hearing meaning in chinese and english

yesterday, enjoyed a wonderful bbq with friends of friend. the conversation vered here, as it so often does in shenzhen to: how did i learn chinese?  the assumption behind the disbelief that i speak chinese is that it is difficult to learn chinese. i hear the same distancing shock when chinese people are surprised by the facts that i eat with chopsticks, navigate the public transportation system, and successfully bargain for goods.

it is more difficult to go from english to chinese than it is to go from chinese to french or spanish because english shares so much with the romance languages and very little with chinese. when i learned french, for example, it really was just a question of learning how to translate, once i knew the rules, i just needed to practice execution. were there details i din’t get? yes. do i still struggle with proper use of the subjunctive? yes. do i have difficulty navigating all those gendered nouns. yes.

and yet. did i already understand the use of the past tense and the importance of conjugation to making meaning? yes. did i have vague familiarity with french history and culture? yes. did my u.s. humanities education prepare me for themes i would find in french literature and philosophy? again, yes.

at first glance, then it does seem more difficult for an english speaker to learn chinese than it may be to learn french. the structures of english and chinese share little in common. and, given the tendencies of u.s. american education in the 70s and 80s, i was also unfamiliar with chinese history and culture, as well as great themes in literature and philosophy. all this to say, i understand the difficulty that native speakers of either english or chinese encounter when we attempt to crossover that divide.

nevertheless, learning chinese became easier when i realized that we share many linguistic features but not only use them, but also listen for them differently.  more importantly, we value these features differently. for example, no native speaker of english will use the present tense when we talk about what happened yesterday. indeed, so important is the use of tense to the construction of meaning that all forms of native english use the past, present, and future consistently, even when we disagree on the correct form to use.  native english speakers, therefore, regularly ask how to express tense in chinese and often overlook temporal markers because they don’t come with the verb, but are separate words.

example: English – I went shopping becomes in Mandarin 我已经去买东西。or something. the point is that to express time in chinese there must be a time word: yesterday, already, once in the past, years ago… and chinese speakers are listening for those time words. more interestingly, chinese speakers learning english, will regularly complain that they can’t express their ideas because they lack words. but they don’t. usually, they lack control over tense, not realizing that much of what they do with words, we  do with tense:  i love you, i loved you, i will love you, i have loved you… a whole romance in the grammar, while in mandarin, its all in the words: 我爱你,我以前很爱你,我以后会爱你,我曾经爱过你。。。

the point is that both english and chinese have vocabulary to talk about when something happened. the difference is that a native speaker will be listening for words and a native english speaker will be listening for a conjugation.

in mandarin, the four tones have a similar value as verb tense in english: unless they are correct, you will not be understood. if you are understood, it will only be simple ideas that rely heavily on context to be interpreted as intended. but, english has tones, we just use them to express affect, rather than meaning.

example: 妈,麻,马,骂 or the dreaded ma1, ma2, ma3, ma4. in english, first tone is flat, uninflected speach. second is a question (where did you go? that lilt on the go is the second tone). third tone is sarcasm (whaaat, with hiiiim?! that exaggerated dip in your voice is the third tone). and the forth is anger (get the FUCK out of my way. that plunging inflection is the fourth tone).

all too often we english speakers learning chinese end up hearing ghostly emotions and hesitations in chinese speach that aren’t there. do chinese express affect with their voice, yes. but when they say thank you, 谢谢 the tones to an english speakers ears are anger anger.

all this to say, the hardest part of learning chinese has been, for me, learning how many ghosts i bring with me to each conversation i have. in shenzhen, i frenquently introduce them to my interlocutors as a gesture of good faith; i know you said what you meant, but that does not silence the ghosts.  only i can can do that.

9 thoughts on “hearing meaning in chinese and english

  1. You are quite comfortable with Chinese, bravo! Can I congratulate you on your success with the written form of it? Learn it, and you’ll find behind it an Aladdin’s cave. But caveat emptor: it’s devilishly difficult.

      • Sorry,I saw your response just now. Yes I practiced caligraphy–in the 1930s,when good handwriting, in contradistinction to nowadays, was commonly deemed a skill an educated person must have.The skill is so hard–nothing is easy with Chinese–to grasp that one has to start practicing from early school years. But Chinese caligraphy in its accomplished form exudes a unique intoxicating aesthetic,which is beyond description. If you are interested in getting to know it better,you have my respect and best wishes.


      • Hi Loong,

        I started practicing calligraphy about a year ago. I’m studying the style of 褚遂良 because I have always enjoyed 隶书, but need to practice 楷体 before heading further back. As for 散文 I have written and published a few short pieces (it helps that my husband graduated from 人大新闻系 and is a professional writer); I regularly give lectures in Mandarin.
        I’m curious about your background. In the 1930s, where were you and where did you study? How did this pedagogical trajectory shape your life?
        One of my first teachers was a child in 北平 and had a traditional education; memorizing classical texts and writing calligraphy with his left hand tied behind his back because his father wanted to curb his natural southpaw impulse. His family then went to Taiwan, where he studied 文言文 at 台大 before going to the US to teach Mandarin. On of my favorite memories of his teaching style is how he wrote lessons on the board; ordinary grammar was written left to write in horizontal lines for western students, but any passage that he had learned as a child was written right to left in vertical lines. This habit meant that his blackboards were poetic works of art themselves. With poems in old style and commentary in contemporary style. Indeed, he moved back and forth between 繁体 and 简体 with the same fluidity and grace.

      • Wow,you surprise me again,Mary Ann! As I’ve mentioned earlier, Chinese calligraphy is quite a hard nut;in order to avoid getting on a possibly wrong path, it is advisable in my opinion to equip yourself with a good tutor,who would watch over your shoulder from behind as you’re practicing and who’d be dutiful enough to strike the palm of your hand with a ruler each time you make a false stroke,which, incidently,was a usual scenario with children in those good old days.

        As regards myself, I’m afraid I don’t have much to say except that I spent my college years in Beijing,had jobs as a teacher. I am now in retirement and busy living my modest life.

      • Hi Loong,

        I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the pedagogical value of beating students. My experience has been that children raised in strict and traditional homes may have more classical knowledge than their peers, but it is also more likely that they have distanced themselves from tradition as soon and as far as they could.

        And yes, I’m full surprises!

  2. You are one of the best learners of Chinese that I know of. You have a refreshing tendency to criticise yourself (hearing ghost emotions) than criticise the pronunciation, handwriting, or listening of our host country’s people.


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