I thought it was about time we did a blog that covered one of the biggest challenges connected to living in China – the language – so I’ve done a self-interview where I ask the questions that my 18-month-ago self would like to ask my today self.
Are you good at languages?
No. I learnt German and French at school but found it tough. I struggle to learn something if I’m not interested in it, so lacked the discipline needed to study and practice tables of vocab, tenses and genders. Grammatical rules leak out of my brain faster than they’re poured in and my pronunciation is shocking (my command of English language – my mother tongue – is based on the 80:20 rule, meaning that Em spends a good half hour proof-reading and editing each of my blogs before I publish them).
In sum, I have none of the attributes of a good language student. Expecting myself to pick up a highly complex and structured language was akin to dropping a range cooker into the shallow end of a swimming pool expecting it to complete a 50m front crawl.
What language do they speak in China?
It depends on who is asking. If you’re a child, i’d say Chinese. If you’re standing next to me in the toilets while at a pub quiz, I’d say Mandarin Chinese.
If I’m at a dinner party and want to out-smug you, I’d say the answer actually depends on whether you mean ‘speak’ in the literal sense, or whether you also mean ‘read’ and ‘write’.
Traditional & Simplified Chinese
Try changing the language settings on your phone to Chinese (don’t actually change it, it’s devilishly hard to undo). There will probably be two options: “Simplified Chinese” and “Traditional Chinese”. These relate to the written language. Chinese writing has evolved over thousands of years and the written characters are central to the culture (calligraphy is a widely practiced skill and visual art form). A vast number of characters (estimated over 100,000) developed over time, each with varying levels of complexity of meaning- this is what is referred to as Traditional Chinese.
In the mid 20th Century, to improve national levels of literacy and to make it easier to read/write, the government promoted a simplified character set covering a few thousand common words. Most of China now uses the simplified version, though in some pockets (such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) traditional characters still prevail. Some regions have their own unique characters (e.g. those we saw in Lijiang which resembled little stick men carrying out activities) but these aren’t widely used in modern china.
Each character has a spoken form, and “Mandarin” is the term used to describe the dialect that 70%+ of the population speak. It’s based on the northern Chinese dialect, and spread through China along trade routes emanating from the capital.
There are actually 7 major dialects in China each of which boasts a compilation of sub-dialects; many of these are barely distinguishable even for Chinese nationals, but some are practically different languages altogether. As an example, if you go to Hong Kong you’ll find many people don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Cantonese. Simply put, the same characters will sound different depending on your location in China and the time period.
The third element of the modern Chinese language is ‘pinyin’, which is standard Chinese but written in the Latin alphabet. This is useful both to teach pronunciation of the characters and to help you type the characters into your keyboard or phone. Before pinyin, if you wanted to learn how to say a character, you’d need to remember the pronunciation for each one; some characters contain clues to how they should be pronounced, but that’s not much help if you’ve got another language system coded into your brain.
Pinyin gives you the latin alphabet word for each character. For the above, ‘pīng‘, ‘pāng‘ and ‘qiú‘ respectively. This tells your Latin-indoctrinated brain and mouth how to pronounce each Chinese character. Helpfully, if you type pingpangqiu into your phone while set to Chinese, it’ll create the characters for you (which mean ‘ping pong’ or ‘table tennis’). So whereas in the UK most people have to learn written English and spoken English, most people in China would learn written Chinese characters, spoken Mandarin Chinese and written pinyin.
Do you need to know mandarin to live in China?
That depends on your definition of ‘need’. In a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai many people can speak English (most Chinese kids will learn English to a good standard at school) and many are totally fluent. It’s likely to be harder to get around Shanghai if you don’t speak English. Most signs, menus and labels have English versions, or are set up for foreign visitors (most menus have pictures of food for you to point at). So in answer to the question, you don’t need to.
However, it’s probably a good idea to do it for the following reasons;
It’s fun. I often feel like I’m in a massive code-breaking puzzle with little mini-games everywhere, each with varying degrees of difficulty and offering your brain little squirts of dopamine when you solve them successfully. Take buying something from Taobao (China’s Amazon/e-Bay megahybrid) as an example. Imagine the normal consumerist buzz you get from buying something online, but you also need to look for treasure by navigating a dense jungle of sellers using a bewildering wall of complex symbols on a tablet (or phone), then overcome several side-quests; “Can you successfully decode what size and colour it is?”, “Can you find your address and enter it in the right place so the courier can read it?”. Once you’ve beaten the ordering level, you then have the thrill of waiting to see if your chosen item actually turns up and is of reasonable quality.
People respect the effort. People will forgive even the most abysmal butchering of their language if you’re genuinely trying. ‘Knee how. Wo yow moy ee bay pee jeeyo’ (‘Hello, i’d like to buy a bottle of beer’ in ChinBrum). The culture is very relationship based so trying is a good way to show respect.
It improves your options and experience. Nice restaurants, hotels, western chain coffee shops, art galleries etc. are all likely to cater for English speakers. However, if you want to try a more unusual restaurant, a speciality coffee or get a Miley Cyrus tattoo; then you might find fewer English speakers. If you want to venture out of the city, set up text alerts on your phone, return an ill-advised purchase of some Hello-Kitty patterned trousers, or apologise sincerely to a police officer, then you’re much better off if you can speak some Mandarin.
You feel embarrassed less often. There’s nothing as humiliating as being stuck in the middle of a public place (like a supermarket) doing something that should be straightforward (like trying to buy toothpaste), when the person in front of you is asking you questions or giving instructions but you literally can’t understand or respond to a word they are saying. After some time you either have to give up, or wait until someone comes along who can speak English to tell you that they’re just trying to explain the price. Actually there ways it could be more humiliating than that. Like if you were buying ointment. And were naked.
How are you learning?
As part of the assignment we get some lessons included; I do around 90 mins of lessons per week, every week. There are loads of books and websites that help you learn, but I’ve found a couple of free language apps which are really helpful.
Is it hard to learn?
Tones. I said earlier that pinyin gives you a Latin version of each character. Well lots of characters have very similar letter-chains. The thing that tells you that word is a different word from the exact same letters in the exact same order is the tone you use to say it. There are four tones in Mandarin, which are best explained using the pinyin word ‘ma’. Depending on which tone you use to pronounce the ‘a’ in ma, it can mean four different things.
The little squiggles above the ‘a’ tells you how to pronounce the word. Trouble is, those little squiggles are hard to keep in your brain since you need to remember the word and the tone of each word. It also makes it really hard to understand whether or not someone is talking about their mother, some hemp or a horse. It might help if you knew words like ‘saddle’, ‘nosebag’, or ‘rope’. Then you’d definitely know they were talking about mothers.
The pronunciation is really quite important. Consider that I work in a place called ‘Hongqiao’ 虹桥 – which means ‘Rainbow Bridge’. Similar to this is ‘Hongchao’ 红潮 which means menstruation; so as someone who is atrocious at pronunciation, when I say even simple statements like ‘I work in Human Resources’, people find it laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Time & Effort. The typical teaching method in China is to learn through regular repetition and lots of independent study. You need to practice to commit so many different images, sounds and letters into your brain. This can be hard when you’re trying to work and travel and write blogs. My foreign colleagues who’ve done the best at learning the language have put in lots of extra time and get the benefit. I do ok, but still find that in between lessons the vast majority of learning just empties out. It’s been like trying to do an etch-a-sketch on a trampoline.
There aren’t really any shortcuts. The closest there is to a shortcut is to learn Pinyin (i.e., how to say the words). This means you don’t need to bother learning the characters. However, you don’t see pinyin written anywhere (apart from road signs), so your brain doesn’t get any help from your eyes when trying to remember words. The other limitation of only learning Pinyin is that you still can’t read anything, you can only do the speaking and listening bit, which is hard when people speak quickly and you can’t pick out if they just said 人事 rén shì (Human Resources/HR) or 人势 rén shì (Human penis). In fact both of those sound exactly the same; I forgot to mention that Chinese is a contextual language so the general theme of the discussion will influence the meaning of each word. I’ll let you think of your own hilarious examples of the the rén shì/rén shì dilemma.
Everyone speaks English! Sometimes, if you’re standing naked in a supermarket trying to buy ointments, the most expedient way of communicating is in English. This is also true in the workplace (though nudity is against the dress code), as most people’s English is far superior to your Chinese. So if you need to summarise a meeting agenda, you could do this in 15 seconds in English, or 30 minutes in Chinese, after which you’ve probably accidentally called everyone’s mother a horse.
Do you need to learn the characters?
No, but as above it can help you remember the words. For example, the character below has four little lines on the bottom of it. These represent flames (like flames under a pot). Once you know to look out for that, you know that this character has something to do with fire, heat, cooking etc.
The bit above the fire 执 means zhí – to hold in your hand. That is made up of two bits, on the left 扌 means ‘hand’, on the right 丸 means ‘small round object’. One technique is to make up little stories to help you understand the character. So to remember the word for ‘hot’, I always try and remember the scene in Home Alone, where Joe Pesci opens a door (with his hand) and Kevin McAllister has rigged the door with a blowtorch trap. As Joe walks through it, the blowtorch blasts fire onto the small round object that is Joe Pesci’s head. The sound ‘rè’ is like the horrified, angry, pained noise that Joe Pesci makes until he can dunk his flaming head in the snow.
Sometimes the character looks a bit like what it’s meant to represent.
Sometimes words are made up of smaller words. Volcano is ‘huŏ shān‘ – which is literally the two characters above in succession. I like that, and if you think about it, ‘fire mountain’ makes a lot more logical sense than ‘volcano’.
Chinese conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a fire mountain”, “Why?”, “Because it’s a mountain and there’s fire that comes out of it”, “Okay, that makes sense”
English conversation: “Mommy, what’s that called?”, “That’s called a volcano”, “Why?” “Do remember the Romans? So they had this god called Vulcan. He was the god of fire. There was this mountain near Rome called Etna, and the Romans believed it was the forge of Vulcan because occasionally fire would come out of it. They used to apply the word Vulcanus to it. Over time, and due to the cultural and linguistic influence of the Roman empire, this turned into a general term for volcano, burning mountain in latin languages” “Okay, that makes sense but my enthusiasm for learning and asking questions has been crushed at an early age”
There are lots of other examples of this:
- 电 (‘diàn‘) means ‘electric‘.
- Add 脑 (nǎo) which means ‘brain‘, and you get 电脑 (diànnǎo) – ‘computer‘.
- Or add 影 (yǐng) which means ‘image‘, and you get 电影 (diànyǐng) – ‘movie‘.
This way, once you manage to crack some of the characters or syllables then you can build up other words, or at least have a good guess.
Since there isn’t much pinyin written down anywhere, I find that I recognise certain symbols around me which then makes them more familiar and easier to remember. If you’re a visual learner like I am, I’d recommend trying to learn at least some.
One hard thing though, there isn’t really much punctuation, sowhenyouseeasentencewrittendownitcanbedifficulttoworkoutwherewordsstartandend.
Can you write the characters?
To write the characters properly, you need to remember multiple strokes (lines), which order they go in, and which direction you write them. This explains why caligraphy is an art form. I can write the following:
一 yī = One; 二 èr = Two; 三 sān = Three; 十 shí = Ten; 人rén = person; 上 shàng = On/Up; 不bù = No.
The co-ordination in my hands and eyes dissipates half way through a W, so I don’t stand a chance with characters with multiple strokes. Whereas English dictionaries are organised A-Z, Chinese are organised by stroke count 1-64. Yes, some characters have 64 strokes.
This complex beast, 龘, dá , which relates to the visual way a dragon flies only has 51. This explains why, in ancient times, prisoners who were offered one last wish before they were executed would simply say: ‘I never got to see a dragon. I wish someone could explain, in writing, how a dragon flies’. The sheer time it would take for the obligated jailer to complete his task would effectively grant the condemned a permanent reprieve. (NB I made this up)
What about all the grammar rules and sentence structures?
I recently started on my intermediate text books which includes some more complex grammar. Up until now, I’ve found the grammar much easier than English, at least in spoken form. The main thing is to remember is the vocab and tones.
I explained earlier how context is pretty important, allowing people to fill in gaps and understand meaning; this means you can be quite economical with your language. When my language teacher teaches me sentence structures, it often sounds like a Chinese person speaking slightly broken English – so I try and imagine a Chinese person speaking English and use that as a template. To give you an idea:
你在做什么 Translates literally as: “You doing what?”
我在找人事部门”I looking for Human Resources department”
你为什么赤身裸体 “You why be stark naked?”
我想买软膏 – “I want buy ointment”
这是超市. 我们不卖软膏. 你怎么来到这里？”This is supermarket. We no sell ointment. How you come here?”
我来到这里用马 “I come here using horse”
你可以骑马吗？”You can leave by horse?”
为什么不能”Why no can?”
我的马在虹桥”My horse in Hongqiao”
– 迈特 màitè – meaning Matt