“月”(yue) is the Chinese word for month. It also happens to be the word for moon. Month and moon are two of the more basic elements of any linguistic repertoire. If you don’t know how to say month or moon, you certainly cannot claim to speak said language. Yesterday, I was looking at the moon, simple enough. It hit me. Moon and month. At first I was excited, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos. Then, I was a little embarrassed, like a toddler who figures out that he can fit his legos together and make bigger legos, that it took me three years of studying Chinese to make the connection. For those of you who, like me, are a little slow on the uptake:一个月（yi ge yue), meaning one month, also means one moon. So primal, so natural, so Chinese. Upon investigation, I’ve discovered that the month-moon connection is actually rather ubiquitous among many world languages (English included).
It’s often said that Chinese is the world’s hardest language to learn. Technically speaking, it’s probably much more grueling to learn a language spoken only by a 90-year-old widow who lives in a shack on a remote mountain in Tierra del Fuego and doesn’t know how to read or write. At least Chinese has the resources. Frankly, though, declaring Chinese as more difficult than French, Basque, or Cantonese (nine tones) is only partly acceptable. Learning to read and write is a monumental challenge. Intuitively, a pictographic language should be as easy as it gets. It should be just like, well, seeing. You see a tree, you know what it is. You see a Tyrannosaurus Rex; you know it’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Obviously, that’s not the case. Mastering, or even grasping, a pictographic language requires intense exercise of memory. English speakers need to get familiar with 26 letters, Chinese speakers need 3,000 symbols just to have a crack at the newspaper, let alone begin to attack Analects. But, that’s if you want to read and write Chinese. I do and I can, decently, but one thing at a time.
English is a means of communication. I say, “Hello, how are you?” you say, “I’m fine.” I say “balloon” and “calculator” and “plane” because that’s just what I say. You can go back to Latin and Vulgar Latin, and a ton of other languages that made English what it is today and understand the roots, but even those roots are just words. Chinese on the other hand is a story, a history, a guide to life, masquerading as a means of communication.
The Chinese word for computer is “dian nao”(电脑). The first character, dian, means electricity or electric. The second character, nao, means brain. So, in Chinese, a computer is not simply a compute-er, an object that computes, it is an “electric brain.” A movie is not simply a move-ie, a thing (picture) that moves, but rather a “dian ying” (电影), an “electric shadow.” A mustache is a “ba zi hu” （八字胡). “Ba” (八) being the character for the number 8,“zi”（字） meaning “Chinese character，” and “hu” (胡) meaning beard. So, if you’re from the Middle Kingdom, a mustache is a “beard shaped like the character for the number 8.” Once again, the reference point is “ba” (八), the character for the number 8. Looks like a mustache, doesn’t it?
Standard Mandarin Chinese has no plural nouns, no tenses, no verb conjugations, and no “am, is, are.” I doubt the world’s 1.4 billion Mandarin speakers are experiencing any deep FOMO-like sensations when it comes to the above constructions of speech. English speakers are so used to irregular language structures, that travesties like “went,” “mice,” and “I have swum” are essentially second nature. Think about past tense verbs. It almost feels like there are more “irregularities” than not. Took, ate, bought, did, sought, swam, ran. The past tense for “read a book” is “read a book,” which means that the word “read” in the preterit is both irregular in the sense that it lacks the suffix –ed, and irregular in its pronunciation. That said, without this linguistic injudiciousness on the part of our English forebears, we would be completely lacking for the classic “What’s black, white, and read all over?” gag. And that would be a shame.
Chinese has none of it. It’s also basically devoid of articles. No a’s, an’s, or the’s. The spoken words for he, she, and it are all the same. There’s also no word for hello, goodbye, thank you, happy, sad, and person. That’s actually not true, but Chinese is a language that cut the fat a long time ago.
That’s probably the toughest thing about moving from English, an overcomplicated language, to Chinese, a relatively straightforward one. You want and expect things to be there that simply aren’t. Try to speak English without articles: “I went to movies.” “I bought new car.” “She sells seashells by seashore.” It’s like one rolling newspaper headline. Try to speak English without plural nouns: “I ate three piece of bread.” How about no tenses: “Yesterday I eat three piece of bread.” “I just go to bathroom.” For some reason, it sounds primitive. It certainly doesn’t sound right. But, in every single case, the reader knows exactly what I’m talking about. If you tell me that you’re planning to do something tomorrow, why are you compelled to alter the verb tense to clarify? There isn’t really any necessity behind these constructions. Chinese is contextual. English unnecessarily spoonfeeds context. Learning English must suck.
Mandarin Chinese is not exclusively simplistic. For example, there’s an historical (“an historical” is an appalling phrase) emphasis on 成语 (chengyu), essentially Chinese proverbs. They are generally four character phrases that convey a grander meaning. It’s often said that solid knowledge of chengyu implies Mandarin fluency. My chengyu knowledge is weak. One of the first chengyu every aspiring Sinophone learns is 入乡随俗 (ru xiang sui su). It’s typically translated as “When in Rome…” The direct transliteration is: 入－enter，乡－village, 随－follow, 俗－custom. “When you enter the village, follow the customs.” However, without the knowledge that this specific phrase is a chengyu with a specific meaning, it wouldn’t make sense in isolation. How about, 好久不见 （hao jiu bu jian). 好-very，久- long time，不-no, 见-see. That one even made it’s way across the Pacific. Another example. 十官九贪 (shi guan jiu tan). 十-ten，官-govern, 九-nine, 贪-greed; corruption. You get the idea. There are thousands. Check out the link below for some important ones.
There are other idiosyncrasies that show up in Chinese, but I’ve never run into anything nearly as insufferably, painstakingly, gratuitous as say, the Spanish subjuntivo. In my experience, the most difficult aspect of learning Chinese—aside from writing of course—has been unlearning English. Deconstructing the aspects of language that I’ve come to take as a given. “I am tall!” “I am short!” You want to say it like that, no matter what language you’re speaking. You try to shove the words in with reckless abandon, over and over again. The to be verb has got to go in their somewhere, somehow. But, it’s a square peg in a round hole. Or more, accurately, it’s a peg without a hole. Over time, you get used to “I tall!” “I short!”
The most used word in the English language is, the. I used it three times in that sentence. I remember looking up the in the dictionary when I was a kid. I always got a kick out of it—the Merriams and the Websters of the world trying to define the, an extremely difficult and arduous word to describe (it almost always has the longest definition in any dictionary) without using the. That word in question does not even exist in Chinese. Instead of saying “Give me the ball,” You’d say “给我球.””Give I ball.” There’s no him, her, or me either. A word that the average English speaker probably uses once every three or four sentences is completely absent in Chinese. It takes a long time to accept the fact that the is gone for good. It’s very hard to let go.
I started studying Mandarin out of pure opportunism. China’s big and there’s a lot of money here. Good language to learn. Probably—no definitely—the best language to learn if you already speak English. For the reasons I’ve described, getting past Mandarin’s ground floor is exceptionally laborious. At once, you must completely dismantle your linguistic preconceptions. At once, you must learn a totally new form of script that in every way defies all you’ve learned about sounds and even shapes. Now though, I enjoy it. I luxuriate in it. It’s fascinating. It’s truly beguiling in its complete and utter avoidance of—insistence against, really—circumlocution.
Every time I learn a new word it feels like I already knew it. It’s almost too effortless. Mark Twain famously said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” That’s Chinese. It’s so simple and logical that it must have taken, well, millennia, to come up with and perfect. Learning Chinese I feel like a mathematician or a theoretical physicist. I imagine Phythagoreas finally reconciling a2+b2=c2 and saying to himself (in his retroactive Larry David impression), “Damn, that was pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty obvious.” A couple moments after I made the right-under-my-nose connection between moon (yue, 月) and month (yue, 月), I put together the equally patently obvious link between sun (ri,日) and day (ri,日).