accustomed to personalization. Even in instances where titles are used, we often add a surname. Sometimes we drop the title and simply use the given name. For example, I call my physician “Dr. Glazer.” I call my friend (link) Todd’s father “Mr. Wesselhoeft.” I call the manager at Taco Bell “Frank.”

In China the conventions are different. I call my doctor 医生 yi1 sheng1 (doctor). I call the security guard in my apartment complex 保安bao3 an1 (guard). I call the shopkeeper near the guard station 老板 lao3 ban3 (boss). I call taxi drivers 师傅 shi1 fu4 (master), and I call shop assistants and waitresses 小姐 xiao3 jie3 (little sister) or 小弟 xiao3 di4 (little brother). Neither the family name nor the given name are ever used.

The use of titles is especially applicable to family members. Each unique family position has its own title. When dealing with members of older generations, only the title is used, not the given name. So for example, my girlfriend calls her father’s brother 叔叔 (shu1 shu1) but calls her mother’s brother 舅舅 (jiu4 jiu4). Her mother’s sister’s husband is 姨丈 (yi2 zhang4) while her father’s sister’s husband is 姑丈 (gu1 zhang4). In English, all four of these people would be called “uncle.” The Chinese title system gets even more elaborate when dealing with cousins and relatives two generations removed. When I am with my girlfriend, I must address her relatives with the same titles she uses. The only acceptation being her parents, whom she calls 妈妈 and爸爸 (ma1 ma1 and ba4 ba4) but whom I call 阿姨 and 叔叔 (a1 yi2 and shu1 shu1).

In a professional setting in China (i.e. doctor, taxi driver, etc.) an appropriate occupational title is used. When addressing with a family member or a close friend’s family member, the respective kinship title is used. When neither of these conditions are met (i.e. stranger, friend’s parents, old lady collecting bottles for recycling, etc.) the default respectful title for a member of the older generation is 叔叔 (shu1 shu1) for a man and 阿姨 (a1 yi2) for a woman.

Defining these two words as meaning “uncle” and “aunt” does not reveal their true functionality. For myself, this has caused me to feel awkward when using them in appropriate situations. By the time I understood the proper usage of these words, they had already been cemented into my brain as “uncle” and “aunt.” The same holds true when the situation is flipped around. The first time my girlfriend talked to my mother on the phone, her knee-jerk reaction was to call her “auntie.” She knew from watching American sit-coms that this was not appropriate in a Western context, but it still felt uncomfortable for her to refer to my mom as “Sally.” For me, after spending two weeks with my girlfriend’s father, it finally started to become natural to call him 叔叔. I think this coincided with my mind letting go of the implicit connection between 叔叔 and “uncle” and instead regarding it simply as an indication of respect for one of my elders.

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