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Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

The first question any thoughtful person might ask when reading the title of this essay is, “Hard for whom?” A reasonable question. After all, Chinese people seem to learn it just fine. When little Chinese kids go through the “terrible twos”, it’s Chinese they use to drive their parents crazy, and in a few years the same kids are actually using those impossibly complicated Chinese characters to scribble love notes and shopping lists. So what do I mean by “hard”? Since I know at the outset that the whole tone of this document is going to involve a lot of whining and complaining, I may as well come right out and say exactly what I mean. I mean hard for me, a native English speaker trying to learn Chinese as an adult, going through the whole process with the textbooks, the tapes, the conversation partners, etc., the whole torturous rigmarole. I mean hard for me — and, of course, for the many other Westerners who have spent years of their lives bashing their heads against the Great Wall of Chinese.

From Schriftfestschrift: Essays on Writing and Language in Honor of John DeFrancis on His Eightieth Birthday (Sino-Platonic Papers No. 27, August 1991), edited by Victor H. Mair

If this were as far as I went, my statement would be a pretty empty one. Of course Chinese is hard for me. After all, any foreign language is hard for a non-native, right? Well, sort of. Not all foreign languages are equally difficult for any learner. It depends on which language you’re coming from. A French person can usually learn Italian faster than an American, and an average American could probably master German a lot faster than an average Japanese, and so on. So part of what I’m contending is that Chinese is hard compared to … well, compared to almost any other language you might care to tackle. What I mean is that Chinese is not only hard for us (English speakers), but it’s also hard in absolute terms. Which means that Chinese is also hard for them, for Chinese people.1

If you don’t believe this, just ask a Chinese person. Most Chinese people will cheerfully acknowledge that their language is hard, maybe the hardest on earth. (Many are even proud of this, in the same way some New Yorkers are actually proud of living in the most unlivable city in America.) Maybe all Chinese people deserve a medal just for being born Chinese. At any rate, they generally become aware at some point of the Everest-like status of their native language, as they, from their privileged vantage point on the summit, observe foolhardy foreigners huffing and puffing up the steep slopes.

Everyone’s heard the supposed fact that if you take the English idiom “It’s Greek to me” and search for equivalent idioms in all the world’s languages to arrive at a consensus as to which language is the hardest, the results of such a linguistic survey is that Chinese easily wins as the canonical incomprehensible language. (For example, the French have the expression “C’est du chinois“, “It’s Chinese”, i.e., “It’s incomprehensible”. Other languages have similar sayings.) So then the question arises: What do the Chinese themselves consider to be an impossibly hard language? You then look for the corresponding phrase in Chinese, and you find Gēn tiānshū yíyàng跟天书一样 meaning “It’s like heavenly script.”

There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.

Okay, having explained a bit of what I mean by the word, I return to my original question: Why is Chinese so damn hard?

1. Because the writing system is ridiculous.

Beautiful, complex, mysterious — but ridiculous. I, like many students of Chinese, was first attracted to Chinese because of the writing system, which is surely one of the most fascinating scripts in the world. The more you learn about Chinese characters the more intriguing and addicting they become. The study of Chinese characters can become a lifelong obsession, and you soon find yourself engaged in the daily task of accumulating them, drop by drop from the vast sea of characters, in a vain attempt to hoard them in the leaky bucket of long-term memory.

The beauty of the characters is indisputable, but as the Chinese people began to realize the importance of universal literacy, it became clear that these ideograms were sort of like bound feet — some fetishists may have liked the way they looked, but they weren’t too practical for daily use.

For one thing, it is simply unreasonably hard to learn enough characters to become functionally literate. Again, someone may ask “Hard in comparison to what?” And the answer is easy: Hard in comparison to Spanish, Greek, Russian, Hindi, or any other sane, “normal” language that requires at most a few dozen symbols to write anything in the language. John DeFrancis, in his book The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, reports that his Chinese colleagues estimate it takes seven to eight years for a Mandarin speaker to learn to read and write three thousand characters, whereas his French and Spanish colleagues estimate that students in their respective countries achieve comparable levels in half that time.2 Naturally, this estimate is rather crude and impressionistic (it’s unclear what “comparable levels” means here), but the overall implications are obvious: the Chinese writing system is harder to learn, in absolute terms, than an alphabetic writing system.3 Even Chinese kids, whose minds are at their peak absorptive power, have more trouble with Chinese characters than their little counterparts in other countries have with their respective scripts. Just imagine the difficulties experienced by relatively sluggish post-pubescent foreign learners such as myself.

Everyone has heard that Chinese is hard because of the huge number of characters one has to learn, and this is absolutely true. There are a lot of popular books and articles that downplay this difficulty, saying things like “Despite the fact that Chinese has [10,000, 25,000, 50,000, take your pick] separate characters you really only need 2,000 or so to read a newspaper”. Poppycock. I couldn’t comfortably read a newspaper when I had 2,000 characters under my belt. I often had to look up several characters per line, and even after that I had trouble pulling the meaning out of the article. (I take it as a given that what is meant by “read” in this context is “read and basically comprehend the text without having to look up dozens of characters”; otherwise the claim is rather empty.)

This fairy tale is promulgated because of the fact that, when you look at the character frequencies, over 95% of the characters in any newspaper are easily among the first 2,000 most common ones.4 But what such accounts don’t tell you is that there will still be plenty of unfamiliar words made up of those familiar characters. (To illustrate this problem, note that in English, knowing the words “up” and “tight” doesn’t mean you know the word “uptight”.) Plus, as anyone who has studied any language knows, you can often be familiar with every single word in a text and still not be able to grasp the meaning. Reading comprehension is not simply a matter of knowing a lot of words; one has to get a feeling for how those words combine with other words in a multitude of different contexts.5 In addition, there is the obvious fact that even though you may know 95% of the characters in a given text, the remaining 5% are often the very characters that are crucial for understanding the main point of the text. A non-native speaker of English reading an article with the headline “JACUZZIS FOUND EFFECTIVE IN TREATING PHLEBITIS” is not going to get very far if they don’t know the words “jacuzzi” or “phlebitis”.

The problem of reading is often a touchy one for those in the China field. How many of us would dare stand up in front of a group of colleagues and read a randomly-selected passage out loud? Yet inferiority complexes or fear of losing face causes many teachers and students to become unwitting cooperators in a kind of conspiracy of silence wherein everyone pretends that after four years of Chinese the diligent student should be whizzing through anything from Confucius to Lu Xun, pausing only occasionally to look up some pesky low-frequency character (in their Chinese-Chinese dictionary, of course). Others, of course, are more honest about the difficulties. The other day one of my fellow graduate students, someone who has been studying Chinese for ten years or more, said to me “My research is really hampered by the fact that I still just can’t read Chinese. It takes me hours to get through two or three pages, and I can’t skim to save my life.” This would be an astonishing admission for a tenth-year student of, say, French literature, yet it is a comment I hear all the time among my peers (at least in those unguarded moments when one has had a few too many Tsingtao beers and has begun to lament how slowly work on the thesis is coming).

A teacher of mine once told me of a game he and a colleague would sometimes play: The contest involved pulling a book at random from the shelves of the Chinese section of the Asia Library and then seeing who could be the first to figure out what the book was about. Anyone who has spent time working in an East Asia collection can verify that this can indeed be a difficult enough task — never mind reading the book in question. This state of affairs is very disheartening for the student who is impatient to begin feasting on the vast riches of Chinese literature, but must subsist on a bland diet of canned handouts, textbook examples, and carefully edited appetizers for the first few years.

The comparison with learning the usual western languages is striking. After about a year of studying French, I was able to read a lot. I went through the usual kinds of novels — La nausée by Sartre, Voltaire’s Candide, L’étranger by Camus — plus countless newspapers, magazines, comic books, etc. It was a lot of work but fairly painless; all I really needed was a good dictionary and a battered French grammar book I got at a garage sale.

This kind of “sink or swim” approach just doesn’t work in Chinese. At the end of three years of learning Chinese, I hadn’t yet read a single complete novel. I found it just too hard, impossibly slow, and unrewarding. Newspapers, too, were still too daunting. I couldn’t read an article without looking up about every tenth character, and it was not uncommon for me to scan the front page of the People’s Daily and not be able to completely decipher a single headline. Someone at that time suggested I read The Dream of the Red Chamber and gave me a nice three-volume edition. I just have to laugh. It still sits on my shelf like a fat, smug Buddha, only the first twenty or so pages filled with scribbled definitions and question marks, the rest crisp and virgin. After six years of studying Chinese, I’m still not at a level where I can actually read it without an English translation to consult. (By “read it”, I mean, of course, “read it for pleasure”. I suppose if someone put a gun to my head and a dictionary in my hand, I could get through it.) Simply diving into the vast pool of Chinese in the beginning is not only foolhardy, it can even be counterproductive. As George Kennedy writes, “The difficulty of memorizing a Chinese ideograph as compared with the difficulty of learning a new word in a European language, is such that a rigid economy of mental effort is imperative.”6 This is, if anything, an understatement. With the risk of drowning so great, the student is better advised to spend more time in the shallow end treading water before heading toward the deep end.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, another ridiculous aspect of the Chinese writing system is that there are two (mercifully overlapping) sets of characters: the traditional characters still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the simplified characters adopted by the People’s Republic of China in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Any foreign student of Chinese is more or less forced to become familiar with both sets, since they are routinely exposed to textbooks and materials from both Chinas. This linguistic camel’s-back-breaking straw puts an absurd burden on the already absurdly burdened student of Chinese, who at this point would gladly trade places with Sisyphus. But since Chinese people themselves are never equally proficient in both simplified and complex characters, there is absolutely no shame whatsoever in eventually concentrating on one set to the partial exclusion the other. In fact, there is absolutely no shame in giving up Chinese altogether, when you come right down to it.

2. Because the language doesn’t have the common sense to use an alphabet.

To further explain why the Chinese writing system is so hard in this respect, it might be a good idea to spell out (no pun intended) why that of English is so easy. Imagine the kind of task faced by the average Chinese adult who decides to study English. What skills are needed to master the writing system? That’s easy: 26 letters. (In upper and lower case, of course, plus script and a few variant forms. And throw in some quote marks, apostrophes, dashes, parentheses, etc. — all things the Chinese use in their own writing system.) And how are these letters written? From left to right, horizontally, across the page, with spaces to indicate word boundaries. Forgetting for a moment the problem of spelling and actually making words out of these letters, how long does it take this Chinese learner of English to master the various components of the English writing system? Maybe a day or two.

Now consider the American undergraduate who decides to study Chinese. What does it take for this person to master the Chinese writing system? There is nothing that corresponds to an alphabet, though there are recurring components that make up the characters. How many such components are there? Don’t ask. As with all such questions about Chinese, the answer is very messy and unsatisfying. It depends on how you define “component” (strokes? radicals?), plus a lot of other tedious details. Suffice it to say, the number is quite large, vastly more than the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet. And how are these components combined to form characters? Well, you name it — components to the left of other components, to the right of other components, on top of other components, surrounding other components, inside of other components — almost anything is possible. And in the process of making these spatial accommodations, these components get flattened, stretched, squashed, shortened, and distorted in order to fit in the uniform square space that all characters are supposed to fit into. In other words, the components of Chinese characters are arrayed in two dimensions, rather than in the neat one-dimensional rows of alphabetic writing.

Okay, so ignoring for the moment the question of elegance, how long does it take a Westerner to learn the Chinese writing system so that when confronted with any new character they at least know how to move the pen around in order to produce a reasonable facsimile of that character? Again, hard to say, but I would estimate that it takes the average learner several months of hard work to get the basics down. Maybe a year or more if they’re a klutz who was never very good in art class. Meanwhile, their Chinese counterpart learning English has zoomed ahead to learn cursive script, with time left over to read Moby Dick, or at least Strunk & White.

This is not exactly big news, I know; the alphabet really is a breeze to learn. Chinese people I know who have studied English for a few years can usually write with a handwriting style that is almost indistinguishable from that of the average American. Very few Americans, on the other hand, ever learn to produce a natural calligraphic hand in Chinese that resembles anything but that of an awkward Chinese third-grader. If there were nothing else hard about Chinese, the task of learning to write characters alone would put it in the rogues’ gallery of hard-to-learn languages.

3. Because the writing system just ain’t very phonetic.

So much for the physical process of writing the characters themselves. What about the sheer task of memorizing so many characters? Again, a comparison of English and Chinese is instructive. Suppose a Chinese person has just the previous day learned the English word “president”, and now wants to write it from memory. How to start? Anyone with a year or two of English experience is going to have a host of clues and spelling rules-of-thumb, albeit imperfect ones, to help them along. The word really couldn’t start with anything but “pr”, and after that a little guesswork aided by visual memory (“Could a ‘z’ be in there? That’s an unusual letter, I would have noticed it, I think. Must be an ‘s’…”) should produce something close to the target. Not every foreigner (or native speaker for that matter) has noted or internalized the various flawed spelling heuristics of English, of course, but they are at least there to be utilized.

Now imagine that you, a learner of Chinese, have just the previous day encountered the Chinese word for “president” (总统 zǒngtǒng ) and want to write it. What processes do you go through in retrieving the word? Well, very often you just totally forget, with a forgetting that is both absolute and perfect in a way few things in this life are. You can repeat the word as often as you like; the sound won’t give you a clue as to how the character is to be written. After you learn a few more characters and get hip to a few more phonetic components, you can do a bit better. (“Zǒng 总 is a phonetic component in some other character, right?…Song? Zeng? Oh yeah, cong 总 as in cōngmíng 聪明.”) Of course, the phonetic aspect of some characters is more obvious than that of others, but many characters, including some of the most high-frequency ones, give no clue at all as to their pronunciation.

All of this is to say that Chinese is just not very phonetic when compared to English. (English, in turn, is less phonetic than a language like German or Spanish, but Chinese isn’t even in the same ballpark.) It is not true, as some people outside the field tend to think, that Chinese is not phonetic at all, though a perfectly intelligent beginning student could go several months without noticing this fact. Just how phonetic the language is a very complex issue. Educated opinions range from 25% (Zhao Yuanren)7 to around 66% (DeFrancis),8 though the latter estimate assumes more knowledge of phonetic components than most learners are likely to have. One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it. Furthermore, this phonetic aspect of the language doesn’t really become very useful until you’ve learned a few hundred characters, and even when you’ve learned two thousand, the feeble phoneticity of Chinese will never provide you with the constant memory prod that the phonetic quality of English does.

Which means that often you just completely forget how to write a character. Period. If there is no obvious semantic clue in the radical, and no helpful phonetic component somewhere in the character, you’re just sunk. And you’re sunk whether your native language is Chinese or not; contrary to popular myth, Chinese people are not born with the ability to memorize arbitrary squiggles. In fact, one of the most gratifying experiences a foreign student of Chinese can have is to see a native speaker come up a complete blank when called upon to write the characters for some relatively common word. You feel an enormous sense of vindication and relief to see a native speaker experience the exact same difficulty you experience every day.

This is such a gratifying experience, in fact, that I have actually kept a list of characters that I have observed Chinese people forget how to write. (A sick, obsessive activity, I know.) I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like “tin can”, “knee”, “screwdriver”, “snap” (as in “to snap one’s fingers”), “elbow”, “ginger”, “cushion”, “firecracker”, and so on. And when I say “forget”, I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like “knee” or “tin can”? Or even a rarely-seen word like “scabbard” or “ragamuffin”? I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn’t remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 “to sneeze”. I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether “abracadabra” is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on “rhinoceros”, but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.

As one mundane example of the advantages of a phonetic writing system, here is one kind of linguistic situation I encountered constantly while I was in France. (Again I use French as my canonical example of an “easy” foreign language.) I wake up one morning in Paris and turn on the radio. An ad comes on, and I hear the word “amortisseur” several times. “What’s an amortisseur?” I think to myself, but as I am in a hurry to make an appointment, I forget to look the word up in my haste to leave the apartment. A few hours later I’m walking down the street, and I read, on a sign, the word “AMORTISSEUR” — the word I heard earlier this morning. Beneath the word on the sign is a picture of a shock absorber. Aha! So “amortisseur” means “shock absorber”. And voila! I’ve learned a new word, quickly and painlessly, all because the sound I construct when reading the word is the same as the sound in my head from the radio this morning — one reinforces the other. Throughout the next week I see the word again several times, and each time I can reconstruct the sound by simply reading the word phonetically — “a-mor-tis-seur“. Before long I can retrieve the word easily, use it in conversation, or write it in a letter to a friend. And the process of learning a foreign language begins to seem less daunting.

When I first went to Taiwan for a few months, the situation was quite different. I was awash in a sea of characters that were all visually interesting but phonetically mute. I carried around a little dictionary to look up unfamiliar characters in, but it’s almost impossible to look up a character in a Chinese dictionary while walking along a crowded street (more on dictionary look-up later), and so I didn’t get nearly as much phonetic reinforcement as I got in France. In Taiwan I could pass a shop with a sign advertising shock absorbers and never know how to pronounce any of the characters unless I first look them up. And even then, the next time I pass the shop I might have to look the characters up again. And again, and again. The reinforcement does not come naturally and easily.

4. Because you can’t cheat by using cognates.

I remember when I had been studying Chinese very hard for about three years, I had an interesting experience. One day I happened to find a Spanish-language newspaper sitting on a seat next to me. I picked it up out of curiosity. “Hmm,” I thought to myself. “I’ve never studied Spanish in my life. I wonder how much of this I can understand.” At random I picked a short article about an airplane crash and started to read. I found I could basically glean, with some guesswork, most of the information from the article. The crash took place near Los Angeles. 186 people were killed. There were no survivors. The plane crashed just one minute after take-off. There was nothing on the flight recorder to indicate a critical situation, and the tower was unaware of any emergency. The plane had just been serviced three days before and no mechanical problems had been found. And so on. After finishing the article I had a sudden discouraging realization: Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.

What was going on here? Why was this “foreign” language so transparent? The reason was obvious: cognates — those helpful words that are just English words with a little foreign make-up.9 I could read the article because most of the operative words were basically English: aeropuerto, problema mechanico, un minuto, situacion critica, emergencia, etc. Recognizing these words as just English words in disguise is about as difficult as noticing that Superman is really Clark Kent without his glasses. That these quasi-English words are easier to learn than Chinese characters (which might as well be quasi-Martian) goes without saying.

Imagine you are a diabetic, and you find yourself in Spain about to go into insulin shock. You can rush into a doctor’s office, and, with a minimum of Spanish and a couple of pieces of guesswork (“diabetes” is just “diabetes” and “insulin” is “insulina“, it turns out), you’re saved. In China you’d be a goner for sure, unless you happen to have a dictionary with you, and even then you would probably pass out while frantically looking for the first character in the word for insulin. Which brings me to the next reason why Chinese is so hard.

5. Because even looking up a word in the dictionary is complicated.

One of the most unreasonably difficult things about learning Chinese is that merely learning how to look up a word in the dictionary is about the equivalent of an entire semester of secretarial school. When I was in Taiwan, I heard that they sometimes held dictionary look-up contests in the junior high schools. Imagine a language where simply looking a word up in the dictionary is considered a skill like debate or volleyball! Chinese is not exactly what you would call a user-friendly language, but a Chinese dictionary is positively user-hostile.

Figuring out all the radicals and their variants, plus dealing with the ambiguous characters with no obvious radical at all is a stupid, time-consuming chore that slows the learning process down by a factor of ten as compared to other languages with a sensible alphabet or the equivalent. I’d say it took me a good year before I could reliably find in the dictionary any character I might encounter. And to this day, I will very occasionally stumble onto a character that I simply can’t find at all, even after ten minutes of searching. At such times I raise my hands to the sky, Job-like, and consider going into telemarketing.

Chinese must also be one of the most dictionary-intensive languages on earth. I currently have more than twenty Chinese dictionaries of various kinds on my desk, and they all have a specific and distinct use. There are dictionaries with simplified characters used on the mainland, dictionaries with the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and dictionaries with both. There are dictionaries that use the Wade-Giles romanization, dictionaries that use pinyin, and dictionaries that use other more surrealistic romanization methods. There are dictionaries of classical Chinese particles, dictionaries of Beijing dialect, dictionaries of chéngyǔ (four-character idioms), dictionaries of xiēhòuyǔ (special allegorical two-part sayings), dictionaries of yànyǔ (proverbs), dictionaries of Chinese communist terms, dictionaries of Buddhist terms, reverse dictionaries… on and on. An exhaustive hunt for some elusive or problematic lexical item can leave one’s desk “strewn with dictionaries as numerous as dead soldiers on a battlefield.”10

For looking up unfamiliar characters there is another method called the four-corner system. This method is very fast — rumored to be, in principle, about as fast as alphabetic look-up (though I haven’t met anyone yet who can hit the winning number each time on the first try). Unfortunately, learning this method takes about as much time and practice as learning the Dewey decimal system. Plus you are then at the mercy of the few dictionaries that are arranged according to the numbering scheme of the four-corner system. Those who have mastered this system usually swear by it. The rest of us just swear.

Another problem with looking up words in the dictionary has to do with the nature of written Chinese. In most languages it’s pretty obvious where the word boundaries lie — there are spaces between the words. If you don’t know the word in question, it’s usually fairly clear what you should look up. (What actually constitutes a word is a very subtle issue, of course, but for my purposes here, what I’m saying is basically correct.) In Chinese there are spaces between characters, but it takes quite a lot of knowledge of the language and often some genuine sleuth work to tell where word boundaries lie; thus it’s often trial and error to look up a word. It would be as if English were written thus:

FEAR LESS LY OUT SPOKE N BUT SOME WHAT HUMOR LESS NEW ENG LAND BORN LEAD ACT OR GEORGE MICHAEL SON EX PRESS ED OUT RAGE TO DAY AT THE STALE MATE BE TWEEN MAN AGE MENT AND THE ACT OR ‘S UNION BE CAUSE THE STAND OFF HAD SET BACK THE TIME TABLE FOR PRO DUC TION OF HIS PLAY, A ONE MAN SHOW CASE THAT WAS HIS FIRST RUN A WAY BROAD WAY BOX OFFICE SMASH HIT. “THE FIRST A MEND MENT IS AT IS SUE” HE PRO CLAIM ED. “FOR A CENS OR OR AN EDIT OR TO EDIT OR OTHER WISE BLUE PENCIL QUESTION ABLE DIA LOG JUST TO KOW TOW TO RIGHT WING BORN AGAIN BIBLE THUMP ING FRUIT CAKE S IS A DOWN RIGHT DIS GRACE.”

Imagine how this difference would compound the dictionary look-up difficulties of a non-native speaker of English. The passage is pretty trivial for us to understand, but then we already know English. For them it would often be hard to tell where the word boundaries were supposed to be. So it is, too, with someone trying to learn Chinese.

6. Then there’s classical Chinese (wenyanwen).

Forget it. Way too difficult. If you think that after three or four years of study you’ll be breezing through Confucius and Mencius in the way third-year French students at a comparable level are reading Diderot and Voltaire, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some westerners who can comfortably read classical Chinese, but most of them have a lot of gray hair or at least tenure.

Unfortunately, classical Chinese pops up everywhere, especially in Chinese paintings and character scrolls, and most people will assume anyone literate in Chinese can read it. It’s truly embarrassing to be out at a Chinese restaurant, and someone asks you to translate some characters on a wall hanging.

“Hey, you speak Chinese. What does this scroll say?” You look up and see that the characters are written in wenyan, and in incomprehensible “grass-style” calligraphy to boot. It might as well be an EKG readout of a dying heart patient.

“Uh, I can make out one or two of the characters, but I couldn’t tell you what it says,” you stammer. “I think it’s about a phoenix or something.”

“Oh, I thought you knew Chinese,” says your friend, returning to their menu. Never mind that an honest-to-goodness Chinese person would also just scratch their head and shrug; the face that is lost is yours.

Whereas modern Mandarin is merely perversely hard, classical Chinese is deliberately impossible. Here’s a secret that sinologists won’t tell you: A passage in classical Chinese can be understood only if you already know what the passage says in the first place. This is because classical Chinese really consists of several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway. An uninitiated westerner can no more be expected to understand such writing than Confucius himself, if transported to the present, could understand the entries in the “personal” section of the classified ads that say things like: “Hndsm. SWGM, 24, 160, sks BGM or WGM for gentle S&M, mod. bndg., some lthr., twosm or threesm ok, have own equip., wheels, 988-8752 lv. mssg. on ans. mach., no weirdos please.”

In fairness, it should be said that classical Chinese gets easier the more you attempt it. But then so does hitting a hole in one, or swimming the English channel in a straitjacket.

7. Because there are too many romanization methods and they all suck.

Well, perhaps that’s too harsh. But it is true that there are too many of them, and most of them were designed either by committee or by linguists, or — even worse — by a committee of linguists. It is, of course, a very tricky task to devise a romanization method; some are better than others, but all involve plenty of counterintuitive spellings.11 And if you’re serious about a career in Chinese, you’ll have to grapple with at least four or five of them, not including the bopomofu phonetic symbols used in Taiwan. There are probably a dozen or more romanization schemes out there somewhere, most of them mercifully obscure and rightfully ignored. There is a standing joke among sinologists that one of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.

8. Because tonal languages are weird.

Okay, that’s very Anglo-centric, I know it. But I have to mention this problem because it’s one of the most 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 shūxuě means “blood transfusion”, or that guòjiǎng means “you flatter me” while guǒjiàng means “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 memorize 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 — when you say the sentence with the intonation that feels natural, the tones come out all wrong. For example, if you wish say something like “Hey, that’s my water glass you’re drinking out of!”, and you follow your intonational instincts — that is, to put a distinct falling tone on the first character of the word for “my” — you will have said a kind of gibberish that may or may not be understood.

Intonation and stress habits are incredibly ingrained and second-nature. With non-tonal languages you can basically import, mutatis mutandis, your habitual ways of emphasizing, negating, stressing, and questioning. The results may be somewhat non-native but usually understandable. Not so with Chinese, where your intonational contours must always obey the tonal constraints of the specific words you’ve chosen. Chinese speakers, of course, can express all of the intonational subtleties available in non-tonal languages — it’s just that they do it in a way that is somewhat alien to us speakers of non-tonal languages. When you first begin using your Chinese to talk about subjects that actually matter to you, you find that it feels somewhat like trying to have a passionate argument with your hands tied behind your back — you are suddenly robbed of some vital expressive tools you hadn’t even been aware of having.

9. Because east is east and west is west, and the twain have only recently met.

Language and culture cannot be separated, of course, and one of the main reasons Chinese is so difficult for Americans is that our two cultures have been isolated for so long. The reason reading French sentences like “Le président Bush assure le peuple koweitien que le gouvernement américain va continuer à défendre le Koweit contre la menace irakienne,” is about as hard as deciphering pig Latin is not just because of the deep Indo-European family resemblance, but also because the core concepts and cultural assumptions in such utterances stem from the same source. We share the same art history, the same music history, the same history history — which means that in the head of a French person there is basically the same set of archetypes and the same cultural cast of characters that’s in an American’s head. We are as familiar with Rimbaud as they are with Rambo. In fact, compared to the difference between China and the U.S., American culture and and French culture seem about as different as Peter Pan and Skippy peanut butter.

Speaking with a Chinese person is usually a different matter. You just can’t drop Dickens, Tarzan, Jack the Ripper, Goethe, or the Beatles into a conversation and always expect to be understood. I once had a Chinese friend who had read the first translations of Kafka into Chinese, yet didn’t know who Santa Claus was. China has had extensive contact with the West in the last few decades, but there is still a vast sea of knowledge and ideas that is not shared by both cultures.

Similarly, how many Americans other than sinophiles have even a rough idea of the chronology of China’s dynasties? Has the average history major here ever heard of Qin Shi Huangdi and his contribution to Chinese culture? How many American music majors have ever heard a note of Peking Opera, or would recognize a pipa if they tripped over one? How many otherwise literate Americans have heard of Lu Xun, Ba Jin, or even Mozi?

What this means is that when Americans and Chinese get together, there is often not just a language barrier, but an immense cultural barrier as well. Of course, this is one of the reasons the study of Chinese is so interesting. It is also one of the reasons it is so damn hard.

Conclusion

I could go on and on, but I figure if the reader has bothered to read this far, I’m preaching to the converted, anyway. Those who have tackled other difficult languages have their own litany of horror stories, I’m sure. But I still feel reasonably confident in asserting that, for an average American, Chinese is significantly harder to learn than any of the other thirty or so major world languages that are usually studied formally at the university level (though Japanese in many ways comes close). Not too interesting for linguists, maybe, but something to consider if you’ve decided to better yourself by learning a foreign language, and you’re thinking “Gee, Chinese looks kinda neat.”

It’s pretty hard to quantify a process as complex and multi-faceted as language-learning, but one simple metric is to simply estimate the time it takes to master the requisite language-learning skills. When you consider all the above-mentioned things a learner of Chinese has to acquire — ability to use a dictionary, familiarity with two or three romanization methods, a grasp of principles involved in writing characters (both simplified and traditional) — it adds up to an awful lot of down time while one is “learning to learn” Chinese.

How much harder is Chinese? Again, I’ll use French as my canonical “easy language”. This is a very rough and intuitive estimate, but I would say that it takes about three times as long to reach a level of comfortable fluency in speaking, reading, and writing Chinese as it takes to reach a comparable level in French. An average American could probably become reasonably fluent in two Romance languages in the time it would take them to reach the same level in Chinese.

One could perhaps view learning languages as being similar to learning musical instruments. Despite the esoteric glories of the harmonica literature, it’s probably safe to say that the piano is a lot harder and more time-consuming to learn. To extend the analogy, there is also the fact that we are all virtuosos on at least one “instrument” (namely, our native language), and learning instruments from the same family is easier than embarking on a completely different instrument. A Spanish person learning Portuguese is comparable to a violinist taking up the viola, whereas an American learning Chinese is more like a rock guitarist trying to learn to play an elaborate 30-stop three-manual pipe organ.

Someone once said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.

There is still the awe-inspiring fact that Chinese people manage to learn their own language very well. Perhaps they are like the gradeschool kids that Baroque performance groups recruit to sing Bach cantatas. The story goes that someone in the audience, amazed at hearing such youthful cherubs flawlessly singing Bach’s uncompromisingly difficult vocal music, asks the choir director, “But how are they able to perform such difficult music?”

“Shh — not so loud!” says the director, “If you don’t tell them it’s difficult, they never know.”

 

How to Improve Your English Skills

Our most important piece of advice is: “Do something (anything).

If you don’t do anything, you won’t get anywhere.

Make it your hobby, not a chore.

Above all have fun!

Oh, and don’t be in too much of a hurry. You’re setting off on a long journey and there will be delays and frustrations along the way. Sometimes you’ll be in the fast lane and other times you’ll be stuck in traffic, but there will also be lots of interesting things and interesting people along the way. Take your time to really enjoy the experience.

There are many ways to improve your level of English, but only you can find the right way for you. Here are a few tips that might help:-

Improve your Learning Skills

Learning is a skill and it can be improved.

Your path to learning effectively is through knowing

  • yourself
  • your capacity to learn
  • processes you have successfully used in the past
  • your interest, and knowledge of what you wish to learn

Motivate yourself

If you are not motivated to learn English you will become frustrated and give up. Ask yourself the following questions, and be honest:-

  • Why do you need to learn/improve English?
  • Where will you need to use English?
  • What skills do you need to learn/improve? (Reading/Writing/Listening/Speaking)
  • How soon do you need to see results?
  • How much time can you afford to devote to learning English.
  • How much money can you afford to devote to learning English.
  • Do you have a plan or learning strategy?

Set yourself achievable goals

You know how much time you can dedicate to learning English, but a short time each day will produce better, longer-term results than a full day on the weekend and then nothing for two weeks.

Joining a short intensive course could produce better results than joining a course that takes place once a week for six months.

Here are some goals you could set yourself:-

  • Join an English course – a virtual one or a real one (and attend regularly).
  • Do your homework.
  • Read a book or a comic every month.
  • Learn a new word every day.
  • Visit an English speaking forum every day.
  • Read a news article on the net every day.
  • Do 10 minutes listening practice every day.
  • Watch an English film at least once a month.
  • Follow a soap, comedy or radio or TV drama.

A good way to meet your goals is to establish a system of rewards and punishments.

Decide on a reward you will give yourself for fulfilling your goals for a month.

  • A bottle of your favourite drink
  • A meal out / or a nice meal at home
  • A new outfit
  • A manicure or massage

Understanding how you learn best may also help you.

There are different ways to learn. Find out what kind of learner you are in order to better understand how to learn more effectively..

The visual learner

Do you need to see your teacher during lessons in order to fully understand the content of a lesson?

Do you prefer to sit at the front of the classroom to avoid visual obstructions (e.g. people’s heads)?

Do you think in pictures and learn best from visual displays including: diagrams, illustrated text books, overhead transparencies, videos, flashcards, flipcharts and hand-outs?

During a lecture or classroom discussion, do you prefer to take detailed notes to absorb the information?

!Learning Tip – you may benefit from taking part in traditional English lessons, but maybe private lessons would be better.

The auditory learner

Do you learn best through verbal lectures, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say?

Do you interpret the underlying meanings of speech through listening to tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances?

Does written information have little meaning until you hear it?

!Learning Tip – you may benefit from listening to the radio or listening to text as you read it. You could try reading text aloud and using a tape recorder to play it back to yourself.

The Tactile/Kinesthetic learner

Do you learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around you?

Do you find it hard to sit still for long periods?

Do you become distracted easily?

!Learning Tip – you may benefit from taking an active part in role plays or drama activities.

Other English Learning Tips

Travel to an English speaking country:-

  • England, America, Australia, Canada, South Africa, one of them is only a few hours away from you.
  • Specialist holidays are available to improve your English.
  • Take an English speaking tour or activity holiday.

Spend your time on things that interest you. If you like cooking then buy an English-language cookbook or find recipes on the net and practise following the recipes. You’ll soon know if you have made a mistake!

Keep something English on you (book, newspaper or magazine, cd or cassette, set of flashcards) all day and every day, you never know when you might have 5 spare minutes.

If you are too tired to actively practice just relax and listen to a story in English, an English pop song or talk radio station.

Get onto Google Plus, Skype, other social networks, or be really adventurous and start socialising in Virtual Worlds.

Start networking with native speakers / teachers and other learners.

Don’t restrict yourself to seeking out native speakers. Think about it, the likelihood of needing to speak English with non-native speakers is statistically much higher.

Ten Tips for Learning a New Language

If you’re a first-time language learner, you know that emotional ups and downs come with the territory. When you understand a concept or begin to comprehend the language, you may experience feelings of exhilaration. However, these are often followed by moments of frustration and discouragement, during which you might feel as if you will never master the concepts and attain the ability to understand and communicate effectively. Below are some time-tested, research-verified approaches that will help mitigate potential frustration and will increase your ability to succeed in language learning.

1. Set realistic expectations

It is natural to feel uncomfortable in a language class. You’re used to being in classes where the mode of communication — the language of instruction — is a given. In a language course, however, it is the mode of communication itself that is the focus of instruction. For this reason, a language course is different than most other courses you will ever take. Not understanding and making mistakes — things that are negative learning indicators in other courses — are a very natural part of the language learning process. Accept the fact that you will not understand everything. In fact, at the very beginning, you will not understand much at all.

Remember that during the initial period of adaptation your ear and your mind are adjusting to the sounds and the rhythm of the language. Though you will not understand all of what is being said, you will be amazed at your increasing ability to make sense of the language. Remember that the only way to learn the language is through practice, practice, and more practice; in the course of practicing you will make many errors … and you will learn from them.

2. Break study time into smaller chunks

Research shows that language students learn more effectively and retain more when they study frequently and for shorter periods of time than if they study infrequently for extended periods of time. Try to study each day, and whenever possible, several times a day. This means, for instance, doing a few homework exercises each day rather than doing all homework assignments the night before they are due. In addition, there are many otherwise mentally “idle” moments during the day when you can work in some studying. For example, you can review vocabulary while eating breakfast, recite the alphabet while showering, count your steps as you walk between classes, name as many object as you can in the target language on your to way school, take your vocabulary flash cards with you on a road trip. There are many moments during the day when you can squeeze in a few minutes of practice time. Through the repetition of material, it will be come increasingly familiar, until it eventually becomes an automatic part of your language repertoire.

3. Learn vocabulary effectively

Vocabulary is the most essential element of communication. The more words you know, the more you can say and understand. The absolute best way to learn vocabulary is through the use of flash cards that you make yourself. Purchase a set of 3 x 5 index cards and cut them in half. (This makes them small enough to carry everywhere.) Write a vocabulary word on the front and its English definition on the back. As you learn more information about each word (e.g. plural forms of nouns, principle parts of verbs), you can add these to the cards. There are many ways you can use flash cards as a learning tool. To help you learn and remember noun genders, for example, you can color code the nouns by gender, either by using colored cards or colored ink. When studying, organize words in meaningful groups (e.g., by noun gender, in thematic categories, regular verbs vs. irregular verbs). Shuffle the cards or groups, so that you use the stack(s) in a different order each time. Use the cards in both directions: first look at the foreign language words and try to recall the English definition. Then shuffle and look at the English definitions and attempt to remember the foreign language words. Flash cards offer many possibilities. Take advantage!

4. Practice language actively

Whenever possible, speak the language aloud rather than reciting it silently to yourself. Say vocabulary words out loud, read passages in the text aloud, do pronunciation activities orally and not just mentally. Write out the answers to activities rather than gliding through them in your mind. Read aloud entire sentences in an activity rather than just reading a fill-in response. Transferring language from your mind to your mouth is a skill that requires a great deal of practice.

5. Do homework conscientiously

In the course of a conversation, it is not practical to look up noun genders or fret over verb tenses. But homework offers you a golden opportunity to practice your language skills in a deliberate manner. When doing your homework, you have the luxury of time. Look up words and genders you don’t know. Refer to charts and other resources available to you. This will reinforce the material and eventually it will become automatic. If you never look things up or simply guess, you will be strongly reinforcing errors and you will never learn proper forms and words. Read instructor feedback on homework and ask clarifying questions when necessary. Maximize the utility of your homework to your learning.

6. Form study groups

Meet regularly with classmates to work together on homework assignments, to learn vocabulary, to study for tests, or just to practice speaking the language. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses when it comes to language learning. Learning with others helps decrease knowledge gaps and gives you opportunities to actively discuss concepts and material covered in class, thereby increasing the chances that you will remember it. You will benefit from the knowledge and abilities of your classmates, as they will from yours.

7. Identify your learning style

Each person has his/her own learning style and everyone learns at a different pace. Try not to get frustrated if someone else in class seems to be progressing more quickly than you. You might find that you have a knack for grammar but have difficulty with speaking. Or you may find that you understand things perfectly in class, but when it comes to the homework assignments, you feel lost. Strive to identify your own personal strengths and let these help you in your learning process. If you are a visual learner, for example, write things down and try to associate words with images. At the same time, strive to identify your own personal learning barriers and make efforts to overcome them. For example, if you tend to be quiet in classes and often refrain from participating, force yourself to sit at the front of the classroom.

 

8. Maximize your language exposure

If your ultimate goal is language fluency, as it is for many students learning a language, then it is important to know that you will become more fluent more quickly if you increase the amount of contact you have with the language. You can start by simply practicing the language with a classmate outside of class. You can befriend native speakers in your community or attend a local foreign language conversation hour, if one exists. Rent a movie in the target language, or listen to authentic audio or video online. (Many foreign television and radio stations have streaming or archived audio and video programs). Remember that you won’t be able to understand everything, and you might not understand much at all at first. Nonetheless, these experiences will make you increasingly familiar with the sounds, rhythm, and intonation of the language. Increased exposure to and active practice with the language will help you develop skills more quickly.

9. Spend time on task

Use the time you have in class each week to work on your language skills. This means not only attending and paying attention in class. If you finish a partner activity early, use the time to try conversing with your partner in the target language on a related topic. Or work on your written homework. Or study the weekly vocabulary. If you finish a lab activity early, attempt trying some supplemental activities, work on the week’s written homework, or explore some cultural sites. If you are in your language class, you should be doing something language-related. Make the most of the time you have to maximize your learning.

10. Communicate with your instructor

Take responsibility for your learning. Communicate with your instructor any problems that may be interfering with your learning or any specific difficulties that you are having with the material. Seek help immediately when you need it. You might be surprised how easily such difficulties can be resolved. Also, be proactive about making up missed work. Not only your grade, but also your success at learning depend on it.

A Brief History of the English Language

The English language belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest undoubted living relatives of English are Scots and Frisian. Frisian is a language spoken by approximately half a million people in the Dutch province of Friesland, in nearby areas of Germany, and on a few islands in the North Sea. The history of the English language has traditionally been divided into three main periods: Old English (450-1100 AD), Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD) and Modern English (since 1500). Over the centuries, the English language has been influenced by a number of other languages. Old English (450 – 1100 AD): During the 5th Century AD three Germanic tribes (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) came to the British Isles from various parts of northwest Germany as well as Denmark. These tribes were warlike and pushed out most of the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants from England into Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. One group migrated to the Brittany Coast of France where their descendants still speak the Celtic Language of Breton today. Through the years, the Saxons, Angles and Jutes mixed their different Germanic dialects. This group of dialects forms what linguists refer to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The word “English” was in Old English “Englisc”, and that comes from the name of the Angles. The Angles were named from Engle, their land of origin. Before the Saxons the language spoken in what is now England was a mixture of Latin and various Celtic languages which were spoken before the Romans came to Britain (54-5BC). The Romans brought Latin to Britain, which was part of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. Many of the words passed on from this era are those coined by Roman merchants and soldiers. These include win (wine), candel (candle), belt (belt), weall (wall). (“Language Timeline”, The British Library Board) The influence of Celtic upon Old English was slight. In fact, very few Celtic words have lived on in the English language. But many of place and river names have Celtic origins: Kent, York, Dover, Cumberland, Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn. The arrival of St. Augustine in 597 and the introduction of Christianity into Saxon England brought more Latin words into the English language. They were mostly concerned with the naming of Church dignitaries, ceremonies, etc. Some, such as church, bishop, baptism, monk, eucharist and presbyter came indirectly through Latin from the Greek. Around 878 AD Danes and Norsemen, also called Vikings, invaded the country and English got many Norse words into the language, particularly in the north of England. The Vikings, being Scandinavian, spoke a language (Old Norse) which, in origin at least, was just as Germanic as Old English. Words derived from Norse include: sky, egg, cake, skin, leg, window (wind eye), husband, fellow, skill, anger, flat, odd, ugly, get, give, take, raise, call, die, they, their, them. (“The Origin and History of the English Language”, Kryss Katsiavriades) Several written works have survived from the Old English period. The most famous is a heroic epic poem called “Beowulf”. It is the oldest known English poem and it is notable for its length – 3,183 lines. Experts say “Beowulf” was written in Britain more than one thousand years ago. The name of the person who wrote it is unknown. Middle English (1100-circa 1500 AD): After William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England in 1066 AD with his armies and became king, he brought his nobles, who spoke French, to be the new government. The Old French took over as the language of the court, administration, and culture. Latin was mostly used for written language, especially that of the Church. Meanwhile, The English language, as the language of the now lower class, was considered a vulgar tongue. By about 1200, England and France had split. English changed a lot, because it was mostly being spoken instead of written for about 300 years. The use of Old English came back, but with many French words added. This language is called Middle English. Most of the words embedded in the English vocabulary are words of power, such as crown, castle, court, parliament, army, mansion, gown, beauty, banquet, art, poet, romance, duke, servant, peasant, traitor and governor. (“Language Timeline”, The British Library Board) Because the English underclass cooked for the Norman upper class, the words for most domestic animals are English (ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, deer) while the words for the meats derived from them are French (beef, veal, mutton, pork, bacon, venison). (“The Origin and History of the English Language”, Kryss Katsiavriades) The Middle English is also characterized for the beginning of the Great Vowel Shift. It was a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of English. Basically, the long vowels shifted upwards; that is, a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced in a different place, higher up in the mouth. The Great Vowel Shift occurred during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. The most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, a collection of stories about a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury, England. The portraits that he paints in his Tales give us an idea of what life was like in fourteenth century England. Modern English (1500 to the present): Modern English developed after William Caxton established his printing press at Westminster Abbey in 1476. Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, but Caxton set up England’s first press. The Bible and some valuable manuscripts were printed. The invention of the printing press made books available to more people. The books became cheaper and more people learned to read. Printing also brought standardization to English. By the time of Shakespeare’s writings (1592-1616), the language had become clearly recognizable as Modern English. There were three big developments in the world at the beginning of Modern English period: the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the British Colonialism. It was during the English Renaissance that most of the words from Greek and Latin entered English. This period in English cultural history (early 16th century to the early 17th century) is sometimes referred to as “the age of Shakespeare” or “the Elizabethan era”, taking the name of the English Renaissance’s most famous author and most important monarch, respectively. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was an explosion of culture in the form of support of the arts, popularization of the printing press, and massive amounts of sea travel. England began the Industrial Revolution (18th century) and this had also an effect on the development of the language as new words had to be invented or existing ones modified to cope with the rapid changes in technology. New technical words were added to the vocabulary as inventors designed various products and machinery. These words were named after the inventor or given the name of their choice (trains, engine, pulleys, combustion, electricity, telephone, telegraph, camera etc). Britain was an Empire for 200 years between the 18th and 20th centuries and English language continued to change as the British Empire moved across the world – to the USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, Asia and Africa. They sent people to settle and live in their conquered places and as settlers interacted with natives, new words were added to the English vocabulary. For example, ‘kangaroo‘ and ‘boomerang‘ are native Australian Aborigine words, ‘juggernaut‘ and ‘turban‘ came from India. (See more borrowings from different languages.) English continues to change and develop, with hundreds of new words arriving every year. But even with all the borrowings from many other languages the heart of the English language remains the Anglo-Saxon of Old English. The grammar of English is also distinctly Germanic – three genders (he, she and it) and a simple set of verb tenses.

History of the Arabic Language

Arabic is now the 6th most spoken language in the world and is spoken by more than 200 million people worldwide. Arabic started off as a language that was only spoken by a small population. Nomadic tribes would travel around the Arabian Peninsula and speak Arabic, a language they were very proud of. Prose, poetry and oral literature were common ways to communicate through Arabic in those times.

Arabic is a “Semitic,” language and is most closely related to Aramaic and Hebrew. Other Semitic languages include Maltese, Mehri, Phoenician and Tigrinya. Semitic languages are based on a consonantal root system. Every word in Arabic is derived from one or another root word (most likely a verb).

By the 7th Century A.D., Arabic started to spread to the Middle East as many people started to convert to Islam. During this time of religious conversions, Arabic replaced many South Arabian languages, most of which are no longer commonly spoken or understood languages.

Arabic is the official language of many countries in the Middle East such as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

There are three forms of Arabic; Qur’anical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and Colloquial Arabic. Qur’anical Arabic is not used in conversation or in non- religious writing and Modern Standard Arabic is the official language of the Arabic world. Colloquial Arabic refers to Arabic that is spoken with a dialect.

There are more than 30 different forms of Colloquial or Spoken Arabic. Some of the dialects that are the most common are Egyptian Arabic, Algerian Arabic, Sudanese Arabic and North Levantine Arabic. Some dialects can be so strong that although people are speaking the same language it’s hard to communicate. When this happens, Arabic speakers revert back to speaking the Modern Standard Arabic. Modern Arabic is used for TV, films, plays, poetry and in books.

Arabic is a language that can be transformed to adapt to new words that need to be created because of science or technology. However, the written Arabic language has seen no change in the alphabet, spelling or vocabulary in at least 4 millenniums.

Chinese Language

Myths and Facts

Few things in Chinese culture are more widely misunderstood outside of China than the Chinese language. The Chinese write very differently from us and indeed from all other literate societies in today’s world except for Japan and Korea (which continue to make partial use of writing borrowed from China long ago). Even to the untutored eye, Chinese characters are not an alphabet, though many Americans who want to ask about them do not know what term to use for them, and questions are often asked such as, “Is it true that the Chinese alphabet . . . well, writing . . . I mean pictures, well . . . you know what I mean . . . they’re very pictorial, aren’t they?” Because of the obvious radical difference between the way that the Chinese write and the way that we write, many myths have grown up, not just around China’s writing system, but around its language as a whole and around China’s people. Indeed, people often say that the Chinese write in pictures. Many believe that Chinese is a monosyllabic language, which presumably means that every word in Chinese consists of a single syllable, like the English words but, aim, quick, work, crime, laugh, and unlike the words although, objective, rapid, employment, transgression, guffaw. Many believe that, because they write similarly (in part), Japanese, Korean, and Chinese people are related. Many assume that because of their language, the Chinese think in a way that is radically different from our way of thinking. Regarding modern Chinese, a common myth holds that the Communist government has done away with Chinese characters and has substituted a brand new alphabet that all people now use instead of characters. It is further believed that this supposed change has been tantamount to abandonment of the Chinese language itself. In addition, some believe that the Communist government has wiped out the various Chinese dialects. Each of these beliefs and assumptions is false. Each of them is in its own way outrageous, since taken together they suggest that the capacity for language among the world’s largest national-ethnic group is somehow different from that of all other human groups, a suggestion for which there is no evidence. To examine these unhelpful myths thoroughly would require greater scope than this short essay will permit. But in the following pages, I shall outline some basic facts about the Chinese language. In doing this, I shall try to correct the myths that I have just listed. Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language group. Sino-Tibetan is a major genetic grouping of languages like the Indo-European family to which English belongs (along with German, French, Hindu, etc.). The Sino-Tibetan speech community stretches from northeastern India to northeastern China, and its billion-plus speakers are found in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia. Chinese itself is not a single language, but a language family like the Romance language family to which French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and Swiss Romansch belong. Like the Romance languages, the Chinese languages are mutually unintelligible (that is what makes them different languages). But, because they share a common history and a good deal of common vocabulary and grammar, it is much easier for a speaker of one Chinese language to learn another Chinese language than for a complete outsider to do so. Again, this is true of the Romance languages as well. The Chinese languages referred to here are the famous Chinese “dialects”: Cantonese, Shanghai, Fukienese, etc. Because speakers of one of these “dialects” cannot understand speakers of another of them, the “dialects” are as much real languages as are the Romance languages. There are two ways, however, in which the analogy to the Romance languages is inaccurate. Most of the Romance languages are identified with separate independent countries and bear a name related to their place of “origin.” There is no such political identification of nation with language in China. Politically and ethnically, China has retained the ideal of unity for well over two millennia. Although at times China has been divided by conquest and civil war, the divisions have never identified parts of China as separate nations, and the language groups of China have never been a rallying point for political or military separatism. The other important difference between the Romance languages and Chinese lies in China’s writing system. After the spread of Roman civilization during the expansionist years of the Roman Empire, Romance dialects grew to a position very much like that of the Chinese “dialects.” Each region of the Roman world had a language that was Romance in origin and in vocabulary and grammar, but that had become incomprehensible to speakers of other Romance “dialects” through linguistic change and influence from the languages of the peoples who preceded the Romans in that area. Yet, although the languages of the various areas were so different, the written language was relatively uniform. That written language was, of course, Latin, the standard language of Rome. Latin retained its standard form for a very long time because of the prestige of Rome first as a political and then as a religious capital, and because of the low rate of literacy prevalent in pretechnical societies. Once Rome’s power began to decline and the independence of the outlying areas increased, people more and more wrote as they spoke, using the symbols of the Roman alphabet to reflect their own pronunciations and way of forming words instead of those proper to Latin. Reflecting speech is a natural thing for an alphabet to do, since alphabets are a phonetic way of writing. Because Chinese is not alphabetic, its writing does not reflect differences and changes in speech. Even though two speakers of different Chinese languages cannot understand each other (and thus may have to resort to a foreign language such as English for oral communication), they can write to each other and thereby understand each other. The ways that they read aloud what they have written will differ almost completely, but the meaning of what has been written will be identically clear to each. Written Chinese reflects the vocabulary and grammar of the most broadly used Chinese oral language. Speakers of the nonstandard Chinese languages learn this vocabulary and grammar, often pronouncing the words in their own local ways, when they learn to read and write. In short, the written language of China is uniform despite China’s actual language diversity and the mutual unintelligibility of the several Chinese languages. The earliest origin of this writing system was in fact pictorial. Early characters dating from perhaps three thousand years ago illustrate how Chinese writing began. But this early start with pictorial writing was quickly abandoned. It is difficult for pictures to represent abstract thoughts, and different people’s drawings of the same object may differ greatly. It is simply cumbersome to express lengthy messages by pictures. As writing became more common and as the nature of written material became more diverse, Chinese writing grew more and more stylized and less pictorial. In the third century, B.C.E., Chinese writing was officially standardized to a form that is not too distant from today’s Chinese writing. Since that time, the pictorial origins of Chinese writing have been largely obscured by the uniformity imposed on the writing to make it more efficient. The pictures are evident only to those who have been informed that pictures are present. Much more important than graphic representation in written symbols has been the combination of an element in a character that suggests the pronunciation at the time of the character’s creation and the one that indicates something about the semantic category of the meaning (i.e., human, mechanical liquid, insect, etc.). Chinese characters in their modern form remain the only regular medium for writing standard Chinese in the world today. In modern China, some of the most complex or frequently used characters have been simplified by reducing their number of “strokes” or lines, in order to make them easier to learn to read and write. Furthermore, some of the least frequently used characters have been merged into a single character. This simplification of the writing in China has been accompanied by a massive effort at literacy training and an intensive campaign to promote Mandarin, the standard dialect, as the national language. The results of these campaigns have been outstanding. China’s literacy rate has risen from between twenty and thirty percent to between eighty and ninety percent, a remarkable achievement for the nation with one of the most difficult writing systems to learn. Along with the spread of literacy in China has been the extension of the use of Mandarin as the national spoken language, and the adoption of a standard spelling system called Pinyin, which uses the Roman alphabet to spell the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Pinyin, officially replacing a variety of older, unstandardized romanization systems, is used as a reference tool in dictionaries, as a supplement to characters on signs and titles, and as the means of introducing standard pronunciation of characters to primary school first graders. In 1979, China’s news agency began using the Pinyin spellings of names and places in dispatches, and Americans had to get used to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai instead of the more familiar Mao Tse-tung and Chou Enlai. Some American newspapers mistakenly reported this adoption of the Pinyin system as a decision to abandon characters for the alphabet. Although there are some in China who advocate such a move, and although such a change is contemplated by planners of very long-term policy, there is no likelihood of it occurring soon. China has thus not followed the lead of Japan in reorganizing its writing system. Japanese writing incorporates both Chinese characters and symbols that have a sound value like an alphabet (called a syllabary). Because of their syllabary, the Japanese are able to learn much more quickly than the Chinese to write their language intelligibly, even if not elegantly. (Elegance and style require the use of characters in Japanese.) Japanese differs from Chinese not only in its writing, but in almost all other aspects as well. Along with Korean, Japanese is related to the Altaic language family, which includes Turkish, but not Chinese. In Japanese there is a highly elaborated system of hierarchical expression for speaking with persons of different social levels, something Chinese does not have. In Japanese, verbs come at the end of a sentence; in Chinese they come in the middle. In Japanese, the characters may be read with words of several syllables. In Chinese every character is read with a single syllable. To sum up, although the two languages both employ written characters, their differences outweigh their similarities, and Americans should not assume that the two languages have much in common. Each Chinese character is pronounced as a single syllable. This is the source of the myth that Chinese is monosyllabic. The truth is that most Chinese words are polysyllabic and are written in clusters of characters. Most words in modern Chinese are two syllables (two characters). Thus, ming means “clear, bright” and bai means “white, blank”. Put together, mingbai means “understand, clear,” and onlymingbai can be used to mean “understand.” Ming can never be used alone, and bai means something different when it is used alone. The most troublesome myth to deal with is the one that maintains that, because their language is structured differently from ours, the Chinese necessarily think differently from Westerners. One of the silliest versions of this myth that I have heard is the claim that science cannot be practiced in Chinese because that language is not “scientific.” (Since all languages are about equal in their inconsistencies and irregularities, it is difficult to know what the word “scientific” means when applied to a language.) The idea that Chinese and Westerners think differently because of linguistic differences is, in my opinion, unconvincing. Indeed I find very little hard evidence to prove that language and thought are intertwined in any culture. Certainly, our individual thoughts and the specific language in which we express them are inseparable. But that does not mean that what we say in our own language may not have direct equivalents in another language if what we say happens to be spoken by someone with our same aims. Some implausible assertions about the way the Chinese language makes the Chinese people think include: the Chinese do not distinguish between one and many because their words are not marked for singular and plural; the Chinese do not know the difference between definite and indefinite because their language lacks articles; the Chinese do not always understand the differences between past, present, and future because their verbs are marked for change and completion rather than directly for time reference; the Chinese do not clearly understand the difference between counterfactual statements and possible ones (e.g., “If I were you, I would . . .” vs. “If I go, I will . . .” because their language does not have any formal ways to distinguish the two. If any of these assertions were true, it is unlikely that the Chinese race would have survived three or four millennia, since they would be always in the wrong place with the wrong objects and quite uncertain about whether they were there or not. Most such misunderstandings come naturally from an inadequate understanding on the part of non-Chinese who are attempting to analyze Chinese. Some of it also comes from Chinese speakers who inadequately comprehend Western languages. There is, however, one relationship between thought and language which is not myth. That relationship is exemplified in Chinese by the tendency of ordinary Chinese to understate, or to convey meaning indirectly. Not only do the Chinese not share our predilection for expletives of a superlative intent such as “Terrific!” “Great!” “Fantastic!” and the like, but they frequently describe situations through understatement, double negatives, apparent vagueness, euphemism, and allusive language. In negotiation, an agreement to a proposal may be given as wenti buda, which literally means “The problems are not great.” This tendency is related to formulaic expressions in Chinese such as bucuo “no error” = “right you are,” bushao “not few” = a lot,” chabuduo “off not much” = “approximately.” Similarly, a denial may take the form of “Perhaps it’s not convenient” or “Possibly the time isn’t right” for a refusal to respond to a proposal that is seen as impossible to implement. Criticism is often given indirectly, but effectively. Frequently historical allusion is used to describe a situation that the critic does not like, and the reader or hearer is left to infer who in contemporary life is being castigated. The former head of state, Liu Shaoqi, was labeled as “China’s Khruschev” in the months before he was publicly identified and brought down. The late premier, Zhou Enlai, was identified with Confucius in the Anti-Confucius/Anti-Lin movement of the early seventies. Naturally, political labels and symbols form a major part of the vocabulary of both criticism and approbation, though it seems that the vocabulary for identifying deviants (right winger, right deviationist, capitalist roader, ultra-leftist, those who use the red flag to oppose the red flag, etc.) is much greater than that for identifying model citizens (as is equally true of the language use of the Christian Church). It is important to realize that these usages are not new in Chinese society; only the specific terms, such as those with Marxist-Leninist content, are new. The tendencies to indirectness and allusion are ancient cultural traits of Chinese society, and politicians and negotiators were using them as much hundreds of years ago as they are now. This use of language is an expression of a cultural preference for harmonious and positive intercourse among people. It is a cultural expression, not a control of thought by language. Language is simply one of the tools through which a society expresses its character, and it is to be expected, not wondered at, that Chinese society expresses the same characteristics through its language as it does in other cultural forms. Because the focus of American relations with China has moved from diplomatic sorting out to business connections, there is one area of cultural expression in language that must be mentioned in closing. That concerns the use of a special language for legal purposes. In our society, legal language is so specialized that it alone often carries the difference between one party’s satisfaction and the other’s in a hotly contested dispute. Our legal profession is a huge body of technocrats trained principally in the wielding of the tool of legal language. It is often noted that China has a tiny number of lawyers (as does Japan) compared to the United States. This is not primarily because Chinese criminal proceedings have failed to allow sufficient protection for defendants (though that has often been true), but because binding relations involving the exchange of money, goods, and services are not sealed in immutable language in China. Rather, contracts lay out basic wishes of both sides and fundamental intents; from our point of view, at least, a great deal is left to the common sense and mutual trust of the parties concerned. That procedure is unobjectionable so long as the expectations and assumptions of the two sides are the same. But troubles may arise when one party’s differ from those of the other. Different expectations, of course, are more likely to occur when the parties are from different cultures and where the principal participants do not know each other’s languages well. China’s joint-venture law of 1979 is a case in point. That law simply states general principles and does not contain the level of detail that American and other Western business people would consider normal in their own societies. Because of the vagueness of the language used, many businesses hoping for deals in China have held back from entering joint ventures for fear of losing their investment should something not planned for occur. Misunderstandings related to language — particularly those that lead to troublesome problems — come from cultural misperceptions and language incompetence, not from the different structures of the two languages that two peoples speak. So long as we in America remember that Chinese is one of the world’s human languages and make intelligent provisions for the training of enough Americans in the use of that language, we face little problem from the uniqueness of the way that the Chinese speak and write. But if we continue our historical ignorance of both China’s culture and language, we doom ourselves to a very conflicting relationship.

Author: Timothy Light.

 

Why English is Important for a person to prosper in life?

The English language is a very important language that everyone should master to prosper in life. It is also an International language that is commonly used.

I believe that every individual should have keen interest to study English as it can help them to achieve a lot of things in their lives. As a student, I took great interest to master this language. I learnt a lot and now I can see great improvements in me. I can interact better now with all my friends and also my teachers. Most of them told me that I can speak fluently now.

The English language is also essential in order for me to obtain a stable and good job in the future. By having great knowledge in English, I believe that I would be able to sustain well in a company. I am proud of myself because knowing that I am not an American citizen, I could speak English very well because from the beginning, I was very determined and I also had great desire to study.

My personal advice to all out there, please master this language in order to prosper to greatest heights, you will not regret it. Acquire and perceive English, only then life will be wonderful, beautiful, meaningful, joyful and colorful. –

What speaking two languages does to the brain

There is increasing evidence that bilingualism can affect how the brain works. Older, lifelong bilinguals have demonstrated better cognitive skills in tasks that require increased cognitive control. These cognitive effects are most pronounced in bilingual people who speak two languages in their everyday life for many years, compared to those who speak a second language but don’t use it often. Our new research has now highlighted the structural improvements on the brain observed in bilingual people who immerse themselves in two languages.

Bilingualism affects the structure of the brain including both major types of brain tissue – the grey matter and the white matter. The neurons in our brain have two distinct anatomical features: their cell bodies, where all the processing of information, thinking and planning happens, and their axons, which are the main avenues that connect brain areas and transfer information between them. The cell bodies are organised around the surface of the brain – the grey matter – and all the axons converge and interconnect underneath this into the white matter.

We call it white matter because the axons are wrapped in a fatty layer, the myelin, which ensures better neuronal communication – the way information is transferred around the brain. The myelin functions as an “insulation” that prevents information “leaking” from the axon during transfer.

Language-learning restructures the brain

Bilingualism has been shown to increase the volume of grey matter in several brain areas that are usually connected to language learning and processing. These effects suggest that the brain is capable of restructuring itself as a response to learning an additional language, but also as a response to the equally important task of juggling between two languages – using one language while suppressing the other at any given time.

This latter task poses particular cognitive demands for bilinguals, which do not apply to monolinguals. In order to handle the additional information successfully, the avenues of white matter in bilinguals’ brains that transfer information and select between two different languages must become more efficient.

Bilingualism makes brains more efficient

One way for the white matter to become more efficient is to increase its “insulation”, the myelin, making the transfer of information faster and with fewer losses. It has been shown that older lifelong bilingualsyoung early bilinguals and adult early bilinguals demonstrate increased integrity, or thickness of the myelin – known as “myelination” – compared to monolinguals. Some researchers have even suggestedthat the experience of lifelong bilingualism preserves the myelination (or the integrity) of the white matter from natural deterioration in older age.

Based on these suggestions, our research wanted to investigate whether similar effects to white matter would be observed in late bilinguals, when compared to monolinguals of the same age and education. We defined “late bilinguals” as people who learnt their second language at around the age of 10. The existing research on late bilinguals has demonstrated that they also show changes in white matter structure during second language training, but these disappear if the second language is not actively used.

What happens to white matter

We tested 20 young bilinguals with an average age of 30-years-old who had lived in the UK for at least 13 months and were highly-proficient and active users of English as a second language, but were not undergoing any language training at the time. In other words, our participants were young, highly-proficient “immersed” bilinguals. These were compared to 25 monolingual adults of the same age and educational level.

We scanned and compared the two groups with an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which uses the movement of water molecules in the brain as an indicator for white matter integrity. A freer movement of the water molecules indicates less integrity.

Previous research suggested that late-immersed bilinguals show changes in grey matter structure, as well as processing of their second language similar to that of native speakers. So we predicted the impact of language immersion would be similar on the white matter for our bilinguals.

This is precisely what we found: compared to monolingual adults of a similar age, our bilinguals demonstrated greater white matter integrity in a number of regions of the brain related to language processing. This closely corresponded to the effects on the brain for early and older bilinguals.

Immersion is key

Our findings further support the idea that bilingualism “reshapes” the brain, but also suggest that bilingual immersion is a crucial factor in the process. In other words, it is possible that the better preservation of brain structure that has been reported in older bilinguals is simply an effect of continuously using the two languages, rather than an effect of early language acquisition or lifelong bilingualism.

As a result, any effects of bilingualism on the structure of white matter in the brain seem to be independent of the critical periods when people are learning a language. Although it is possible that there might be a link between the increased connectivity between brain areas and the cognitive benefits reported in bilinguals, our study did not test for that and it’s well worth future investigation.

This article is published in collaboration with The Conversation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christos Pliatsikas is a Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology at University of Kent.

Coalition, Conquest, and Conversion

Today, the Spanish language is used by approximately 332 million speakers, and it is second only to Chinese as the most commonly spoken language in the world. In the Americas, Spanish is the most widespread first language, and native Spanish speakers can also be found throughout Europe, the United States, the Pacific Islands, and even Africa (Ostler 2005). Spanish is also one of the most frequently spoken second languages, and people throughout the world have learned it for its usefulness in personal and professional communication. Yet, Spanish was not always the dominant mode of communication that it is today. Less than 600 years ago, Spanish was nothing more than a native dialect spoken in the Castilian region of Spain. However, through years of exploration, conquest, and forcible conversion, the residents of that tiny region managed to build their language from a little-known dialect to a worldwide vernacular.

Latin Roots

Spanish is a member of the Indo-European family of languages, which originated approximately 5,000 years ago in the Black Sea region (McWhorter 2003). As farming and the sedentary lifestyle it demanded spread throughout Europe and Central Asia, Indo-European gradually spread as well. While speakers of Indo-European migrated throughout the two continents, they naturally lost contact with one another, and new innovations in language splintered Indo-European into several distinct language branches. Of these branches, Latin (the language of the Roman Empire) was one of the most prominent. As the Roman Empire gained power during the fourth century B.C., Latin gradually began to spread throughout the Italian peninsula and then throughout the Mediterranean region. Varying development in the different areas Latin touched eventually resulted in several distinct but related regional dialects, commonly known as the Romance languages. And Spanish is a member of this Romance language family (McWhorter 2003).

Latin came to be used in the Spanish peninsula during the third century B.C. as the result of Roman conquest and settlement in the region. While the use of Latin was not forced upon the local residents, the native population learned it as a matter of convenience and prestige. As is generally the case with the spread of any second language, bilingualism occurred as a rule throughout many of the regions of the Spanish peninsula, and the Latin spoken in these regions began to take on its own local characteristics. Eventually, several dialects of Latin were spoken throughout the peninsula, and these dialects came to be known collectively as Hispanic Latin (Penny 2003).

Rise of Castilian

By the end of the fourth century A.D., Roman power in the Spanish peninsula had greatly declined. Indeed, by the fifth century, the territory was largely ruled by the conquering Visigoths. Although the Visigoths spoke a German vernacular, Latin remained as the primary language in the peninsula, and the Visigoth presence had little impact on the language of its residents (Penny 2003). However, the Islamic invasion of Spain in A.D. 711 would serve to greatly influence Hispanic Latin as well as bring about the rise of Castilian throughout the peninsula.

When the Islamic Moors reached the southern coast of Spain, they brought with them a culture and language (Arabic) that would soon be considered more developed and prestigious than those of Christian Europe. Residents of the conquered territories soon began borrowing greatly from Arabic, and the semantics and lexicon of Hispanic Latin were substantially changed. However, the effects of Moorish conquest were never able to spread entirely throughout Spain, and a small Christian minority remained in the northwestern region of the peninsula. This region, known as Castile, was only slightly impacted by Islamic culture, and the language of its residents remained largely intact.

By the eleventh century A.D., the separate region of Castile had gained sufficient power to declare itself a kingdom and begin the Christian Reconquest of the Spanish peninsula. When the Castilians succeeded in capturing Toledo in 1085, their culture and their language gained a great amount of prestige (Penny 2002). For the next four centuries, Castilians would continue to spread south and east throughout the peninsula, driving out the Islamic and Arabic presence. As the Castilians moved southward throughout the peninsula, their language was adopted not only by the conquered territories but by surrounding territories as well. Castilian was considered a prestigious language, and it was often adopted well before the Castilians arrived to officially induct a territory into the kingdom. By the end of the fifteenth century, Islamic influence remained only in the southeastern region of Granada; this area was then captured by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, and the Christian reconquest of Spain by the Castilians was complete (Penny 2002). Castile and the language of its people now ruled a territory stretching across the peninsula, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Castilian thus became a synonym for the Spanish language, and it remains so today.

Standard Spanish

In its early development, the language of the Castilians included a wide variety of dialects and was, by no means, a standardized language. The creation of early standard Spanish was largely the work of Alfonso X, the king of Castile from A.D. 1252-1284 (Penny 2002). Prior to his reign, a spelling system had been created to allow for written forms of Spanish, but the language continued to show characteristic features of the writers? native regions rather than a standard quality. Alfonso was greatly interested in the correctness of the language and required all scientific, historical, literary, and administrative writing during his reign to prescribe to a standard form of Castilian (generally the speech of the upper classes of Toledo). By the end of his reign, regional differences in the writing of Castilians had almost entirely disappeared, and the standard Spanish language was born.

Spanish Spreads

In 1492, the same year that the last Islamic stronghold in Granada fell, Christopher Columbus began his famous westward voyage from the coast of Spain to seek a new route to Asia. When he landed in the Americas instead, his unintended discovery would lead to the spread of the Spanish language throughout the New World. In the following century, as Spanish conquistadors arrived on American coasts to subdue the native populations and bring wealth back to their home kingdom, they brought their language with them. Missionaries also traveled to the newly discovered land, bringing with them Latin, the language of the Catholic Church. It was generally believed that Latin should be used for conversion purposes, but many missionaries found that it was easier to spread understanding and faith in one or more of the native languages. Thus, Latin, Spanish, and native languages were all used simultaneously during the Spanish conquest of most of South and Central America (Ostler 2005). This mix of languages gradually brought about new forms of Spanish that were unique to the speakers in the Americas. By the time the conquered populations had liberated themselves from Spanish rule in the decades of the nineteenth century, these dialectical versions of Spanish had become the official languages of the population.

Over the years, through a combination of conquest, coalition, and conversion, the Spanish language has spread from Europe to the Americas and now to Asia and even Africa. Once the language of only a small, unconquered region of the Iberian peninsula, Spanish has become a worldwide language spoken by millions.

The Benefits of Learning a Second Language

Have you ever had this thought, “What will look good on my college application?” Most students have. There is one thing that can influence a college’s or company’s decision for the better about accepting or hiring a person, and this is by learning a second language. As people from other countries continue to immigrate into America, it is becoming more important than ever to learn a second language, even simply to appear more marketable and have something to set an applicant apart from their competitors. One of these benefits includes how great it looks on applications for just about anything. Others include the convenience when traveling, making new friends, improving the fluency of the speaker’s native language, having a type of a secret code among friends, and preventing Alzheimer’s. There are many reasons for knowing multiple languages that look good on applications. First, on college applications, it shows that the applicant is willing to devote time and energy into learning something. This in turn, will show the reviewer that you would be willing to work hard on college studies as well. On a job application it makes an employee more marketable because even if it is an employee at McDonald’s, there is always the possibility that a customer might not speak English. If you know this other language you would be able to communicate with the customer. Also focusing on the McDonald’s example, if an applicant and another potential employee had exactly the same qualifications the company would look for little things to set the two apart. The fact that you know another language is a huge achievement. That makes the person unique when compared to other candidates. Another reason is that many companies have sister companies in other parts of the world or do business with companies in other locations. Knowing the language of the other company’s country would make someone stand out in the sea of applicants. By knowing this language the applicant would be able to communicate with people from the company to solve problems. This could also increase the possibility to travel abroad to the location. One major part of learning a language is often being able to travel to a foreign country. Being able to speak the native language has many benefits in and of itself. When you travel to another country you are truly representing America. David Barry made this, “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that, despite all the progress that has been made in the last 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.” By putting forth the effort to speak with people in their own language it shows that the traveler is doing their best to take care of themself in a different environment. The locals can see their effort and are more willing to help. It’s also good because this way the traveler can navigate, go to restaurants, and speak with the locals without the help of a friend or translator. Speaking to the locals is often a highlight of many people’s trips. It gives insight on a new way of life and can develop new friendships. It is easy to get to know people with whom we have much in common. These are people with whom we would most easily bond.. Now, what if these people spoke two entirely different languages? They may not even meet each other simply because they couldn’t understand each other. If one or both of them learned the other person’s language, they could create a lifetime friendship. Especially with social networking at an all-time high, the ability to converse with people from around the globe becomes easier each time a new website is created. Often times the creators learn other languages to help their website to appeal to people of other cultures. Many scholars, authors, artists, poets, and other people of professions that require an excellent grasp of their own language, study another language as well. This is often because learning another language helps to improve your English. For most people, the beauty of their own language is taken for granted because they have nothing to compare it to. When studying a foreign language students are able to see how the sentence structure differs from their own language as well as the vocabulary and conversational aspects. Often times, people are taken aback when studying languages such as French or Spanish due to how melodic the sentences sound. Or, as is the case with languages such as Chinese or Japanese, people are confused, but intrigued, at how the simple change in pitch can create a new word. The way that ideas are presented in other languages are often different than they are presented in English. Learning another language can help you to construct your sentences in a way that is more meaningful, creative, and precise than it would have otherwise been. With this, an author’s writing will become more fluid and will have an effect on more people. One fun reason to learn another language is that if the student has study it with a friend, both of you can converse without others knowing what you are saying. This is something that can be immensely helpful when speaking to family about private matters while out in public, or making important decisions in public. For example, a person may be making a large purchase, such as a car, and want to discuss some of its issues but you don’t want to have others eavesdropping. In this situation you could use your other language, especially if it is a language that not many people study, to talk to whoever came along with you. Eavesdropping is something that everyone does, but also something that everyone hates. This problem is easily avoided if the student studies a language that not many people study. Another way to help this is if you can find someone to study with. That, in and of itself, is encouragement. It keeps you accountable and learning with a friend is much more enjoyable. Did you know that there is an effective way to help the minds of you and your loved ones? An average of 1,252 people per day are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. With the astonishing numbers such as this one, about a million people are affected indirectly, at least, each day; Alzheimer’s disease is a real concern to most people. As may develop Alzheimer’s or another type of cognitive disorder as they age. Many studies have found that bilingual people, who begin to develop these types of disorders, although their physical condition may be similar, retain normal mental ability for much longer. Monolingual people begin suffering the effects much sooner. Although they both suffer, these studies suggest that it can prevent the onset Alzheimer’s for as long as a few years before it the disease takes its toll on their brain. This is because the part of your brain that it first affects is protected by the exercise you have provided it with. This “exercise” is how the brain keeps from meshing the two languages together in your mind. Learning this new language helps because it creates new neural pathways, the more neural pathways that are created, the more “backup” the brain has once the disease starts to have an effect. What many people don’t realize until it’s too late is that prevention is often preferable to the treatment. With so many benefits at the price of about an hour a day, it is shocking that more people are not learning new languages. Even those who already know a second language can only be benefited by the new knowledge of another language. People who live in a larger city, one which has a community of Chinese, Italian, or Hispanic population along with many others, have the advantage of being submerged in another language. By showing an interest in learning the language anyone can gain new friends, a healthier brain, a new secret code against the narrow minded, and a new skill to create an outstanding résumé. As an added bonus, studies show that the easiest way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. As students, increasing the number of skills to add to applications for college is crucial. It shows that the student is hardworking, well rounded, and has ambition. As difficult as learning a language can be, it is well worth the time, money, and energy spent on the endeavor.