Learning Putonghua

It’s a common perception that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for people (ok, for Americans) to learn. In our language classes, where we attack common situations like going to restaurants and making small talk via practicing relevant dialogues, we even learned how to express this thought in Chinese:

Home Country National (HCN): Ni juede Putonghua nan bu nan? [literal translation: You think Putonghua (the Beijing dialect of Mandarin that we all learn) hard or not hard?]

Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV): Wo juede Putonghua bu nan. Danshi Putonghua fayin you yidianr nan. [I think Putonghua not hard. But Putonghua pronunciation has a little hard.]

HCN: Hanzi ne? [And Chinese characters/writing?]

PCV: Hanzi hen nan. Wo bu renshi Hanzi. [Characters very hard. I not know characters.]

Chinese pronunciation is a littler hard, yes: for example, there are two versions of an “sh” sound, one made with tongue forward, almost touching teeth and one made with tongue back, curled up towards the hard palate of the mouth. There are equivalent pairs of sounds made in these two different ways for “ch” and “j”. The “r” sound is sort of a cross between an “r” and a “j.”

During our pre-service language training we don’t learn any of the traditional Chinese writing—our classes are primarily oral, and when we need to write we do so in Pinyin, the systerm of wriging Chinese with the Latin alphabet that was developed in the last century or so. It gets the job done, but it’s artificial: Chinese people only use it when doing things like texting or using computers, or with foreigners. When I get to site in a few weeks and set up some sort of private language tutoring, I will begin to work on the written language, likely.

But this little exchange also points to something kind of neat about Chinese: the grammar is, in many ways, the simplest and most streamlined of any language I’ve learned (we’re choosing from among English, Spanish, French, and German, here). Yes, there are peculiarities: the proliferation of different measure words to refer to quantities of different items: for example, you must use a different measure word to express the one-thing nature of “one thing of water,” “one (thing of) peach,” and “one thing of paper.” There are also these tricky little “particle” words that lurk at the ends of sentences and show things like a change in state, the completion of an action, a tone of politeness, a tone of surprise, etc.

But by and large, the grammar is rather simple. There is no conjugation of verbs—not for any different case or person, and not even for any tense. (Time is shown by the addition of time words to the sentence.) There is no pluralization of nouns, other than, say, first-person singular versus first-person plural. There are no articles. There is no gender—not even different words for “he” and “she.” There are ways you can form perfectly grammatical sentences without even using a verb of any sort. The linguist in me finds this intriguing.

But it’s also interesting how the language and the culture inform each other. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and all that. The classic and oft-cited example has to do with the view of time. Americans see time, generally, as marching from left to right, like English words across a page. Chinese see it as flowing downward like water. Thus you have phenomena like the word for morning literally meaning “above-noon” and afternoon as “below noon.” It’s the same time for last week or last year (above week/year) and next week (below week/year). Time also, apparently, flows from front to back: “yiqian” means “before” but literally means something like “to the front” and “yihou,” “after,” is “to the back.”

There are other more subtle ways in which the language and the cultural values are mirrored. Familial relations are often upgraded: people routinely might call their old servant “auntie” and their cousins “brother” or “sister”—I wonder about how this relates to the fact that there is a generation of young people without any real brothers or sisters who must therefore use their cousins as surrogate siblings. Nor can you simply call someone, in Chinese, your brother or your sister: the words are for either older or younger brother/sister only, showing how essential age and birth order are intellectually.

I also appreciate several little shortcuts. “To Internet” is a verb, more or less. Obviously I don’t know very much Chinese yet (after all, Putonghua you yidianr nan), so it will be interesting to see how my views on the language continue to evolve.


One thought on “Learning Putonghua

  1. This is great! My wife and I were just nominated by our recruiter for service in the June 2011 program in Asia. I was on here looking around for volunteers’ blogs. I am very into languages as well and found this entry really interesting. I’ll be following on here throughout the year to see how your service is going! GOOD LUCK!

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