One of the most important parts of culture is, of course, the language. It shapes everything from how you navigate from point A to B, how you interact with the people around you, to how you express and even create your own thoughts. I’d like to use this blog post to discuss how I’ve been interacting with the Chinese language. It’s easily one of the most difficult parts of being here in China but also one of the most rewarding. The feeling of interacting with someone using only Chinese is so fulfilling. It makes me indescribably happy even if I did only say “I want that!” and understand how much they told me it cost.
One of the most surprising things to me when learning Chinese was how simple some aspects of it are. Its grammar structure is the easiest and simplest that I have ever seen. Chinese grammar structures are quite similar to English ones. A sentence consists of subject, verb, and noun in that order, just like with English. Adjectives are placed before nouns and certain phrases actually do just directly translate over. The simplicity actually goes so much further though. Verbs do not need to be conjugated, there’s only one additional word to indicate possession, one word for past tense, and one for future. This makes the actual structure of everything super simple and easy to learn.
There’s another part of Chinese that’s oddly simple as well. Since there was no need to use the Gregorian calendar until China began communicating with the Western world, they don’t have names for the months or the days of the week. Therefore, ‘Monday’ in Chinese is just ‘week one’, ‘Tuesday’ is just ‘week two’ and so on. The same idea holds for months, except the order is reversed. January is ‘one month’, ‘February’ is ‘two month’ and so on. This sounds really strange to a native English speaker such as myself (‘Get me that report be week 5!’) but makes total sense from a historical context and is actually kind of ingeniously simple in its own way.
Comparing to English and Spanish (the two other languages I understand enough to have something resembling a conversation in) the grammar is a breeze. Unlike the other two, I haven’t seen a single exception rule. Nothing we’ve learned how to say has been true except when… It’s incredibly surprising. If all of Chinese could keep the same pronunciations and spell everything using pinyin (the way Chinese words are represented using Latin characters) then it would probably be the easiest language to learn in the world.
Of course, Chinese is the hardest language to learn in the world, and for good reason. Although the grammar is super simple, the writing is not. Learning pinyin is not difficult, since it just looks like a new language. The issue comes from the fact that very few Chinese people can read pinyin. If you want to write something for Chinese people you need to use characters, which adds a crazy new level of complexity. The characters all carry very different meanings, and each one is completely separate from all the others. The way a character is written gives no clue to how the character is said, which means that to learn them you truly do just have to memorize.
This was one of the strangest things for me about Chinese. In English, if I encounter a word that I have never seen before, I can attempt to pronounce it based how it’s written. This doesn’t work every time (I’m looking at you ‘karaoke’ and ‘knife’) but for the most part it works pretty well. This is not true for a Chinese person encountering a character they’ve never seen. They can guess the meaning of it based on context, but they would have absolutely no clue how to say it. For whatever reason, that’s is just so strange to me.
Another oddity of Chinese writing is their use of punctuation and spaces, or more specially the lack thereof. The Chinese communication through a series of simple words. If you want to say “I’m on the train” you would use characters which roughly mean “I be at fire car.” This means that ideas can be strung together without really needed to break them up. In traditional Chinese writing, there are no concepts of periods or spaces. You need to read what was written in order to know where the ideas are split up. In modern Chinese writing, English punctuations have been added to help ease understanding. Signs and advertisements will include periods, question marks, and exclamation marks, but there is still no spacing between characters.
The hardest part of Chinese however is hands down the tones. If you don’t know, simplified mandarin has 4 tones. These are inflections that are placed on certain syllables similar to accents in Spanish, but much more important. Mandarin has 4 tones, but some Chinese dialects can have up to 8. The four tones are as follows: 1st tone is denoted with a “-“ above the vowel and is spoken with a flat or constant pitch. 2nd tone is denoted with a “ / “ above the vowel and is spoken with an inflection that starts low, and ends high. 3rd tone is denoted with a “v” above the vowel and is spoken with a tone that starts high, goes low, then ends high. It sorts of scoops the sound. 4th tone is denoted with a “ \ “ and is spoken with a tone that starts high and ends low.
The tones play a huge role is spoken Chinese and can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For example, the words shui and jiao can mean a ton of different things based on their order and their tone. The phrase “jiào shuĭ” means to water flowers. Whereas “jiăo shuì” means to pay taxes. Flip the order of that one, “shuì jiăo”, and now you have paid taxes. Make them both forth tone, “shuì jiào”, and you have to sleep, and make them both 3rd tone, “shuĭ jiăo”, and you’re obviously talking about dumplings.
Another funny example of tones at work is trying to say the phrase ’44 is 44.’ The word for ‘four’ is ‘sì’, the word for ‘ten’ is ‘shí’ and the word for ‘is’ is ‘shì’. The Chinese say numbers like 30 or 40 by just say ‘three ten’ or ‘four ten.’ 44 would be said as ‘four ten four,’ which means that the phrase ’44 is 44’ would literally be said as ‘four ten four is four ten four.’ In pinyin that looks like ‘sì shí sì shì sì shí sì’ I implore any native English speaker to try to say that phrase, and I guarantee that you’re saying it wrong.
Chinese pronunciation is extremely difficult and sometimes it just feels impossible. One time in my Chinese 101 language class, we all had to say ‘I ride a bike to the university’ and it took the class at least a half hour. The words in the sentence are so similar and our teacher made us each say it individually. Without being able to play sounds it’s hard to convey exactly what it was like, suffice it to say that it was very frustrating. If you’ve ever seen the Pink Panther movie, it’s exactly like that scene were Inspector Clouseau tries to say ‘I would like to buy a hamburger’ over and over again.
Of course, it’s not like English is that easy of a language to learn either. For all the troubles I have talking Chinese, so do Chinese people have trouble speaking English. One of the things I’ve done here is participate in a research study that a local PhD candidate was conducting. She’s studying vague English sentences and how different tones and inflections can change their meaning, and then applying that to how people learn English as a second language.
What this meant for me was that I had to read a bunch of sentences that were missing commas and read them aloud in different ways to give them different meanings. The one that sticks in my mind is “Nick killed the man with the gun.” Based on how you say the sentence either Nick could have the gun, or the man could. The second part of the study was to listen to people who learned English as a second language say the sentence. This was really difficult, because I had to listen to maybe 40 people talk about how Nick had killed someone, and then report back who had the gun. It was like being some weird police witness. It really gave me an appreciation of how English does indeed have ‘tones’ in a sense and that I just don’t really realize it because I’m so used to it.
Another interesting thing I’ve learned about English since being here is which English words sound similar to Chinese people. We often complain to our Chinese culture teacher about how similar some Chinese words sound, and she shares with us words that give her the most difficulty in English. It’s really interesting to see, because I would never think most of these words sound similar, but when she says them I can understand why they’d give her trouble. Here’s a list of the ones I can remember:
- Head = Hat
- Chicken = Kitchen
- Artsy = RC
- Mark = Mike
There’s definitely some more than that, but that’s all I can recall. Teaching her the word artsy was especially fun. She had never heard the term before, but asked us what we meant when we were talking about taking artsy pictures of food. She totally now understands the definition of the word, but has a ton of trouble saying it. What’s funny is that, just like me speaking Chinese, she can’t really understand when she’s right and when she’s wrong. She just says it over and over again slightly differently each time and waits until we all tell her she was right.
For all my troubles learning the language here, the successes feel really good. Numbers were one of the first things I learned to say, and it’s so incredibly useful. To be able to go to a fruit stand on the street and ask how much something costs, and understand the response is super helpful. It’s also great for bartering in the fake markets.
Speaking of numbers, there’s a really interesting concept with numbers here that English has no equivalent for, which is the counting word ‘ge.’ This word needs to be included anytime you want to talk about a number of something. If you want two tickets, you need to say ‘two ge tickets’ If you want one glass you need to say ‘one ge glass.’ The people here really do not seem to understand what you mean without the word there, but I’m not really sure of anything in English that would be the same. It’s really not that hard to use, but was a surprising thing to find out.
This can be useful in some highly specific places. Earlier I talked about how the months were simply said as ‘one month’ or ‘seven month’ etc. If you want to differentiate between July (the seventh month) and a period of time equal to seven months, you would use the counting word. ‘Seven month’ would mean July, whereas ‘Seven ge month’ means a period of time seven months long.
One of my best interactions with language happened with the maids at our hotel. They hadn’t given us any shampoo in about a week and we needed more. I wasn’t really sure of how to go about getting it, so I google translated ‘We need more shampoo’ on my phone, and then very carefully wrote down all the characters for the phrase on a piece of paper. I left it in the bathroom that morning and hoped for the best. Lo and behold that afternoon, we get back to the room and find 8 bottles of shampoo waiting for us in the bathroom. I couldn’t believe it had actually worked! I think the maids were impressed that we had left the note in Chinese for them. I then quickly translated ‘thank you very much’ and left them another note and got 6 more bottles the next day!
To end this post, I’ll leave you with what is possibly one of the best parts about being in China: The poorly translated signs. These are all actual signs that I’ve seen around the country that I’ve found to be the most hilarious. Enjoy!