Student spotlight

Why I have enjoyed studying Chinese and what I have learnt - By Francesca Blaney (Final Year, French and Chinese Studies)

If I were to write an essay on everything that I've learnt as a student of Chinese and throughout my time in China, this article would far exceed any word count.

It would be impossible for me to describe everything that I've learnt, as aren’t we all in the process of learning something new every day?

Nonetheless I can explain one thing and it is the challenge of learning a language that could not be more separated from our Euro-American based belief system and Romanised language system.

At first glance, there is no doubt that Chinese seems to be a very alien language to us ‘Westerners’. Due to this, many believe that Chinese is an almost impossible language to learn as the characters look like coded scribbles on a is this a language? However, as bizarre as this may sound - it soon became much easier than I expected.

Let me explain:

Unlike European languages where grammar is of an utmost importance - nouns decline, verbs conjugate, tenses must be rigorously learnt by rote, singular and plural must be employed with precision etc. Chinese is very easy because there simply is no grammar! Nouns don't decline, verbs don't conjugate, there is no singular or plural, no agreements, and there aren't really any tenses.

At first, this sounds crazy. Yet again the perennial question arises: how is this a language?

Think about it in this way: The world is shaped like a ball, a sphere. Imagine that 'reality' or 'the truth' is at the core of the Earth and above the outer core, past the mantle and the soil is civilisation, or rather many civilisations. Now keeping this image of the Earth with 'reality' at the core, you may notice that dotted on the Earth's surface are all the different countries, cultures, civilisations etc. Now these cultures are all able to see the core (i.e. reality), but of course they all view it from different angles. Some people declare: 'The core is a deep red colour' (because from their angle it is deep red), others reply 'No you fool! It's orange!' (again from their angle it is a deep orange colour). Now what does this have to do with Chinese you ask?

Well, from my experience, learning another language is not just about syntax, verb morphology etc. It's about learning, appreciating and understanding a new way of thinking and hence approach to life. Because European civilisation is fundamentally quite similar; there is little need for us to learn about how the French, Germans, Spanish view the world because we hold a very similar belief system. Well, we may have to tweak a few details here and there, but the roots of civilisation are essentially the same.

However when learning Chinese, one has to learn and understand a completely different way of thinking - we may not always agree with it, but we should try to understand, respect and assimilate this new take on ‘reality’. This is the most difficult part of Chinese. However the truth is that this is not that difficult, it merely requires empathy and understanding.

So going back to the above theory, language learning is all about getting an axe, planting your feet in the ground and swinging the axe into the Earth's surface and slowly but surely digging a tunnel that will eventually lead to the core of the Earth; 'reality'.....but from a different point of the sphere than from where you started. It's a slow process, no doubt, but doing this will truly help you to liberate your mind, see your own culture from another perspective and help you to become a better rounded world citizen. In a globalised world, this must be the way forward for peace and prosperity for all nations.

Let me illustrate an example:
日 (ri4) in Chinese means 'the day' and of course 'the day' implicitly signifies the sun, as when the sun rises, it is day time.
十 (shi2) means the number 10.

If you put both characters together you come up with: 早 (zao3) meaning 'early'. Therefore, Chinese people believe that the early morning is before 10am, because you have the day/sun on top of the number 10. Pretty straightforward really.

Now how can we explain to foreigners that the words: thought, though, plough, sough are all spelt the same, but are pronounced differently?

Again language learning is all about learning a new way of thinking. This is what acts as the bonding agent for all the vocabulary, constructions and idioms that you will learn. If one fails to grasp this, then one’s language ability will always be impaired.

This is one of the many things that I have learnt throughout my years at University in both China and the UK and I hope that every student who chooses to study a foreign language both embraces and respects another way of thinking.