Ni Hao's Your Chinese?

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By Deborah FallowsI've been involved with languages all my life, and for a long time I have kept a running list of odd language phenomena. There were my dad's episodes of speaking gibberish after his TIAs (transient ischemic attacks - essentially mini-strokes) in his 80s; the day in 4th grade Catholic school when I suddenly blurted out the Lord's Prayer in Latin, from having heard it hundreds of times at Mass; an evening in my early teens, after months of language immersion in France, when I watched and understood an entire TV program in what sounded like joke-English, to discover it was actually Dutch (and I never studied Dutch!).

We spent three years in China recently (not news for you loyal readers of laogong Jim's blog) and we're back again for a few months in our beloved Beijing. My list of language oddities has been growing quickly in China, beginning in our first days in Shanghai nearly five years ago.

Back then, whenever I reached for a Mandarin word even as easy as ni hao, it would pop out as German, the foreign language I had used most recently. Later, perhaps because I was concentrating so hard on hearing the sounds of Chinese, I seemed to lose my ability to understand the accented English of non-native speakers of English. On one fine morning, I woke up realizing I had actually dreamed in Chinese! Some time later, after 900 days of struggling to learn Mandarin, I found with dismay that I understood more of a CCTV Spanish travel program I happened upon than I understood of any Chinese program I regularly watched (and I never studied Spanish).

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Most of the minor language phenomena in China revolved around how unprecedentedly difficult it has been for me to gain any sense of mastery of the language. Any student of Chinese -- except those who are either dishonest or have a truly freakish talent for picking up foreign languages -- will report the same thing. So imagine my surprise when we landed in Beijing about 10 days ago. After seven months out of the country, I was prepared for the worst, sure I would be tongue-tied, exasperated, and linguistically-humiliated once again.

And then, like magic, I opened my mouth to the first Chinese person I faced --the faux-stern youth masquerading as an immigration officer-- and the Mandarin came tumbling out!

How did this happen? I have three hunches: one neurological, one cultural, and one linguistic.

Neurologically, I think it's about brain fatigue. For three years in China, I had struggled to remember vocabulary that "all sounds the same" (reason: Chinese has an inventory of only 400 syllable types to work with, compared to 4000 in English, and it requires relentlessly chugging through homonyms). I also strained to master a new system of phonetics that includes whole sets of sounds that don't exist in English (versions of the constantly-used, similar-sounding S, Z, SH, CH, ZH, X, TS for starters). And of course there were the devilish tones. And also the mental acrobatics required to turn an English thought into a Chinese expression.

To say it again - and again and again and again - this language is exponentially harder than any other I've studied during my long life in languages and linguistics, even Japanese. I knew my brain was tired. Posttraumatic excessive linguistic exposure syndrome.

I think that my brain has decluttered and rested after some time away, and I can let the language kind of wash through without stumbling or fixating on so many small points of so many alien linguistic systems. So far so good.

Culturally, I am battle-ready! After years on the ground in China, we find we often know what's coming. That is, at least the conversational openers to foreigners in China have a predictable range. Said in Chinese: Which country are you from? What is your work? How long have you been here? Are you here with your family? What is your rent? How old are you? Do you have children? How many, how old, boy or girl? Which of them is your favorite?

These are the easy questions, of course, and it gets much harder once off the smooth terrain of casual conversation. But culturally, we finally got a grasp of much of the behavior and habits we see in everyday life, which goes a long way to providing context for the language spoken.

Linguistically, things in other foreign languages that are easy to forget in seven months, like verb conjugations or noun declensions, are just not an issue in Chinese. The grammar lacks the baggage of endings in Romance and Germanic languages, and certainly Russian and Japanese that can go in one ear and out the other of language learners. I am grateful every day for the lightness, by contrast, of throwing out a string of simple Chinese words, one after the other, and not really caring if they're nouns, verbs, or adjectives because they can often be all of the above!

I know, I know, there are some other constraints and some regulated word order, but by comparison with most other languages, Mandarin grammar is easy. And the Chinese somehow grasp the gist behind clumsy word order, and quickly rearrange my words for me, like tiles in a game of anagrams.

Deborah Fallows, a linguist, is the author of Dreaming in Chinese. Her site is here.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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