The Extra Layer


It’s very easy to think about languages together with their scripts. If you see the Arabic script, you assume the language is Arabic, if you see the Chinese script, you assume what’s written is in Chinese, and why shouldn’t you, for that’s almost always the case. But it’s not always the case. In fact, I’m guessing that most of the Hindi communicated via the Internet is written in a transliteration into English rather than in the Devnagari script. There are good and proper reasons for why it is so, but that’s not important here. The point here is that it is so.

And so we come to Chinese. I don’t want to generalize too much because I have only ever studied two foreign languages that have non-Latin scripts, which are Chinese and Arabic. Since Arabic uses a phonetic script, we spent some time learning how to read and write it and then became proficient in it, having never learnt any kind of Latin-based transliteration system. With Chinese, that was the first thing we learnt. The first chapter of our book was all in transliterated Chinese that is known as pīnyīn. This was quite necessary as characters are daunting and our teacher had some more important things to teach us, such as vocabulary, grammar and the four tones. So, in Chinese, the spoken and written forms are not as closely tied to each other as, say, they are in English, in which the two are not, to the best of my knowledge, ever separated.

This presents an interesting problem for learners and even more so for teachers. What should they focus on when they’re teaching the language – the spoken or the written? In the course I took, in class, we did speaking, listening and reading. As for writing, and learning to do so, that was left as self-study. Different people took this in different ways. Many of my classmates paid very little attention to the characters, would know to recognize just barely enough to survive in class and completely screw up on the tests. Those were mainly the sort of people who were taking the class for a language requirement and didn’t really care about learning it. I, on the other hand, got deeply interested within just a few weeks and used to have had studied all the characters for the upcoming chapter before it was covered in class. It was not that I wanted to look good in class but mostly because I just couldn’t help myself from peeking at future chapter to see what all we were going to learn. The thirst for knowledge was simply excessive.

However, these same characters that I fell in love with are the bane of my Chinese learning experience. I can pick up now an Arabic text and if I don’t understand the word, I simply type it out and check what the dictionary says. But, how do you exactly type out a Chinese word? You’re merrily reading a line of text and bam! You hit a character that you have absolutely no idea about what it means or how it is pronounced. You’ve just got a solid tile of lines and arcs and no idea what to do with them.

I use two methods in these circumstances. First of all, I try to see if there are any components in the character that I can recognize. Now, there’s a catch here too. What I really need is an uncommon component for fastest results. If the character has the water component (氵), that really doesn’t help me much because there are more than 875 characters with that component (or, radical). I need a more distinctive component such as 台. There are only about 39 characters with 台 as a component and that means that if the character I’m looking for is a decently common one, it should be in the first ten or so. The character with 台 and 水 (氵) incidentally is 治. Here is another one of the issues I run into. Looking at this character I would assume that 治 would be pronounced similarly to 台 because that’s how most characters are. And I am right, in a way, because my dictionary tells me that 台 is indeed the phonetic component in 治. But, I should perhaps say “phonetic” because 台 is pronounced tái (थाए) and 治 is pronounced zhì (जर्). Apparently, 治 and 台 were pronounced similarly some hundreds of years ago in Middle Chinese. Anyway, with luck, and a decent character like 苹, you can guess that perhaps it is pronounced the same as 平, and you would be right. They are both pronounced exactly the same – píng (फींग).

Now the second method is a lot slower and less satisfying than a well-aimed guess. It involves simply drawing out the character on your computer and letting the computer figure out which character it is. Once the computer does all the stroke-recognition, you can paste that into a dictionary and have it tell you the meaning and pronunciation. Needless to say, both methods are exceedingly slow and cumbersome and that makes reading any text which contains many unknown characters a difficult task even with a quick hand and a dictionary.

Most scripts are related to their spoken forms rather directly. A character or a group of characters (or letters) represents a certain sound. So, when you read a word, you can read the sound out aloud. Basically, the script contains phonetic or audio information. What the Chinese character primarily represents is not a sound but a meaning. Unfortunately, this meaning is almost never plain as day and if you go into subjective analysis of any Chinese character, you can interpret it in many different ways, each giving you a new meaning and none making the intended meaning any clearer. This meaning is then linked to a sound. That is, unfortunately, the biggest issue with learning Chinese – the extra layer. However, this extra layer has its uses and I will explore them in detail later.


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