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Learning Chinese in China and the US

Foreigncy’s team is composed of linguists who have succeeded in turning their passions for languages into careers that are making a difference in the world. Mastering a language takes years of persistence that is made up of more than just language study, it includes time spent in the region, absorbing a country’s culture, and always seeking ways to utilize your skills in the real world. Today’s spotlight introduces you to Foreigncy’s Mandarin Linguist Jamie Fisher.

First, what is your favorite Chinese dish that you won’t find in the U.S.?

I’ll take liberties here and talk about my favorite Greater China dish. While I lived in Southern Taiwan, I was blessed enough to try what was advertised as Sizzling Monkey Mushroom Platter. I don’t recall the exact name–it may have been 猴菇煲 (hóu gū bāo). Tender mushrooms served in a sweet dark sauce, hissing alongside whatever vegetables were fresh that evening.

Fun fact: Taiwanese food is far far better than what I’ve had in China. People in China will tell you this about Taiwanese fruit. It is secretly true of all Taiwanese food, period.

What are the advantages of learning Mandarin over Cantonese, and can you explain the difference for those of us who are unfamiliar with the languages?

The biggest advantage of Mandarin is supplied by probability. In a country with a bewildering number of languages and dialects and dialects of dialects, the most commonly spoken and widely understood is Mandarin. Mandarin is also the only language that receives consistent government backing. That means Mandarin road signs, Mandarin safety instructions, Mandarin textbooks in schools, and “standard” Mandarin on CCTV.

Of course, the relative utility of any language depends on how you intend to use it. If you intend to live in Southern China, daily life will bring you into regular contact with Cantonese. If your ambition is to interview elderly Shenzhen residents about their lives during the Second World War, good luck finding anyone who knows Mandarin half as well as they know Cantonese.

The differences between the two languages are too great to summarize here. In some ways it’s the distinction between English and French, Italian and German.

Historically, Cantonese is the older language; Mandarin is only a few hundred years old, and it’s an invented language, cobbled together for the sake of national unity. As a result, Cantonese remembers sounds and grammar patterns that Mandarin has forgotten. The oldest Chinese poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore in Mandarin. It still does in Cantonese.

On a basic level, Cantonese simply sounds different: It has nine tones to Mandarin’s four. It also has a wider phonemic inventory; most of the sounds in Mandarin wouldn’t be strange to a Cantonese speaker, but Mandarin speakers can stumble over the vowels and consonant clusters of Cantonese just like a beginning American student fights his way through retroflexes like sh and zh.

The grammar is also entirely different. And while both languages use what we call Chinese characters, there are many characters unique to Cantonese, borne out of attempts to phonetically approximate sounds you just can’t make in Mandarin.

What are the biggest things you miss about living in China?

Hot water machines left and right! (Great vocabulary word: 饮水机 (yǐnshuǐjī), a hot-and-cold water dispenser.)

This makes China something of a tea-drinker’s paradise. The culture accommodates people who need caffeine but don’t like coffee or soda.

That being said, the ubiquity of hot water machines is a direct result of a culture, or government, unwilling to accommodate safe public water. So there’s no such thing as free lunch, or tea.

What are some common problems people face when studying Chinese and how can they overcome them?

The most common problem may be the simplest: getting scared by the characters.

This is an entirely understandable, but also enormously misleading. By focusing on the characters, you’re likely to overlook how easy much of Chinese is. The phonemic inventory is low; apart from a few odd sounds, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before. The grammar is, in many respects, blessedly easy compared to many other major languages: No need to conjugate verbs for person or tense.

The trick, especially if you are a younger learner, is just to focus on the spoken language for a time. Once you begin to get a feel for the sounds and grammar of Chinese, look more closely at the characters. And when you do, get to know their etymology. The vast majority of characters are built from a semantic (meaning-related) and a phonetic (sound-related) component. If you do this the right way, after your first year you will have the foundations for an intuitive sense of what a character is likely to mean and how it is likely to sound.

The other major problem is closely related. Don’t mistake the characters for individual words! They’re little LEGO units of meaning, much like English prefixes and suffixes. Most words in Chinese are two syllables, and by extension two characters, in length. Once you get the hang of this, you’ll start to read and remember new words much faster, because they will begin to seem much more organized. It’s a principle called chunking. It’s the same reason we have trouble memorizing a string of random digits–191820151564–but not much trouble with three discrete dates: 1918, 2015, 1564.

1 Comment

  1. Cadian March 13, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    great post ;it will help chinese languge learners and i’m one it will help me a lot

    Reply

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