Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ways in which English is actually more difficult than Chinese

For me, studying Chinese makes me feel like a kid again – like I’m back in grade school thinking that eight years is such a long time. Learning language is learning new terminology, just like when you learn a new English word. For example, the first time you heard the word "toughnerd," you probably didn't know what it meant. But, you could either ask the person who said it or figure it out from the context of what was said: "Sam is a toughnerd. He always acts tough, but he spends more time behind a computer than anyone I know."

I realize now that picking up vocabulary works the same way with foreign languages. You're constantly acquiring and learning new words, but once you use them and practice, you can remember them and get your point across.

Did you ever think about how long it takes to learn a language? Neither did I. But according to what I've read and heard, it takes about 2,700 study hours in order to speak Chinese well. This does not include professional terms, just basic language. By comparison, it takes about 800 hours to become proficient in Spanish or Italian. Natives are fluent because they’ve been “studying” the language since they were born. Therefore, whether you realize it or not, you are studying English everyday in America, just by using it.

On the other hand, English is equally difficult for native Chinese speakers. Many of my students are good at using Chinglish, which is speaking English with Chinese grammar. For example, "I everyday study English" is perfect grammar in Chinese.

Did you ever need to think of a word, but couldn’t? Well, that's another way in which English can be more difficult than Chinese. If you recognize part of a Mandarin character and how to pronounce it, you can guess at its meaning. For example, woman + home = peace.

English is such that any letters can form to make any word. This is difficult for native East Asian language speakers because they use characters or symbols. In this way, (usually two) characters combine to form a word. If you know the meanings of the characters, you can guess at the meaning of the word. For example, fire + mountain = volcano. But with English, all we know is that a volcano is a volcano - it's probably derived from Latin or German, but there's no easy way to guess at it's meaning.

If you're more confused now than when you started reading this, leave a comment and I'll clear things up.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Yellow Dust


“Do you live here?” This is how my conversation with Kira started on the posh Korean subway. She’s from Maine and has been living in Korea for two years. She was on her way to the gym when we met, but took enough pity on this startled foreigner to give me a quick tour of Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood. Itaewon is the most diverse neighborhood in Seoul and for the first time since leaving the U.S., I felt like I was part of the majority while walking around. This pic really doesn’t do it justice.

“I’m fighting a cold, lots of people around Seoul are right now, it’s from the Yellow Dust, from China.” She didn’t look ill, but Kira said a few days prior she couldn’t get out of bed. This was how I discovered that I wasn’t the only one fighting a cold recently. Apparently, there was a cold going around Seoul as well. On and off throughout the weekend, people mentioned it to me. Whether it’s true or not, many blamed it on the “Yellow Dust”, the construction dust that makes its way across the Yellow Sea and onto the Korean Peninsula. This is one indication of pollution I experienced while visiting Seoul. The Han River (or Han Jiang) while wide and beautiful, appears to be as polluted as any urban area river.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Drago and the Donkey Noodles

The first night in the hostel I slept poorly and woke up early. I wanted to get to the Russian consulate as early as possible. That was the reason for my trip, after all. Everything else was second. I was unsettled by the help I received in finding the consulate. A woman at the front desk and two taxi drivers did not know where the street was. My friend Chen called me at just the right time and helped me find it.

The consulate is a nondescript place with a long, high concrete wall. It’s the kind of wall that’s just tall enough not to climb and it’s guarded by a Chinese soldier that makes you want to climb it. You wonder what’s on the other side of places like this. I idle a few minutes along with a French woman who’s done the opposite of what I’ve done. Like me, she wants a visa. Unlike me, she hasn’t prepared anything. She’s just showing up cold looking for information. We chat a few minutes and talk about the train ride from Beijing to Moscow, that we’ve both heard it’s a unique journey. The guard, who can’t be older than 22, eyes me up and reaches out a hand for my passport. He speaks no English. In fact, he doesn’t speak at all. I show him my credentials and he opens the gate for me, behind which lies a fenced-off walkway concluded by a short set of steps and a black door.

A buzz emits from the door just before I reach for it and enter. The air-conditioned room inside has six window-plated stalls - five facing me and one to the left. And it’s this window that intimidates. The five in front are clearly intended for visa purposes – applying, paying, and collecting. But the window to the side doesn’t have any sign stating its purpose. It just has a big, clean-shaven Russian guy behind its bullet-proof glass, sitting and staring at me. He looks like he’s pure KGB and appears to be related to Drago. It dawns on me at this moment that I’m from the same town as Rocky. I hope he doesn’t find out.

I go through the formalities of handing in my documentation. The woman behind the glass is curt, but nice enough. She wastes about an hour of my time before telling me to come back the next day to pick-up my visa and passport. Drago is staring me down so I split and head to the restaurant at the corner. I ask the waitress whether they have beef noodles and she says they have noodles but not with beef. I can’t quite figure out what kind of meat it is until she points to a picture of a donkey on the wall. Well, you are what you eat, right? So I order a large bowl of donkey noodles – tasted like chicken.