WILL AMERICANS LEARN CHINESE?

My grandson is in a mainly Chinese-speaking preschool, which of course thrills me, and there are more and more such schools springing up what with the growing prominence of China. The NY Times says:

While language fads come and go — there was Russian during the cold war, then Japanese in the 1980’s, then Arabic after 9/11 — thousands of public schools have stopped teaching foreign languages in the last decade. Is the boom in Chinese language education going to last?

To discuss this, they have contributions from Susan Jacoby, Ingrid Pufahl (Center for Applied Linguistics), Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, Norman Matloff, Hongyin Tao (professor of Chinese language and linguistics), and Bruce Fuller. (Thanks, Bonnie!)

Comments

  1. My nephew is also at a mostly Mandarin-speaking school in the States. As I live in China I’m also thrilled. But from what I’ve heard they’ve actually had problems getting and keeping teachers from the mainland. His parents weren’t sure if they should put him in the Mandarin school or the Spanish school. I suppose with Spanish there’s very little chance of it drifting off as Russian and Japanese have. With Mandarin I wouldn’t be so sure.
    I can’t be too upset about these fade-outs as I too am guilty of letting my Arabic drift off over the last few years since moving to China, though I wasn’t really one of the 9/11 inspired students.

  2. In one sense it’s just a fad. 90% of the kids learning Chinese now will never really use it and will have at best some very basic conversational skills – but that’s not so bad really. At least Chinese will not be very foreign to the new generation – more like French or German is to our generation, languages which very few Americans my age can speak with any fluency, but at the same time languages with which most educated Americans have a vague familiarity. The biggest obstacle to Americans learning Chinese over the next 20 years is probably the eagerness with which educated Chinese are rushing to learn English. Americans who study Chinese out of practical considerations will mostly find the effort wasted when most of their interactions with Chinese will be in English.

  3. That conversation was hard to read.
    Susan Jacoby gets it started by claiming only 9 percent of Americans speak a foreign language. Surely the vast majority of the 13 percent that are foreign born, and surely a number of kids of those immigrants, know a language other than English!
    Marcelo and Carola Suarez Orozco then cite the center of world gravity moving south and east to “the BRIC countries (Brazil, India and China)”, seemingly unaware that the R is Russia.
    At least they threw in some comments from Chinese professors and linguists by the end!
    The problem with Chinese as a foreign language is that, despite some brave efforts to gloss over the fact, there is no getting around its difficulty. Spanish is a terribly easy language for English-speakers to pick up. If you were in the Dept. of State, 22 weeks of coursework (more or less full time, but nonetheless) has the average person up to a “3”, which is borderline sufficient for daily work in the language. Chinese requires 88 weeks to get to that level!
    And, indeed, I find that Chinese really shows its difficulty at more advanced levels of learning, due to the lack of cognates. Once you know the basics in Spanish or French or Russian, the difficult words are very often related to the English words. Chinese has very few cognates (sofa, internet, typhoon, perhaps a few others). And reading is no help for learning new difficult words, because if you don’t the character, you won’t know the pronunciation.
    That’s the reason you won’t ever see Chinese spoken in any great numbers in the US.

  4. Much of what is written sounds amazingly like Australian attitudes (popular attitudes to monolingualism, decline of foreign language teaching in schools, etc.), and it’s depressing to read.
    But the last two contributions sucked rather badly. The Chinese professor with his glib comments like “Chinese word order is the same as English, unlike Korean” (no, it isn’t — it’s significantly different, e.g., 把 sentences, adnominal clauses, etc., and can cause lots of problems for the learner), “tones are difficult and can distinguish word meanings” (yes, but you can ignore tones altogether and speak intelligible Chinese — just listen to dialects like Shandongnese to see how messed-up tones can be understood perfectly), “characters are not totally random” (no, but the regularities are so hodgepodge that remembering them is a feat in itself) only muddies the waters. Let’s call a spade a spade. Word order isn’t as big a hurdle as it’s made out to be; tones aren’t as terrifying as they sound, and anyway, they can be learnt as a kind of contour; but Chinese characters are a MAJOR PROBLEM for the ordinary language learner because of the massive commitment of time and memory that they require.
    Bruce Fuller’s comments about “bills arriving in Mandarin”, “East Asia being about to dominate the global economy”, and “the hard work, collective spirit and enormous investment in public institutions advanced by Chinese citizens” make the stomach crawl. I’ve heard enough of that kind of alarmist talk with Japanese. I’m all for learning foreign languages, but the simple-minded scare stories that such people put around are enough to put me off languages for ever. (And anyway, I’d be just as happy to see people learn languages like Mongolian. At least then they won’t be force-fed with ideas like “Mongols have a 5,000 year history” (by virtue of being “Chinese”) and that “Confucius is the great font of Mongols’ civilisation” (again, by virtue of the fact that the Mongols are “Chinese”). All too often the great understanding that people gain from other cultures is just another warped, self-serving version of history and culture.)

  5. That should have been “Word order in languages as Korean isn’t as big a hurdle as it’s made out to be”.

  6. It may be that it’s easier to learn Chinese when you speak certain German dialects. Kölsch has already assimilated many Chinese expressions:

    Guten Appetit = Jam Jam
    Gesegnete Mahlzeit = Lang Tzu
    Verkehrsminister = Um Lei Tung
    Bergsteiger = Hing Am Hang
    Mutter = Zang
    Großmutter = Zang Zang
    Urgroßmutter = Zang Zang Zang
    Schwiegermutter = Kneif Zang
    Räuber = Lang Fing
    Polizist = Lang Fing Fang
    Polizei-Hund = Lang Fing Fang Wau

    Not to forget the Kölsch paraphrase for a brassiere: Mem hang hu. Readers so inclined can work out the Standard German translations using this.

  7. Zänge Griet is a great one for “toothless hag”!

  8. With very few exceptions, the people I work with in Asia have worked incredibly hard to bring their English up to business standards, and the concept of English as the default international means of communication is a powerful factor in encouraging this hard work.
    Before there is widespread incentive to learn a language like Chinese, we need to see China as the most technologically advanced society on the planet, leading to professional journals published in Chinese first and sometimes not translated, a strong, unique, attractive and exportable popular culture, and possibly some real empire-building in a military sense. That’s how English got this status, and it takes generations.

  9. Ingrid Pufahl, “a native of Germany”, remarks: “In contrast, E.U. governments expect their citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native tongue.”
    This is a classic example of American Yoorpthink: we think it is probably quite a while since Ingrid Pufahl, native of Chermany, has spent much quality time in good old Yoorp. Or we could say instead that the citizens of the EU are continuing not to meet the EU’s exacting expectations.
    And even in the bits that get closest (that would be, uh, Luxembourg) nobody is typically learning much Chinese in schools, whether pre- or higher. (Until universities, of course.) I have even known Americans to be shocked at the insouciance with which Europeans (collectively) treat their total ignorance of Chinese.

  10. I have a BA, MA, and PhD in Korean Studies with minors in Japanese and Chinese–my field was poetry and drama. I was a Fulbright Fellow in Korea and also studiedChinese Mandarin and T’ang poetry in Taiwan on a Princeton grant at the Mandarin Language Center at Taiwan Normal University. I spent six years living and working in Japan. I think the word order issue is important. I could speak Mandarin all day comfortably whereas after an hour or two of Korean or Japanese I would be exhausted. Chinese grammar, like English, is positional generally:the subject precedes the verb which precedes the object–modifiers usually precede what they modify–verbs are uninflected and if you need to indicate time or condition, you just add words that do that. Japanese and Korean require adding operators to nouns; verbs are modified with indicators of politeness, time, etc. In my day, all three languages used Chinese characters and reinforced one another. Now that Korean eschews characters, I find it more difficult to read fluently and more ambiguous. Having also studied Khalkha Mongolian, I’d opt for Mandarin any day!

  11. Ingrid Pufahl, “a native of Germany”, remarks: “In contrast, E.U. governments expect their citizens to become fluent in at least two languages plus their native tongue.”
    This is a classic example of American Yoorpthink: …
    I agree. I was astonished to read Ingrid Pufahl’s opinion, which is simply wishful thinking, at least so far as France, Spain and Italy are concerned. In the Netherlands most people have been fluent in English (and maybe German and French as well) at least since I first went there half a century ago, so I don’t think that has much to do with EU policies.
    My daughter is completely fluent in English, French and Spanish, but little credit for that can go to her French education. With an English-speaking father, a Spanish-speaking mother and French-speaking friends she picked them up almost simultaneously and in a natural way. She never had Spanish at school, and although English was compulsory it was sometimes taught by people who spoke less English than she did.
    Most of the Germans I meet are fluent in English, but I don’t get the impression that it goes any further than that, or that they know significant amounts of French, Spanish or Italian, let alone Chinese or Arabic.

  12. In Norway many, many people speak several hundred languages fluently*.
    There was that record “Werewolves Of London” that mentioned Lee Ho Fook, at the time a very good but not especially well-known restaurant. That was made by an American, Warren Zevon. I don’t know how he knew Lee Ho Fook, I knew it through some Chinese friends.
    *(Obviously, they aren’t all spoken by any one person.)

  13. I agree with Doc Rock—characters aside (a big qualification, to be sure), Chinese is easier to learn than most “exotic” (non-IE) languages.
    And, indeed, I find that Chinese really shows its difficulty at more advanced levels of learning, due to the lack of cognates.
    Oh, come on. Yes, the presence of lots of cognates can make a language feel/look familiar (though it causes its own problems of faux ami), but that’s basically a matter of superficial appearances. No language is “easy” because it has cognates, and any learner who expects to use cognates as a crutch is going to be cruelly disappointed. If you’re capable of learning foreign languages at all (which some people don’t seem to be), your ability to learn a particular language is affected only to a very slight degree by the number of cognates. It’s really no harder to learn ren for ‘person’ than Mensch, even though the latter is cognate to English words.

  14. John Emerson says:

    you can ignore tones altogether and speak intelligible Chinese
    Never thought of it that way, but I suppose that to a listener it wouldn’t be any worse than a very strong Cantonese accent in Mandarin, which I’ve heard.
    professional journals published in Chinese first and sometimes not translated
    Maybe necessary, definitely not sufficient. This has been true of Japanese and Russian all along, since before WWII, and not many scholars learned Russian or Japanese. I had an American friend in Taiwan who said that if she’d wanted to go into serious scientific research she’d have to learn Japanese.

  15. Doc Rock, I spent 16 years in Japan and have spent 15 in China. I could speak Japanese all day without getting tired but Chinese exhausts me after a couple of hours. The word order of Japanese is easy once you get used to it. Chinese word order isn’t hard, but it’s not as consistent as Japanese. Japanese seems to me to be SVO to the very core, so you just have to get the knack and everything flows from there. Chinese strikes me as a messy transitional language (SVO in essence, but with SOV tendencies and plentiful use of other constructions, such as multiple verbs), so it’s not as intuitive. And adnominal clauses are much easier and more natural to use in Japanese than Chinese.
    Translating English into Japanese is also easier than into Chinese, and for me the principal sticking point is again adnominal clauses, which can get very clumsy in Chinese — the sentence may have to be be recast — whereas Japanese can usually handle it. At least, that is how I experience it.

  16. As an example of the way that Chinese is quite unlike English, despite being “SVO”, try this sentence:
    “Put the things I like on the table and the things you like on the floor.”
    One way of putting this in Chinese might be:
    把我喜欢的东西放在桌子上,把你喜欢的东西放在底下。
    Notice the differences from English: the placing of the object in initial position, the placing of the adnominal clause before the noun (relative clauses follow the noun in English), and note the close connection between 放 and 在, which, unlike that between “put” and “on”, can’t be broken. The idea that Chinese is easy because it’s SVO just doesn’t stand up very well outside of sentences like 我爱你.
    Japanese, on the other hand, is a close analogue of the English:
    僕の好きなものをテーブルの上において、君の好きなものを床の上においてください。
    Yes, the order is different from English, but no more than the Chinese is — despite the fact that Japanese, unlike Chinese, is supposed to be a totally alien SOV language. And once you’ve got the knack of the order (adnominal clauses before the noun, as they are in Chinese, verb at the end of the sentence), it’s arguably easier to get a handle on than the Chinese.

  17. Like typical two year olds, my son used to point at things and ask me for their names. On those occasions when I would respond in Chinese, he’d give me a look that expressed both frustration and reproach, and promptly announce, “No! What’s the real name?”
    He is now four. My attempts at interesting him in attending Chinese school are met with furious refusal.
    I wonder if my daughter will prove just as resistant to learning Chinese.

  18. John Emerson says:

    Little kids only learn languages when they hear them spoken, I think.
    The Chinese topic sentence which fronts the DO seems to appear in casual English but is prohibited in school.

  19. How well people learn foreign languages depends more than anything on their motivation and not much else. I am not talking about specialists, I mean those big demographics of people in this or that society for whom learning a second language is not an end in itself. It cannot be any harder for an English-speaker to learn Mandarin than for a Navajo-speaker to learn English. And yet the problem is not that Navajo-speakers are having too hard a time learning English.

  20. The language with the hardest word order in my experience is classical Latin. What kind of language puts modifiers 7 words away from the words they modify? Japanese and Chinese are both completely logical compared to Latin. Granted the worst cases are in poetry, but even in prose you find things like “id exilem amat terram limosoque non exit agro”. I can’t think of any other languages where a verb jumps between modifier and noun like that.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Wasn’t classical Latin somewhat of an artificial written language? Wasn’t the spoken language (Vulga Latin) always quite different, and not just in the later eras?

  22. id exilem amat terram limosoque non exit agro

    That sounds like literary Latin. It’s not a language that anyone spoke, except *possibly* the litterati in question themselves. And then only when they were not screwing the filiae theologiae.
    However, I find that you omitted the “…”. The text from (L. Iunii Moderati) Columellae, De Re Rustica, Liber II, is:

    Id, ut dixi, exilem amat terram, et rubricam praecipue. Nam cretam reformidat limosoque non exit agro.

    That’s more like everyday speech must have been. In German you can stick whole adjectival clauses between an adjective and the noun it modifies – even in speech, if you’ve got the stuff and like doing that, which I sometimes do. It’s perfectly normal even in contemporary novels for a certain Publikum.
    People often talk of “a language”, say “German”, as if it were one thing in which certain things are said only in certain ways. David Marjanovic occasionally brands certain usages of mine as “literary”, “not said anymore”. But my firm conviction is that David just likes to present himself as a steak-and-potatoes language kind of guy. Maybe in fact he does consort most with unlettered scientists who talk s-and-p with each other. But that’s just their little nook. Me, I talk high-tone when I feel like it, and low-tone when I want to get a feel. It’s all “German”.

  23. John Emerson says:

    Usually David presents himself as Austrian. But anyway, LH is a safe house for literarische Elitäre.

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    As I may have remarked in a previous thread bearing on this topic (but was that here or another blog?), the faddishness of this Mandarin thing can be seen by the utter lack of any interest in teaching young American kids Hindi. I can think of a variety of reasons why one might study a foreign language in general or a given foreign language in particular, but a parental hope that it will lead to enhanced ability to make money talking to the relevant set of foreigners is surely a depressing one. (If you’re in a poor country and the only alternative to subsistence farming is to work in the tourism industry, sure. The U.S. is not a country like that.)
    I have read that if you ultimately want to be able to read and appreciate the canonical works in Classical/Literary Chinese, Cantonese is probably a better present-day place to start than Mandarin (as well as being associated at present with a more culturally and economically dynamic part of China). Can anyone comment intelligently on that?

  25. He is now four. My attempts at interesting him in attending Chinese school are met with furious refusal.
    I hope you get beyond that. I’ve sometimes wondered why we never had any problems of that kind with my daughter. I think it’s probably because all three languages she grew up with were useful to her. If she wanted to communicate with me she needed to know English, because when she was four my French and Spanish were nowhere near good enough to allow another option. Likewise her friends and most of her teachers knew only French, so there was no option there either. My wife was fluent in English, but she was completely systematic about only speaking Spanish with our daughter.
    In addition, we made efforts to use money we could then ill afford to spend as much time as possible in England and Chile so that she could observe that we weren’t the only people in the world who communicated in languages other than French.

  26. John Emerson says:

    Every Chinese language claims that it’s closest to the ancient Chinese either in vocabulary or pronunciation or both. It’s sort of like the idea that Kentucky hill people speak Elizabethan English because they use a few obsolete forms and pronunciations. One scholar (George Kennedy) actually went through the various forms of Chinese and found one which he thought was tolerably close to Tang dynasty Chinese, but he didn’t take it too seriously and it wasn’t one of the major versions of Chinese. The whole idea is mostly party chat IMHO.
    As for Hindi v. Chinese, the US has a longtime connection to China (China Clippers, ginseng, tea, etc.) going back before the Revolution, and not really with India. Taiwan was in effect an American protectorate, and the US was heavily involved in China in WWII. So, while there’s an imbalance from a strictly business point of view, it’s not really a fad. (Beyond that, practically speaking there are a tremendous number of fluent English speakers in India, and no market for American English teachers.

  27. the faddishness of this Mandarin thing can be seen by the utter lack of any interest in teaching young American kids Hindi.
    Hindi is arguably the most difficult language for an English speaker to learn, simply because most educated Hindi speakers won’t speak Hindi back to you, they’ll speak English. There was a story on PRI a few months ago about how hard it is as a white American to learn Hindi in India – some Indians even take offense at being addressed in Hindi by a white foreigner, probably similar to the way educated Puerto Ricans often resent people addressing them in Spanish. Depressing or not “enhanced ability to make money” is why most Russians, Chinese, Germans, etc. learn English. I’ve met very few English speaking foreigners who care much about English or American literature, or even take much of an interest in American culture outside the mainstream Hollywood/pop music mass consumption sort of stuff. The percentage of the German population that cares to read Wallace Stevens in the original is probably not much different from the percentage of the American population that wants to read Rilke in the original.

  28. In German you can stick whole adjectival clauses between an adjective and the noun it modifies – even in speech, if you’ve got the stuff and like doing that, which I sometimes do.
    Well sure. Maybe it’s how my brain works but a sentence like “Das neue von Herrn Doktor Lutsch entwickelte Verfahren gefällt mir gar nicht.” makes intuitive sense to me.
    A passage like
    “Troiae qui primus ab oris
    Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
    litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
    vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram” is more like a puzzle than language. Even spoken out loud I assume native Latin speakers had to think about that for a second.
    It is not fair to compare poetry to prose, but I don’t think any modern languages take the liberties with syntax and word order the ancients did. Theoretically you could play the same games in Russian, which has all the noun declensions Latin has and more, but I’ve never read anything in Russian as complex as Virgil.

  29. John Emerson says:

    When I was studying German I enjoyed unpacking Kleist’s page-long sentences, but they didn’t strike me as having ever been natural speech.

  30. John Emerson says:

    I’d like to nominate our Read as an unusually curious foreign-language learner, especially given that she’s a scientist by trade.

  31. the faddishness of this Mandarin thing can be seen by the utter lack of any interest in teaching young American kids Hindi.
    I was just thinking the same thing about the very similar situation here in Aotearoa. Despite latest census figures showing there are actually more Hindi speakers than Mandarin speakers now living here, Mandarin classes are almost as common as mandarin trees, Hindi classes are non-existent. South Asia just ain’t trendy enough, obviously.

  32. I don’t think any modern languages take the liberties with syntax and word order the ancients did.
    Languages don’t take liberties, nor did ancients. Some people, some of the time, have taken, do and will take advantage of liberties that might exist in their language, or even cut these liberties out of whole cloth to set fashion, like Herr Cicero.
    “The ancients” is a generalization – and one which can be known to be unjustified in this context. A lot of high-tone, squigglypifferous Latin prose and poetry has come down to us – but also a lot of the other kind. “The” is a dangerously misleading word easily shoved under a lot of things to increase their stature, like platform heels. Max Stirner ranted usefully against notions such as der Mensch, only 170 years ago in Der Einzige und sein Eigentum, but he is little read today, even by Germans. A pity, that. Marx felt obliged to huff and puff against him, calling him “Saint Max”.
    Kleist’s page-long sentences
    Reading Kleist, much of his work, is like wall-climbing. You have to be in the right mood to enjoy it, and shouldn’t be disheartened when, towards the end of a sentence, you slip and have to go back to the beginning to get a new foothold.

  33. J. W. Brewer says:

    Vanya, the German teenagers I knew back when I was a teenager may not have been that interested in Wallace Stevens, but they were certainly interested in understanding Deep Purple lyrics and similar Anglophone phenomena. The daughter of a friend became interested in studying Japanese in college (she may have actually started at her fancy-schmancy private high school) due to an obsession with anime / manga pop-culture. I don’t think the Sinosphere has generated anything with quite the same high profile in export markets yet.
    But Rilke is so non-obscure in American popular culture as to have been featured on the cover of a trashy women’s magazine. (The now-defunct Jane: the story inside was on the chick-scamming techniques of sensitive-sounding pseudo-intellectual guys, and the teaser headline on the cover was “He says, ‘I love Rilke, too.’ He means, ‘Nice rack!'”) To be sure, when I started studying German in 9th grade Rilke would not have made my list of the top 10 famous dead authors you might want to read in the German original, but I suppose I wasn’t yet at the stage of my life where I wanted to impress that sort of girl.

  34. Kleist’s page-long sentences, Part 2
    Kleist is foisted on German highschool students, and furriners learning German. My experience with Kleist, as with many other writers, went through three stages over the decades:
    1) Fantastic, I can read this stuff !
    2) Too much work, there’s more fun stuff to read !
    3) <*head bowed*>Hey, what a supercilious schmuck I used to be !

  35. I wasn’t yet at the stage of my life where I wanted to impress that sort of girl.
    Now you’re talkin’ ! That kind of motivation is underestimated: you want to impress other people, or impress yourself, or earn more money. There’s even some late, cold comfort in the fact that mental acquisitions don’t decay quite as fast as the bicepses (?).

  36. Can’t you want to study German partly in order to read Rilke in the original, without being “the type of girl who wants to read Rilke in the original?” After all, I also want to study German in order to sing Wagner, damn it. And maybe also be popular with Hanoverian engineers. (Inside joke, that.)

  37. John Emerson says:

    I was just delighted to be able to read Kleist, because I’d liked him in English.
    I’ve said this before, but in languages I’m learning I’ve always found difficult authors more rewarding to read than straighforward or “deceptively simple” authors. I had to slowly decode Rilke and Kleist, but they aren’t authors that anyone whips right through. But decoding Heine ruins the effect.

  38. “I have read that if you ultimately want to be able to read and appreciate the canonical works in Classical/Literary Chinese, Cantonese is probably a better present-day place to start than Mandarin (as well as being associated at present with a more culturally and economically dynamic part of China). Can anyone comment intelligently on that? ”
    Yeah. No – if only because the kind of educated people who you will be studying Classical speak Mandarin, even if they happen to speak Cantonese, and most other Cantonese speakers are busy arranging shady financial deals in glass towers.
    Maybe on a really superficial level there is some advantage to knowing how a word is pronounced in Cantonese, maybe for Tang poetry, and then again maybe not. For me Cantonese always sounds like grannies haggling with shopkeepers – it instantly makes any poetry sound unpoetic – the way German poetry always sounds to me like a parody of Klingon opera. YMMV.

  39. I can’t really comment on the Cantonese thing. However, I did seem to notice at one time (have I mentioned it before?) that Shanghai evening newspapers feature much less of the grammar of the modern vernacular than Beijing evening newspapers. My theory is that the modern vernacular comes natural to Beijing people because it is their own language, and (low-brow) evening newspapers cater to that, whereas Shanghai speakers are less comfortable with northern speech and so their newspapers, while obviously not being written in Classical Chinese, are a more written style of Chinese, shorn of much of the stuff that is taught to learners as “Chinese grammar”. But I’d have to dig up some Beijing and Shanghai evening dailies to substantiate my impressions.
    For me, the greatest problem with Chinese is not word order or tones (these are trivial issues) but the massive reservoir of expressions that are available to the native speaker. There are the intellectuals who love to deploy expressions from the written language (and my impression is that this is more common among Taiwanese and Hong Kong people), there are certain educated people who love to use “chengyu” (succinct, four character sayings or expressions, often literary in nature), and there are people of the folk who love to lard their speech with earthy folk sayings. You will always encounter people who delight in exploiting the possibilities of their language, and they can keep hitting you for six for as long as you hang in the conversation. Obviously you can try to commit some of these expressions to memory, but there is almost an infinite supply, and they are fixed in form (so that you can’t just remember the gist, you have to remember the exact expression), with the result that they tend to fall into some obscure, neglected crevice of the mind and take you completely unawares the next time you hear them, or dismally fail you when you actually have occasion to use them.

  40. Hell, if you want Tang poetry to rhyme, you can study Pulleyblank’s or another of the reconstructions of Middle Chinese based on the Qieyun, the Tang-dynasty pronunciation dictionary written expressly to rhyme poetry correctly. Plus you won’t have to worry about Chinese people speaking it better than you.

  41. For me, the greatest problem with Chinese is not word order or tones … but the massive reservoir of expressions that are available to the native speaker. There are the intellectuals who love to deploy expressions from the written language …, there are certain educated people who love to use “chengyu” …, and there are people of the folk who love to lard their speech with earthy folk sayings. You will always encounter people who delight in exploiting the possibilities of their language, and they can keep hitting you for six for as long as you hang in the conversation.
    Yes indeed, and I still chuckle when I remember the conversation I quoted in this early LH post. I also wrote about such expressions here.

  42. John Emerson says:

    I’ve spent some times with the reconstructions of Tang and Zhou Chinese, and as far as I can tell the fields are still embattled, with multiple reconstructions. I use Schuessler and Karlgren’s dictionaries for Zhou (Book of Songs) and Karlgren and Stimson for Tang, but that’s not because I made a judicious choice. They’re just easier to use than the dictionaries I sold.

  43. David Marjanović says:

    Word order [in languages such as Korean] isn’t as big a hurdle as it’s made out to be; tones aren’t as terrifying as they sound, and anyway, they can be learnt as a kind of contour; but Chinese characters are a MAJOR PROBLEM for the ordinary language learner because of the massive commitment of time and memory that they require.

    We have a winner.

    I have even known Americans to be shocked at the insouciance with which Europeans (collectively) treat their total ignorance of Chinese.

    😀

    professional journals published in Chinese first and sometimes not translated

    That happens in vertebrate paleontology for instance, but less and less over time.

    In German you can stick whole adjectival clauses between an adjective and the noun it modifies – even in speech, if you’ve got the stuff and like doing that, which I sometimes do.

    Surprise, surprise – I think I can confirm this all the way down to my dialect! Unfortunately, however, it’s so late at night that I can’t come up with a convincing example. Please suggest one.
    …Oh, this kind of thing:

    “Das neue von Herrn Doktor Lutsch entwickelte Verfahren gefällt mir gar nicht.”

    Unspectacular. Not quite as common in my dialect as in the standard, but it nonetheless exists, and of course I have no scruples about writing like that; comes natural to me, too.

    the way German poetry always sounds to me like a parody of Klingon opera.

    LOL!
    Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
    über den Wipfeln
    spürest du kaum einen Hauch…

  44. I’ve met very few English speaking foreigners who care much about English or American literature.
    And yet I get the impression that far more is written about Shakespeare by foreigners than could be justified for an author living four centuries ago on an obscure Atlantic island, simply because he wrote in English and is thus the holy grail for English learners with a literary bent.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    Karlgren’s reconstructions are seriously outdated, but there’s still no consensus on Middle, let alone Old Chinese.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Shakespeare became a German classic through the translation by Schlegel & Tieck…
    Sein oder Nichtsein,
    das ist hier die Frage.

    (Note how they padded it to fill up the meter.)

  47. marie-lucie says:

    Little kids only learn languages when they hear them spoken, I think.
    Little kids learn languages (just their own, or more than one) if they don’t just hear them spoken by adults to each other (something which is of absolutely no interest to a small child) but if they hear them spoken TO them in a normal manner, that is in association with ordinary activities, not as something special. Small children don’t analyze, and the way a person speaks to them is part of the total package that makes up the person, including the relationship between the child and that person. So if two parents each speak to their child in their own language, Mommy’s way of speaking is both a part of Mommy and a part of the child’s relationship with Mommy, and similarly with Daddy’s way of speaking, or Granny’s or Nanny’s, etc. A child can cope with (and learn to produce) several languages in this way: a famous example concerns the children of upper-class British families in colonial India, surrounded by servants speaking different languages, which the children acquired effortlessly because the nannies and gardeners or cooks were just talking normally to the toddlers, using their own languages (unfortunately, many of these children were shipped back to England at a young age to go to school and had forgotten the other languages when they came back years later). But small children are very confused and upset if a person starts talking to them differently from what they have been used to with that person: the person in question is no longer the same, and perhaps is trying to pretend to be another person. That’s why parents who think “I’ll start teaching my child language X once they start talking” are headed for failure, since the child is not just starting to talk in the abstract but to communicate with the parent with the language the parent has been using from the beginning. The time when this major breakthrough in communication appears is not the time for the parent to change the rules by deciding to switch to another language.

  48. For me, the greatest problem with Chinese is not word order or tones … but the massive reservoir of expressions that are available to the native speaker. There are the intellectuals who love to deploy expressions from the written language …, there are certain educated people who love to use “chengyu” …, and there are people of the folk who love to lard their speech with earthy folk sayings
    Japanese speakers love these as well…in fact, Japanese IQ tests even have sections testing your understanding of 四字熟語 (yoji-jukugo).

  49. Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
    in allen Wipfeln
    spürest du kaum einen Hauch…

    if I may nit-pick.
    And a question: does German poetry still sound like Klingon opera when it’s set to music ?

  50. John Emerson says:

    Erasmus wrote five volumes about the proverbial sayings of his time, and it’s very reminiscent of the collections of cheng-yu I’ve got. (Something a little like this is the way some people used to have a Bible verse for every occasion.) Erasmus traced most of his proverbs back to classical sources, often several different sources, but a lot of cheng-yu are classical in origin too. It’s a very good way to get a handle on the actual culture of a place and time (as opposed to the official, established culture, which many or most people evade as much as possible) though it would be best to actually know which cheng-yu are most often used instead of just having a list.
    Some of Erasmus’ proverbs are still current, and others not at all. But I have heard a version of Aristophanes’ “Look up a dog’s ass” as a metaphor for something unpleasant and unrewarding, even though I doubt it’s on many lists of proverbs any more. “Twice-cooked cabbage is death”? Maybe.

  51. does German poetry still sound like Klingon opera when it’s set to music?
    Naw, it sounds like German. Klingon opera sounds like this, this (with translation), or this.

  52. Actually, any language has its share of sayings, proverbs, and expressions. From the standard kind of proverb like “Rome wasn’t built in a day” to popular word plays like “You can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy” to witty descriptions like “the discussion generated more heat than light”, English is full of them, too. The problem is that Chinese chengyu are so literary in flavour, which means that you can’t understand them or reproduce them very well unless you have an idea how they are written.

  53. Wishing all Hatters a Happy Chinese New Year, a Happy Tsagaan Sar, and a Happy Valentines Day!

  54. zayn oder nisht zayn? Do ligt der hunt bagrobn.

  55. I like the Yiddish better.
    Does anyone know if they still use “the language lab” in schools? It was hot stuff when I was at school in the sixties – early seventies, though I never liked it much, but my daughter isn’t taught languages this way.

  56. John Emerson says:

    There are a lot of chengyu books for people wanting to get up to speed without doing all that reading. I have three of them, one for Westerners and two for Chinese. But there are always more.
    I could see using the books to learn snappy ways of saying things that you often want to say.

  57. zayn oder nisht zayn? Do ligt der hunt bagrobn.
    Quelle élégance ! Very compatible with Rheinland humor. I’m going to use it in German from now on.

  58. 2 days earlier, B!
    tomorrow is our Bituun, we should eat a lot on the New year’s eve, the 14th is the New lunar year of the metal Tiger
    it is believed that the day is the worst in that year, so people alleviate its harm by celebrating it as celebratory as possible thus whitening it – tsagaalakh
    and after the new year – the spring will begin this year it’s again especially cold and snowy winter in my country, this weather imbalance is very bothering, if only it could have led to warm climate in my country, but it seems no, severe winters are more and more frequent or it seems so and dzud is just bound to recur in a decade

  59. @A.J.P. Chronic: “Does anyone know if they still use “the language lab” in schools?”
    When I was at university in Montreal in the early noughties, all students taking language classes were expected to use the lab. I didn’t particularly like it either. (Of course, this is ‘school’ in the (extended) North American sense.)

  60. oh, i forgot it’s already the 13th on the other side
    Happy New Year!

  61. Thanks. I was worried they’d discovered that language labs caused cancer, or something.

  62. J.W. Brewer says:

    It’s spreading. As I was dropping my daughters off at school this morning, I saw that the younger one’s kindergarten classroom had a poster up with the kanji (as I would call them) for the numbers 1 to 10 written in magic marker. Unfortunately, they are not trying to reinforce Daddy’s lessons on counting to 10 in Japanese but dipping into the Mandarin fad. Ironically, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher is herself of Chinese descent (but Slavically-surnamed – yay, mixed marriages!), but apparently only learned as a child to count in Cantonese, so she’s had to learn the Mandarin just the same as the white teachers.
    I really hope this doesn’t mean our school district is taking money from the PRC government (as another NYT article linked from the first suggested was one of the causes of the current Mandarin boomlet). I’d want to have some school board members sent to reeducation camp for self-criticism sessions if that were the case.

  63. Little kids learn languages (just their own, or more than one) if they don’t just hear them spoken by adults to each other (something which is of absolutely no interest to a small child)
    True in general, but there is an important exception, if I believe what people tell me: children pick up their parents’ language even if they only speak it to one another if they use it for saying things they don’t want the child to understand.

  64. Much Latin poetry is *supposed* to be a puzzle, that’s the fun of it: much Old Norse poetry is the same. Doesn’t have nearly so much to do with grammar of the language as with what you think poetry is supposed to be.
    As for the difficulty of Chinese: I’m no linguist, but my Latin is decent, and I’ve picked up a reading knowledge of several Romance & Germanic languages. Trying Chinese was like running full speed into a brick wall. Man, that hurt! I’ve given up on it, after a year and a half: I’m in my fifties, and investing twenty years in gaining reading-fluency of a single language is not something I can afford, not even to read Li Po and Du Fu. Next life, maybe.

  65. Does anyone know if they still use “the language lab” in schools?
    This is called the “audio-lingual” method and is no longer popular. It has been replaced by the “communicative method”, supposedly replacing drills with model sentences. We have a computer lab, but it’s mainly for listening or interactive reading comprehension exercises, mostly provided by the textbook publishers. I’m not sure I agree totally; how can you learn to speak without practice? It’s true that if the students are bored they might not come to class and then for sure they won’t learn anything.
    He is now four.
    I’ve seen some four year olds with very high frustration levels but without the ability to stop and think, or express verbally what was wrong.

  66. John Emerson says:

    I hated language lab in college and hardly ever went. It was like subjecting yourself to a psychological experiment involving interaction with robots. I had no theoretical objections at that time, I just couldn’t stand doing it.

  67. I am a Mandarin-speaking Frenchman living in the US and I have taught Mandarin to children and adults. Children absorb Mandarin as easily as they would Spanish or Italian. As long as it is fun there are no phonetic or syntax challenges that they do not face easily. They find it normal to learn Chinese and have no preconceived ideas about learning it. The greater problem is – in my opinion – the lack of real will to learn new languages in the US(Kind like eating more cruciferous greens!). We really think we should but lack genuine inner motivation.
    Fad or not it will endure and have a positive effect on the new generations. If US society as a whole – not just educators – ever actually WANTS to connect with other cultures and languages and institutionalizes the process, the groundwork will have been laid. Right now, it is still like General Patton in WWII who became frustrated trying to learn French to communicate with the Resistance, and finally said: “*** them!. Let them learn English.”

  68. I’m in my fifties, and investing twenty years in gaining reading-fluency of a single language is not something I can afford
    Sure you can! I wonder if you’ve tried doing several things at once? Anyway, these days, one can look forward to living to at least 100, like it or not.

  69. No wonder he couldn’t communicate, if he said “*** them”.

  70. “And yet I get the impression that far more is written about Shakespeare by foreigners ”
    No shit, Bathrobe, and I have never been able to figure out why. Most of it sounds like rap done in an (gratingly artificial) Oxbridge accent.
    My experinece with a lot of chengyu is that they take the place of “long words” in Englsih, almost more than set expressions. The chengyu “hua4 she2 tie1 zu2” translates “superfluous” pretty well. But then there are free-standing expressions like qiao3 tu4 san1 qu1″ that comes across very easily into English – “smart rabbit three holes” (I mean that people unfamiliar with the expression smile and get it immediately when you use it in the right context)and it stands alone in Chinese too without needing the listener to know the back story.

  71. “Smart rabbit three holes” is nice and neat. Could one get by in Chinese using *only* chengyu ? Or would that sound too oracular ? All punch lines and no jokes. Relish without the hotdogs.

  72. marie-lucie says:

    children pick up their parents’ language even if they only speak it to one another if they use it for saying things they don’t want the child to understand.
    What children pick up in that situation is a passive knowledge of the parents’ language, an understanding of some of the language but not the corresponding ability to speak it.

  73. If this thread is still open in a week, I will scrape together a few chengyu that I once collected over a couple of days from a colleague who used them constantly. If they were of the “smart rabbit three holes” variety they would be easy to remember, but they weren’t, they were just little pat phrases that expressed a particular meaning in a Classical-style grammar.
    For those who find the idea of learning foreign languages too painful, I have an English chengyu for you:
    NO PAIN NO GAIN!

  74. John Emerson says:

    Put it on any old thread.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    children pick up their parents’ language even if they only speak it to one another if they use it for saying things they don’t want the child to understand.
    p.s. In my earlier comment I meant small children, say under three years old, when the world of children and that of adults are completely different. Children up to 4 or 5 years old don’t usually understand adult conversations (even in the same language) unless the adults are talking TO them (I remember coming to this realization at a very young age, and wondering why I understood adults perfectly when they were talking to me, but when they talked among themselves I could not understand a word). It is when the children are around 5 or 6 years old and beginning to intervene in general conversation that parents realize that their children understand them and that they should therefore watch what they are saying. By that time, if the parents have been speaking one language between them and another to the children, the children may understand both languages but only speak the dominant one.

  76. That’s similar to my experience with foreign languages. It’s always easier to understand people when they’re talking to me than when they’re talking among themselves!

  77. I was pretty confused by the chengyu that is mentioned above — not to be found in the dictionary because there is a typo in the pinyin.
    For anyone curious I guess the comment author must mean:
    狡兔三窟 jiǎotùsānkū id. take elaborate precautions for self-preservation

  78. David Marjanović says:

    Klingon opera sounds like […] this (with translation)

    Horrible, horrible pronunciation. I ought to massacre them all where they stand.

    Do ligt der hunt bagrobn.

    LOL!!!

    Does anyone know if they still use “the language lab” in schools?

    Was used on me in the 90s, but maybe 5 times altogether (in 7 years), and then it was gotten rid of.

    Children up to 4 or 5 years old don’t usually understand adult conversations (even in the same language) unless the adults are talking TO them (I remember coming to this realization at a very young age, and wondering why I understood adults perfectly when they were talking to me, but when they talked among themselves I could not understand a word).

    Interesting. I can’t remember ever having had that.
    (And I can remember my brother’s birth when I was not quite 3, and figuring out how to read when I was not quite 5, for instance. All I don’t remember is ever speaking or understanding BCSM.)

  79. marie-lucie says:

    I guess I was destined to become a linguist. I have never asked, but I don’t remember anyone else having this memory.
    I too remember the type of things that David remembers, around the same ages. But what is BSCM? is it “baby talk>?

  80. I believe it’s what they used to call Serbo-Croatian. As with Macedonia, a simple and universally understood term has been replaced for historico-cultural reasons with an obscure collection of initials that confuses everyone. (“Mommy, why is Macedonia marching between France and Gabon?” “Hush, or I’ll make you read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.”)

  81. John Emerson says:

    Obviously Western Bulgaria should march between Vietnam and Yemen.

  82. Or Fyromia behind the Houyhnhnms and the Red Queen.

  83. John Emerson says:

    A cogent statement of the problem.
    Alexander, of course, was an Epirote whose true father is unknown. After crushing the Greeks he went on to greater things still.

  84. J.W. Brewer says:

    This has inspired me to make the modest proposal that the language(s) variously known as e.g. BSCM be standardly called FYLOSC, for the “Former Yugoslav Language of Serbo-Croatian.”

  85. For me Cantonese always sounds like grannies haggling with shopkeepers – it instantly makes any poetry sound unpoetic

    No it doesn’t, as a Cantonese-speaker I must protest against this. Cantonese can also sound mellifluous, for example in Cantonese Opera [1], or some sweet radio presenters [2].
    [1] The diction of Cantonese Opera (or even Chinese Opera in general) is extremely exaggerated to a point of slight annoyance, since back in the days without microphone, the only way to make the play understandable in a broad audience is to speak R-EAL-LY R-EAL-LY CL-EAR-LY to enunciate the syllables.
    [2] OK, I copped out here. This isn’t real radio programme, but rather a new upstart podcast programme. I chose this because I like the main presenter’s voice, who also voiced the initial English opening sequence. The presenter made a point not to edit out the background noise in the cafe, so at some places it might be difficult to understand.

  86. No, it should be Bosnian, Dalmatian, Serbian and Montenegrin. They’d definitely get more Google interest if they called it the abbreviation for that (the comments filter wouldn’t let me post it!).

  87. I like the Cantonese opera. Thanks, 28481k–or may I call you 28481?

  88. Yes, I like the sound of Cantonese too; it reminds me of NYC’s Chinatown (though I realize it’s now being replaced there by other forms of Chinese).

  89. michael farris says:

    I also like the sound of Cantonese, I’d even say I think Cantonese is the nicest sounding Chinese language (except when final sentence particles are heavily stressed).
    I’m not sure why, but Mandarin is one of the languages whose sound (like French) I’ve just never quite warmed to. (With French it’s especially odd since I love a lot of French movies and French opera….)

  90. Ingrid Pufahl says:

    Since I have been addressed directly, here are a couple of statistics, according to the Eurobarometer on languages (from 2005):
    Percent of people speaking at least two foreign languages well enough to have a conversation:
    All EU countries: 28%
    age group 15-24: 40%
    in 9/29 countries more than half the population
    Above the average of 28% (in descending order):
    Luxembourg (0+%), Netherlands (75%), Slovenia, Malta, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Slovakia, Finland, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic
    Below average:
    Germany, (27%), Hungary, Portugal, … at the bottom: Spain (17%), Italy (16%), Ireland (13%)
    Furthermore, my point was that the governments and the school systems in Europe have it as a goal that their citizens acquire fluency in at least two foreign languages, a goal that is supported by over half the population (all of which is not the case in the US).

  91. Furthermore, my point was…
    Americans fear internal unity will be impossible unless people can communicate in English, whereas Europeans fear internal unity will be impossible unless people can communicate.

  92. “Percent of people speaking at least two foreign languages well enough to have a conversation: …”
    Well, you know the old saying: “Never trust any statistics you didn’t forge yourself”.
    Seriously, though, how were these statistics compiled? Did they just ask people? If somebody asked me, I would probably say I could speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation, but in real life, all I can do is order food and say “please” and “thank you”.

  93. It doesn’t matter how much money you pour into the school system – in America that money will simply be wasted unless, maybe, you push Spanish. Most Americans will never meet anyone, even abroad, who can’t manage to speak decent English – and when they do those people tend to be immigrants who want to learn English. You can’t retain a foreign language unless you use it – that’s very easy to do with English as a second language, it requires effort with most other languages. This is why every push for Americans to learn foreign languages ends in dismal failure. Those kids grow up looking back at the time spent learning German, French or Spanish and then as adults decide “well that was a waste of time.”

  94. marie-lucie says:

    the governments and the school systems in Europe have it as a goal that their citizens acquire fluency in at least two foreign languages, a goal that is supported by over half the population
    Goals and achievements are two different things. I have seven nephews and nieces in France (all in their 20’s and early 30’s). One of them did a degree in German. Another one speaks English fairly fluently, though with many mistakes and an atrocious accent. The rest all learned English in school, but none of them can hold a conversation in it.

  95. … Whereas in Norway there are very few people who cannot hold a conversation in English. I think it has to do with national expectations, if not goals: Norwegians or Japanese know nobody’s going to learn their language, so they learn at least English for economic (trading) purposes and maybe for cultural & scientific communication. The French don’t feel they have to know a foreign language and Americans know they don’t–for them, learning a language is a luxury that has no more practical prestige than learning to ride a horse has.

  96. The Japanese are notorious for their poor spoken English.

  97. And you’d be surprised how few francophone Belgians really can speak English, including the local radio hosts who struggle valiantly to pronounce the name of the latest chart topper or box office hit, often mangling it beyond recognition.

  98. John Emerson says:

    Occasional LH commenter Desbladet has learned Dutch and one of the Scandinavian languages. He works in some tech area I think so it’s apparently just something he wanted to do.

  99. My impression is that English is difficult to learn if your first language is Japanese. I don’t think they have a reputation for not wanting to learn languages, do they? Not like us (English speakers).
    I can’t explain the Belgians…
    Des said he came to Norway on holiday, & everyone spoke English. So he thought he’d learn Norwegian, but there weren’t any classes, so he learnt Swansk instead. Then he married a countess from the Netherlands.

  100. michael farris says:

    The only Europeans to speak English well in really large numbers are speakers of Dutch and the (mainland Germanic) Scandinavian languages.
    Unsurprisingly these are the languages with the closest genetic (in the linguistic sense), typological, cultural and historical ties to English.
    Even among German and Finnish speakers the quality and quantity of spoken English plummets pretty dramatically.
    I’m sure there’s a lesson here if only I could spot it…….

  101. michael farris says:

    I should add the usual caveats (IME, YMMV) to the above and I don’t have enough experience with Icelandic to say anything about the level of English among Icelanders.

  102. John Emerson says:

    The British and the Irish butcher English, that’s for sure.

  103. Many of the Welsh are quite good at English. But Michael, what about the Finns? They all speak very good English–oh, now I see you said they don’t. I used to work in a Finnish shipyard, in Turku, where nearly everyone spoke at least “conversational”-level English and many spoke it very well. I’d say Finns have stronger foreign accents than, say, Swedes, but then so do the Welsh and nobody counts it against them. Anyway, in my experience, Finns are much better at English than Germans are (and they speak Swedish too).

  104. When I was in Finland in 1971, nobody at all spoke English—at least, nobody my pathetic stranded group ran into. It’s a miracle we found a place to spend a few nights.

  105. Actually, Europe is a terrible example of bilingualness compared to Africa. For example, just take a look at the comments in the Swaziland Times (I get it for the crossword).

  106. My experience of Finland may be abnormal; the language of the project we worked on was English.

  107. vanya, people say that they’ve never used the algebra they tried to, or did, learn in high school, and that therefore those math classes wasted their time. I think both the minor and major premises are false.
    The mind is all of a piece; you can’t be sure what part of your intellect you’re using when you think carefully about something – or when you don’t. In gaining some skill at algebra, or German, or 12th century history, you’ve neurally in-built your brain to some extent, and some of that connectivity is still there, operating, when you do things with your mind n years later – even if your most intellectually challenging activity is figuring the quickest way to the NASCAR track.
    I mean that I don’t think it would really be practical to make secondary, or even tertiary, education mostly vocational, because one’s mind doesn’t ‘practice’ so mono-intentionally. I think we’re going in the wrong direction when we try to make education more suited to some simplified schema of ‘real’-world pressures, with less general tuition and more focus on ‘making a living’ – a Bachelors degree should be a seven-year process, not four. (You’re going to check out of the big hotel at 80, not 40 – what’s the big hurry (excepting only financial pressure) to get the first of a series of lousy ‘real’ jobs??)
    Ok, memorizing a couple of hundred decimal ‘places’ of an irrational number – that probably exercises the brain in an unhelpful way (though maybe not), but a language? which is Being that can be understood? That’s exactly what we Americans should be throwing our money at – for example, some of the money we throw at marketing non-competing ‘health’ ‘insurance’ ‘plans’, or developing pork chop ice cream and fresh-rain-on-asphalt toothpaste.

  108. michael farris says:

    You’ll take my fresh-rain-on-asphalt toothpaste from me when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

  109. Indeed, everyone (okay, over age 5) in Wales speaks English, but the Welsh who speak Welsh have far less accent in their English than the Welsh who don’t speak Welsh.

  110. You can’t compare the relative strength of a Welsh accent in English, can you? Which other English accent do you compare it to?

  111. marie-lucie says:

    JC: the Welsh who speak Welsh have far less accent in their English than the Welsh who don’t speak Welsh.
    I can believe that. It is because the Welsh speakers have learned English from school, radio and TV where they heard Standard English, while the ones who don’t speak Welsh have learned English from family and neighbours who speak English with a strong Welsh accent inherited from their forebears, who had less contact with native English speech.

  112. The Japanese themselves lament how poor their spoken English is. There seem to be two problems. One is the simplicity of the Japanese phonological system (largely CVCV), which makes the pronunciation of English quite difficult. The other is the “grammar-translation” emphasis of their English-language education, and its insistence on treating language as a “puzzle” to be solved in exams. They become expert at deciding which preposition is to be used in which situation, but are often hopeless at actually speaking the language. The common complaint is “I’ve learnt English for 10 (or however many years it is) years and I still can’t speak the language”.
    Incidentally, there is a massive dumbing down syndrome at work in Japan. Since everyone’s English pronunciation is so poor, a person who knows how to pronounce the language properly, notably children of people who have been posted abroad (known as ‘returnees’ or 帰国子女 kikoku-shijo), are very quickly cut down to size. If they want to retain any popularity with their fellow students, they have to start pronouncing English with the same excruciating accents as their classmates.

  113. John Emerson says:

    My experience as a teacher has been that shy people who worry about making mistakes (Chinese, maybe Japanese) can be good on written English but have trouble learning conversational English, whereas bold people who are difficult to embarrass (Arabs) learn spoken English with relative ease, sometimes even without a teacher.
    / stereotyping

  114. Terry Collmann says:

    Here in the UAE, where less than a quarter of the population speak Arabic, and more (probably) speak Hindi/Urdu, followed by Malayalam, Tagalog and other South and South East Asian languages, even the Emirati orders his espresso in the mall coffee shop from the Filipina waitress in English. For US/UK/Canadian/Australian expats there is virtually no incentive to learn Arabic, because almost all “customer-facing” people will be English-speakers – especially since most shopkeepers/taxi drivers will be South Asian, and happy to speak English to you.

  115. michael f., how did you get toothpaste on your crackberry?

  116. As promised, these are a few chengyu or similar expressions I have encountered and set down:
    登峰造极 dēngfēng zàojí (climb peak create extreme) ‘reach the acme of perfection’
    炉火纯青 lùhuǒ chúnqīng (stove flame pure blue — allusion to Daoist priests creating medicine of immortality) ‘high degree of technical proficiency’
    掩面而泣 yǎnmiàn ér qì ‘hide face and cry’
    振臂高呼 zhènbì gāohū ‘raise arm and call out’ (apparently used to mean that one raises one’s arms and calls out for action)
    心潮澎湃 xīncháo péngpài (heart current surge) ‘one’s thoughts and emotions surge like the tide’
    始终不渝 shǐzhōng bùyú (constant not-change) ‘unswerving, steadfast’
    大相径庭 dàxiāng jìngtíng (very + quite different) ‘widely divergent, poles apart’
    可见一斑 kějiàn yībān (can see one spot — short for a longer expression meaning ‘look at one spot on the leopard and you can visualise the whole’) ‘you can conjure up the whole thing through seeing part of it’
    以身相许 yǐ shēn xiāngxǔ (literally ‘with body betroth’) ‘to pledge oneself to marry’ (used of a girl)
    八面玲珑 bāmiàn línglóng (eight faces nimble and smart) ‘able to get on well with everyone’
    半壁江山 bànbì jiāngshān (half-cliff river-mountain) ‘half the country’, referring to the unoccupied part, the rest having been conquered by barbarians
    理所当然 lǐsuǒ dāngrán ‘as a matter of course, only natural’.
    These are just a few examples I’ve jotted down on occasion. Mostly I don’t even bother to do this because you come across them so often. If you start going through a dictionary, you will find hundreds of expressions like these.
    Now, if you really want to be respected for your Chinese, it would be a good idea from your second or third year of study to memorise one of these a day, making sure to go back and revise constantly. The ability to use and understand them will set you far above the common run of foreign learners. Besides which, if you want to learn to read Chinese, you’ll need to know as many of them as possible. It’s also essential to learn how to deploy them in the right situation. For instance, the ‘half-occupied country’ expression popped up in an article about how the private sector still retained control over part of the restructured coal industry — light years from its original meaning.
    At the same time, of course, if you want street cred you can’t afford to neglect colloquial, earthy expressions along with a few military expressions from anti-Japanese war movies. The ability to use earthy expressions when you’re with the boys and literary expressions when you’re composing an essay or report will ensure you gain a stellar reputation in China. Not so different from any other language, I guess, EXCEPT THAT IN CHINESE THERE IS SO MUCH TO LEARN COMPARED WITH OTHER LANGUAGES.

  117. I was pretty confused by the chengyu that is mentioned above — not to be found in the dictionary because there is a typo in the pinyin.
    For anyone curious I guess the comment author must mean:
    狡兔三窟 jiǎotùsānkū id. take elaborate precautions for self-preservation
    I recognised it immediately because it is a famous chengyu, of the type that you remember even if you don’t remember the actual wording. That wasn’t a typo in the pinyin. It was a misreading of the character 窟, which looks like it should be read but is actually read . This is precisely one of the problems with our Chinese professor’s assurance that there are regularities that help us to read characters. Along with the regularities there are irregularities that you have to remember, and the reading of 窟 as is one of them.

  118. marie-lucie says:

    JE: shy vs bold learners: this is not necessarily correlated with different cultures; it is true also for those types of personalities.
    It also depends on the circumstances. For instance, at one time I had a pretty good passive understanding of Spanish both oral and written, but very little active speaking experience. However, I could carry on a conversation (although hesitantly and not very grammatically) if I was sure that the person I was speaking to did not speak English or French, so that Spanish had to be the means of communication. But I was tongue-tied in Spanish if I knew that we could communicate more fluently in English or French. After I got to know a group of Latin Americans who spoke Spanish between themselves and also to me, even though most of them could also speak English tolerably well, I started to become much more at ease in speaking the language, and even though since then my speaking facility has been going up and down depending on how much opportunity I have to speak (and read) the language, I am no longer shy to speak it with just about anyone, even if communication would be more precise in my other languages.

  119. vanya, people say that they’ve never used the algebra they tried to, or did, learn in high school, and that therefore those math classes wasted their time. I think both the minor and major premises are false.
    Michael – I completely agree. I think learning languages is very valuable as an intellectual endeavor. Unfortunately educators in the US keep trying to sell foreign languages on “practical” grounds and then wildly oversell the benefits of learning (and disadvantages of not learning) foreign languages. For example, very few Americans will actually see their career prospects or salary potential enhanced by learning a foreign language. But who knows, since the Chinese are more culturally assertive than Japanese, it may be that in 30 years you really will need to know Mandarin if you want to make it up the global corporate ladder. Today English is sadly the only language anyone “needs” to know.

  120. Read Japanese says:

    Children should learn at least 2 to 3 languages before their teens. What it can do for their brains is incredible. My son was able to pick up English in less than a year, after spending the first 4 years of his life in Japan.

  121. What it can do for their brains is incredible.
    Maybe. But you can’t oversell it, there are many examples of creative, incredibly intelligent people who speak/spoke no foreign languages. And many multilingual people who are not particularly creative or productive, or even interesting. Even odder, to me, there are even creative intelligent people who can’t play musical instruments (I’m thinking of Nabokov) or have only rudimentary math skills (almost any American journalist you care to name).

  122. marie-lucie says:

    Learning a second language or a musical instrument does not depend only on one’s abilities: it also depends a lot on one’s family’s circumstances. And in spite of IQ tests which aim to place everyone on a single “ladder” of mental ability, there are many, many components of “intelligence” (see for instance Howard Gardner’s “The seven types of intelligence”). No two people have exactly the same brain, any more than they have exactly the same body (fortunately!).

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