I Didn’t Love Mandarin Until I Learned It

Language learning has been one of my major lifetime hobbies. There are many languages which I find beautiful without knowing much about them. By ‘beautiful’, I may mean that they sound beautiful, or that I find the grammar elegant, or that a combination of features of the language simply please me, even if I only can understand a few phrases in the language.

The first time I started dipping my toes into Mandarin, I did not like the language. Since at that point I was just doing it for fun – seeing which languages suited my fancy – I did not see much point in pursuing it much further.

Then I decided to move to Taiwan. And the most useful language in Taiwan – and the only one which is practical to study in the United States – is Mandarin. So, I chose to seriously learn Mandarin because of Taiwan.

Studying beginner level Mandarin was not much fun for me. I did not like the writing system, I did not like the sound of the language, I did not like the grammar, etc. My strong motivation to be able to get around Taiwan without English is what carried me through.

However, as I grew more proficient in Mandarin, I found more and more beauty in the language. For example, while I do not find the shapes of Chinese characters to be beautiful (yes, calligraphy can be beautiful, but that’s thanks to the calligraphers, not the basic shapes) as I got to know the Chinese characters better, I found quite a bit of beauty in the relationships between radicals, components, readings, and meanings. For those of you who have not studied Chinese characters, let me put it this way: Chinese characters represent multiple levels of information. The level of information which is apparent to people who are illiterate in Chinese characters – the visual shapes of the characters – is not aesthetically pleasing to me, but as I could understand more levels of information within the characters, I found levels which I find beautiful.

Another thing I came to appreciate about Mandarin – once my Mandarin vocabulary was sufficiently large – is that there are very few words of Indo-European origin. Once I got over the difficulty of learning a language without the aid of cognates, it dramatically increased the novelty value, and using an almost entirely new vocabulary base stretched my mind in ways that learning languages like French or even Japanese did not. I have written an entire blog post about this.

Speaking of novelty value … if something is phrased in English, and is also phrased in non-English which I understand, unless the English phrasing is particularly aesthetic, or the non-English phrasing particularly not, I’m going to find the non-English phrasing more beautiful. It will feel fresher to me. English is by far the language I’ve used the most in my life – thus it’s harder for something phrased in English to feel fresh to me. On the other hand, the lower my level of comprehension, the less opportunity there is for me to find beauty.

Mandarin is now in the sweet spot where I can understand lots of it at a high level, yet it still feels much fresher than English.

For example, I think rupan na prithak shunyata sunyataya na prithag rupan (a phrase I only understand through translation) has prettier sounds than 色不異空,空不異色 / (sè bù yì​ kòng​, kòng bù yì​ ​sè). However, given that I actually understand 色不異空,空不異色 without translation, I find it overall to be more beautiful. I also think that 色不異空,空不異色 is a much more beautiful phrase than “emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness” because … well, I think in this case the Chinese phrasing really is more elegant, but even if it weren’t, it would still feel fresher to me than the English version.

I have also reached a level in Mandarin where I can tell that some phrases are more beautiful than others. For example, “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs, make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes, write sorrow on the bosom of the earth” is more beautiful than any sentence I’ve composed in this post (note: anybody who can figure out which Shakespeare play I’m quoting without the use of a search engine / search function wins bonus points). I can also now tell that 曲曲折折的荷塘上面,彌望的是田田的葉子 is more beautiful than, say, 我看見很多荷塘上的葉子 even though they both (roughly) mean “there’s a view of many leaves on the lotus pond” (note: anybody who can figure out where this quote is from without a search engine also wins bonus points).

Finally, finding books and other media which I love in Mandarin (especially the wuxia genre)has done much to improve my esteem of the language.

I doubt I will ever become as proficient in another language as I have in Mandarin (though who knows – life can be surprising). I am glad that I have come to love the language I spent so much effort studying.

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