The more I study Mandarin Chinese, the deeper into contradiction I fall: I am at once gaining access to the language and beginning to understand Mandarin the way I understand English, and I am also realizing just how little I have learned, how far I have to go, and how completely impossible it will be to ever grasp Mandarin in remotely the same way that I know English. Mandarin Chinese and American English, if you haven’t noticed, are not in the same language family. Not just oh, language acquisition is difficult but oh, the written system of Chinese lacks any and all intuition for me; Chinese speech patterns are alien; tones are impossible; and pinyin, while easier (and the only way I can make–or force–headway into this language) is not used at all in China and thus is of little practical use to me except as a study tool. Pinyin is the romanization of Chinese characters into the Roman alphabet, and it’s only used to help us poor waiguoren, or foreigners. Or, literally, “out-land person,” a person from somewhere else. An other.
Am I intimidated by the idea of tackling the Mandarin language? Yes. Because even if I do manage some level of fluency over years of study, there are 200 languages in China as well as countless local dialects. Dialects! Look what thefreedictionary.com has to say about the word dialect:
di·a·lect // (d-lkt) n.
1.a. A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists: Cockney is a dialect of English.b. A variety of language that with other varieties constitutes a single language of which no single variety is standard: the dialects of Ancient Greek.2. The language peculiar to the members of a group, especially in an occupation; jargon: the dialect of science.3. The manner or style of expressing oneself in language or the arts.4. A language considered as part of a larger family of languages or a linguistic branch. Not in scientific use: Spanish and French are Romance dialects.
I would also add that dialects are indicators of heritage and (often!) geographic location or PAST geographic location. If you speak a certain way that sounds different from the way others speak around you, even if you’re speaking the same language, I’m going to assume that in your past you lived somewhere other than where you are now. Nifty! My nasal tones and my drawled A’s all indicate the Midwestern United States. My lazy “ain’t”s and inflections bespeak a poor, undereducated upbringing while my written/academic voice indicates the exact opposite. More evidence of my past life, no matter where I am at the present! Time traveling via language. We speak in certain ways and our speech tells a story.
There can’t be anything much more intimate than language study. Fluency in any language is the closest an outsider can be to being a local. Imagine being privy to another culture’s idioms and turns of phrase which originated in cultural habit, and understanding just how certain traditions permeate and influence language. History exists in language. Customs. Ideology. Consider the masculine oppressive, sexist structure of English, which is a testament to our patriarchal history: mailman, “he” as a generic pronoun, actor vs actress (why are two words needed for a single profession?). These are the insights that language can reveal. No matter how difficult language study is (and for me, it is VERY difficult) it is also impossibly interesting.
Right now I am completely fascinated by the Chinese phrase hao(3) jiu(3) bu(2) jian(4), which is translated into English as “long time no see.” Which is crazy! Because:
The English phrase “long time no see” is, according to my Chinese textbook, “said to have had its origin in a word-by-word translation of the Chinese greeting.” Now, of course, “long time no see” is not an English sentence–that’s not how English speakers use or construct their language. But we’ve adopted that phrase as our own to the point where even though I am trying actively to think and write about this phrase for the weird thing it is, my mind keeps slipping back into thinking of it as normal.
But think: (1) hao jiu bu jian is Chinese. (2) It was very roughly translated into pidgin English, who knows how long ago (large scale immigration of the Chinese to the United States began in the mid-1800’s thanks to the California Gold Rush, although of course there were Chinese immigrants before then), in a character-by-character/word-by-word translation into “long time no see.” (3) This phrase then becomes a functioning and completely acceptable part of the English lexicon, even though it makes no grammatical sense. (4) Because the phrase has been adopted, when I get to Lesson 4: Hobbies in my first semester Mandarin Chinese class at the University of Michigan during Fall 2006, I come across the phrase hao jiu bu jian in a dialogue and it is STILL being roughly translated character-by-character into the now acceptable pidgin English phrase “long time no see!” An acceptable translation into English should be something like “a long time has passed since seeing you” or even the more casual “it’s been awhile.” But instead, hao jiu bu jian is translated into a non-grammatical phrase which, while ostensibly English, HAS ITS ROOTS IN CHINESE!