As a Luddite-prone American, I’m used to seeing technology as opposed to pure art. Yet Chinese society has no Luddites, and art has is coming of age along with cell phones. The result is that mass audiences have gone so far as to ador a movie about cell phones, called “Cell Phone,” in which a significant part of the dialogue and plot information is conveyed through phone calls and text messages displayed on screen.
Contrary to its text-message image, “Cell Phone” is actually a thought-provoking debate about issues of trust and fidelity in modern Chinese society. As interesting as the social commentary is, I find myself spending more time thinking about one line from the movie and a phrase that I hear just about every month from taxi drivers: “Chinese is the world’s hardest language, eh?”
This idea is popular in China and perhaps other parts of the world, but I see it as propping up the talking-dog phenomenon and the notion that outsiders are almost inherently unable to master Chinese. So I like to disagree whenever my taxi drivers claim that their language is impossibly hard.
Of course, Chinese is a hard language. But the main salvo in my argument is the fact that Chinese grammar is impossibly simple. If mastering English tenses, Spanish subjunctive, Russian cases, and French irregular verbs is like trying to repair a new-fangled computer-run Toyota, mastering Chinese grammar is like repairing a nuts-and-bolts 1960’s Camaro.
Yet Chinese grammar can be so simple, so streamlined that it becomes simply confusing. A sentence from “Cell Phone” demonstrated this clearly and confusingly:
Nǐ zài wǒ zǒu!
In the scene, a young female teacher yells at the famous actor Ge You, saying literally, “You are [here] I go!”
I paused the screen and asked my Chinese friend for assistance. I learned that, translated more fully, the woman’s sentence means, “If you’re going to be here, then I’m leaving!”
What is left out is all of the logical connectors: ‘if’ and ‘then.’ This is a peculiarity of Chinese grammar that students can’t solve by carrying around conjugation tables and memorizing charts of verbs. Rather, this peculiarity is a good indication that Chinese is a receiver-oriented language, where crucial information lies in what’s not said.
Instead of spending time filling my mind with conjugation tables, I spend my time constantly deleting my English grammar from my Chinese text messages. Chinese does have words like ‘if’ and ‘therefore’; you can fix tenses to verbs in Chinese; but the trick in sounding authentically Chinese is to avoid the urge to do so. I take as proof the fact that I was laughed at recently by a Chinese friend for putting too many le’s to indicate tense in a text message. I had used one.
“I knew that was written by a foreigner,” my friend told me later, chuckling.
I might as well have been chewing on a fortune cookie, since I was writing laowai Chinese. To avoid sounding like a foreigner, I suggest avoiding le, yào, rúguǒ, and jiù. In other words, avoid tense and logical connectors like the plague.
Ever since I was corrected by my friend, whenever I’m tempted to put in tense and connecting words into my Chinese text messages, I think simply: you write you strange.