Friday, March 18, 2016

The Great Wall of Chinese

and the internet resources to help you over it
Jenna Orkin

Somewhere in his autobiography, Malcolm X says he studied Arabic to escape feeling stupid when among people who were speaking it. That explanation resonated with me; for similar reasons, I had paid particular attention in French class in high school. There's something deeply unsettling about being surrounded by people talking rapidly to everyone else while you look on in clueless dorkhood. You feel like the new kid in school and realize you'd better get up to speed "vite."

There's no language - except maybe the click tongues of South Africa - that so readily play into this sense of alienation as Chinese; no language that offers so much, well, foreignness, from the pictographs which the Chinese scribble with the same speed they apply to their construction projects (a bridge in Beijing was recently replaced in 43 hours;) to the vocabulary (even in Hindi, "television" is "teleevijan;") to the tones which can transform your mother into a horse or a cannabis plant with the flick of a vocal inflection.

On the plus side, however, Chinese offers a logic that many Western languages lack, a system of building blocks that lead you from simple words to an array of compounds that unfold seductively and, all things considered, effortlessly. You've got to love a language in which the word for "adult" translates literally as "big person;" the word for "volcano," as "fire mountain;" and the word for "computer" as "electronic brain."

Then there's China's ascendance as a global force with all that that power shift implies.
For these reasons among others, around ten months ago, I decided to study Chinese. As mental gymnastics go, it seemed more engaging than N-back exercises.

I approached this project the way Rasputin trained himself to withstand poison - through small doses. And the Chinese teachers who showed up on Google searches understood this desire; videos are often between three and five minutes long. Since every mother-luvvin' word is new, with no English relatives to, as it were, relate to, mastering merely one sentence is hen (third tone) nan (second tone), or, if you prefer, "very difficult."

None of the videos were a waste of time, although you do encounter people who feel that if they're standing in front of a board pointing with a stick - in short, acting like teachers - then they're doing a good job. This is the sort of pedagogue who, introducing, say, the word for the color "pink" might go on to give as an example: "The pretty young foreigner sitting alone under the floral umbrella was wearing pink polka dots." If you didn't know the word "pink," chances are the example will sail over your frustrated head.

Then there are the old-school martinets who bark sentences repeatedly because that's the way they were taught. A little of this brand of pedantry goes a long way.

And of course there are those who want to show off the fact that they themselves can speak Chinese.
Apart from these also-rans, there's a wide choice of excellent Chinese teachers available on the net, from the quirky Peggy Lee with her mini-scenes in which she dons different costumes and plays all the characters; to Chinese Pod's first-rate Jillian and Fiona. Bai Xue offers painstaking explanations of long passages and presents illuminating examples of idioms and usage. Although an oddly high percentage of videos introduce the subject at hand with a rousing, "Let's get started!" the prize for gung-ho attitude goes to Benny ("your favorite Chinese teacher!") All of these are valuable free resources and it's worth while consulting each of them to attack the subject from a variety of angles.

 But perhaps the most complete course is offered by Yang Yang at She uses the building block approach that takes you systematically from simple to compound and complex characters; from basic sentences to longer, more involved ones, explaining each step so that you're not left wondering what an extra "shi" or "de" is doing there. The course offers the commendable quality not only of being as clear as possible, but also of actually making the process interesting. In addition, her English is idiomatic so that she can see Chinese from an American's point of view. (Witness her description of the Chinese pronunciation of the Pinyin "e" as the sound you make when you've been punched in the stomach.)

So if you're planning on becoming a Chinese xue sheng (student), "A journey of a thousand miles..." and all that. There's a wealth of videos out there all clamoring to greet you with, "Let's get started!"

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