Sunday, April 26, 2009


I have been studying Chinese since September. The class is relatively low-key: we meet once a week for two hours, most of us are working professionals with limited time to devote to language study, and our teacher has virtually no expectations for us to study outside of class.

Even with my slacker study habits, I have really enjoyed myself and learned a little bit, although how functional I would be in an authentic context is another story. Feeling that the new vocabulary demands and tones were enough to take on, I made no effort for months at learning any characters. Our teacher writes everything in pinyin and that seemed like enough.

A few weeks ago, however, I learned I would have the opportunity to travel to China for a month this summer. Suddenly, Chinese class has taken on a new urgency and relevance. I am more diligent in my studies, and I also see the need to learn characters if I am to be of any use in reading signs, menus, etc. in China.

To my chagrin, what I have found is that characters are every bit as difficult as I had feared. I am finally able to recognize a few of the most common characters, but I can only reproduce a very few without cheating and glancing in my textbook. Even then, I am not at all sure that what I write would be decipherable to a Chinese person. And so my Chinese, weak as it is in any case, is basically the Chinese of an illiterate person!

I have now spent a few good hours staring at these symbols, and I am fascinated by what a different experience it is from studying an alphabetic language. I have always been visually weak: I draw poorly because I am not a good judge of perspective or relative size, I make a poor observer, I am utterly uncreative in fashion or design. Trying to learn characters requires me to analyze visual patterns, whereas before, the shape of the word on the page would be inextricably linked to its sound when I tried to recall it later. For example, if you said "Nemocnice Krc" (Krc Hospital) in Czech to me, I would see the written word and hear it in my head.

The experience now is so different. When reading, the process is frustratingly slow: I make a connection to the sound in Chinese, and then its meaning. Writing is even worse! While in reading, at least at this rudimentary level, I can grasp what the word is based on only a basic idea of a character's shape, writing requires more precision: what radical is used in this character? At what angle do lines intersect? How many horizontal lines are there? How does this character relate to another with a similar sound or meaning? While similar questions must occur to anyone studying an unfamiliar alphabet, the difference is in sheet size: 26 letters in the alphabet (give or take a few, depending on the language) versus tens of thousands of characters. I haven't yet figured out a good mnemonic system for remembering them, but have just been trying to commit new characters to memory through dogged repetition.

In my language experience thus far, I have been relatively successful. I wonder if this will change because this new system requires talent in an area where I am so weak? The pinyin and oral come to me quickly, it seems, compared to other students. I am sure I would not compare so well in characters.

Still, I can't say I don't enjoy the challenge. It is a totally new experience, which is what I was looking for when I decided to take Chinese and not go the practical route of improving my very poor Spanish!

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