Why Chinese is hard

This is an articulate, entertaining, informative essay about Mandarin Chinese. You should read it if you are a Westerner living in Asia, if you are considering studying Chinese, if you liked the TV show Firefly, or if you have ever had any contact with one or more Chinese people from China. It will give you perspective.

Pinyin.info:
Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character , as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment.

In other words, the difficulty of the Chinese writing system makes the language hard for native speakers, too. Remember that next time you’re complaining about how ‘arbitrary’ English spelling is.

Object dropping

Singlish:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“I don’t like.”

The object is obvious, therefore there’s no need to express it.

Sometimes you even get subject dropping, too:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Don’t like.”

English:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t like them.”

English (more concise alternative):

“Do you like horror movies?”
“No, I don’t.”

Here’s a rare case where English is actually more efficient than Singlish. Singlish needs at least two words, while English, arguably, only needs one:

“Do you like horror movies?”
“Nope.”

This emphasis on repeating the verb in the question comes from Chinese. There’s no universal word for ‘no’ in Chinese, though sometimes you can sensibly answer questions with “not be”, which gives the sense of “whatever you just said is not the case”.

I can read!

My current job is with one branch of a network of literacy centers called “I Can Read”. We teach phonics, reading, spelling, and eventually, grammar, including parts of speech.

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. An adjective describes a noun.

A verb is something you can do. Here’s how you test to see whether something is a verb:

I can… jump.

I can… think.

I can… window?

For some reason, “I can window” struck me as hilarious. What would that even mean, do you think?

Beware! Beware! A bottomless __________!

Once upon a time many years ago, my mom and I were doing Mad Libs.

Mad Libs is a game where there’s a story printed on a notebook, but some words are missing. One person tells the other person what type of word to supply. (A color, a plural noun, a profession, a verb.) Then the first person reads back the whole story using the second person’s words.

On the occasion that will live forever in memory, the story was about some kind of bad guy who kidnapped two friends. It had a line of dialogue that said something like:

“Look out! He’s pushing you towards the bottomless ______________!”

I had supplied ‘chair’, which resulted in a surprisingly sensible utterance. Yet a bottomless chair is not exactly threatening.

We laughed for ten minutes.

English spelling is crazy.

It’s been done to death, but here it is again.

Someone (though probably not the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Pygmalion, which later became a musical named My Fair Lady) joked that the word ‘fish’ can be spelled ‘ghoti’.

  1. Take the ‘gh’ from ‘laugh’
  2. Add the ‘o’ from ‘women’
  3. Add the ‘ti’ from ‘nation’

And you get ‘ghoti’, pronounced ‘fish’.

More details at the wikipedia page for ‘ghoti’.

Business hours

Common messages relating to business hours are often distorted here in Singapore.

Sometimes the sign says ‘business hours’, sometimes it says ‘operating hours’, sometimes it says ‘operation hours’, sometimes it says ‘opening hours’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘open hours’ but that would be bad, too.

I’ve had native speakers say ‘operating hours’ isn’t so bad, but I think it sounds almost as much like a hospital as ‘operation hours’. I think ‘hours’ should suffice, but ‘business hours’ is probably better.

‘Hours of operation’ is okay, I guess, though it sounds a bit formal, or as if it only applies to something automated. It would be weird for a knitting store to have ‘hours of operation’, no? Sounds like a bank or an ATM vestibule.

There’s a restaurant we like (Song Fa Bak Kut Teh) on the sidewalk across from The Central. I think it says that it is “Closed on every Monday.” Gah. (This message is especially frustrating if you’re standing in front of it on a Monday and you want to eat Bak Kut Teh.)

Today I saw a sign that says ‘opens daily’. Please, no.

I can’t really think why someone who doesn’t already know would care about the subtle yet vast difference in between ‘open daily’ and ‘opens daily’. How do you sell someone on the idea that this matters? All they want is to label something that’s already pretty obvious: the times when you can do business with them. Even if the text on the door just said “Monday to Friday 9–5” and nothing more, people would understand. So if they say “Operation Hours Monday to Friday 9–5”, there’s really no harm done, right? Right?

operation-hours
at Tanglin Shopping Centre

I is for… igloo?

It always cracks me up to see the picture of the igloo in representations of the alphabet in Singapore. I suppose it must be practically the only noun that starts with a short i sound, because it’s not an obvious vocabulary word at all, especially here. American kids have never seen an igloo in person, but they have typically seen snow, which Singaporean kids may never have done.

‘Insect’ is perhaps a better concrete noun to represent short ‘i’.

What else starts with short ‘i’?

Interview, interesting, intermission, interstate highway (there aren’t any of those in Singapore either), ignorant, illness, id, it, idiom, insecurity, inception, illusion, irritation, irritant, incubator, intermittent, itsy-bitsy, intern, inner, intimate, invalid, incomplete, inadvertent, incapacitate, interpolation, indigo.

There must be dozens with in-/il-/ir- (which are all the same underlying latin prefix). And dozens more with inter- and intra-. Putting latinate words in a kid’s alphabet is maybe not a great idea, but Latin stuff is more authentically English than igloo, for crying out loud.

Meanwhile, ‘j’ is for ‘jack-in-the box’. It’s an old-fashioned toy. I’ve seen some, but I imagine that people younger than me increasingly haven’t.

Hm. What else starts with ‘j’?

Jelly, jam, jail, jig, Jell-o, Japan, junk, jellyfish, jeans, judge, jalopy, jinx.

I don’t think I even knew what a jalopy was until someone tried to teach me the Spanish word for jalopy (‘cacharro’). I suppose whoever it was succeeded, since apparently I still remember.

Now I’m thinking of churrascaria, a Portuguese word for Brazilian barbecue.

Must Chinese be visual?

It is hard to understate the importance of the Chinese characters to the Chinese language.

It is claimed by Chinese speakers that the Pinyin system (the official system for using the Roman alphabet to write the sounds of Mandarin Chinese) is not enough to convey meaning because so many words sounds the same. They need the visual elements in the characters to distinguish words.

This may seem like nonsense. People don’t use characters when they talk on the phone in Chinese. Context is enough to distinguish the meanings of homophones. And yet, Chinese speakers imagine the characters when they’re listening.

Kids who don’t know the characters yet could, theoretically, just learn to read Pinyin and associate the meanings to the sounds and to the Pinyin representations of the sounds, which is similar to what every kid with an alphabetic language does.

Adult Chinese speakers read faster with characters than with Pinyin because they already know the meanings of the characters, whereas if they try to read Pinyin, they have to translate the Pinyin into sounds before they can understand the words. They would need to practice reading Pinyin a lot to be able to read as fast without characters.

Furthermore, the characters provide intelligibility between types of speech that the Chinese tend to call dialects but that are sometimes considered separate languages.

Chinese pride in Chinese characters may seem like sheer masochism. Non-phonetic writing systems are an undeniably heavy cognitive burden. But if China abandons characters, it’s also abandoning centuries of its own history, poetry, and art. How could anyone really be in favor of that?