Wednesday, October 03, 2012

It's holding them back [Why I don't learn Chinese - 20]

Previously in this intermittent - and wilfully provocative - series of mine I have concentrated on the aesthetic shortcomings of the Chinese language (sorry - but, to my ear, the sounds of Chinese are extraordinarily ugly) or its surprisingly limited practical utility, or on the purely personal circumstances that militate against me putting in the hard hours of study on it (I'm old, I'm lazy, my brain is tired of learning languages). However, there is also a political element to my aversion to the language. I get fed up with Chinese chauvinism about their language, with their delusional conviction that it is already a major world language and may one day displace English, French, and Spanish as a pre-eminent global lingua franca; I am even more irked by the government's relentless emphasis on promoting the learning of Mandarin as a central element of their 'soft power' offensive to increase Chinese influence around the world; and I am positively nauseated by the way that so many foreign Mandarin students here in China naively play along with this agenda (sucking up to the Chinese Communist Party amplifies their megalomania, you ninnies!).

But even more than I believe that the Chinese language isn't any good for foreigners, I believe it isn't any good for the Chinese either. There are many fundamental deficiencies in this language that, I think, have been stifling Chinese progress for centuries, and are becoming a critical problem for the nation in this new century of giddyingly fast change. And so, perhaps the strongest reason for opposing the study of Mandarin by foreigners is that it bolsters a sense of satisfaction, of complacency in the Chinese about their language, and makes it less likely that they will ever start to contemplate the kind of radical language reform that I believe they urgently need. [What shape that reform might take I'll try to address briefly in a footnote.]

Here are some of the reasons why I say this.

How the Chinese language stunts the development of China

It restricts communication with the rest of the world
Mandarin Chinese is almost uniquely difficult for most other nationalities to learn (the most difficult language to learn, according to the US government's Foreign Service Institute). Therefore, despite the huge worldwide fad for Mandarin learning over the past decade, it is highly unlikely that more than a relative handful of foreigners will ever achieve a high level of fluency in Mandarin. This wouldn't matter so much if the gap between Mandarin and other languages, especially the European languages, were not so wide that it is also extraordinarily difficult for the Chinese to become highly proficient in any other language. I have spent most of my ten years in China working with very bright and highly-educated Chinese who have devoted a big part of their lives to English study and, in most cases, have spent a substantial amount of time overseas in English-speaking countries: all of them still have severely flawed spoken English, and hardly any of them can write English to save their life. And this is probably the top 1% of the top 1% I'm talking about here. The majority of Chinese who slog through years of compulsory English study in middle school and high school and university fail to achieve any worthwhile functional proficiency in it at all.

It restricts learning about the rest of the world
Mandarin is terrible at representing the phonetics of other languages. Hence, the attempt to transliterate foreign names into Chinese characters results in them being mangled beyond all recognition. Chinese  textbooks rarely if ever print foreign names in their original language/alphabet, or use the international phonetic alphabet as a guide to pronunciation, which leaves the study of foreign history, science, and culture hamstrung: Chinese students don't really know any of the names of the famous foreigners they read about. And so, even if their English has reached quite a high level, most Chinese are severely limited in what they can converse with foreigners about. This basic (and relatively easily solvable) problem is compounded many times over by the generally poor quality of foreign language learning in China over many years (resulting from a lack of funds to recruit native speaker teachers or provide overseas textbooks; and from a nationalistic arrogance that convinces them they don't need this kind of help, they can be completely self-sufficient in the teaching of foreign languages!), and by the miserable rates of pay offered to academic writers in general and to translators in particular. Very few people in China are able to read foreign books in their original language; and many of the Mandarin editions they have to rely on instead are utter travesties.

It restricts the ability to adapt to the modern world
Because of the character writing system, Chinese is hobbled when it comes to new word formation. The generation of novel characters is pretty much impossible, or rather, treated as impermissible (there are way too many of them already, after all). So, new words can only be created by the novel combination of pairs or triplets of existing characters. The possibilities for this are limited - well, certainly finite; whereas the scope for innovation in vocabulary is almost completely open-ended in alphabet-based languages. The intended meaning of the new combination is often not unambiguously evident from its component parts. And you don't get extra clues as to the etymology, grammatical function and so on of such a new word from its morphology alone, as you do in most other languages. Thus, in this Information Age, Mandarin is struggling to keep up with the demand for new vocabulary to describe the rapid changes we are experiencing in technology and society; more and more often, it is simply having to borrow words from English.

It limits the time available for the study of other subjects
Mandarin isn't just hard for foreigners to learn, it's hard for the Chinese to learn as well. I haven't been able to dig up authoritative figures on this (and there'll be quite a bit of variation at different levels of schooling, and between different parts of the country), but anecdotal accounts from the many students I've worked with suggest that learning their native language - particularly the grinding slog of memorising thousands of characters - eats up a massively disproportionate amount of class time, particularly in primary school, but to some extent on into the middle school and high school years as well.

It limits the capacity for thought
This is probably the most controversial assertion I have to make here (and I don't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). I merely observe that the very limited grammar of Mandarin does seem to result in a lack of specificity on many occasions. And I have encountered quite a few scholarly asides to the effect that Mandarin seems ill-equipped for the tight framing of laws or for the more abstract realms of philosophy (the Chinese philosophical tradition almost completely ignores logic - and that's rather too apposite a metaphor for the way the country seems to run today!). In my own extensive experience of editing Chinese-English translations (in the spheres of academia, business, and general news), I have lost count of the number of times when I have come across an irresolvable ambiguity in the copy the translator has given me and then, on referring back to the translator and explaining very carefully the two or more possible meanings that are suggested by their English, have been told that it is impossible to distinguish between those meanings in the original Chinese.

I don't know quite how bad this problem really is, but it's certainly an issue - and one that's no doubt been exacerbated over the past half-century or so by the wilfully vapid political rhetoric of the Communist Party, although there it's more a question of the language attaining an elaborate meaninglessness (I've had A LOT of exposure to this over the last few days). Many Chinese seem to operate in a permanent fog of 'fuzzy logic' (no, that's dignifying it undeservedly; it's not a useful flexibility in regard to category distinctions that I'm talking about, much less a more general sort of open-mindedness, but just incomplete comprehension): they are frequently uncertain what anyone has said to them, but they rarely challenge or ask for clarification - they just accept this uncertainty and muddle along with it. Some might argue that this is potentially an admirable characteristic, a Daoist sort of laidback philosophy of going with the flow. I fear, however, that this frequent lack of clarity about things is perhaps one of the roots of the very attenuated quality of debate and analytical thought that I have experienced in China (and I'm often dealing with senior academics who contribute to government think tanks). I admit it's hard for a non-Chinese speaker to tell, though; is it the language itself that's at fault, or just the way that it is used? I can't say; but, in closing, I would mention that several of my Chinese friends who have achieved the greatest fluency in English tell me that they have come to prefer it to Mandarin as a medium of expression.

So, there we have it. Mandarin Chinese is a liability to the Chinese nation, something that is severely impeding its progress towards becoming a fully modernised country and a major world power. In linguistic terms it is a bizarre throwback to an ancient era, an evolutionary dead-end which - but for China's long history of comparative isolationism - would probably have died out or undergone radical changes many centuries ago.

What are the alternatives? Well, over a couple of hundred years or so I imagine that global communications via the Internet will lead us towards a single world language. That language will probably be predominantly English (I say this without any element of national pride; it's just an historical accident that English has achieved a position of unchallengeable eminence as the world's No. 1 language; and the Internet is only likely to entrench that advantage, rather than undermine it). Chinese, and most other national/regional languages, will naturally wither into almost total disuse.

However, that's still a long way away. And I might be overestimating the extent to which 'local' languages will be rendered redundant by a dominant global language. A century or so from now, pretty much the whole world will be speaking "English" (though it is likely to have absorbed elements from many other languages as well, perhaps to the point where it is barely recognisable as a descendant of the language we speak today), but native languages may yet survive; perhaps we'll all be bilingual.

So - what hope for Mandarin Chinese, for the next century or two, and perhaps beyond? Well, most of my misgivings about the language arise from its writing system. It is chiefly that which makes it so incompatible with other languages, so restricted in its ability to grow and change, and so damned hard to learn (for Chinese and foreigners alike). Adopting an alphabetic system of writing would be enormously liberating for the language. It would certainly allow for more freedom in word creation. It would make the language vastly easier to read and write, and thus much easier to learn. It might even, over time, allow for the evolution of a more sophisticated grammar. I suspect it might possibly even facilitate a gradual abandonment of the tones (another particular bugbear of foreign Mandarin learners; although I have observed that many Chinese make mistakes with them as well), as the more flexible writing system provides for greater differentiation in the phonetic representation of sounds - and may thus find ways of distinguishing pronunciations other than the tonal system (thereby, perhaps, also opening the way for an expansion of the vocabulary, by, for example, incorporating more regional dialect into standard Mandarin).

It would be sad to see the disappearance of the character system, which of course has a long and rich history and undoubted aesthetic appeal. However, it's just not practical for a modern language in the modern world. I honestly believe the Chinese are going to have to learn to let it go. (Scholars will, I'm sure, preserve the knowledge of characters; and calligraphy may continue to be a popular art hobby, even if the meaning of the symbols has faded from popular knowledge - which in many cases it already has, anyway).


Gary said...

Wow! I know you like to be the king of extreme positions but you've really outdone yourself here. Are you trying to get the fenqing on your ass again?

Froog said...

Nice to see you back, Gary. I hope you're not offended! I recall you served your sentence of full-time Mandarin study, didn't you? Sorry to denigrate your efforts.

Yes, I enjoy a bit of idle goading once in a while. It might have been quite fun to do a bit of fly-swatting with those batshit crazy Chinese nationalist types, but they seem to have forgotten all about me. They're probably all busy mobbing sites that are unwary enough to comment on the Diaoyu Islands issue.

Froog said...

I don't think there's any arguing with my basic propositions here. Mandarin is a problem for China - a barrier to its interaction with the rest of the world, a drain on its economy, a brake on progress. The issue is whether the problem is serious enough to warrant a drastic solution (in the short-term, replacing the characters with an alphabet-based writing system; in the longer-term, abandoning the language altogether in favour of 'global English').

And I didn't even touch on the most fundamental issue concerning the language here, its restriction of literacy. Because memorising the characters requires so many hundreds of hours of school time, it's inevitable that people who have limited access to schooling are only going to achieve, at best, a very limited level of literacy. And even people who do have the benefit of complete schooling may acquire only partial literacy. I think this problem is surely liable to become worse, now that - after school - most people are writing exclusively via keyboards, which mostly use alphabet-based input systems. Passive recognition of the characters might be holding up OK, might even be improving a little; but people will soon be forgetting how to write them.

A further point I omitted in the main post is that there are probably all kinds of additional 'hidden costs' of this limited literacy - perhaps particularly in the area of health&safety. How many times have we seen construction workers being given 'safety manuals' which they're going to struggle to read?

Froog said...

I suspect the character writing system is responsible for the very limited range of sounds in Chinese, and hence the huge number of homophones or near-homophones (and the confusion of meaning that can arise from this). With a writing system that can't convey phonetics, you're left having to remember the specific sound for each character (as well as having to learn to recognise it and remember its meaning and how to write it), and that becomes impractical if there are too many possible sounds.

It's also a drawback of the character system that, because of this inability to represent phonetics, it can't reflect how people actually speak: everyone in China uses the same writing system, but the pronuciation varies enormously from one area to another.

The inability to easily make small changes to words to indicate grammatical function or verb tense etc. is surely the reason why Chinese has failed to evolve a sophisticated grammar as well. The characters are a very confining system.

I really think that adopting an alphabet-based system for writing Chinese would allow the language to grow and change very quickly - to elaborate its grammar, to enlarge its vocabulary, to integrate more dialect variations into the 'standard' language.

It's a long overdue reform. Mao considered it back in the early days of the PRC, but got cold feet about the idea. A great pity. It might have been the one good idea he had!

Gary said...

Not offended, no. Not sure what my position is on this. You make some strong points. But it's hard to think of abandoning a language that's been in use for thousands of years.

Froog said...

Well, I'm not really talking about abandoning the language, Gary, just the character writing system.

And I'm not even necessarily suggesting using the Roman alphabet (and if we were going to use the Roman alphabet, I've always been intrigued by Y.R. Chao's GR system, which attempted to represent the tones by spelling rather than separate tone marks; a more sophisticated romanization than pinyin, I suspect). It ought to be possible to create something like the Korean han-geul system, which is a unique alphabet, and retains something of the style of the previous character-based system. The Koreans saw the wisdom of this change nearly 600 years ago.

It would be interesting to try and analyse how the Korean language evolved as a result of the adoption of han-geul. Will have to do some research on that!

Froog said...

In the last of my points in this piece, I was carefully shying away from saying Chinese makes you stupid(an argument that I have often seen made), instead confining myself to some observations on the ways in which it may possibly restrict the scope of thought or expression.

But there is an argument - a corollary of my point about the disproportionate amount of school time that learning this language takes up - that having to memorise so many characters distorts the cognitive development of the brain (or perhaps maxes out its processing capacity in certain regards?). While Chinese speakers may develop some useful collateral skills from learning their language (the emphasis on pattern recognition supposedly heightens other aspects of visual awareness as well, giving them an aptitude for professions such as graphic design), it is suggested that there may also be a downside.... and that difficulty in acquiring foreign language skills may be one of these.

I've also read somewhere a suggestion that differences in Chinese brain structure have been found that are not developmental but innate; that they seem to have a genetic adaptation for the extraordinarily high level of visual processing/memory that their language requires. I'm deeply sceptical about that - not least because historically levels of literacy in China have always been very low. Mind you, if it were true, if would be another excuse for the suffering foreign student of Mandarin: I just don't have the right sort of brain for this!"

Froog said...

A further detrimental impact of this writing system, I fear, is the very poor average level of eyesight in this country. Almost EVERYONE here wears glasses (or if they don't, they should).

Reading characters can be a bit of a struggle, even when they're printed quite large, in bold, on good quality paper offering a high contrast. Most Chinese schoolbooks have very, very thin print and thin, yellowed paper; and sometimes the height of the characters is only a few millimetres. It's difficult even to make out the general shape of a character in these circumstances, impossible to distinguish any of the fiddlier details of one. It hurts my eyes just to look at a page of this stuff for a few seconds, without even making a serious attempt to read it.

Eye-strain is such a common problem in China that schools are full of posters drilling children on 'eye exercises' (and TCM acupressure point massage techniques) that can supposedly combat its effects. I am not convinced of their efficacy.

On top of everything else, I believe the character system is making this country BLIND>