Learning a Living Language vs. Learning a Dead Language

Yes, I know that there is debate about whether or not describing Ancient Greek as ‘dead’ is appropriate or not. I am sympathetic to some of the arguments that Ancient Greek is not ‘dead’. But no remotely-knowledgeable person would seriously question whether or not Mandarin is a ‘living’ language. I’m going to refer to Ancient Greek as ‘dead’ because it is much shorter than ‘totally lacking in living fluent speakers who use the language for everyday purposes, such as new popular fiction, communicating with tax collectors, scolding children, finding the nearest bathroom, and eavesdropping’.

(By ‘Ancient Greek’ I mean everything from the Archaic Dialect of Homer to the Koine Dialect which includes the New Testament – I’m not including Mycenean Greek from before Homer, or Greek that is newer than Koine).

Learning a dead language is easier in the sense that you don’t have to worry about seemingly subtle mistakes sticking out like a sore thumb to native speakers, or even learn any listening or speaking skills. Learning something about Ancient Greek pronunciation is necessary to understand certain points of grammar and to appreciate the poetry, but since nobody nowadays is certain how people in 4th century B.C. Athens pronounced the pitch accents, there is zero pressure to master that kind of thing. By contrast, messing up tones in Mandarin can cause problems. In southern dialects of Mandarin (including the Taiwanese dialect), the only difference between the word for ‘four’ and ‘ten’ is a tone, so I’m in the habit of making hand gestures to indicate whether I mean ‘four’ or ‘ten’ just in case I’m messing up that tone (I indicate ‘four’ by holding up four fingers, I indicate ‘ten’ by crossing my index fingers, which most Chinese speakers understand).

But in the long run, this makes learning dead languages harder, not easier.
Continue reading

From Ancient Greek to Mandarin to Ancient Greek Again

As a teenager, I studied Ancient Greek as a hobby. This stopped when I began college because I needed to put all of my studying efforts into my coursework. And then I got the notion that I wanted to live in Taiwan for a while, which meant I needed to learn Mandarin. This is how more than ten years passed without me studying any Ancient Greek.

I had the thought of taking up Ancient Greek again in 2017, but I couldn’t find my old Ancient Greek books, so I gave up. Yep, “The Books” mentioned in this blog post were all books I got as a teenager when I was studying Ancient Greek. Last autumn, I did another search of the basement room, and found the remainder of my Ancient Greek books. It was striking, how indifferent I was about most of the books I had as a teenager and had been sitting in the basement for years, but how strong my feelings were about my old books for studying Ancient Greek. This was a strong hint that this was a hobby which meant a lot to me. So I took the hint, and last fall I started studying Ancient Greek seriously again, for the first time since I was a teenager.

My experience studying Ancient Greek as a teenager strongly informed my study of Mandarin, and now my study of Mandarin is informing how I study Ancient Greek now.
Continue reading

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.

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.


To the extent possible under law,
the person who associated CC0
with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring
rights to this work.

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.