Deborah Fallows, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language. New York: Walker & Co., 2010. 205 p. ISBN 978-0-8027-7913-7.

Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Dreaming-in-Chinese-cover_copyCan a billion Chinese be wrong? Contrary to popular myth, Chinese is not an impossibly difficult language to learn. Spoken Chinese is, rather, deceptively simple and is much less complex than English. Consider this: in Chinese, "he" and "she" are the same words; there are no singular or plural forms; there are no verb forms (no past, present, future tenses; the only tense aspect of Chinese is foreigners thinking it's hard); numbers are based on the decimal system, although larger numbers are in groupings of ten thousands; agreement of nouns and verbs is not necessary. "Book have picture" can be singular or plural but is perfectly clear in context, as is "I already went tomorrow at this time."

Deborah Fallows, Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language. New York: Walker & Co., 2010. 205 p. ISBN 978-0-8027-7913-7.

 Reviewed by Raymond Lum

Dreaming-in-Chinese-cover_copyCan a billion Chinese be wrong? Contrary to popular myth, Chinese is not an impossibly difficult language to learn. Spoken Chinese is, rather, deceptively simple and is much less complex than English. Consider this: in Chinese, "he" and "she" are the same words; there are no singular or plural forms; there are no verb forms (no past, present, future tenses; the only tense aspect of Chinese is foreigners thinking it's hard); numbers are based on the decimal system, although larger numbers are in groupings of ten thousands; agreement of nouns and verbs is not necessary. "Book have picture" can be singular or plural but is perfectly clear in context, as is "I already went tomorrow at this time."

So why do foreigners think Chinese is hard to learn? There are some features of modern Chinese that might seem daunting to the uninitiated: instead of an alphabet of 26 letters, Chinese has some 60,000 individual written symbols known in English as "characters," although only some two thousand (only 2000!) are necessary for functional literacy. But what each character "means" depends almost entirely on context, on the other characters with which it is allied in a statement, whether spoken or written. The Chinese writing system is based on meanings imbedded in the characters rather than sound, although most characters have a visual element suggesting pronunciation. Thus, the many languages of China that write in the same script and grammar—although they are spoken with different grammar, sounds, and vocabulary—can be mutually understood in writing no matter how a syllable is pronounced in the multitude of languages and dialects current in China and among the Chinese abroad. But of course one has to be literate to take advantage of that commonality. Where to begin?

 

Arriving in China to accompany her husband, James Fallows, on his three-year assignment for The New Yorker, Deborah Fallows was thrust into a society, with two small children, in which she had to negotiate daily life in a language she did not know well. She set out in a mostly orderly fashion to learn the language and in the process learned a great deal about the language, much of which she records in this charming book.

 

How the author learned Chinese is very revealing about how the Chinese themselves approach foreigners speaking their language. She was welcomed, ignored, harassed, but she took all episodes as part of the learning experience. And what Fallows found, which she probably already knew from her study of other foreign languages, is that learning a foreign language opens up another culture in ways that studying a culture without learning that culture's language cannot.

 

Like some other languages, spoken Chinese is tonal, meaning that how one raises or lowers a sound, following an established pattern, determines what a spoken syllable means. The classic example of this is the sound "ma." Pronounced in a high level pitch, it can mean "mother." As a rising sound, it might mean "hemp," but in a falling and then rising sound, it can mean "horse." When the sound descends, it can mean "to scold." And when pronounced in a "neutral" tone, it can indicate that an utterance is a question. There is nothing in the written form to indicate the tone. And some characters are used to represent more than one word, often with completely different pronunciations. That's why Chinese love dictionaries. So, we could theoretically get a statement such as "Ma ma ma ma?" meaning, "Does Mom scold the horse?" The four syllables might also mean, "Mom, is the horse numb?" Or it might mean "Mommy! Mommy!" So, "Ma ma ma ma" can have a variety of spoken meanings, depending on the tones of the spoken syllables, the context, the understanding of the hearer, and the intention of the speaker. But rare is the Chinese utterance made up of only one repeating syllable, except in textbooks.

 

Fallows gives a classic example of just such a composition, however, in the poem "The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den," a semantic spoof by the eminent linguist Chao Yuanren (Chao Yuen Ren) 赵 元 任 (p. 41). The poem is composed of 92 characters, with many repetitions; all pronounced the same but for the tones.

Attempts to explain the vagaries of the Chinese language—and, obliquely, why we supposedly can't learn it—have given us some intersting and insightful publications, such as Richard Newnham's book, About Chinese (1988), and David Moser's Why Chinese is So Darn Hard, (http://pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html). But perhaps the best English-language explanation of Chinese is The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis (University of Hawaii Press, 1984), which is the classic work on the subject. The latest addition to that coterie of treatments is this succinct and timely book by one who learned Chinese as an adult and by necessity. Her previous studies of foreign languages and her PhD in linguistics no doubt set her up well for learning Chinese, but her apparently warm personality and openness gave her an easy entry to the language and the people she met in China. 

While Fallows deals in some detail with the spoken tonal system of Mandarin, she glosses over the so-called "neutral" tone and the phenomenon of tone sandhi, in which the tone assigned to an individual syllable can change in speech depending on the tones of the immediately preceding and immediately following syllables. That requires Chinese speakers to anticipate what they will say before they say it, which is not a bad idea at all.

 

English also has tones, emphasis really, that determine nuance more than separate meanings. Consider these: YOU bought bread? (so did I). You bought BREAD? (I told you to buy potatoes). You BOUGHT bread? (I always make my own). YOU BOUGHT BREAD! (thanks; I had forgotten to get it). But unlike with Chinese tones, it is still about you and the bread.

 

And what is Chinese? What are often referred to as "dialects" of Chinese are for the most part separate regional Chinese languages. The Chinese, who rarely relocated until fairly recently, developed unique local languages. And thus someone from Beijing, for example, speaking in the Beijing (northern) Chinese language cannot understand someone from Shanghai speaking Shanghainese, as Fallows discovered after living first in Shanghai and then in Beijing. So how do Chinese people communicate with one another? All Chinese languages write in only one modern form, the written form of the Beijing language, known in the West as "Mandarin," which is not a Chinese word. Not long after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mandarin, based on the way it is spoken in Beijing, was declared the national language and is today taught in schools and used in the broadcast media. The language is now known in China as "putonghua," the common language, but goes by other names in Taiwan, Singapore, Southeast Asia, and the United States, and by yet earlier names in China.

 

So, can non-Chinese learn Chinese? Of course, and many do, just as many Chinese learn English perfectly. Australians are particularly efficient at learning Chinese because of that nation's close relationship with China but more so because Chinese is taught to students from a very early age, when they are most receptive. Americans, on the other hand, most often begin foreign language study (Spanish, French, perhaps German or Latin) only in high school, if at all, and generally have no use for it. The world speaks English (very well, in fact), the Internet is largely in English, and English-speaking people colonized much of the world and passed on their language and much of their value system. Winston Churchill described the United States and England as two countries divided by a common language. China, on the other hand, is a country united by a common written language but separated by mutually unintelligible utterances unless they are all in Mandarin.

Fallows's experience in learning and using Chinese in situ suggests why anyone going off to live in China might do well to begin learning the language before they head out. Much of what she took pains to discover would have been covered in U.S. college courses. Because her introduction to the language evolved in northern China, after very brief study in the United States, Fallows tends to generalize about Chinese. For example, she refers to the usual three-syllable Chinese name as being composed of, first, the surname, followed by the first name and then the middle name, one of the latter of which is a common character used by all males in a common generation. Chinese forenames are not composed of first and middle names: the two syllables (rarely, one) of the given name are non-divisible. For the Cantonese, who are still the largest Chinese immigrant community in the United States, the generational name, used to indicate relationships and the terms of address to be used with others of the same surname (such as "elder brother" [which could also mean "cousin], "younger uncle," "elder aunt,") is acquired upon a man's marriage (Fallows does not address the complex issue of women's names). 

Still, the author presents a highly readable, entertaining, and personal account of how a foreigner, with an academic background in linguistics and foreign-language study, approached learning Chinese when deposited into 21st century Chinese-speaking China. The lesson to be learned from this book, and perhaps the whole point of it, is that she did it and so can we. 

The author's multiple digressions give us a view of living and learning in China that provide a real-life context for acquiring the language and much of its baggage in a rapidly-changing country where the changes are reflected in the language (for example, "tongzhi" formerly was a greeting between Communist comrades but now is a greeting among gay people) and where the most modern nuances and slang can be learned only by listening and asking ("shouji," or "hand machine" is not a vibrator but a cell phone).

 

One awaits a similar study of Chinese as spoken on Taiwan and in other communities, particularly Hong Kong, where the language has evolved differently since 1949. In Taiwan, for example, "aizi le," the "joy of short people," was once used as the Chinese term for platform shoes. And among American Chinese, the Cantonese term "jook sing," which means the hollow space between the nodes of bamboo, is still used by elders to describe American-born Chinese and their hollow knowledge of anything really Chinese. 

For anyone anticipating the study of the Chinese language, this book will serve as a first-hand introduction to what they are up against but, more importantly, will encourage them with a success story.

 

 

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