Friday, August 27, 2010
Four more Reasons to study Chinese
5. You can choose a Chinese name. Names are serious business in China. When we arrived in Shanghai to live, one of the first things people said to us was, "There are two things you need to be considered a real person in China, a mobile phone and a Chinese name." The first was easy; we just hit the Nokia store. The second was harder. The Chinese love to help you find a new name. They usually start by playing with your English name somehow, and then pack it with all kinds of innuendo and auspicious meaning. My husband's Chinese name is fang fei jie (last name, middle, first, in that order). Fang sounded about as close to our family name as you can get in Chinese. The other two resonated with his passion of flying small planes. Fei means "to fly". Jie mean "quick or victory". Together they suggest something like "ace fighter pilot". Quite a name! I was not so lucky. The best we could do was "jie bi", which sounds kind of like "Debbie" but actually means "to borrow a pen". I found it very hard to say Ni hao, wo jiao jie bi, "Hello, my name is to borrow a pen."
6. Unlock the mystery of tones and tell great stories. First, be grateful that Mandarin Chinese has only 4 tones, instead of 5 like Vietnamese or Thai, or 7 like Cantonese. In Mandarin Chinese, you have high tone, rising tone, falling-rising, and falling tone. You can get a leg up on the issue by concentrating on the high tone, which one friend told me to think of as the "mi" in do - re - mi. You aim for that high note and just hold it a while. There's no skirting the issue that tones are difficult to hear and to say, at least at the beginning. But they're also something that you can finally just get a feel for by lots and lots of exposure; lots of listening, lots of speaking, and lots of silly mistakes and encounters. Like when you think you're asking the waiter, "Could I have a doggy-bag?" and he hears "Could I have a hug?"
7. A chance to count your lucky stars. Chinese has over 40,000 characters. Nobody, not even the Chinese, learns all these. But they do spend their lifetimes mastering characters or at least trying not to get rusty over the ones they normally use. As an English speaker, you master just 26 letters, some tricky spelling, and if you're studying Chinese as a foreign language, you probably aim to learn just three or four thousand characters. There are fun and quirky things you learn with characters. Like that 人 looks like the two legs of a person and in fact means person. Don't be fooled, of course, because most Chinese characters are harder than this, and some take over 20 strokes to write.
8. Impress your friends and family. They'll think you're so smart if you learn a little Chinese, because everyone thinks that Chinese is really, really hard -- so hard that no normal person can learn it (never mind that 1.3 billion Chinese have learned it in childhood). Yes, OK, Chinese is hard. But every foreign language is hard. And few of them have as many payoffs as Chinese has. There are high-level payoffs, like how Chinese will open up a strange and important world to you and possibly even open up doors to your future that you can't even begin to imagine. Or the low-level payoffs, like picking up random bits of quirky information: that restaurants in China don't have fortune cookies; that Chinese has only 400 syllables (hu, ma, shi), while English has 4000 (prompts, stretched, climbs); or that lots of Chinese people couldn't understand Chairman Mao when he spoke because of his heavy Hunan accent.