Monday, March 19, 2007

Back To School

...Well, More Like Back to Class.

After a few months of trying to avoid going back to my Chinese class, I’ve decided that I had enough of a break and decided to start my lessons again. A while back I talked about the difficulty of learning Chinese so I did a little bit of research about it in honor of me going back to school class.

I then stumbled upon articles like “the Hardest Language on Earth?” and find out that Chinese is in the top 5, just behind Arabic and Cantonese (Chinese from the South of China with no less than 7 tones!).
“The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). The list is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute. So for the category III (Mandarin), languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers it requires 88 weeks (with the second year of study in-country) or 2,200 class hours.” Let me translate this for you: I have two 1 ½ hour classes a week. So I estimate it should take me 733 weeks (2200/3) or a little over 14 years (733/52) to achieve Speaking and Reading level 3!!!
(It must be kept in mind that students at FSI […] have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than 6. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with 3-4 hours per day of directed self-study.)

But I got overwhelmed by all the information since I just wanted to give you a brief summary of the Mandarin Language or 普通话 Putonghua (the People’s language)

The Chinese writing system
Chinese is written with characters known as 汉字 (hànzi). Each character represents a syllable of spoken Chinese and also has a meaning.
How many characters?
The Chinese writing system is an open-ended one, meaning that there is no upper limit to the number of characters. The largest Chinese dictionaries include about 56,000 characters. Knowledge of about 3,000 characters enables you to to read about 99% of the characters in Chinese newspapers and magazines.
Characters can be used on their own, in combination with other characters or as part of other characters.
Chinese characters are written with twelve basic strokes. A character may consist of between 1 and 64 stokes. The strokes are always written in the same direction and there is a set order to write the strokes of each character. In dictionaries, characters are ordered partly by the number of stokes they contain.
When writing Chinese, every character is given exactly the same amount of space, no matter how many strokes it contains. There are no spaces between characters and the characters which make up multi-syllable words are not grouped together, so when reading Chinese, you not only have to work out what the characters mean and how to pronounce them, but also which characters belong together.*

There are approximately 1,700 possible syllables in Mandarin, which compares with over 8,000 in English. As a result, there are many homophones - syllables which sound the same but mean different things. These are distinguished in written Chinese by using different characters for each one.
Characters that are pronounced with the same tone sound different to Chinese ears however for the Westerner ears they all sound the same. These syllables can be distinguished in speech from the context and because most of them usually appear in combination with other syllables.
It is even possible to write a text in Chinese using only one sound, pronounced with different tones, of course. This is exactly what Chinese linguist, Zhao Yuanren (趙元任) (1892-1982), did when he wrote the "Story of Shi Eating the Lions" using nothing but the sound 'shi'. The story makes sense in written form, but is impossible to understand when read aloud. He did so to prove just how inadequate it would be to replace Chinese characters by a purely phonetic script as others were advocating at the time.
You can see and hear the story on:
Simplified characters
In an effort to increase literacy, about 2,000 of the characters used in China have been simplified. These simplified characters are also used in Singapore, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Malaysia the traditional characters are still used.

Last but not least (and if I haven't lost you yet!!) I read an interesting article about the latest rave in the USA where parents want their precious offspring to learn Chinese, but that would be the subject of later post.

*Try reading this next sentence like if it was written the way Chinese characters are written: sowhenreadingchinese, younotonlyhavetoworkoutwhatthecharactersmeanandhowtopronouncethem, butalsowhichcharactersbelongtogether.