I checked out a book on learning Chinese the last time I was in the local library. It is one of those books for tourists and business people who plan to visit China and would like to learn enough of the language to get by. I’m not really serious about trying to learn Chinese. I don’t really have the time. I just thought it would be interesting to look through.
The book includes two CDs with listening exercises to learn the proper pronunciation. I listened to the first one and realized that there is no way I could ever learn Chinese. The problem is the tones. Chinese is a tonal language. That is to say, the tone or pitch that a word is spoken in helps determine the meaning. There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, other dialects have more, which are steady high, rising, falling then rising, and falling. To take a commonly used example, the word ma can mean mother, hemp, horse, or to curse, depending on the tone. I am somewhat hard of hearing, so when I listened to the words being spoken I could hardly distinguish between the tones. I’m afraid that if I ever went to China and tried to speak the language, I would cause an international incident.
The ideographs are also a problem for me. I am used to reading letters. I’m not really much of a “visual” person so I am not sure how well I could learn to associate the characters with words. Maybe it’s because I am not used to seeing them, but they don’t look much like anything to me.
On the other hand, Chinese grammar is easy, ridiculously easy. There are no verb conjugations, noun case endings, or any of the other features that cause the language student to tear their hair out in frustration. There are hardly any affixes at all. The word order is invariably subject-verb-object. Most words express concrete actions and things and there are not a lot of abstract words. Instead, the Chinese prefer to express abstract ideas by means of metaphores and similes.
I’ll give some examples from the first chapter of the book. A sentence like “There is beer in China” is literally “China have beer”. “There is beer and green tea in China” is “China have beer, also have green tea”. “He is drinking green tea” is “He drink green tea”. They get a little more complicated than that later in the book, but not very much more.
The first Europeans who studied the Chinese language thought that the Chinese must be particularly stupid people to have such a simple grammar. They dismissed Chinese as a primitive language. In fact the Chinese have been very clever in ridding their language of all the junk that makes comprehension harder. Rudolf Flesch in his book The Art of Plain Talk recommended that writers emulate the Chinese language. Not by writing sentences like “He drink green tea” but by using short concrete words and simple sentences.
We have made some progress in clearing out some of the junk in English. We have dropped our case endings and most of our verb conjugations. We still have too many irregular verbs and weird noun plurals, not to mention the idiocies of English spelling. It is easier than trying to remember Chinese ideographs, but not very much easier. I suppose if English is to be the foremost international language it wouldn’t be too much to ask that the spelling be made more phonetic for the poor non-English speakers who have to learn it.