"Chinese may be the most difficult language for a Westerner to learn," Deborah Fallows writes in a clever book of essays about how Chinese culture is reflected through its language. Fallows loves languages and linguistics, and when she and her husband are sent to live in China for three years, she uses her time there to study Mandarin.
The way she deals with this subject is not only fascinating, but it really does allow us great insights into China and her people. She writes about what seems to westerners to be Chinese rudeness but is really thier way of being polite. She spends generous time with the subject of the difficulty of understanding the tones of Chinese language, and how her inability to articulate tones would often lead her into humorous situations. She discusses gendered pronouns and how Chinese have difficulty with that concept. She writes of the multitude of Chinese languages and how they are all tied together by the characters: people who cannot understand each other's language across China can read the same characters. She has another essay on the development and complexity of Chinese characters.
I marvel at the brilliant discoveries one can make about a culture when examining the intricacies of language. I feel like this primer would have served me well just before I went to China this past spring. My husband, who is a language maven, is next in line to read this. Anyone who is interested in language and how it is revelatory would love this collection. Has anyone who studied Arabic written the same book? If you know of one I would like to hear of it.
I close with this quote from the end of the book which is how I felt about my small time in China and my new commitment to embracining Chinese Culture.
"I did inch away from being overwhlemed at such a massive,intense, overwhelming country, toward touching a few people one by one, and getting a little closer to thier lives, however small the increment. This reward gave me at least the illusion that I belonged, if just for a little bit in this extraordinary country at this moment in history".
Well said, Ms. Fallows. I hope you continue your lifelong journey of understanding China.