Drifting in and out of consciousness (oxfordhacker) wrote,
Drifting in and out of consciousness
oxfordhacker

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Tongues

Another quick one today, I think, so I will write about something else I've been doing recently: learning Mandarin Chinese. I've been in my current job for over three years now and, because I'm working on a Chinese biobank, I have a lot of Chinese colleagues and handle quite a lot of data in Mandarin. Despite this, I could say only 'hello' in Mandarin, and could recognise but a few Chinese characters: 'one', 'two' and 'three' because they're easy, 'male', 'female', 'missing' and 'cancer' because they come up a lot. This didn't seem to reflect very well on me, so this academic year I persuaded my boss to fund an introductory Mandarin course for me at the University Language Centre. I'm just three weeks in, but so far I'm really enjoying it.

Their priorities are excellent:
  • Week 1: saying 'Hello, I am English'
  • Week 2: enough family vocabulary to fashion crude insults ('Is that your mother?')
  • Week 3: 'I have two small kittens'
Next week is food, so after that I'll surely have learned pretty much all I need...

This gives me an excuse to link to Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. I recommend it not solely to ensure that you are appropriately impressed with my feat, but because it is both scholarly and hilarious, and (to the best of my extremely limited expertise) absolutely true. A couple of choice quotations:

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.

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.

And that reminds me to link to the linguistics blog that was almost certainly where I found that link in the first place: Language Log. The contributors are all professional academic linguists, and the tone veers wildly between discussing relevant web-comic episodes, tetchy rebukes to inaccurate grammar pedants, and technical academic musing. It may not surprise you to learn, however, that my favorite bits are probably where they drop mad science on ill-founded claims. Also, this sort of thing:
Tags: chinese, web-log
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