Merry Christmas / Shèng dàn jié !

There are two ways to say “Christmas” in Mandarin Chinese – either ►shèng dàn jié (聖誕節 trad 圣诞节 simp) or ►yē dàn jié (耶誕節 trad 耶诞节 simp). In each of the phrases, the final two characters (►dàn jié) are the same. ►Dàn refers to birth, and ►jié means “holiday”. The first character of Christmas can be either ►shèng or ►. Shèng translates as “saint” and yē is a phonetic which is used for Jesus – ►yē sū (耶穌 trad 耶稣 simp). Shèng dàn jié means “the birth of a saint holiday” and yē dàn jié means “the birth of Jesus holiday.”  Shèng dàn jié is the more popular of the two phrases. Whenever you see ►shèng dàn, though, remember that you can also use ►yē dàn instead.  From:

Pimsleur I … DONE!!!

I just finished the first 30 units of Pimsleur Mandarin!!!  🙂

Despite the fact that my instruction has been limited to trite phrases such as…

  1. I want to eat/drink something.
  2. Do you want to do something at my place?
  3. I don’t know / I don’t understand what you are saying.
  4. Give me some RenMin Bi!
  5. I want to buy x.
  6. I want to go to Hong Kong by plane.
  7. The stores are open / closed.  etc.

… I feel like my abilities are improving substantially!  The tones of Chinese, which at first were completely incomprehensible to me, are now (relatively easily)  recognizable.  I feel like Pimsleur and the modules of FSI that I have completed have given me command of about 300 vocabulary words.  While this is not a huge number of words, I can watch Chinese TV and listen to Chinese podcasts and pick out a word or two in every sentence.  My intuition that Pimsleur is much better suited to uninflected languages like Mandarin is so far, correct.  I seem to be retaining most of the material since I don’t need to be concerned with inflections, verb conjugations and the like.  I just memorize the sentences and the tones.  I have become an excellent Mandarin parrot.

My progress with the FSI Standard Chinese course has been much slower in comparison to the Pimsleur course. This is fine with me as Pimsleur is my hare compared to my FSI tortoise.  I am really just using Pimsleur as my foundation.  Once I complete all three levels of Pimsleur, I will have a good base and will be freed up to devote more time to the much more intensive FSI course.  I love the Beginning Chinese Reader text.  I am amazed at how easy it has been to recognize the characters in print.  Writing them is, of course, a different matter and is not happening yet.  The only problem with the course is that is teaches the older “traditional” characters as opposed to the new “simplified” characters.  The PRC devised the simplified character system in the 1950’s and now these are exclusively used in Mandarin speaking regions of China.  The traditional characters, on the other hand, are still used in the Cantonese speaking regions of China, Taiwan and Macau.  They are not that different, but different enough to really screw up novice learners of Chinese like myself.

Chinese, along with Japanese, Korean, Cantonese and Arabic are widely considered the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn.  The Foreign Service Institute complied data resulting from decades of instructing diplomats, getting them from ground zero to a level three (professional proficiency)  in the quickest time possible.   They determined that it takes, on average,  2200 hours of study to achieve a level 3, (what most of us would consider ” fluent ” ) in the above languages for diplomats.  That is studying 5 hours a day, 5 days a week for 2 years.  Compare this to a language closely related to English, such as Spanish, Dutch or French,  where they found that it only takes 600 hours to reach the same level of competency!!  One could become fluent in nearly four “easy” or “Category I” languages in the time that it would take to become fluent in Mandarin!!

For myself, having attempted to learn Korean (which I truly believe is the hardest language on earth), Japanese and Arabic in the past, I can see how the evil reputation for these “Category IV languages” is founded!  Having battled the crazy scripts, honorifics, backwards word order, unintelligible dialects, muffled sounds and limitless lexicons of the above, I was expecting to find the same in Mandarin.   At first glance, Mandarin seemed deceptively different!  First off, there is no gender…there isn’t even a separate word for he or she! It is  ta both cases.  Plurals are a cinch to form, just add the suffix men.  Verbs are not conjugated. Shi means I am, you are , he is, we are etc.  To form the  past tense, just add the suffix le ( or sometimes shi…de).  The future tense seems easy enough; just use the verb stem with the future classifier of choice ( tomorrow, later, next week, etc…)  There are no declensions, much to the relief of anyone who has attempted to tackle a Slavic or Finno-Ugric language.   Compared to these other Category IV languages Mandarin seems, do I dare say it…easy??  This, of course , does not take into account the writing system which seems impossible to master!

A linguist friend of mine told me the difference between Chinese and the other Category IV languages.  The other languages on the list seem difficult, if not impossible from the start and get easier as one accumulates more knowledge of them.  Chinese is the opposite.  It seems easy at first, but, like an onion, once one peels off a layer, one discovers hundreds more layers beneath it. The more one thinks he knows about Chinese, the more he discovers he doesn’t know! The road starts out flat, only to later demand the ascension of an unscaleable peak!

I highly recommend this excellent essay entitled “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard” by David Moser .  It is a truly discouraging pine of a Chinese linguist that is sure to turn off any student from attempting this language.  (…with the exception of a masochists like myself…)

Some of his points are:  The writing system is so difficult that even native Chinese can’t master it.  Imagine a couple of US professors standing around not being able to write the word “sneeze”!  Since there is no alphabet in Chinese you either know the character for the word or you can’t read or write it; and there are more than 20,000 characters!!  Never mind the fact that there are the two simultaneous character sets to battle with.  Chinese is not phonetic so even if a Chinese student recognizes the characters on a street sign, chances are he won’t know how how to pronounce them.

There are no cognate “freebies” in Chinese.   Even the word America ( which seems to be some derivation of America in every other language I’m aware of ) is Měiguó (traditional 美國, simplified 美国).  It means “beautiful country” which is nice, but doesn’t help learners much. Like wise, English is Yīngwén (traditional and simplified 英文) which means something like “brave or bright language”.

Then there is the issue of “tones”, different pitches that, when applied to a word completely change its meaning.  Moser explains it like this,

“ I have to mention this problem because it’s one of themost common complaints about learning Chinese, and it’s one of the aspects of the language that westerners are notoriously bad at. Every person who tackles Chinese at first has a little trouble believing this aspect of the language. How is it possible that Shùxué means “mathematics” while Shūxiě means “blood transfusion”, or that means guǒjiǎng “you flatter me” while means guǒjiàng “fruit paste”?

By itself, this property of Chinese would be hard enough; it means that, for us non-native speakers, there is this extra, seemingly irrelevant aspect of the sound of a word that you must rnemorize along with the vowels and consonants. But where the real difficulty comes in is when you start to really use Chinese to express yourself. You suddenly find yourself straitjacketed…”

Despite this, the langauge continues to interest and challenge me.  Each word and character is a window into the history and culture of the Chinese.  For example, the character for “good” is the combination of the characters for “woman” and “child”.  How great is that?! I may need to pare back my expectations of myself since I will not be able to spend anywhere near 5 hours a day on my Chinese studies.   But hey, who knows?… I’m not the first “wai gwo ren” to try and learn this impossible language am I??


6 thoughts on “Merry Christmas / Shèng dàn jié !

  1. @liddytime wrote:
    there isn’t even a separate word for he or she!

    @strikingstar wrote:
    Actually… there’s 他 (he) and 她 (she). There’s also 它 (neutral).

    @liddytime wrote:
    Yeah, true. I was just referring to spoken Chinese. I haven’t gotten to 它 yet! Still, it is so nice to not have to worry about genders as in most indo-European languages!

    @Ari wrote:
    The 她 character is actually a recent (early 1900s) invention. In Classical Chinese 他 means both “he” and “she”. The character was invented for gender equality reasons, since one didn’t want people to assume masculinity. This is sort of funny in light of recent movements in Western languages to create gender-neutral pronouns.

    Interesting tidbits: Cantonese only has a single character for “keoi5” (he/she/it): 佢. In Taiwan, it’s common to go further and use a specific character for “ta1” when referring to animals: 牠. There’s also a special “ni3” for female “you”: 妳, though I don’t think that’s universally used.

    By the way, I believe 美國 and 英國 are actually derived from the English “America” and “England”. Specifically, the “mei” comes from the “me” in “America” and the “ying” comes from “Eng” in “England”.

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