Why learn Chinese?

General discussion about learning languages
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby Inst » Wed Mar 13, 2019 9:03 pm

Saim wrote:
Inst wrote:I'd actually suggest that people carefully consider why they want to learn Chinese. For a native English speaker, the language is going to take a ridiculous amount of time to pick up (4400 hours, 12 hours per day for a year, 6 hours per day for 2 years, 4 hours per day for 3 years, 3 hours per day for 4 years, 150 minutes per day for 5 years, ~75 minutes per day for 10 years), and what benefit do you get out of it?


Perhaps this isn't what you meant to say, but I feel like there's an assumption here that you need to go at the same tempo and spread the hours out evenly throughout the entire time you're studying the language. Of course, that's completely unnecessary, especially since the more of a non-transparent[1] language you learn, the more time you can realistically spend on it without being torture (in my experience).

If you accept the fact that you're going to suck for ages, and that in the beginning stages you're mainly working on slowly building vocabulary, it's not so bad to study a language like Arabic or Mandarin slowly. I've learned to appreciate the little victories when the languages are really very different to other things I've studied.

Of course, the more you spread out the hours the more revision you'll likely have to do so you don't forget almost everything. In that sense you realistically would have to make a lot of use of an spaced repetition system like Anki, because planning so much revision over such long intervals is pretty hard to do, especially when you're dealing with several languages.

Personally, I enjoy reviewing my Mandarin cards in Anki, which are at this point all sentence cards with audio (mainly training recognition, although I don't autoplay the audio so I also test myself on whether I remember how a given character is pronounced). Most of them are lifted directly from Assimil (Le chinois sans peine), and I make fairly liberal use of the "hard" button. I don't think I would've been able to do something like this when I was 16 and had only just started studying languages on my own, but after many years of studying various languages in my experience you do develop more of a taste for these kinds of activities and are more able to delay gratification. It also helps that I'm not really in any rush to develop high speaking skills in most of the languages I'm studying.

And yes, to actually get anywhere at a certain point you have to read widely, listen to lots of different things, and speak a lot. But there's no shame in slowly priming yourself for more extensive activities by building a more solid foundation first, even if it's at a snail's pace.

[1] I use "non-transparent" to mean a language with a lexical stock vastly different to other languages you know.

Inst wrote:Do you have some kind of Asian fetish? [...] being able to talk dirty to your lover is not necessarily a good reason to learn Chinese or stall out at moderate proficiency.


God, even on this forum? :|


Beginning with the last comment, I'm familiar with people who ended up going to China just to get married, given stereotypes and their personal peculiarities. I will refrain from discussing this, and I appreciate your highlighting of its inappropriateness, based on its political nature (Asian men being unhappy about Asian fetishes). I will note, however, that I once had a classmate who was taking Chinese specifically for his girlfriend, who dumped him midway through the course. He disappeared soon after.

I also want to point out that I agree about variable tempos. There are people who focus on maintenance or refuse to rush certain phases of the language learning process. On the other hand, there's also times when taking time off your life to start cramming is useful, especially if your learning process begins to stall. My problem is when a 10 year time frame becomes an excuse to stay in a high-effort / low-return phase of the learning process for a long period of time, or use one's patience as an excuse not to learn a language efficiently.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby aokoye » Wed Mar 13, 2019 9:31 pm

Inst wrote:One of the reasons I'm so opinionated about language learning is because of my mother's technique. In fact, she's spent a lot of time practicing and using the commonplace language learning skills utilized on this forum. But in fact, her English has stayed stagnant over the past 10 years.

And yet - she still appears to have a stable job in a managerial position. This reminds me, to some extent of Wes (link to a PDF) who, after now 25 years*, has a very poor grasp of morphology and syntax in terms of his written and oral English. Despite that, he is not a "failed" language learner. He is capable of creating and maintaining rich relationships, he's a valued member of his community, he has a job, etc all using English. His pragmatic awareness, pronunciation, lexical development - they're all there. Wes is not a failed language learner and nor is your mother.

*It was mentioned this weekend at a conference that the author of the linked article is still friends with Wes and reported that his English morphology and syntax are still not especially good.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby Inst » Thu Mar 14, 2019 4:35 am

@Aokoye: she's actually self-employed, but workably so. Previously she was in a numerical position, although often managerial.

@tarvos: check out all the bashing of the Hanzi orthography both in Chinese and English. There's definitely about 1 billion people who speak Mandarin Chinese, oftentimes as a second language alongside their native dialect, but when it comes to writing, it's a whole different matter. De Francis, I believe, recounts how the Chinese equivalent of Harvard grads forgot how to write 打喷嚏, or "to sneeze", given its rarity of use. And Chinese' difficulty is in large part its orthography, not the spoken language (tones yes, but no inflection, no cases, pronunciation not that challenging for a native Engilsh speaker).

There are still people who push for language reforms with the aim of abolishing Hanzi and replacing it with Pinyin.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby tarvos » Thu Mar 14, 2019 9:48 am

@tarvos: check out all the bashing of the Hanzi orthography both in Chinese and English. There's definitely about 1 billion people who speak Mandarin Chinese, oftentimes as a second language alongside their native dialect, but when it comes to writing, it's a whole different matter. De Francis, I believe, recounts how the Chinese equivalent of Harvard grads forgot how to write 打喷嚏, or "to sneeze", given its rarity of use. And Chinese' difficulty is in large part its orthography, not the spoken language (tones yes, but no inflection, no cases, pronunciation not that challenging for a native Engilsh speaker).

There are still people who push for language reforms with the aim of abolishing Hanzi and replacing it with Pinyin.


So? Yeah, the writing system is complex, but the English writing system could do with a clean-up too. I don't really mind that. And we don't really use pen and paper that much anymore ;)
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby David1917 » Thu Mar 14, 2019 1:37 pm

Inst wrote:There are still people who push for language reforms with the aim of abolishing Hanzi and replacing it with Pinyin.


This would be beyond tragic.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby Inst » Fri Mar 15, 2019 12:50 am

David1917 wrote:
Inst wrote:There are still people who push for language reforms with the aim of abolishing Hanzi and replacing it with Pinyin.


This would be beyond tragic.


There's an argument for this. Do you know what the typical method of learning Hanzi in China is? Repeated copying of words and vocabulary, over and over and over. The time spent teaching the orthography is a substantial quantity of time that could be better spent teaching other subjects.

The Chinese script is a political script first and foremost. It's a script devised by the Qin Empire as a replacement for myriad local scripts endemic in China, and given linguistic diversity, would have to be logographic. The end result is that the Chinese empire has remained culturally unified insofar as the literate elite has been united by a single written language irrespective of local topolectical variation.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby David1917 » Fri Mar 15, 2019 2:04 am

Inst wrote:
David1917 wrote:
Inst wrote:There are still people who push for language reforms with the aim of abolishing Hanzi and replacing it with Pinyin.


This would be beyond tragic.


There's an argument for this. Do you know what the typical method of learning Hanzi in China is? Repeated copying of words and vocabulary, over and over and over. The time spent teaching the orthography is a substantial quantity of time that could be better spent teaching other subjects.

The Chinese script is a political script first and foremost. It's a script devised by the Qin Empire as a replacement for myriad local scripts endemic in China, and given linguistic diversity, would have to be logographic. The end result is that the Chinese empire has remained culturally unified insofar as the literate elite has been united by a single written language irrespective of local topolectical variation.


We have to do this in English as well, to a lesser extent, sure, but English does not have an intuitive writing system. With the move to digital, there could be less focus on handwriting characters, but to remove them altogether makes no sense given the limited inventory of possible syllables. Not to mention the centuries of meaning encoded in the characters.

All scripts and language standardization/unification is political. I suggested in the other thread that e.g. Wu, Hakka, etc. groups could introduce written forms of their languages to make them more a "language" than a "dialect."
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby Inst » Fri Mar 15, 2019 3:19 am

The thing is, assigning a visual depiction per morpheme creates a writing system that's unusually difficult to learn.

Neighboring cultures that adapt Chinese characters often end up creating their own indigenous script to go with it, often a syllabary or alphabet as with Japanese Kana and Korean Hangul. Yet China itself has never abandoned or fully supplemented its logograms.

The idea that Chinese learners learn their script with the same ease as learners of alphabetic or syllabic languages is a mirage. It is true that Chinese learners seeking to become literate do not need to learn the pronunciation or grammar, but they do need to learn the correct stroke order, copy the text down over and over again, etc. Iirc, a comparison of Qing China and Tokugawa Japan showed that the literacy level of the latter was about twice of the former because the latter at least had a syllabary for casual use.

===

My stance on Hanzi is that there are reasons for keeping it and reasons for dropping it. The biggest reason to drop it is that it impedes China's status as a world language; you can't deny that Chinese, for people who have no familiarity with Sinograms (everyone barring the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, and maybe the Vietnamese), is a particularly hard language to become literate in. The biggest reason for keeping it is tradition, but that's the funny thing.

For outsiders, there's always this conception of China as hide-bound and limited by its tradition. In reality, the civilization is more defined by state power; i.e, the Confucian ascendancy was not a decision of the Chinese people, like Christianity was in the West, but a decision by imperial power to promulgate a system of values that would make the empire easier to manage. I think in, discussing the Boxer Rebellion, for instance, the Chinese actually burnt down their own Hanlin Academy during military fighting. It's not different from, say, the French deciding to burn down the Louvre in resisting the Germans. While China is a rather traditional culture, it's also relatively open to changing its traditions and modernizing its society.

===

As for script standardization, the degree of politicization is what we're disagreeing over. From a Chinese nationalist perspective, states like Hann, Chu, Jin, etc were all Chinese. But from a historical perspective, these states were nations; they had unique cultures to a greater degree than the Greek city-states, and they had nationalists and patriots. When Qin Shihuang created China out of the Zhou feudatories, it was akin to if Hitler or Napoleon had managed to impose a single state on Europe.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby vonPeterhof » Fri Mar 15, 2019 5:06 am

Inst wrote:Iirc, a comparison of Qing China and Tokugawa Japan showed that the literacy level of the latter was about twice of the former because the latter at least had a syllabary for casual use.

The way I've always seen this comparison framed is that Edo Japan's high literacy levels in comparison with the other Hanzi-using societies at the time had more to do with the relatively wide availability of basic education for commoners than with anything inherent to its writing system.
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Re: Why learn Chinese?

Postby MacGyver » Fri Mar 15, 2019 5:32 am

vonPeterhof wrote:
Inst wrote:Iirc, a comparison of Qing China and Tokugawa Japan showed that the literacy level of the latter was about twice of the former because the latter at least had a syllabary for casual use.

The way I've always seen this comparison framed is that Edo Japan's high literacy levels in comparison with the other Hanzi-using societies at the time had more to do with the relatively wide availability of basic education for commoners than with anything inherent to its writing system.


Hmm, I think there is some validity to Inst's argument here. Hangul was created to promote literacy among the common people of Korea. "Even a stupid man can learn the alphabet in 10 days" of whatever the quote is.

On the other hand, the common person in China has plenty of time to learn Hanzi, unlike the old days when only the elite few were afforded that luxury.
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