Almost two months ago I started learning Chinese. I had been thinking about investing more time into learning a language for a while. The options were to either improve my Polish or learn Japanese together with James. But then I watched this talk on TED. Martin Jaques makes a very convincing case for how grossly people in the West, especially Europeans, underestimate how importance and power is shifting away from them towards China. The Chinese know much more about us than we know about them. The talk left me with the feeling that soon a large part of the internet will be in Chinese. Computer translation will not be really usable yet for quite some time, so the only way to keep full access to important and interesting information will be to learn Chinese. I decided to learn Chinese the day after watching the talk. This talk has been the most influential for me so far of all TED talks.

I enrolled in the Chinese course of the Volkshochschule (adult education program) in Spandau. We meet each Wednesday in a group of about ten people. It is a bit like school, so progress is slow, but it is fun. What I found much more effective are Michel Thomas audiobooks. You don’t listen to the books passively, but interact quite intensely all the time. After a brief explanation of some vocabulary and patterns for how to express something in Chinese, you are given an English sentence to translate. You are supposed to pause the audiobook and speak the translation out loud (or not so loud, if you are doing it on the train as I did). Then you unpause and listen to the correct translation. This gives you remarkable results in an incredible short period of time in generating Chinese sentences. It does not, however, improve listening comprehension. After going through all the available Michel Thomas audiobooks, I can translate “I want to go to school tomorrow because my Chinese teacher is interesting”, but I have a very hard time understanding anything in Chinese, even if it is said slowly and I know all the words.

I used to think Mandarin Chinese is the most difficult language in the world. Some parts of it are difficult, others are not. It is probably not the most difficult language to learn. The first pleasant surprise was that the grammar is really, really simple. After two months I haven’t seen all of the Chinese grammar yet, but for now it seems to me that it is far simpler than that of any other language I know, including English. It seems to be on one end of the complexity spectrum, with Polish comfortably sitting on the other, anchored by its seven or so grammatical cases.

But there are difficult parts, of course. The reputation of being the most difficult language to learn must stem from somewhere, after all. Chinese is a tonal language. This means that a word’s meaning depends on what intonation you pronounce it with. “ai” with a falling intonation means “to love”. “ai” with a falling and then rising intonation means “small”. A different intonation changes the meaning completely, so it is important to get it right. You not only have to learn what “letters” (in the Romanized form) a word consists of, but also which of five possible intonations it uses. Chinese needs intonations because it has a much more limited number of possible syllables than Western languages. Even with intonations, which increase the number of syllables fivefold, there are still many words that have the same pronunciation, but different meaning and written character. “ta” can mean “he”, “she”, or “it”, and you would write a different character for each.

The other difficult part of Chinese is the writing system. There are thousands of different characters, and in most cases a character tells you nothing about how it is pronounced. The meaning however can sometimes be guessed from the components; complex characters consist of simpler ones, and the meaning of the complex character has something to do with the meaning of the simpler ones in relation to each other. For example, the character for “good” consists of the character for “woman” and the character for “child”. The combination of characters for concrete concepts is used to symbolize abstract concepts. That is actually an interesting way of looking at the world, and I must admit it is fun to analyze new characters and find out what they are made of.

The Chinese tried to move towards Romanization of their writing system a few decades ago. It hasn’t succeeded fully, and I actually wonder whether in future the Chinese character system or something like it might even replace the Western Romanized writing systems. The current input method for written language, the keyboard, seems to favor Romanized writing, but I can imagine that once computing devices will offer more advanced input methods like gesture recognition, a sign-based language might be far quicker to write in than a letter-based one. So writing today is probably still faster for Western languages, but I think Chinese is more efficient to read: you can absorb more information in the same time reading Chinese than reading a Western language. I wonder whether this has something to do with vocalization: in speed-reading courses you are told that by simply reading the words without mentally vocalizing them (saying them in your head), you can read faster. At one point I even contemplated whether I should learn the Chinese writing system first without the verbal part, so I would definitely not vocalize anything when reading.

I decided to learn both the writing and the speaking at the same time, the way they normally teach it. I want to write iPhone apps that help me on my way to the mastery of the Chinese language. The first app I wrote is a pronunciation trainer. One of the next blog entries will be about that.