Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I am a classicist [Why I Don't Learn Chinese - 15]

I studied Latin and Ancient Greek at school and university - to a very high level.

They are reputedly hard languages: very different scheme of grammar from English, and an alien script for Greek. In terms of the workload, at any rate, they constitute almost certainly the most demanding Arts subject* at Oxford... and one of the most physically demanding sets of exams in the world (11 or 12 three-hour papers in a little over a week, for both the mid-point and final classification in the undergraduate degree; it was commonly said that only the entrance test for the Japanese Civil Service was more gruelling).

In short, I think my brain is full; or more properly - since I have, to be honest, forgotten nearly all of the Latin and Greek I used to know - worn out by that exceptional language-learning effort in my younger days.

Even more to the point, Latin and Greek are dead languages. Nobody speaks them any more, and, in learning them, little or no attention is paid to speaking them aloud or attempting to use them as a medium of daily communication. (Some folks have experimented with 'communicative method' teaching, attempting to develop skills in these languages by adopting the same language teaching methodologies used for modern languages. That approach, though, was pretty much unheard of in my day, and is still, I think, a bit of an eccentric minority interest.)

And I was quite happy with that. I learned these languages with a focus on the literature. I was thrilled about the prospect of being able to read great authors like Horace and Homer and Tacitus and Thucydides in their original language. It seemed a much more worthwhile objective than being able to mount a fumbling conversation with a shopkeeper on a summer holiday in France - which was about all the modern linguists at my school ever seemed to achieve.

I liked French, and pursued that to quite a high level too. I did a supplementary literature-based exam in it (on Voltaire's Candide) when I was 15, and continued studying in my own time during my 6th Form days - reading quite big chunks of Balzac, Maupassant, and Zola (more, probably, than most of the French specialists among my contemporaries), and trying to force myself to watch my favourite French films without referring to the English subtitles. Trouble was, my focus was solely on the literature. I never went to France for a holiday as a kid; and when I finally visited for the first time as an undergraduate, I found myself embarrassingly tongue-tied. I had liked to think I could maybe have discussed Flaubert or Baudelaire with someone, but in practice I could scarcely buy a baguette.

I'm afraid my interest in Chinese is much the same. I'd love to be able to read Chinese, particularly some of the classical literature: the Analects of Confucius and the great poets of the Tang and Song dynasties. But that damned writing system is just too much of a barrier to entry. I know I haven't got a hope in hell of cracking it, coming to the study in my weary middle years, and when I have so many other interests and distractions in my life.

You don't really need the language to buy a baguette - or a mantou.

[* I suppose Chinese is probably even harder. But in my undergraduate days, nobody really paid it much attention. I'd guess there were probably only a few dozen people in the whole of the UK studying it back then.]


John said...

I personally am terrible with languages in general (English included), my brain just isn't programmed for it (and I may be a tad dyslectic to boot) but there's also the important point that I regard the majority of other languages as, well, simply ugly; can't stand the sound of them. Occasionally I'll find an exception, Russian I'm quite partial to for example, but then I once liked the sound of the Chinese tongues, indistinguishable from each other to the ignorant as they are. Lord knows why though. No intonation other than for practical use, all vowels sounding and they don't half yell it at each other; I don't know how you cope Froog.
Japanese- urgh, German- good god no thanks, the other west European languages- hilarious (I was criticised by my French teacher for having a poor accent, I thought the French accent was a joke after watching Allo Allo) Welsh- I'm ashamed to say I've hated my national tongue my entire life.
As far as the written word goes I don't understand the point. Perhaps it's a matter of the generation gap but surely all the good stuff has been translated into the imperialistic tongue by now and then even by more than one scholarly type with another clever person who can let you know who's done it the 'best'? And then to top it off I read that a person I regard as pretty damn clever himself has forgotten what he learnt?! That really made me quite sad I'll be honest and I refuse to believe it outright, it's too much of a loss. Surely with a refresher lesson it would all come flooding back? I know people always say how that what they learnt as a youngster has faded around the edges but the structure remains doesn't it? Bring on the inevitable computer brain implants of the future I say; me a cyborg freak? Any time.

John said...

I should possibly add that my love for English however couldn't be greater. From the heights of poetic greats to street slang I have the deepest respect for it and while it is taking over in the world (which I resent) I have to admit it sure makes things easy for me. English makes me proud to be able to understand it so well and I deeply admire how complex it is, not necessarily in alphabet and basic grammatical structure but in that its scope easily blows other languages straight out of the water. The genius of comedy and the melding of colloquialisms and dialect, there's nothing else like it as far as I'm aware. I simply have no time for anything else though I would think it disrespectful to not know some of the indigenous language if visiting a country (yet another good reason for me not to go to China.)

Anonymous said...

This is a topic you keep revisiting and I shake my head every time. It is like you wear it as a badge of honor that you have not bothered to learn the language of the country in which you have resided for years. I could understand the laowai who comes to teach for a semester to two, to not be bothered, but I cannot imagine living in a country for years and not learning the language.

Learning Mandarin is something I thoroughly enjoy and envy the situation you are in quite strongly. A strong marriage and home ownership keep me a bit trapped here in the states, but I cannot wait to revisit China and use the Mandarin I have been acquiring and dive into the culture and history.

At first I was incredibly frustrated and not having much fun with it and hurled the same insults (which were ignorant in hindsight) at it that you have (i.e. not being very nuanced), only to later experience the sheer joy of 'cracking the code' and being able to achieve something that is rather difficult, being able to understand written and spoken Mandarin.

Admittedly, my Mandarin is still pretty awful and I am completely lost watching a newscast, but I can follow along pretty well with my wife as she watches dramas on sohu and it is amazing to see the picture come into focus.

Not learning Mandarin, is in my opinion your loss, but if that is the choice you make, it seems rather silly to go on about it and to insult a language which you haven't bothered to understand. It reminds me of a dialogue in the Dewoskin book we talked about awhile back. Her boss, a laowai based in Beijing, was discussing how she was sure the Chinese probably don't have a word for 'prowess'. Making rather silly assumptions about a language she made no attempt to learn.

You having lived in China for many moons certainly have some base to stand upon, but for a more creditworthy assault on the hopelessness of learning Mandarin, check out this post from linguist, China vet, David Moser. He is being a bit tongue in cheek, but it is the best commentary I have ever read about the struggles of learning Mandarin:


And John, while I thoroughly enjoy the musings of Froog, I would strongly advise you against using his commentaries as a determiner about whether you will ever go to China. China is a country incredibly rich in culture and history and you'd be missing out with avoiding it altogether.

Froog said...

John, did you ever see Michael Winterbottom's eerie sci-fi drama of 7 or 8 years ago, Code 46? It imagines that certain types of skill and knowledge - like being able to speak Mandarin - can be implanted directly into the brain via a retrovirus. I think I'll have to wait on that technology!

The film also foresees a global hybrid language in the near future: predominantly English, but with many key words adopted from Spanish, Chinese, Russian.

Reading things in translation just isn't the same. It's one of the reasons I regret having let my French go, and having never got beyond a basic introduction to Spanish and Russian (languages with a much richer literary tradition - well, in contemporary literature, certainly - than China).

I have a dual-language edition of some of the Tang poems - which helps an appreciation of the structure, but hasn't done much to increase my ability to read characters.

Could I scrape the rust off the Latin and Greek? Oh, I expect so. I actually taught Greek for a semester here 7 or 8 years ago. And I was asked to teach some Latin rather more recently, but turned it down (Medieval Latin: not unknown to me, but not my strong suit!).

Actually, I think that's a project I think I'd rather devote myself to than learning Mandarin (during the coming winter months of slack work and minimal social life).

Froog said...


One of the reasons I like this series is that I think it is worth fighting against the prevalent - and, I think, misguided - prejudice that learning a foreign language is some kind of moral obligation... or at any rate, a social obligation of 'respect'.

Tosh! You learn a language for its practical utility, or for the innate satisfaction you derive from the exercise. You don't do it for anyone else; nor should you.

Something I have touched on in this series once or twice, but which deserves to be treated at length in a post of its own, is that this stance of mine doesn't have much to do with the qualities of the Chinese language itself, but is a reaction against how f***ing self-righteous foreigners who have learned some of the language tend to get about it.

It's also - to a slightly lesser degree, I think - a reaction against a prevalent Chinese attitude that learning Mandarin is a "sign of respect". I particularly resent the way the government is making that a central plank of its 'soft power' propaganda.

'Respect' is what you think and how you feel about someone, being genuinely concerned and interested. Trying to communicate with them in their own language could be one element of that - but it is essentially an overlay, a facilitator, not a fundamental part of the notion.

In China today, I feel, learning Mandarin has become more about the outward show of supposed 'respect', a token gesture of self-abasement - the modern-day kowtow. And that's the main reason I won't do it.

Froog said...


You make a pretty strong case against Mandarin study yourself: you've studied enthusiastically for several years and have a Chinese partner, yet you admit that your Mandarin is still "pretty awful", that you can sort of follow a TV soap opera but get lost with a newscast. With any European language, you could probably expect to have been near native-speaker fluent by now.

I have nothing against Mandarin per se. I just think that, given how difficult it is for Westerners to learn, it's hard to justify that commitment of effort, that opportunity cost. You have had both the motivation and, apparently, the opportunity. Good for you. I haven't.

John said...

We already stole so many great words from other languages why not the premonition that we throw a few of the more complex ones into the mix too!
I can understand that you need to hear it as it was originally written and intended to be heard, I just thought that there was enough of that realisation out there these days for adequate translation, I mean we're not talking Chinese written English textbooks here; I guess in the end that's impossible though.
Have a good day, I'm of course off to bed soon.

Froog said...

Thanks for the link, by the way. I like reading Moser, but hadn't come across that piece before.

HF, you are lurching into that 'self-righteous' category I complained of in my previous comment. Where do I "insult" Mandarin - here, or anywhere else in this series?

The closest I have come is one of the first entries in this series where I complained that I did not find the language pleasing to the ear - which is purely a matter of personal taste. (And it wasn't a blanket disparagement either: I noted that I quite enjoyed the way some people speak Chinese - cab drivers, for example! - and that I found the Cantonese and Shanghainese dialects much easier to listen to than standard Mandarin.)

I have also done a number of positive posts about the language - such as the one on the Chinese words most likely to be adopted into 'global English', this one on the inventiveness of Chinese profanity (John - check this out!), or this appreciation of classical Chinese poetry.

This post is not much about Chinese at all. It is about my history with language learning in general. And is predominantly regretful - even self-mocking. I am acknowledging that I am handicapped by the choices I made in language study early in my life, that I have no affinity for using other languages as a means of expression, that I prefer to study them in the abstract.

I am a bit embarrassed that I'm so crap at Chinese, and I like to try to analyse WHY that is.

I am also intrigued by questions of why one chooses - or should choose - to learn a language. And since Mandarin is now becoming one of the most widely studied second languages in the world, and the most aggressively promoted, it affords an ideal focus for such enquiries.

Note: I do know some Mandarin. A fair bit, actually. I'm just lousy at speaking it. I have quite a lot of meta-knowledge about it: I'm interested in the history of the country's literature and philosophy, in the development of the character system, in linguistics and so on. And if I am going to comment on something that requires a knowledge of the language (like how it might express 'prowess'), I'll consult Chinese friends, or foreign friends who work as literary translators.

I don't put much effort into studying Mandarin. And I encourage others to consider whether they should make an effort to do so, to become more self-aware about why they study it (or not). That's what these posts are about; and I think it's a valuable debate to get into.

Unfortunately, most people don't get beyond a knee-jerk "disrespectful, lazy, EVIL!" response.

Anonymous said...

I haven't studied Chinese enthusiastically for many years and never alluded to that. I've dabbled for a few years, but only got serious for about the past year.

Equal time in a romance language, of course I would be much nearer to fluent, it is all Latin based, whereas Chinese is a totally new construct. Granted English is Germanic in base, but shares a great deal with Latin based language.

Moving on. You have previously claimed that one cannot express themselves as nuanced in Mandarin as they can in English. I'm not in the mood to hunt it down, as I have already wasted too much time hunting down information which has quelled your arguments in other threads, but you have indeed made that claim, and that is rather insulting from someone who clearly doesn't know enough about the language to make such a claim.

Self righteousness, agree to disagree. I think it's rather self righteous for one to feel he can't be bothered to learn the language spoken by 99% of the people he calls neighbor. Especially when he clearly holds the capacity despite weak attempts at self deprecation.

Froog said...

Yes, I have indeed made that suggestion once or twice.

It is based on the observations of two groups of people I regard very highly: a) professional translators, who fret that Chinese is - sometimes - a bit of a blunt instrument for literary expression; b) Chinese friends who've attained near-native fluency in English, and tell me that they prefer it to Chinese as a medium of expression.

My own inclination towards this viewpoint derives not directly from however much or little I know of the Chinese language, but from what I observe in my work as a professional polisher of Chinese-English legal and academic writing: that these texts are almost invariably stuffed full of redundancies and ambiguities that are not the fault of the translator, but are embedded in the original.

I seldom say (much less write) anything without a carefully thought-out reason, and at least some sort of 'evidence'.

Froog said...

It's not 'self-righteous' of me to make a choice about what to do with my own life, only to disparage others who don't make the same choice. (Which, admittedly, I do, on occasions [young Mandarin students can be an obnoxious bunch!] - but NOT in this series.)

Neither does it imply 'insult' or 'disrespect' to the thing I choose not to bother with.

I might equally well do a series on Why I don't play golf (I have been thinking about it - seriously). I like the idea of golf, I like to watch the game occasionally, I admire people who can play it well. I would like to be able to play it well myself. But I recognise that I have no natural talent for it. Neither do I have the free time, or the money, or the circle of acquaintance that would ever allow me to play regularly. So - why should I bother? I spurn it not because it is innately worthless, but because it doesn't fit in my life.

Same thing with Mandarin.

Froog said...

By the by, I don't think you can 'insult' a language.

You sometimes find the word used with an abstract concept like 'history' or 'memory', or more rarely with a concrete object like 'tomb' or 'memorial' or 'palace'. But I think that's a slightly loose usage; and it only works because the thing is usually closed tied to a specific individual or group of people. (And if it were possible to 'insult' a language, that classification would be dependent on the intent behind the statement, not the accuracy or otherwise, or the source of evidence on which it was based.)

'Insult' is a deliberate attempt to hurt someone's feelings - it can really only be used with people as its object.

Do I deliberately intend to offend the entire Chinese nation by choosing not to devote hundreds of hours of study to their official language? No - of course not.

Unfortunately, many Chinese - almost certainly influenced by government propaganda on the point - are apt to take offence at it. I find that unreasonable and chauvinistic.

Chinese hypersensitivity on this is quite irritating enough, without having foreigners jump on the bandwagon.

Anonymous said...

Oh come now Froog, why do we always have to split hairs over minor points of terminology.

You do not require a human victim to insult, an insult is quite simply an attack on something. To FEEL insulted is quite different.

I must admit fault (something I don't believe I have ever, or 'rarely' to avoid splitting hairs, witnessed from you). I have done something which I have accused you of. I assumed that Mandarin is as expressive as other languages even though I am not proficient enough to make such a claim. I'll default to your more experienced bi-linguists at this time.

I am a bit baffled when you claim your reasons for not playing golf are the same for Mandarin based on your criteria for not playing golf. Learning Mandarin is not expensive (plenty of free sources online) and I would imagine there are quite a lot of people in your circle of acquaintances that use it. And based upon you having intermittent employment and marathon DVD sessions, I will assume you certainly have time to learn Mandarin.

It appears that none of your reasons for not playing golf apply to Mandarin despite your claim of them being equal. Golf doesn't 'fit' in your life, I can see. Living in China and Mandarin doesn't 'fit' in your life, sorry, that is laughable.

I am not personally offended by or hypersensitive to the self-righteousness of this long running series on why you don't wish to speak the language of the country you have resided in for years. I just find it odd that you go on about it. It comes off as trying to justify a regret. That may not be the case, but that is how it comes across to me.

Froog said...

'Justifying a regret' is nice - might be something in that. Then again, you might just be projecting your own attitudes on to me.

The 'free' resources I've dabbled with, but haven't found any that wonderful - and I think they're probably a useful adjunct to study, rather than a sole or primary method. My experience - well, the experience of most people I know out here - is that you can't really get anywhere without lessons.... over a long period of time. Lessons cost money.

Sure, there are a lot of other things I choose to do with my time. And a lot of other things I have to do with my time. But to get good at Mandarin - or golf - would require many hundreds of hours, and I'm not willing to make that investment. The more I think about it, the more apt that parallel seems to be.

If my girlfriend played golf, then I suppose I might learn. It would add an extra dimension to our relationship, and be an impressive gesture of sacrifice. But it wouldn't be essential to our communication. And I don't feel under pressure to take it up just because there are so many other golfers in the country - even though it probably would help with business in some ways! There are still an awful lot of people here who don't play golf - locals as well as foreigners. Playing football is a far more universal interest, a better way to make friends.

Froog said...

The thing that gets my goat is that so many people get on a high horse about this, and tell you that you ought to learn Mandarin - even that you must.

But they rarely offer any cogent reason for this. It's an unconsidered assumption.

If they do start offering 'reasons', I usually find them non-compelling or not appropriate to my situation - if not completely bogus.

So, this series is - at least partly - about examining those possible reasons to learn the language... and attempting to dismiss them.

Yes, it is wilfully contrarian, and more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek. People shouldn't suppose that I haven't learned any Mandarin, or that I am ardently advocating against others doing so.

But I do feel that if you are going to, you ought to be very clear about your reasons for doing so.

And I'm not simply justifying an eccentric personal choice, but considering the global context - attempting to resist this tide of 'moral pressure' and CCP-backed propaganda that everyone ought to learn Mandarin.