Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Learning Chinese in the Washington Post

The Washington Post writer Jay Matthews recently had a semi-humorous article on his attempts to learn Chinese (thanks to my friend Joel Haas for the heads-up):

Learning the spoken language was not so bad. It had few annoyances like gender and tense and verb changes based on rank. My first Chinese professor was Rulan Chao Pian, who used a system invented by her father, the legendary UC Berkeley linguist Yuen R. Chao. She and her father shared a mischievous sense of humor, although I did not think it was so funny at first. One of her first exercises was a short story made of words that used only one Chinese sound, shi (sounds like 'sure'). It was totally incomprehensible -- just as the sentence "Sure sure sure sure, sure-sure, sure sure sure" would be in English -- unless you got all the tones right or could see the characters.

Anyveteran of Chinese will recognize the old tongue twister about 44 stone lions that a friend of mine once assured me was invented to torment the Taiwanese, who do not make the "shi" sound properly. Here's an interesting tidbit he notes:

The Asia Society report says it takes "an educated English speaker 1,300 hours to achieve the native-proficiency of an educated native speaker of Chinese, while it would only take about 480 hours to achieve the same level in French or Spanish." In Sunday's edition of The Washington Post Magazine , my Post colleague Elizabeth Chang quotes another source saying that it actually takes 2,200 class hours to achieve full proficiency.

That helps explain why, according to the Asia Society, a 1998 survey of college language instruction showed 656,590 students taking Spanish, but only 28,456 taking Chinese and 5,505 taking Arabic. In that survey, Spanish was in first place, followed by French (199,064), German (89,020), Italian (49,287) and Japanese (43,141). Chinese was in sixth place, followed by Russian, Arabic and Korean in that order.


rmdazwdv said...

Yuen Ren Chao was the leader of the group that designed National Romanization. He knew that National Romanization (Guóyǔ Luómǎzì) could only write “modern vernacular Chinese,” and not Classical Chinese. In order to demonstrate this point he playfully wrote a classical essay consisting entirely of “homophones” entitled “Record of Mr. Shi Eating Lions.” The whole essay is copied as follows:

Shi2 shi4 shi1shi4 Shi1 shi4 shi4 shi1, shi4 shi2 shi2 shi1. Shi4 shi2shi2 shi4 shi4 shi4 shi1. Shi2 shi2, shi4 shi4 shi4, shi4 shi2 shi* shi1 shi4 shi4. Shi4 shi2, shi4 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi1, shi3 shi2 shi2 shi3 shi4, shi3 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi4shi4. Shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1 shi4 shi2 shi4. Shi2 shi4 shi1, shi3 shi4 shi4 shi3 shi2 shi4. Shi2 shi4 shi4. Shi4 shi3 shi4 shi2 shi4 shi2 shi1 shi1. Shi2 shi2, shi3 shi4 shi4 shi2 shi* shi1 shi1 shi2 shi2 shi* shi2 shi1 shi1. Shi4 shi2, shi4 shi3 shi4 shi4 shi4shi2. Shi4 shi4 shi4 shi4.” (The original article had no punctuation.) (* The character 硕 shuò, meaning huge, was pronounced as shí in the past.)

The vernacular translation of this essay is:

Shítou wūzi lǐ xìng Shī de shīrén xǐhuan chī shīzi, tā juéxīn yào chīdiào 10 tóu shīzi. Tā shíshí dào shìchǎng shàngqu kàn shīzi. Shí diǎn zhōng, tā dào shìchǎng, gānghǎo 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shīzi láidào shìchǎng. Zhè shíhou, tā kàn le zhè 10 tóu shīzi, yīkào 10 zhī shítou zuò de jiàn, bǎ zhè 10 tóu shīzi shāsǐ. Tā jiǎn qǐ zhè 10 tóu shīzi de shītǐ, huídào shítou wūzi lǐ qù. Shítou wūzi cháoshī. Tā jiào shìzhě mǒgān shítou wūzi. Shítou wūzi mǒgān le, tā kāishǐ chángshì chī zhè 10 tóu shīzi de shītǐ. Chī de shíhou, cái zhīdào zhè 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shīzi de shītǐ, shíjì shì 10 tóu zhuàngdà de shítou shīzi de shītǐ. Zhè shíhou, tā cái míngbai zhè jiàn shì de zhēnxiàng. Qǐng nǐ jiěshì, zhè shì zěnme huíshì?

The English translation of the essay is:

Mr. Shi, a poet who lived in a stone house, liked to eat lions. He vowed to eat ten lions. He often went to the market to look at lions. At ten o’clock, he went to the market, (and) just then ten large lions (also) came to the market. At that time, he saw these ten lions. Relying on the power of ten arrows with stone tips, he caused the ten lions to pass away. He picked up the bodies of the ten lions and went back to his stone house. The stone house was damp, so he told his servant to try and wipe it (dry). After the house had been wiped (dry), he began to try to eat the bodies of the ten lions. As he was eating, he realized that the bodies of the ten large lions were actually bodies of ten large stone lions. Only then did he understand the real situation. Can (you) explain what happened? (Translated by Victor H. Mair)

The point is that, if Chao’s classical essay were written in Hanyu Pinyin, everything would be shi and naturally no one could read and understand it. In other words, it is a kind of tour de force tongue twister. Even if it were written in characters, people still would not be able to understand it when it is read aloud. There are people who use this (playful) piece (that is forced and unnatural even in Classical Chinese) to oppose Hanyu Pinyin. They have completely misunderstood Yuen Ren Chao’s original intention!

Michael Turton said...

That is a fucking great comment.


Michael Turton said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mutantfrog said...

The wikipedia entry for this piece also shows the characters for the original classical Chinese version, as well as modern vernacular Chinese in both traditional and simplified characters.

"It is commonly believed that in writing the essay, Zhao was attempting to argue the absurdity of Romanizing Chinese. However, linguists point out that Zhao Yuanren was the leader of the group that designed Gwoyeu Romatzyh, a romanization of Mandarin that incorporates tones and foreign cognate spellings (in other words, a fully independent script). He knew that it could only write modern vernacular Chinese and not Classical Chinese. He was only demonstrating the point that the Chinese should write in vernacular Chinese and abandon Classical Chinese."

Michael Turton said...

Thanks! My wife and were both very curious to see the original.