Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Becoming Fluent in Chinese

Becoming fluent in Chinese is difficult. Now that my parents have left, I have nothing to distract me from the grind of class, so this entry is devoted to trying to explain why I am still not fluent in Chinese.

Aside from the obvious reasons (tones and characters stick out) I've developed a sense of the differentness of Chinese. People always talk about how learning different languages is supposed to make you think different ways, but I've never understood what they were talking about. I took Spanish for four years and only learned that "extraterrestrial" (with an accent on the last 'a' if I remember right) is the word for... "extraterrestrial." But don't get me started on my Spanish experience.

In Chinese, they put ideas into different categories than we do. Some categories we don't have. For example, in English we just use "carry" to mean almost every kind of carrying. In Chinese, there's standard carrying, but then there's "carry with both hands up in front of you (like a server in a restaurant)" and "carry across your shoulders on a pole."

It's easy to adjust to extra categories. What's difficult is when categories overlap, because then it's not as easy to sort out.

We just learned a few words for "memory." One is jixing, the other is jiyi. They have the same first syllable because that means "to remember." If I want to be cute, I can say I ji the character ji. Now, jixing in English means "memory," but it really means "the ability to memorize." For example, I can say I have a bad jixing, because whenever I take a test, I freak out and can't remember the answers.

Jiyi in English also means "memory," but this is more memory of something. I have memories of UF, I have memories of eating lamb skewers, etc. So far in this explanation, the two words just separate ideas that we use the same word for in English.

But then I asked my language partner if you could count jiyi. She laughed and said of course you couldn't. I told her that in English we could say, "I only have two memories of when I was a kid: whatever, and whatever." She said that was silly, and that you can't do that in Chinese. Apparently, in Chinese, you can ask "What jiyi do you have from when you were a kid?" just like we would in English, but Chinese memories can only be described, not counted.

Another example has to do with the word for "emotion." In English, we either say that we "feel" sad, or that we "are" sad. We describe the sadness as either an emotion or a feeling, using both to mean exactly the same thing.

In Chinese ne, (sorry, I couldn't help putting it in. It would be perfect if we had a word for ne in English) there are several. All I've got figured out is that gan has to do with emotion, and any compound words probably have to do with that idea. The problem is that our teacher wants us to actually understand Chinese, and so we have to sort through ganshou (emotion), gandao (emotion), and ganqing (emotion). Ask me in a semester how to use which one and I might be able to tell you.

So that's why I'm not fluent in Chinese yet. I can't accurately say that sometimes I just feel frustrated at my slow progress.

1 comment:

katiepenguins said...

I remember someone describing sizes to me--how something was big, but it was also round and flat, or long and thin, and other various varieties of complication.