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See Spot Run: China's Simple Confusion

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!

你在我走!

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.

Comments (3)

logal:

It's so funny that what you are tring to avoid in speaking Chinese is what I am tring to be cautious in writing in english.We Chinese students are molded by the stream-of-concious like thinking mode so that our teacher had to remind us again and again that "don't forget to use conjuction,or linking words like while ,thereforr,so ,nevertheless etc."
by the way ,I do quite agree with you that Chinese grammar is really kindergarten-level,especially after I have learned French,driven crazy by its tense and preposition .

This is relevant to a popular claim in China that Chinese is the world's hardest language. Not having an alphabet can make things difficult, but grammar is quite simple in Chinese. Anyone's who's spent a lifetime trying to master the subjunctive in romance languages, the genders of nouns, or case in Russian may gladly trade those troubles in for that of having to memorize some characters.

Anka:

You really have a wonderful blog here. It is so funny to read and some parts are very recognizable since I have spent some time in China as well. This entry encourages me to master that alphabet ;)(I know around 200 signhs now out of 2000...) But sometimes panic grips me when I see how much still needs to be memorized. But what you say does make sense. I still maintain Russian is the most difficult language :p

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