Man­darin

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of th­ese ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

Lately I have been turn­ing my at­ten­tion to­wards Man­darin, would you be­lieve it, partly be­cause I love a chal­lenge, but mainly be­cause I hope to be spend­ing much more of my time in Tai­wan. It re­ally is a great place to visit and, as I am find­ing out, a great place to be: Peo­ple ac­tu­ally ap­pre­ci­ate and re­spect ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence in a cho­sen field of stud­ies, some­thing I had come to for­get dur­ing 23 years of bang­ing my head against the min­istry’s brick wall try­ing to con­trib­ute to Saint Lu­cia’s ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem.

I be­lieve I am right in say­ing that our ‘new’ P.M. (I say ‘new’ but he won’t be new much longer – time re­ally does fly) an­nounced – I think it was at the Marigot school – that Man­darin would be in­tro­duced into our school cur­ricu­lum – as soon as pigs have learned to fly, I pre­sume.

Man­darin is a fas­ci­nat­ing lan­guage for any­one in­ter­ested in lan­guages, but it is not par­tic­u­larly easy and much of its gram­mar is for­eign to speak­ers of west­ern lan­guages. And I have not even men­tioned their sys­tem of writ­ing, so let’s be­gin with the writ­ing.

Let’s look at the char­ac­ters first: Re­gard­less of com­plex­ity, all char­ac­ters fit into a sim­i­lar imag­i­nary area. For this rea­son, char­ac­ters are also called fangkuàizì ‘squared writ­ing’. Char­ac­ters are evenly spaced re­gard­less of whether they rep­re­sent whole words or com­po­nents of words. In other words, be­cause there is no space be­tween words or syl­la­bles you have no idea where one words ends and an­other be­gins. One has to as­sume that dys­lexia is an af­flic­tion that tor­ments Chi­nese speak­ers just as it does speak­ers of all other lan­guages, but that might be the least of their prob­lems.

Tra­di­tion­ally, Chi­nese has been writ­ten down­wards, from right col­umn to left. Ma­jor writ­ing re­forms in­sti­tuted in the 1950s in the Peo­ples Re­pub­lic of China not only for­malised a set of sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters but also re­quired them to be writ­ten hor­i­zon­tally, from left to right, like mod­ern Euro­pean lan­guages. As a re­sult, Chi­nese texts now come in two ba­sic for­mats: Texts orig­i­nat­ing in Tai­wan and tra­di­tional over­seas com­mu­ni­ties, or on the Main­land prior to the re­forms, are writ­ten with tra­di­tional char­ac­ters that are, with a few ex­cep­tions such as in head­lines and on forms, ar­ranged ver­ti­cally (top to bot­tom and right to left) while texts orig­i­nat­ing in the Main­land, in Sin­ga­pore (again, with some ex­cep­tions for re­li­gious or spe­cial gen­res) and in some over­seas com­mu­ni­ties are writ­ten with sim­pli­fied char­ac­ters ar­ranged hor­i­zon­tally, from left to right.

So the writ­ing can ei­ther be from left to right or from right to left, and in ad­di­tion it can be writ­ten ver­ti­cally up or down, or hor­i­zon­tally as in English. Each char­ac­ter oc­cu­pies the same space no mat­ter how com­plex or sim­ple it is, and there is the same space be­tween each char­ac­ter re­gard­less of whether it rep­re­sents a whole word or merely part of a word. Con­fus­ing, isn’t it? But not for the Tai­wanese!

It is es­ti­mated that the num­ber of char­ac­ters ap­pear­ing in mod­ern texts is about 6 -7,000 but the to­tal of all pos­si­ble char­ac­ters far ex­ceeds that num­ber. The good news, how­ever, is that, as in all lan­guages, the num­ber of words needed to be mas­tered to be con­sid­ered flu­ent is only 3-4,000. The re­ally bad news, how­ever, is that ev­ery char­ac­ter or com­bi­na­tion of char­ac­ters has to be learned in­di­vid­u­ally, one at a time, and there is no easy way of do­ing it. Lit­tle kids in school start prac­tis­ing for hours each day from an early age; so much so that their fin­gers some­times be­come de­formed!

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