Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Chinese Language is All Greek to Me

The title of this post isn't really accurate because I took biblical Koine Greek in college. Saying something is "Greek to me" is supposed to mean that it makes no sense, but the fact that I actually know Greek takes away the punch of the statement. However, if I were to say "it's all Tagalog to me," the purpose of the idiom would be lost and some people may even have to pause to look up what Tagalog is which would sever the continuity of the thought and I would have to stop to explain everything. Which it looks like I may have to do anyway.

Maybe I should just say learning Chinese is like walking into your bedroom because you thought you heard a pygmy goat being strangled by a Mormon divorce attorney, but when you open the door the floor is covered in slimy eels wearing clown makeup and a naked Roseanne Barr is sitting on a beanbag in the corner asking if you brought any cheese. It just makes no sense. Especially since I don't own a beanbag.

Oh, and Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines.

I only say all this because after living in Beijing for 10 months, Red and I have finally started taking language lessons and it has been…um, challenging.

Chinese doesn't really have an alphabet. At least, not as we understand an alphabet. It is thousands of separate characters. And by thousands, I mean thousands. This is not an exaggeration.


We don't really have to know the characters in order to speak and understand the language, but that doesn't help when trying to read a menu, street signs, bus schedules, or apartment notices. This note is in our lobby right now.

Are they doing maintenance? Fumigating?
Evacuating the building?
I kind of need to know!

So, we are learning it all. We need to understand the language when we hear it. We want to speak it, read it and even be able to write it when the need arises. This means we have decades of memorizing seemingly obscure chicken scratch patterns ahead of us. As well as learning what they all mean and how to pronounce them while stringing them together into comprehensible sentences.

However, before we even get around to learning those characters, first we need to learn pinyin. Pinyin is the method for learning how to say the different characters.


Each of the thousands of characters is pronounced with a combination of the initial sound (pictured above to the left) and the final sound (pictured above to the right). And, as if that isn't already difficult, it is not enough to be able to recognize those apparent English-looking letters because the pronunciation is rarely what it appears to be.


The sounds of the letters have to be relearned to make the Chinese sound. And since I already have a background in not only English, but Greek, Hebrew and Spanish as well, it is often maddening to try to remember and produce the correct pronunciation since each of these languages use letters however they want without regard for what the rest of the world is doing with them. And let's not forget that Chinese has plenty of sounds that don't even exist in any of these other languages meaning I have to do 90 minutes of tongue yoga before every lesson to get it limbered up.

Then, once I feel like I might have a decent handle on pronunciation of a word, I am told that I used the wrong tone. A single sound can have up to five different tones and each tone gives the word an entirely different meaning.


For example, the above chart shows four of the five ways that the word 'ma' can be pronounced. These tones are important. Otherwise, you could end up calling your mother a horse or you might really confuse your weed dealer.

It also shows the two different ways that each word is written in Chinese. Yeah, that's right. When you learn Chinese characters, you have to decide which of their TWO alphabets you want to learn. Isn't this fun?

Using the word 'ma' from the chart above, I can just use that word several times, but with different tones to produce an entire sentence. Ma ma ma ma. That means "My mother scolded me for feeding her hemp to a horse." And if I tack the fifth use of the word 'ma' (neutral tone) to the end of the sentence, it becomes a question.

Simple enough, right?

For now, my goal is to be able to read my Frog and Toad books in their original Chinese by Christmas.