The Most Fascinating Part of Chinese

Mandarin is not my favorite language. I consider it neither the most beautiful nor the most interesting language I have ever studied. The only reason that I am better at Mandarin than any of my other non-native languages is that it has been a lot more useful, and thus I have had way more practice.

However, there is one thing I find fascinating about Mandarin and the other Chinese languages, something which I have found in no other language – the vocabulary. Mandarin/Chinese relatively rarely borrows vocabulary from other languages, yet it is a modern language.

For example, the Japanese word for ‘camping’ is … ‘kyampingu’. The Mandarin word is ‘lùyíng’. One is related to the English word, the other is not. The Japanese word for ‘campground’ is ‘kyampu-jo’, which comebines Japanized English and Chinese. There is also another rarely used word for camping in Japanese – 野營 – which I am guessing it is a loan word from Chinese.

This is something I ran into over and over again in Japan … when I looked up a word, I often found that the word was borrowed from either English or Chinese. The vocabulary from proto-Japanese sources were generally either really common words (such as ‘taberu’ – ‘to eat’) or things very specific to Japanese society. However, in Mandarin, they describe nearly everything using vocabulary coined within the Sinophonia. For example, even though the Internet was not invented by Chinese speakers, they have their own word for it – ‘wǎnglù’. Not only did they coin their own word, they use the logic of the Chinese language to coin additional terms, such as ‘shàngwǎng’ which means ‘get online’.

When you borrow words from another language, to some extent you are importing the thinking of that other language. Granted, all loan words have to be adapted for the new language in some way – ‘kyampingu’ is not identical to ‘camping’ – but I feel it is easier to get into another way of thinking if the word is totally different than if the word is similar and I have to figure out the semantic differences.

When I hear people talking in indigenous Formosan languages, I sometimes suddenly actually understand something they are saying because they are using words borrowed from Mandarin (for example, the Yami word for ‘United States of America’ sounds like the Mandarin name). This is even more true with Korean, which has borrowed tons of words from Chinese. When reading a novel by a Rukai person set in ancient Taiwan (before any Chinese speakers were around), I was struck at how Sinitic it feels. It is probably inevitable that any work written in natural Chinese, even if set in a totally non-Chinese setting, will reflect certain aspects of Chinese culture simply because it is being described with Chinese words.

Granted, Chinese does have a few words borrowed from other languages – here is an article about English loanwords in Mandarin – but it would be difficult for me to come up with a long list. This article about Arabic words in Mandarin shows how, while some Arabic words (such as ‘yīmǎmù’ – ‘imam’) do get into Mandarin, Mandarin prefers to “translate the concept rather than instruct people in how to pronounce foreign syllables.”

There are ancient languages where I can get away from English/Indo-European lexicons – but I do not think any modern language can so thoroughly immerse me in a different lexicon as Chinese can.


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Language Learning on a Restricted Diet, or Why Chinese Menus Don’t Seem Too Hard

Some people learning Chinese find menu-reading particularly challenging.  I, however, never found menus to be hard relative to reading other things in Chinese.  I know someone who used to study Mandarin at Shida who was also adept at menu reading and who could run circles around her classmates when it came to food vocabulary.  I also met an American in Japan who generally cannot read Japanese, but who can read ingredient lists in Japanese, including the kanji.  Heck, *I* can read ingredient lists in Japanese, and my Japanese is way behind my Mandarin.

There is something the three of us have in common.

We all live on restricted diets.

The former Shida student is lactose-intolerant. The American in Japan is gluten-intolerant.  And I am vegan.

Lactose-intolerance brought the former Shida student uncomfortably close to death (she loved that Taiwanese food uses cow’s milk sparingly).  I actually met that American in Japan (who I also mentioned in this post) just after she had spent all day lying in bed because eating some gluten by mistake had made her so sick that she could hardly stand up (she let me borrow her laptop, which I used to write a couple blog posts). They were both incredibly motivated to learn how to read the names of foods in Chinese/Japanese. For them, it is a matter of life and death.

Though non-vegan food can make me physically uncomfortable (my digestive system is not used to it), my life is not on the line. Other lives, of course, are on the line, so this is a serious matter for me.

It is possible, because avoiding the wrong food is so important to all of us, that the names of foods in different languages and writing systems makes a stronger impression on us that it does on language learners who care less, and thus we require less review to get food vocabulary/characters into long-term memory, though I do not have solid evidence for this.

However, I know that we also get a lot more review/reinforcement simply because we are in the habit of reading food labels for everything (and making inquiries when food labels are not available … and having conversations about what is or is not in food). That adds up to a lot of practice quickly.

Also, we all make a significant effort to understand what we are eating even in our native languages. It is a part of our lives. Learning how to read food labels/menus in Chinese/Japanese does not seem much different, so we do not notice.

So what does this mean for Chinese learners? Well, I advocate becoming a vegan on ethical grounds (if you do eat animals, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read this, this, and this) but this post is about language learning, not ethics. I do not have any shortcuts for learning how to read menus in Chinese, but I can say that, if you are motivated and practice a lot, it is possible to learn how to read Chinese menus with relative ease.


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Language Learning and Perpetual Childhood

When people ask me why I’m learning Chinese, I usually offer superficial answers. I think I have never answered by explaining my deepest, truest reason – I want to grow up again. I want to grow up into a different person, using a different language.

This article in the Economist notes that being a foreigner (by choice) is a bit like returning to childhood – the world is new and fresh. This is true.

It has also been noted that when one takes up a new language, it’s like becoming a child again – not knowing how to speak or read, not being able to articulate mature thoughts, having to listen the adults/native-speakers/teachers tell you about what you did wrong. This is also true. However, in language learning circles I have usually seen this expressed as a frustration “Ahhh! I’m like a child again, I’ll never grow up, gahh!” I, on the other hand, think that this is part of why I find language learning so rewarding.

I have been able to articulate and decipher complex thoughts in the English language for a long, long time. The language is no longer fresh to me. Well, sometimes English feels just a little fresh to me when I’m with people learning English. To them, English is still a new way of expressing thoughts, and the feeling rubs off on me.

My own ‘real’ childhood was a mixed bag. There were times when I was happy, but there were also times I was very unhappy. Some of that unhappiness came from my lack of power over life. My ‘current’ childhood is much happier. I have a lot more freedom, and I am much more in control. Even learning Chinese is going much more smoothly than when I learned English (then again, I have expressive language disorder, which made learning how to speak English a bit tougher for me than most native speakers).

Sure, I didn’t particularly like being a beginner in Chinese – I actually do not find basic Chinese that interesting, and not being able to read a simple street sign is quite frustrating. But once my Chinese got to an intermediate level, I appreciated more and more of the language’s subtleties, and could start to feel a sense of wonder about it. And discovering Chinese language novels – particularly the wuxia genre – has brought back the feelings I had when I first discovered English language novels – particularly the fantasy genre. I’ve written a bit about this in my posts about Passionate Wastrel, Infatuated Hero.

Eventually, if I keep studying and praticing Chinese, I’ll grow up an function in the language like an educated adult. Then there are the other languages in the world … I could keep returning to childhood for centuries. Obviously, since I don’t have centuries, I have to be picky. Maybe I’ll find another way to return to childhood.

However I do it, I do intend to keep returning to childhood for as long as I live.