Before I started to study Chinese (knowing that I would live in a Chinese speaking country) I was terrified, because Chinese is commonly known to be one of hardest languages to learn. I am about half a year into my studies and I must – not so humbly – say that I am impressed. Yes, with myself. I can order anything I want at a restaurant and ask for additional tea spoons if needed and the bill in the end. I can pull of a (halting) conversation with taxi drivers and clerks about the weather, German beer and the diversity of Taiwanese cuisine. And every night before I go sleep I can chat (with myself) about the events of the day. In stores and the street people reply in Chinese to my Chinese and not in English anymore (to comfort me).
I can definitely impress foreigners who don’t speak Chinese – and sometimes even Taiwanese. Hey, it’s something.
But most importantly, I have found another language to love. Before I challenged myself with Chinese, I was forced to study English and Spanish in school and later made effort to learn Turkish, Polish and Japanese (with varying success). I know theoretically, how to study a language with the best outcome for myself, I am able to think in a language other than my mother tongue and I don’t easily lose patience with tongue twisters (that is to say that I don’t actually mean tongue twisters but just usual phrases who mean horror to me). With all that experience and skill I came to Taiwan.
From the beginning I was fascinated by the characters which replace our letter-words, probably also because it makes it so easy to creatively spice up language. I was eager to know about their story and how they are created. I filled paper after paper with scribbled hieroglyphs. Sometimes I stumbled over the pavement and stairs because I was lost in the jungle of characters around me. Many people, books and youtube videos offered me advice on how to study the Chinese words effectively. I would say, determined as I was, I did well. But the moment from which I really begun to see my own progress, was when I begun to throw everything I had known and believed about language overboard. I realized that I, on order to fully understand and internalize Chinese, I could not think the same way as I do in German, English, Polish or Japan (even if latter also use characters instead of letters, so it is closer).
In Chinese I have to think in pictures, patterns, certain structures. I must be logical about the language, attached to the rules. I must focus on the essentials and keep my message simple to bring it across. This seems to make Chinese a very rational language. It is not, sometimes it occurs to me that Chinese is equipped with more words to describe different kind of “sadness” than German has to describe all emotions. The simplicity of the structure and words also stands in contradiction to the writing. But, while I thought of Chinese writing always as some kind of art, I quickly learnt that the act of writing is as logical and regulated as the rest of the language – just way more difficult, obviously.
Characters are a probably quite exclusive and maybe overly complicated way to document, but definitely interesting in themselves and paired up. Of course it is impossible to come up with a story or visualization to every character, but that e.g. a human resting against a tree (休) symbolizes “to take a rest” or that words + fruit = fruitful talk (課) is a metaphor for “lecture” does make sense. The fact that a woman with a child (好) is good, but a hand grasping a woman (奴) stands for slave therefore is questionable (and this is not the peak of sexism in the Chinese language*). Since Chinese is a very long-established language and because of the character system quite static it represents culture probably much stronger than our constantly changing language does. The upper examples with women show that clearly. The depiction of modern objects such as the electrical brain (電腦) or the fire vehicle (火車) show the development of society and culture, as well as mindsets back then (yes, I am talking about a computer and a train). Some characters clearly show the Chinese perspective on the world: China is the centre country (中國) – which was later translated like that into synonyms for China worldwide (well done China, well done).
And then there are words in Chinese like in any other language: They need at least two sentences to be translated into other languages. They describe not only a situation or a feeling, but the entire mentality or mindset of a culture (I wrote about that before here).
Even if Chinese can impress (or frustrate) with several thousand characters, a lot of words are made up just like German words: two words are put together. Here it becomes apparent how logical Chinese is. A volcano is a “fire mountain” (火山), famous people “have a name” (有名) and a wallet is simply a “money bag” (錢包). Easy, huh? As long as I am creative in my description people will understand me.
Studying Chinese words, characters and their meaning can be a lot of fun with the right attitude. And with patience and persistence. I admit – hours of study have nearly driven me mad at times and the result isn’t always satisfying for me. I sat down the other day and took some hours to write all characters down I know. I am close to 500. I can read a couple more. That makes a lot of words. I can finally follow the news here you might think. Well, I don’t struggle so much with children’s picture books anymore. Those for 3-year olds where you have one sentence per page and get to know baby animals. The internet has told me that I need to learn at least 1000 characters more, to actually being able to read stuff. Sigh. 加油 to me (add fuel = good luck). Sometimes I wished, Chinese wouldn’t have such an unwieldy amount of words.
First of all back to the beginning: I stated that Chinese actually isn’t that difficult. For our all satisfaction – let’s leave writing and reading aside for a while and focus on the really fun part.
Every character stands for one word which is not longer than one syllabi. Basic words are short and simple. They are sometimes that short that additional words without meaning are squeezed in to have a sentence sound more complete. With my limited vocabulary the only rather complicated word coming to mind would be exchange student (交換學生) which pronounces as jiaohuan xuesheng). Definitely doable. Though, there are the bloody tones. Four of them, and one neutral. In the beginning they made me cry and my attempts made my Taiwanese friends laugh, but after a while I found my rhythm and I am slowly getting into the flow – luckily everybody excuses my flaws. A lot of similar sounding sounds challenge the successful understanding, but on the other hand it is essential what I wrote earlier on: to keep up with Chinese I not only have to think in patterns, but also listen in those patterns, pay attention to the context and combine logically what would make sense in this situation to be said. A little bit of analytical skill isn’t too bad here. Since it is a natural struggle to understand a foreign language, nobody minds if I ask a 2nd time. And a 3rd time. Or for a rephrasing.
Last but not least we get to the best part of Chinese: the grammar. Chinese grammar only challenges me, because as an eloquent German I like to come up with really long, complicated and sophisticated sentence structures. Well, that’s not gonna happen in Chinese.
Every element has its determined place to be, the information is always given with general info followed by detail and big followed by small. I would therefore say: 6th month 8th day I in Taiwan in a restaurant want eat dumpling (六月八號我在臺灣在餐廳想吃水餃。). And yes you have read that right: There are now tenses, no declinations, no conjugation, no plural and however you call all those grammatical twaddle (though there are those fantastic small words mentioned earlier on which you can fill in, in order to express anything you need to get off your chest). That really is as fantastic as it is. Though, just in case anybody would get bored here, Chinese invented measure words. Like for everything. Screw that. But unfortunately, there is no way around it.
I could probably go on about this for much longer, because every day I find dozens of new words who thrill me. I know that I certainly am especially stoked about languages and cultures. I just really like talking and the more people in the world I can talk to and the more words I have in my vocabulary, the better. But Chinese is undoubtedly a language also for people less crazy about communication. Chinese is also definitely a challenging language. Because it forces one to think differently and in new thought patterns. The logic behind it and the simplicity can be eye-opening. Studying Chinese might question someone’s world view and lead to realizations about oneself and one’s environment. And this is exactly what makes it so fascinating, so exciting and so totally worth it the effort.
*read this article I found quite interesting on sexism and the Chinese language