The efficient language

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by EmeraldAxe, Jun 16, 2009.

  1. EmeraldAxe Registered Senior Member

    I know almost no one in linguistics and one of the questions they seem more qualified to answer than any other science is, what is the best language? That is, we speak English, but if we invented our own language bearing in mind how we learn (the strengths and weaknesses of the language centers of our brains), could we invent a more efficient language? Which languages are more efficient than English? Is there any truth to the blanket statement that the Chinese are better at mathematics because their language (and by extension, their thinking) lends itself to proficiency in math?

    Is this something linguistics is designed to study?
  2. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    This is a multidisciplinary question because it touches on psychology as well, and anthropology and sociology would surely come in handy too. Linguists aren't necessarily good psychologists, although most of them probably have at least a passing acquaintance with anthropology and sociology.
    That's what we've all done. No language sprang from nature and poured itself into our brains. They were all invented by humans, albeit for the most part unconsciously, especially in ancient times. It's just not that hard for a people to change their language in response to changes in their environment.

    Each society ends up with a language that works pretty well for it. The Arabs have many words for water in subtly different conditions and circumstances; the Japanese can express myriad differences in social ranking between the speaker and the spoken-to; the Germans with their schachtelsätzen can delve many layers deep into philosophy; the Chinese can precisely describe a family relationship across four degrees of separation; we anglophones can easily coin new words for technology; and the few remaining Neolithic and Mesolithic tribes have words for objects and activities that don't occur in our lives.

    As for inventing a language, that's been done a few times. I speak Esperanto, which was designed specifically for ease of learning. Even people who don't know a word of the Indo-European languages from which its vocabulary was drawn can learn it in a few weeks because of its rather logical compound words and its symmetrical and exception-free grammar. Yet no one would call it a great language for science and technology, nor, probably, for politics and philosophy. Its compound words get very cumbersome and the small set of root words that serve as its building blocks make it difficult to spruce up communication with a little beauty and a few surprises.
    The only language I have studied that seems clearly superior to English is Chinese. It's much easier to build new words for new concepts, and they're shorter words. Furthermore, Chinese is more compact as measured by the number of syllables required to express an idea, which means it can be spoken more slowly and therefore is easier for non-native speakers to understand. English and French are impressive in that regard, in comparison to languages like Italian and Japanese that have to be spoken at breakneck speed just to finish a sentence before lunch--but Chinese has been streamlined by eliminating syllables with very little meaning like articles, prepositions and inflections.
    I don't know about that because my knowledge of Chinese doesn't extend into that area. But I understand what you mean. Spanish is a terrible language for mathematics. For starters, five of the numerals are two-syllable words (as opposed to just "seven" in English), and the rules of grammar with all those verb inflections make the formation of large numbers cumbersome, much less equations and formulas.
    Even though I'm the Head Linguist around here I'm not a professional in the field so I'm probably not qualified to answer a question like that.

    I see Chinese, which has been allowed to develop with very little interference for several millennia, and note that during that time it has become rich, adaptable and easy to use. Then I look at English, which evolved from the speech of Germanic tribes who were in the Stone Age when China was already a major civilization. It has been buffeted by the migration of the Angles and Saxons, the influence of the early Latin-schooled scholars, the occupation of the Normans, exchange of ideas with other nations, expansion into several other countries, and finally waves of immigration. And even though I rank it second to Chinese in richness, adaptability and ease of use, it comes pretty close, and it's way ahead of many other languages that had similar advantages and disadvantages during their development.

    I may be maligning French. I'm not at all fluent but it does have many of the same traits I admire in English, especially the compact sentences that can be spoken slowly--although its grammar is preposterous. French has been spoken by millions of foreigners so perhaps it's undergone the same forces as English.
  3. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    I would be surprised if Chinese lent itself to math very well. The Chinese didn't get very far in mathematics or science until they contacted the outside world. It's a well debated question why China never developed a scientific method of inquiry. Moreover, Chinese makes mathematics in a way more difficult as it's number system does not represent a logical increase.

    Whereas in English we say 1 thousand, 10 thousand, 100 thousand, 1 million, 10 million, 100 million, 1 billion... the Chinese say 1 thousand 1 ten thousand, 10 ten thousand, 100 ten thousand, 1 ten million, 10 ten million, 100 ten million... it's less intuitive and makes it difficult for Chinese speakers to use our number system or to do calculations as quickly. (In my experience the Chinese, despite being well versed in math, actually do calculations slower than I do.)

    The counterargument to Fraggle's position is that written Chinese is indeed quite rich and full of a massive number of words and idiomatic phrases (known as chengyu 成语) that can express incredibly specific feelings or situations. However even well educated Chinese will rarely ever use these in daily speech. Whereas in English it's quite common to hear teenage boys debate if a girl is hot, sexy, smoking, beautiful, pretty, gorgeous, classically beautiful or there's just something about her, Chinese speakers will use the one common word for 'beautiful' (piaoliang 漂亮) 99% of the time. Though there are many chengyu 成语 to express different kinds of beauty, and every book I've read has used different ones to describe different female characters, I've never heard a Chinese person use one in daily speech.

    Chinese may allow for greater precision, depth and expressive ability in it's written form, but it's common spoken form rarely uses these tools and encourages both unoriginality and shallowness. From time to time I've met locals who take great pride in their use of the language and try purposefully to speak in a very literate manner; every time I ask one colleague for a way to express a certain idea he will spend a good few minutes thinking of the perfect, most educated-sounding way and insists that - as a well-educated foreigner - I should speak Chinese like a royal council rather than a motorbike driver. That said, this fellow is in a very tiny minority of the Chinese I know.
  4. skaught The field its covered in blood Valued Senior Member

    Fraggle, do yo uknow anything about the language spoken my the mesopotamians? I have heard that it was a highly efficient language, built mostly out of single syllable words that one puts together to create ideas new words etc.

    Any truth to this as you are aware of?
  5. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    It's rooted in their culture, not their language. Or to be precise, their language was shaped by their culture just as their development was. China has a respect for the past that we don't share, which is reflected in the fact that they have had a more-or-less continuous government for more than two thousand years, and a more-or-less continuous civilization for quite a bit longer than that. The Confucian worship of ancestors and unquestioning respect for the authority of elders is another manifestation of that powerful cultural motif.

    For the Chinese, progress must be balanced against stability. They're no dummies, they could have integrated gunpowder into their weaponry and changed the way they fought their wars... but they chose not to because it would have destabilized their civilization by injecting too many unpredictable variables. We're talking about a society in which people can leave their homes after the harvest season is over, and leave a huge container of rice right out in the middle of the floor, carefully identified as the seed rice for the next growing season. Absolutely no one, not brigands, not starving people, not even an invading army, no one will take that rice, because to do so would jeopardize the future of Chinese civilization.

    These are not people who are going to adopt newfangled ideas just to see what will happen next!
    No no no, you've got that wrong. Chinese culture simply groups powers of ten in fours instead of threes. Ten is shi, hundred is bai, thousand is wan, and ten thousand is chian. After that you have shi chian, bai chian, wan chian, and I'm sorry I don't know what the word is for 10^8 but then you start over again with shi 10^8, bai 10^8, etc. One of the differences between China and Rome is that, as an older civilization, the Chinese had to deal with larger numbers than the Romans, so they needed a word for ten-thousand, whereas the Romans didn't. There's nothing intrinsically "more logical" about putting the commas our way after every three zeros, than there is about putting them the Chinese way after every four zeros. Perhaps the only "logical" thing to do would be to group them in fives, and nobody does that.

    Most Europeans, except the French, group their zeros by sixes. 10^9 is a milliard or a "thousand million," and 10^12 is a billion. Then 10^15 is a billiard or a thousand billion, and 10^15 is a trillion. That way the Latin prefix bi-, tri-, quad-, etc., expresses a multiple of 10^6. Our way is illogical, since a quintillion = 10^[(5+1)*3] instead of 10^(5*6).
    Sure, but only because our way is different, not because it's any better.
    I hear people say hao kan "good looking," all the time (sorry I got no han zi here) and mei, literally "beautiful," (as in Mei Guo for "America," literally "beautiful country," when they could have picked any of several homophones for the mei syllable) is used in more formal discourse or for objects other than people.
    Most people have a modest vocabulary in their native language, regardless of which one it happens to be. Whether they copy the speech of more educated or more creative people says far more about their culture than their language.
    I'm not sure which language you're talking about. By the era in Mesopotamian history that we know the most about, they had adopted Aramaic, which is an Afro-Asiatic language. As in Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian, etc., most morphemes were formed of three consonants, with vowels added incidentally with no impact on meaning.

    Various tribes took their turns governing Mespotamia, but the farther back we go, the less we know about their languages, for the obvious reason that writing hadn't been invented yet. Ironically, the Aramaeans were never actually in power and in fact were enslaved, but due to a poorly-understood accident of history their language became the lingua franca of the region and the government adopted it. It retained that status until just a few hundred years ago. There are still sizeable but isolated populations where it's spoken, and its future is probably safe because it's now on the internet.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2009
  6. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Kind of like how getting run over by the Europeans and slaughtered by the Japanese destabilized their civilization? I think it's a bid Sinofied of you to say that their way is any sense more stable than the rest. They've had thousands of years of war and very little time when all of what the Han call 'Chinese land' was actually controlled by a Chinese emperor. Moreover, failing to keep up with the Jones' led directly to the greatest destabilization in China's history.
    I'm not sure which history you're reading. From what I've heard China saw years of hardship and toil and thousands of years of local magistrates essentially robbing the farmers. Perhaps I've read too much CCP propaganda, but I've yet to find many books that speak of the wonderful humanitarianism you're mentioning here. On the other hand, the Yuan dynasty (the Khans) overran many a city, burned their granaries and slaughtered their farmers while stealing all of their food. So...
    Excellent approach that's been so far. I frankly don't think the Chinese are particularly proud of that aspect of their culture. Though you'll meet enough people that proudly say "I am not an open-minded individual" in China with a smile, all of them know - and are taught - that China's great downfall was do largely to it's inability to comprehend progress (as well as a number of other aspects).
    That's true. I just think grouping in fours instead of threes is more difficult. You're right to suggest that five might be easier, but the human brain works well with 3s in a great many different areas of life. Moreover, though 5 is easy because of it's relationship to 10, in general I think the smaller the grouping the more easy it is to work with.
    I don't think I said our way was more logical. I just think it's easier. The human brain and the number 3 seem to like each other.
    No, a large amount of it is that our numerical system is more simple. Looking at the numbers in Chinese it is not possible to do certain calculations as quickly.

    In Arabic numerals multiplying something by 100 means adding two zeroes.
    In Chinese the rule is something like "well, if the number is in the higher two quadrants of the grouping of ten you're in, then you have to alter the first character..."

    There's a reason the Chinese switched to Arabic numerals.
    "Mei li" is used occasionally for people, but more often for things other than people. "Hao kan" is used occasionally, but more often to refer to something unusual with the person; a new haircut, a new dress, etc. Kind of like how we use "stunning" often to refer to a woman wearing a gorgeous dress. Though "hao kan" is used on occasion for just simply describing a girl, it is not a different type of beautiful than "piao liang", it is simply a matter of degree. (If that: I asked around and most people said they didn't consider the two words to be any different in degree or kind.)
    Again, I disagree. My colleagues and I - and my friends back home - frequently argue over the minutiae of which adjective or phrase best suits a situation. Chinese has been shaped over the centuries to have a grossly simplified oral language and a disturbingly complex written language. My pet theory is that the cause of such a simplified spoken language is twofold; (i) relative to the European languages I'm familiar with, Chinese has for the vast majority of it's modern history been spoken most widely by people with very poor education and usually no ability to read; (ii) it simplifies the process of turning Mandarin into a common language throughout China. The second factor is, I believe, more important. My girlfriend and many other friends will often stop mid-sentence and search long and hard for a word. (I usually interpret this as them being certain I won't understand the word they want to use!) Most of the time it's because they can't find a way to express something they know how to say in their local language but never use in Mandarin.

    Television, movies, newspapers and the sort have all attempted to solve this issue by widespread promulgation of standard Mandarin. The problem I see with this is that the flexible, debatable, fun and inventive words are all too base and often crude for the government to use in mass publication. There was a great article last year when the gov't tried to tell Beijingers not to use Beijing slang while the Olympics was on. The article proudly stated that all Beijingers should continue their inventive way of speaking because the watered-down, sanitized version of Mandarin being handed out across the nation was boring and unappealing.

    I just finished reading two books - Huo Zhe (活着 - can you read the han zi I write, at least?) and Xu San Guan Mai Xue Ji (许三观卖血记) - that both take place in rural areas of central/northern China. Every time a really funny part of the book came up I would ask a friend if they thought it was funny as well. Each time they laughed and then told me it was great but that only people from such-and-such-a-place would ever say that, then search for the way they'd say it in their home town.

    The Chinese languages most certainly have great variety and precision in their oral form. Mandarin - or, rather, the bastardized sanitized version handed out - is not used by most people in China in such an entertaining way.
  7. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    Are you familiar with Richard Nisbett's work?

    He inevestiagtes these things a lot, check out this:
    The book The Geography of Thought (also here) deals with the issue about Chinese and their culture that you have brouoght up.

    And here also: . Much interesting research on the comparison between "East" and "West". For example, the Chinese tend to reason differently about contradictions than Westerners do.
  8. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    I haven't read that book. A great number of western scientists who've spent time in China have written about this divide.

    I'll look into it!
  9. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    The best language - in what sense exactly?
    "Easiest to learn", "most precise to communicate in" ...?
    But where, when, with whom, in what circumstances?

    Interesting insights can be obtained from people who are fluent in several languages and who use them regularly.

    I suppose so, but by the time we did that, our circumstances would most likely change so much that the newly invented language would be already outdated.

    I think the most efficient path is to polish out one's own philosophy about what life is really about, be clear about one's values - communication is much easier then, even in an already existing language like English or which ever.

    A language does not exist in a vacuum. It is always embedded in a particular situation specified by historical, social, economical, environmental and possibly other factors.

    Perhaps. But as a culture, they seem to lack the greed and the passion necessary to pursue excellence in math for its own sake.

    Partly, yes. These topics are usually part of interdisciplinary studies. See for example Nisbett's studies mentioned above.
  10. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Have you ever lived in China?
  11. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

    No, but judging by the lack of fame that Chinese mathematicians have in the world, I conclude that math isn't a high priority in China, or at least was not in the past.
  12. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Today it is an exceptionally high priority. You're correct to say that in the past it was not valued much at all. Confucian philosophy took massive preference over everything else in life because only study of Confucian philosophy could lead to fortune and fame. So guess what every single person that had the opportunity to study chose to study.
  13. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Okay, so after four or five thousand years they finally ran into a set of circumstances that defeated them. Or did it? China was "conquered" by Marxists, but just like the Manchurians and the Mongols before them, the nation ultimately absorbed the conquerors. I wonder whether Karl Marx would recognize the economic system in modern China as communism, any more than Adam Smith would recognize that in the USA as a free market.
    I'm comparing China to Persia, Syria, Egypt, etc. Those countries were also overrun by occupying forces and their cultures would not be recognizable to a time traveler from their classical period. Up until the middle of the 20th century China's probably would have been. It's anybody's guess whether their resumption of sinification will return them to that condition in this century.
    The Khans were Mongol invaders, not Chinese. They were ultimately assimilated like the Norman invaders in England.
    On a cosmic timeline the Europeans weren't so sanguine about them either. Fibonacci brought them over in the 1200s, but for the next two centuries only scientists bothered to adopt them. Even merchants and tax collectors continued to use various forms of Bronze Age arithmetic.

    I suppose it's like us Americans and our beloved pounds, quarts, miles, BTUs, acres and degrees Fahrenheit. Deep in our hearts we are such anglophiles that we'll never give them up, even after the British surrendered even their shillings and guineas. Sci-fi writers predict future Brits sending their children to America to study their cultural history.;)
    But to a large extent the morphemes that make up the "words" in the local language exist in Mandarin with only a different pronunciation. Can't they just translate them literally? I know that's not 100% true, but the non-phonetic writing system has acted as a powerful stabilizing influence on the various Chinese languages. Cantonese and Beijing Mandarin are mutually incomprehensible phonetically, unlike English and German in which a great many cognates are recognizable; yet English and German are not mutually comprehensible conversationally because so many of the words are not cognates. Cantonese and Beijing people insist that they write the same way, even though they're both writing a formalized version of their colloquial speech, with not much more variance from it than Scots and Texans have to put up with.
    Yes, and I can even reproduce any that I find on any website. I just don't have a dropdown menu for the character set on this computer. More precisely I should say that I can "see" them, since I can only "read" a couple of hundred han zi, which puts me around 4.5 on my powers-of-three fluency scale in written Chinese, even though I'm closer to 6.5 in speech.
    It wasn't a high priority in most places until recently. Wherever civilization sprang up with its need for accounting records to manage transactions among strangers, rigorous arithmetic was soon developed. But mathematics as we know it (with a few exceptions like the rather tiny community of ancient Greek scholars and their counterparts in Babylon, India, Mexico, etc., whose arcane toil was probably completely unknown to the majority of their countrymen) is a product of the late first millennium C.E., and only became a cornerstone of civilization after the Enlightenment.
  14. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Long before the Marxists arrived China had been conquered by foreign devils. The adoption and continuing presence of nationalism in China is largely a result of that. And, in line with what you said, Smith would probably approve more of China than Marx.
    It will only continue to move further away. Modernization and traditional Confucianism create - in the Hegelian and Chinese lexicon - contradictions. I don't believe they will do so in the sense of creating fertile ground for revolutionary change, just that China will move in smaller, more specific areas away from Confucianism.
    That's not the way the Chinese read history! Again, though, I've never read anything describing the sort of selflessness you describe.
    I would be very interested to learn more about the math used by common people in the middle ages. That said, mathematics in the last few thousand years has not been measured by what the merchant is doing, but by what the scholars are doing. The Greek, Roman and Arabic numeral systems as well as language I believe serve to facilitate advancements in mathematics greater than does Chinese. This is due to being alphabet based - which I believe helps to increase awareness of logical connections rather than personal, metaphysical or web-like thinking facilitated by Chinese - as well as a few other features of our language (i.e. the relative ease of learning to read and write) and culture.
    Yes, you guys are completely nuts. I can't imagine why anyone uses that system!
    I'm pretty sure there's a greater variance than you're letting on. It is still usually understandable a large percentage of the time, but the word choice is extremely different. They may understand each other, but it would be very difficult if not impossible for a Mandarin speaker to write a novel that sounded like a Cantonese speaker. Even simple word choices, such as the verb "to like", are made differently in the two languages.

    And no, it is not so easy to simply translate a local language to Mandarin. Slang does not mean the same thing in one language as another. Even between English dialects 'fag' has a different meaning. Moreover, my girlfriend doesn't know how to write her local language. She knows how most of the common words correspond to Mandarin (to eat, to drink, etc.) but many of the more abstract and complicated ideas (different modes of satisfaction, happiness, etc.) are not so easy to translate. Imagine trying to translate the 1970s meaning of the word "high" to a farmer in 17th century England. How could you find a corresponding word? Or how about "bummed"? It would be difficult for anyone who doesn't speak both 'languages' or dialects absolutely fluently. Besides the difficulty of translating single complex words, each local language has it's own slang which is impossible to translate directly through use of characters even if they know which character it is. Because of the sanitization of Chinese art, most people are not immersed in 'native' Mandarin slang. (NB Most are aware of the nation-wide internet slang, however.) On more than one occasion I've understood a joke a Beijinger made while my southern friend has not. If all this is not enough to convince you (!) then consider that you yourself said translating jokes from one language to another is unbelievably hard and really being able to play with a second language takes years of study. Because most people speak their local language every minute they're at home, they don't try as hard to play with Mandarin; it's much easier in their first language!
    So what am I in yours? If I can read about 3000+字 and I can probably use or understand about 4000 - 5000 words in speaking.
  15. leopold i miss my coco. Valued Senior Member

    what are these characters and why are they being displayed on my monitor as hexadecimal?
  16. nirakar ( i ^ i ) Registered Senior Member

    What about Chinese being a tonal language? Does that make it harder for Europeans to learn Chinese.

    I have never cone across a people who have as much difficulty with English pronunciation as the Chinese do. Is the reciprocal also true; would Chinese be the most difficult language for English speaking people to correctly pronounce words in?
  17. Xylene Valued Senior Member

    What happens if you're a tone-deaf member of a Chinese family? I assume tone-deafness occurs among the Chinese...I guess they'd have a really serious problem learning the spoken language, and have to compensate in other ways.
  18. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    Chinese has far fewer sounds than does English, so it's not so difficult for us to learn. The tones take about 6 weeks to get decent at and much longer to master perfectly. Most of the sounds in Chinese seem to overlap with either English or French so I don't have much trouble making any of the sounds. For Chinese learners, a great many of the sounds they encounter are new and they find it very difficult to make these sounds.

    Those characters I wrote are Chinese. They appear funny to you because you don't have the East Asian Languages pack installed for your browser.
  19. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    I doubt it. China has corporations, which destroy the level playing field he envisioned, with buyers and sellers of roughly equal stature negotiating with each other. And China has a strong meddlesome government that interferes with the law of supply and demand. Of course the former implies the latter, since the corporation is an artifact invented by strong governments to take the place of the aristocracy as feudalism died out.
    I didn't mean to imply that the assimilation of the Mongols was done benignly. Nonetheless it happened gradually with no discontinuity in government. In the same way, you can't point to a year or even a score of years and say, "This is when control of England passed from the Normans back to the English." By then the bloodlines had become too mingled.
    You must be a scholar because I will guarantee that this is not how a merchant would see it.;)
    The Greeks used letters for numerals, but there was no sense of order of magnitude. They used a different series for tens than for ones. As for Roman numerals, you must be joking. A common joke among computer programmers in my day was, "Trying to code a scientific problem in Fortran is even harder than doing it in Roman numerals."
    Because it's what we were taught when we were kids so we know it intuitively. When someone asks me whether an insulator five millimeters thick will be adequate, I have to say to myself, "Um, let's see, roughly 25 mm to the inch to that's about a fifth of an inch..." If they say the fuel consumption of their new Toyota is 8 liters per 100km, I have to divide 225 by 8 to get miles per gallon. If they complain that the temperature in Arizona was 44 degrees Centigrade during their business trip, I have to remember that C=5(F-32)/9... or is it vice versa? And if they tell me proudly that their new farm has 30 hectares, I have to go look that up. In no case do those numbers evoke an intuitive response. Is that insulator overkill or ridiculously thin? Is that car a gas guzzler or very thrifty? Was that a hot day in the desert or was he grateful that he was there during a cold wave? What the heck is a "hectare," some new hybrid variety of alpaca? Nothing comes into America in metric units so we have no reason to abandon them. Come back in 50 years when some other country leads the world economy--and we haven't found an excuse to solve the problem by overthrowing their government.
    I didn't mean to say that it would be easy. I merely suggested that in writing, with the problem of homonyms gone, it should not be difficult for a speaker of any Chinese language to understand the written language of another. The choice of words might certainly appear bizarre, but the meaning of most of them should not be too difficult to puzzle out.
    Well of course. But people generally write a more standardized language than they speak.
    The point is that I wouldn't try to translate it. I would simply write the word down and expect the reader to eventually figure out the meaning from context. Besides, there's often more continuity to slang than you'd think. "High" and "stoned" were both used in the context of alcohol.
    I call it a "powers of three" scale but it's really "half-powers of ten." 10,000 words is 8.0 and 3,000 is roughly 7.0. So you're somewhere in the mid-7's. I don't adjust it for mastery of grammar, which would of course make a big difference at the low end, but once your vocabulary gets up into the thousands your grammar has to be at a comparable level or you won't get any value out of those words.
    Every language has some special trait that makes it difficult for speakers of some other specific language. The flapped R of perhaps most of the world's languages is very difficult for Americans, probably because nobody tells them it's the sound we use for the T in "water." The arbitrary clusters of consonants in the Slavic languages are also hard for us.

    But phonetics is only one aspect of the difficulty. How about grammar? Anglophones are overwhelmed by the complex grammatical paradigms of even some of the closely related Indo-European languages. Adjectives agreeing in gender, case and number with their noun? What exactly is a "case," anyway? Thirty or forty different inflected forms for one verb?
    Then you haven't met a lot of Japanese people! These days many of them have been studying English since they were children, when it was easier to learn a foreign language. In my day they were trying to learn it as adults and in many cases it was difficult to figure out that English was the language they were attempting to speak.
    I didn't think so in my Chinese class, but then most of the students were several years younger than me. Still, I'd have to vote for Russian, of the few languages that were studied at all in America back then.
    Being tone-deaf doesn't mean that you can't hear that two sounds have different tones. It just means that you can't hear the precise relationship between their frequencies. People who are tone deaf enjoy music and can distinguish well-played music from poorly played. That must mean that they are not devoid of their harmonic sense, the ability to hear that the frequencies of two notes are in the ratio of small integers, which sets up a slightly more complicated waveform that "feels" good to our brain, as opposed to the chaotic waveform of two notes whose frequencies are in a non-harmonic ratio. Tone-deaf people can tell that one note is higher or lower than another; you can test this by listening to them try to sing; they know whether to go up or down, just not by how much.

    That's all it takes to speak Mandarin with its simplified tonal structure. There are only four tones: high, low, rising, falling. Cantonese or Fuqian with their twelve tones might be impossible.
    Aspiration is phonemic in Chinese and that's a problem for speakers of Western Indo-European languages--but not Indians.
  20. Tyler Registered Senior Member

    The vast majority of the nation runs on market principles rather than state-organized functions. Moreover, China is moving in a more statist-capitalist manner than in a progression towards socialism. I guess it's safe to say both Smith and Marx would be relatively disgusted by the policies but fairly impressed by the results. I think Smith would be more happy because Marx would still see the economy as crushing the Hegelian spirit of the worker, whereas Smith would more or less just look at quality of life.
    Well I did study math, philosophy of math and history of math! So yes, I guess in some sense that would make me a scholar! Not a very good one, mind you...
    And yet the results were greater. It's impossible to separate which factors led to which results, of course.
    That's not my point. What I'm trying to say is that the most clever, interesting, dirty, crude, original and arguably creative plays the average Chinese person does with their language are done in their local language and hard to translate to Mandarin.
    But what I said was that for many of these local-language words they don't know which Mandarin word it corresponds to! And they never learn how to write down their own language. So some relatively obscure word - such as a certain kind of happiness or sadness - may in years past have been written down as a certain Chinese character by the locals, and then roughly (though probably not with complete accuracy) understandable to a speaker of another Chinese language, but today the young grow up never learning to write down their own language. They only learn how to write down Mandarin. So they never really get a strong sense of which word in their local language corresponds to which character unless they study the older texts of their region, something not done in public schools. The Mandarinization of China has many benefits. One detriment - to everyone who is not from the small region around Beijing - is that the beauty, art and creativity of the local language are now rarely preserved in written form.
    Well, I counted up in my books how many words I've studied with intent to remember and it was about 6,500. To be honest, I find it kind of strange that your and my Chinese would be set at the same level. That seems like an odd result. I have no problem sitting and discussing the nuclear issue in Korea or the Afghan war in Chinese. I've obviously never heard you speak Chinese, but by all accounts there seems to be a distance between you and myself. On top of that, I have no problem writing an essay on the Taiwan question or prostitution in China. If you only ever had a written vocabulary of a few hundreds, that would be way out of your league.

    I'm not trying to come off as arrogant, by the way, that's purely accidental!
    I don't think that takes very long to learn. On the other hand, 'r' and 'l' evade Chinese speakers for decades. Probably the most difficult sound in Chinese for English speakers in my experience has been either the "v" sound such as in "女" or the "ing" sound as in "平". Most foreigners (myself included for a long time) pronounced that "ing" similar to the English one, but there is a significant difference. The "v" sound, on the other hand, is already familiar to those of us who speak French.
    1 = flat (high)
    2 = rising
    3 = falling and then rising
    4 = falling
    5 = none, or barely pronounced
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2009

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