Lately I have been turning my attention towards Mandarin, would you believe it, partly because I love a challenge, but mainly because I hope to be spending much more of my time in Taiwan. It really is a great place to visit and, as I am finding out, a great place to be: People actually appreciate and respect expertise and experience in a chosen field of studies, something I had come to forget during 23 years of banging my head against the ministry’s brick wall trying to contribute to Saint Lucia’s educational system.
I believe I am right in saying that our ‘new’ P.M. (I say ‘new’ but he won’t be new much longer – time really does fly) announced – I think it was at the Marigot school – that Mandarin would be introduced into our school curriculum – as soon as pigs have learned to fly, I presume.
Mandarin is a fascinating language for anyone interested in languages, but it is not particularly easy and much of its grammar is foreign to speakers of western languages. And I have not even mentioned their system of writing, so let’s begin with the writing.
Let’s look at the characters first: Regardless of complexity, all characters fit into a similar imaginary area. For this reason, characters are also called fangkuàizì ‘squared writing’. Characters are evenly spaced regardless of whether they represent whole words or components of words. In other words, because there is no space between words or syllables you have no idea where one words ends and another begins. One has to assume that dyslexia is an affliction that torments Chinese speakers just as it does speakers of all other languages, but that might be the least of their problems.
Traditionally, Chinese has been written downwards, from right column to left. Major writing reforms instituted in the 1950s in the Peoples Republic of China not only formalised a set of simplified characters but also required them to be written horizontally, from left to right, like modern European languages. As a result, Chinese texts now come in two basic formats: Texts originating in Taiwan and traditional overseas communities, or on the Mainland prior to the reforms, are written with traditional characters that are, with a few exceptions such as in headlines and on forms, arranged vertically (top to bottom and right to left) while texts originating in the Mainland, in Singapore (again, with some exceptions for religious or special genres) and in some overseas communities are written with simplified characters arranged horizontally, from left to right.
So the writing can either be from left to right or from right to left, and in addition it can be written vertically up or down, or horizontally as in English. Each character occupies the same space no matter how complex or simple it is, and there is the same space between each character regardless of whether it represents a whole word or merely part of a word. Confusing, isn’t it? But not for the Taiwanese!
It is estimated that the number of characters appearing in modern texts is about 6 -7,000 but the total of all possible characters far exceeds that number. The good news, however, is that, as in all languages, the number of words needed to be mastered to be considered fluent is only 3-4,000. The really bad news, however, is that every character or combination of characters has to be learned individually, one at a time, and there is no easy way of doing it. Little kids in school start practising for hours each day from an early age; so much so that their fingers sometimes become deformed!