September 30, 2013

Language confusion - I said I wanted a challenge and I got one...

The confusing thing that is the Chinese language

Two, no, three weeks into the course, where three days were connected to the Mid Autumn (moon festival) and we didn't have any school, and I am finally starting to crack the code.

It's not easy. And it is not just because the four tones, plus the one that is neutral, but in my ears changes e to a. I can't always say what the difference is but I can normally identify that there is a difference and that is a start – because the tones really do change meaning, unlike in most European languages where the meaning remains the same, it may just change whether it is a question or not – in Chinese language you work a lot with tones. Still, that's not the most tricky part for me, I know I'll get there as long as I continue to work on it – it sure isn't easy, when I am tired I can not tell them apart and otherwise I am only able to really tell them apart if I hear both next to each other – and it is rare that you do...

And it is not because all the characters, once I started to get how the characters were built up it's not too bad; At least not getting the connection "these characters together means this" – the characters for certain foods, for bathroom, for fire exit, for mountains and so forth – not too difficult Well, if it wasn't for the fact that you have to connect it to as sound as well, as soon as you need to do that it gets a bit tricky. But no, it's not that that is the biggest challenge either.

Instead, for me it turns out to be the texts that are the most difficult and causes conflicts in my head. I keep losing track of where I am and I keep mixing sentences up. But why?

There are probably several reasons of course, but the biggest issue I have is that the texts we are working with are very chopped up and unstructured. Each text is written in pinyin, with the Chinese characters above, of underneath. To make it easy, the words are broken up in smaller building blocks. Here the pinyin is broken up so that each Chinese character is matched with the sound. It is not so strange – in theory.

Except when you talk you don't talk the way the texts are written... Certain sounds belong together and together helps forming the meaning – and when you try and just learn the sounds separately they don't make any sense. No, for them to make sense you need to connect them to something else – xihuan (like) needs to be xihuan – not xi huan. To make it extra confusing the verb is also supposed to be said with the noun – drink tea is he cha – but you say it heCha; And yet, in our texts it is separated, even if one of our teachers has been kind enough to put a separate colour in the background to at least indicate what belongs together. Doesn't really help for me though, every time I look up from the text I find myself struggling to find where we were again.

But then again we haven't started using the book yet. I have a feeling it will get better once we do.

And until then you will find me in the library every day, recreating all the texts we went through – because not having studied Chinese before, I sometimes feel really lost when I am sitting in class with all the others, who either know other Asian languages before, and/or studied Chinese, alternatively lived in China or Taiwan for a number of years. Stubborn as I am I am determined to crack the code though – and step by step, little by little, I do.

And when I feel too lost, I have a tongue twister in Swedish that I say to myself in my head, knowing that no one else in class could manage it even if they tried. At least some comfort...  

(Sex Laxar i en laxask. Beat that if you can... (Six salmons in a salmon tin).)

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